The biggest difference between a screenplay and a manuscript is that a screenplay isn’t intended to be a finished product anymore than an orchestra score is meant to be read over the radio. Manuscripts – aka unpublished novels – are the complete deal. Sure, you might be reading a rough draft, but that’s the same as watching the first cut of a film, not reading the script.
What’s the same between the two is all the hard stuff: story, character separation, flow, objectives and obstacles, etc. As a filmmaker, you should be as well-versed on these issues as a novelist. This primer is intended to help you with issues that are more important to the novelist than the filmmaker.
So, here we go:
Point of View is important in both disciplines, but the rules are stricter, and harder to adhere to, for the author. Writer’s can move in and out of character’s thoughts, feelings, etc. Often, that’s a good thing, but not if the narrator’s point of view is established otherwise. The most common points of view are:
FIRST PERSON: The narrator is a character in the story. In these cases, you can help your author friends most by making sure there is a plausible way for the narrator to experience everything that’s in the book. You’ll find yourself saying, “how did s/he know that?” or “I don’t buy that s/he would be there.” Also keep on the lookout for characters telling the narrator a bunch of stuff. Just like a movie, an author must show, not tell. But the hardest part of first person are other characters’ feelings. The narrator can’t know for certain how other people feel. He or she is like the camera in a movie. They can only tell us what they see or hear.
LIMITED THIRD PERSON: The narrator is not a character in the story, but is tightly glued to one – or sometimes two – characters. Like first person, every aspect of the story must be experienced by these characters. Harry Potter is a good example. Nothing happens in those books that Harry doesn’t do, observe, or hear about. This is often the point of view of films as well, but movies have a long history of playing fast and loose with the convention. It’s normal in a movie to introduce story elements away from the view of the hero – which is one reason you’ll hear authors grumble about movies. That’s cheating!
Omniscient THIRD PERSON: In this convention, the narrator knows and sees all. They can jump in and out of the heads of anyone, so the reader often knows more of what’s happening than the characters. In a manuscript in this style, it’s easy to lose focus, so make sure you are always aware of where you are and what’s happening.
Together with point of view, is tense. Films are all written in present tense because the audience/reader sees what’s happening as it happens. Novels are often written in past tense. Being a non-novelist beta reader, you won’t be expected to catch subtle differences in tense, but if something feels wrong, look to the verbs.
Speaking of verbs, it’s important for the author to use as many active, action verbs as possible. If the words just lay on the page, look for boring “to be” verbs. Chances are you’ll help them flush out passive voice.
Word choices are to novels what edits are to movies. In film, a scene might lag because the editor isn’t cutting on motion, or has left in too many footsteps. In a novel, the author might be using too many words to get to the point. If that’s the case, look for adverbs – you know, the ones that end in “-ly”. They can almost always be cut.
Echoes and repetitive phrases are the novelist's nightmare. Echoes are words that get in the writer's fingers and repeat themselves in close proximity. If you find the same words popping up over and over, point them out. You'll be thanked for it.
Repetitive phrases have a lullaby effect, and they tend to hang out around dialogue. Look out for: "...she said, as she ___________ ,"and "...he said, _________ing his head." If you find yourself rocking like an old Southern on the porch to the predictable rhythms, then you should make a note of it.
Margin notes help authors as much as screenwrights. Just a quick word or two about what you're thinking or feeling right at that moment on the page.
Volumes have been written on what makes a good novel, but since a manuscript is intended to be a finished work, you don't need any special training to say how you feel about the story, characters, flow, etc. The ultimate question is, does the story move you? If so, great. If not – some of these simple notes may help you understand why, and help your friends fix the problems.