Writing a novel is more difficult than writing a screenplay.
Why do I think this?
My three action novels run between eighty to one hundred thousand words each. A typical screenplay? Twenty thousand, if that. I had one horror script come in at sixteen thousand a few years back. So, obviously, that means the time investment is very different too, about a year for a book versus three months for a screenplay, though if you get your skates on you should probably knock it over a lot quicker than that.
Also the prose of a screenplay is much simpler than a novel. Scripts are all about being brief and succinct. You want it to be easy to read so there’s no reason for a producer to put it down and move on to the next project on the pile. And it’s not like you need much description anyway, unless you’re detailing an important element of the story. If the hero drives a ‘beaten up ute’ then that’s all you need to write. Any more description is superfluous. The director and production designer will do the rest.
Now what about money I hear you ask. Yes, screenwriting pays quite well, certainly compared to what you make if you’re a first time novelist.
So why would you ever write anything but a screenplay?
Because getting a novel published by a major house, as difficult as it is, and it is extremely difficult, is a whole lot easier than getting a movie made, even one with a low budget. Getting any movie into production is, in its own way, a miracle. And if you write action adventure stories like me, which cost a fortune to produce, well, it’s even harder. I can write anything in a novel, a formula one car driving at three hundred kilometres per hour, upside down, on the roof of a French motorway tunnel (that’s in Quick, my latest book by the way), or a Space Shuttle landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (that’s in Velocity, my first book) and not have to worry about the cost. In a movie those sequences would have a producer in your ear immediately: ‘I mean — does it really need to be a Space Shuttle, Steve? We have enough money for a Cessna. Can it be a Cessna?’
And then there is control. As a novelist you have a great deal and can mostly do as you please, though I would always urge new writers to listen to the sage advice of their experienced editors, publishers and agents, whereas in the film business the screenwriter is the low man on the totem pole whose importance to the project falls somewhere after the director, the producer, the other producer, the other other producer (who is often the first producer’s half brother) and, always, the star. A big part of your job as a screenwriter is to juggle the disparate story and character ideas of that group and then finesse a solution that will make the script work and everyone happy.
This was something that, when I was starting out as a screenwriter, I enjoyed. I loved to take stories from the page to the screen. But the reality is that you don’t get a chance to make a movie very often and when you do it can take a long time before you see it at the cinema. You are lucky to get one made every couple of years. You can be writing all the time but the percentage of screenplays that actually get up is extremely low. So that means you can write an amazing story but if the German tax money falls through or the star is offered something more lucrative or the director bails over creative differences with the producer (and his half brother) the movie can keel over. The thing about screenplays is that you can write something you think is wonderful and, literally, no more than eight people may ever read it. Screenplays, unfortunately, don’t have value to the public as reading material, unless somebody wants to see how one’s written so they can write their own.
So, considering this screenplay/novel conundrum, it was interesting that with my latest project I had the opportunity to write both. A screenplay and a novel, in that order. It often happens the other way around but not with Paper Planes, an idea my co-writer and the film’s director Rob Connolly had a number of years ago. At the time we both had young children who, we realised, had not seen any Australian children’s films. (It was before Red Dog). That was a shock to us because, when we were kids growing up in the 70s and 80s, we saw Australian films regularly, everything from Storm Boy to Crocodile Dundee to The Man From Snowy River to BMX Bandits to Fatty Finn to Blue Fin. They were a part of our lives.
But that wasn’t the case with our daughters. For many reasons, some economic, some creative, some cultural, Australian films don’t have that kind of traction in the marketplace any more. So we wanted to see if we could change that and offer up a genuinely entertaining family film for an Australian audience. After all, if Aussie kids aren’t watching Aussie movies when they’re young how can we expect them to watch them as adults?
So it was my job to not only co-write the screenplay but to novelise it into a book children would embrace. There were two major jobs to do: flesh out the prose from the succinct and sparse language of the screenplay and find a writing style that kids could hook into.
As the Paper Planes movie runs ninety minutes you only have time to include the most exciting and emotionally satisfying parts of the story, so the aim of the Paper Planes novel is to give the readers the hero’s journey — a young Aussie bloke making new friends, clashing with powerful rivals and coming to terms with his family’s past as he attempts to create a paper plane that will compete with the best in the world — then flesh out the characters and backstory to add a little more depth while making sure the story is a satisfying read for those who haven’t (yet!) seen the film.
I’ve been writing action adventure novels for adults for the last couple of years so I though writing a book for young readers would be a doddle. I was so wrong. It was a real challenge to alter my style. I really had to stretch. Mainly I was mindful that I didn’t want to speak down to the kids. I also had to make sure my cultural references are spot on. It ultimately came down to practice. Doesn’t it always? Thankfully I had a wonderful team at Penguin Young Readers to guide me and point out the pitfalls before I stumbled into any large, unseen crevices.
One element of the process I didn’t realise would take so long and be so complex was organising the book’s ‘added extras’, specifically the section of colour photos from the film. For some reason I thought it would be simple but getting clearances from all the actors and photographers was a huge undertaking that took months. The book’s other ‘added extras’ include a Q&A with the Rob who talks about directing the film and a foreword by the film’s star Ed Oxenbould (whose uncle was the lead in the aforementioned Fatty Finn, if you can believe it). My favourite ‘added extra’ in the book are the folding and throwing instructions for a paper plane. There’s something about seeing the film that makes you want to fly a paper plane immediately, so hopefully the readers will feel the same after they finish the book.
As I said before, movies take a long while to get made so by the time Paper Planes hits theatres on January 15th, Rob and my daughters will be four years older than the little girls who inspired us to tell the story in the first place.
Even though they’re approaching their teens we’re sure they’ll love the movie, and the book, as much as we do.
Steve Worland co-wrote the screenplay for the Australian family film Paper Planes with its director Robert Connolly, whose previous work includes Tim Winton’s The Turning and Balibo.
Steve has written scripts for Working Title and Icon Productions, worked in script development for James Cameron’s Lightstorm, wrote Fox Searchlight’s Bootmen, which won five Australian Film Institute awards and worked on the Hugo award winning sci-fi series Farscape.
He is the author of the action-adventure novels Velocity, Combustion and Quick and recently novelised Paper Planes.
by Steve Worland
One paper plane flies straight and fast and true. Dylan’s.
Twelve-year-old Dylan Webber lives in outback Western Australia in a small country town. When he discovers he has a talent for folding and flying paper planes, Dylan begins a journey to reach the World Junior Paper Plane Championships in Japan.
Along the way he makes unlikely new friends, clashes with powerful rivals and comes to terms with his family’s past before facing his greatest challenge – to create a paper plane that will compete with the best in the world.
Steve Worland brings you the exciting, heartwarming story of Paper Planes, adapted from the award-winning family film that features a cast of Australia’s finest actors, including Sam Worthington, Deborah Mailman, David Wenham and Ed Oxenbould.