From Screenwriter to Crime Writer: Was the transition difficult?

Jule Selbo: Kate Flora (MCW founder and creator of the Thea Kozak and Joe Burgess crime/mystery series) asked me to write a piece concerning the challenges of transitioning from screenwriting to fiction writing. Here are just a few thoughts:

Backstory: I worked in Hollywood as a produced screenwriter (TV and feature film) for two decades before moving to Maine three years ago. Before that, I lived in NYC, and was a starving playwright. Long before that, I was a pre-teen kid who wrote silly stories, illustrated them on thick cardboard discs, packed them into discarded film cannisters (those came from my dad who was filming depositions at his law firm). I wrapped the picture-stories up in bows and gave them away as presents (to people who, I am sure, didn’t know what to make of them).

Was the impetus for writing for “moving pictures” born out of wanting those illustrations to do some of the storytelling work? Was putting on plays where actors brought my stories to life in front of audiences part of the process of becoming a screenwriter? I don’t know, just writing this piece makes me wonder about that question. (I do know that in Los Angeles, one of my “baby-writer” jobs was on a studio-staged sit-com; it was shot with three cameras (meaning pretty much proscenium shooting). I was once chastised by the producer for wanting to use the cameras (in lieu of dialogue) to relay story points. Knowing just dialogue-driven TV was not for me, I asked my agent to submit me for one-hour dramas and features – where the camera was allowed to be used as story support).

Back to Kate’s question: Was the transition difficult? No. But it did bring about a different mindset.  I found myself looking at the world in a deeper way. More specific, because I knew conveying the details would now be important. Colors, sounds, smells, facial tics, the crease in a person’s brow… I was concentrated on how to paint those images with words.

Screenwriting, in most cases, is about conciseness, “the fast read”, and the “white space”. The professional screenwriter knows that an actor will bring the story to life, so there’s no reason to describe the characters in depth. Attitude is important, but color of hair or height or breadth of shoulders are not (usually) included – everyone knows the studio will get the best actor available at the price they are willing to pay. “Middle-class house in the suburbs, full of knick-knacks…” is an example of how little detail is needed for a description of a location. (And even that could be trimmed.) The location manager and director will decide on a location that is available and affordable and a prop master will have ideas on curios. A screenwriter avoids “choreography” – meaning detailing character movements – the arch of an eyebrow, a turn of the head, a licking of the lips. An actor will inhabit the role and it’s a crazy to think Brad Pitt will “lick his lips” on the cue you give him. The appreciated “white space” on each screenplay page means that the writer has used as few words as possible to get the story and character arcs across – thus creating a “fast read” for the producers, cast, and crew.  In the early days of screenwriting, writers often added CU (close-up) or MCU (medium close-up) or other camera directions, but that’s not done much anymore, writers are not looked to for their cinematography suggestions. Movie-making is a collaborative art; everyone in feature film production has their assigned roles. The writers’ job is to tell a good story and then – step back and cross your fingers as others interpret it. **

So, writing fiction, for me, is a fuller endeavor. Everything is on one person’s shoulders; everything must be on the page and given its due so that it contributes to the comprehension and success of a piece of work. It’s me – setting the world and landscape and seasons fully, going into the mind (and body and look) of characters, using the placing of words on the page to focus on important elements (getting the CU feel), writing compelling descriptions of the sounds that make a difference. And every other element.

Writing novels is a more singular enterprise, it’s what I knew I was ready for.  Fannie Hurst wrote that writing is one of the loneliest jobs. Stephen King wrote of a similar sentiment, as have countless others. After all those (mostly fun) years in Hollywood working collaboratively, I now appreciate the opportunity to do the work “alone” and let it represent me (not a team of creatives).

Of course, most writers of books will add that being part of a strong community of “other lonely writers” is a saving grace. And so, thanks Kate Flora, for asking me to ponder the question.

**(Creating a TV series and being the powerful showrunner (alpha writer/producer of the whole shebang) can be a slightly different experience – but the writing of the script itself will not, in most cases, change).

Jule Selbo’s most recent novel is her debut crime/mystery: 10 DAYS, A Dee Rommel Mystery. She is a member of MWA and Sisters in Crime.




This entry was posted in Jule's Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to From Screenwriter to Crime Writer: Was the transition difficult?

  1. matthewcost says:

    Hi, Jule, Illuminating and descriptive piece on transformation! I met you at Crime Bake with Kate Flora and meant to follow up with you but didn’t have your email (just your postcard). It was good to meet you and would be fun to get together for a cup of coffee some time.–Matt Cost.

  2. joesouza says:

    Awesome post, Jules. Can’t wait to meet up again and talk with you.

    • jselbo says:

      Joe – hope you are faring well going into this holiday season. You’ve got a few screenplays under your belt too – it is a different animal, isn’t it.

  3. jselbo says:

    Matt – yes – great crime and books conversation in the Crime Bake bar in Denham MA, one of the beauty spots of the world. Will send along my email through Kate – hopefully she won’t mind.

  4. kaitlynkathy says:

    Welcome, Jule.

  5. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Fantastic post, Jule! Great question from Kate and really terrific, thoughtful answer from you.

  6. kaitcarson says:

    Great post. Thank you for a behind the screen look at differences between fiction writing and screenwriting.

  7. jselbo says:

    So happy to be in Maine now! LA Police Chief just came out today saying “Tourists, stay away. We cannot guarantee your safety.” How’s that for a fine City of Angels to present itself. Yikes.

  8. susanvaughan says:

    Julie, welcome, welcome, to Maine and to writing this here. A fascinating transition by you and and about the differences between the two genres. Wishing you the best on your new career. I’m off to find your book!

Leave a Reply