Bestselling Australian novelist Tony Cavanaugh reveals the differences between writing for the screen and writing a novel, exclusively for The Booktopia Blog

We’re excited to present a wonderful piece by bestselling author Tony Cavanaugh about the the differences between writing for the screen and  writing a novel.

Before he wrote the bestselling Promise and his highly anticipated follow-up Dead Girl Sing, Tony was a writer and producer in film and television, writing numerous dramas since the 1980s. He has over thirty years experience in the industry, in all fields, from the genesis of an idea to production. He has written and edited award winning shows, The Sullivans, Once Were Warriors, Fire, Medivac, The Day of Roses and Through My Eyes.

He was also invited to judge the Logie Awards, Australian Film Institute Awards and the International Emmy Awards, held in New York.

Funny, colourful, and cheeky, Tony’s initial experience with a Television Executive from the Nickolodeon channel and his ribald request is beautifully captured by a truly gifted writer. Enjoy.



the differences between writing for the screen and

writing a novel…

‘Tony, I want you to make me come.’

It was in the early 1990’s and I was sitting in a restaurant in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, having lunch, with an executive from the Nickelodeon TV network. I was in the process of writing a mini-series called Clowning Around which had been pre-bought by the BBC, ABC in Australia, TF1 in France and Nickelodeon in the US. I was having a script meeting. I was in the middle of eating a Caesar salad when the executive told me about my writing..

“I looked down at my Caesar salad and felt somewhat unable to eat the rest.”

‘You know, you write these scenes and I get engaged, like really engaged and I’m hooked but then you undercut the emotion and cut away to the next scene,’ he said. He leant across the table towards me. ‘It’s like sex without the ejaculation. Make the end of those scenes emotional and make me come.’

I looked down at my Caesar salad and felt somewhat unable to eat the rest.

‘I’ll do what I can,’ I said.

A week before I had met with the head of children’s television from the BBC. She had told me that I was too overt in my writing and had to be way more subtle.

Writing for film and TV is writing for many. You have to write for the many executives in the various organisations which have funded the script. They put up a lot of money. You have to write for the actors and the director and the producers, the costume designer, the production designer and the director of photography. You have to write for the person who checks continuity and the guy who buys the props. Above everything else you have to write to a budget. Words are expensive missiles. Words can cost big money. A random change from ‘they are sitting in a lounge room’ to a ‘they are sitting on the deck of a ferry as it crossed the harbour’ means the difference between tens of thousands of dollars. Little differences, like between ‘it’s night and we are outside’ to ‘it’s night and we are inside’ are also huge in terms of expense. Filming outdoors at night is costly in terms of time – setting up the lights to shoot the scene. When one writes a script one doesn’t necessarily write to avoid these costs – in other words, most writers stick to the integrity of their theme, narrative and character – but, always in the back of the mind of a scriptwriter is: will this get cut because it’s so expensive?

“Columbia had sent notes back on a script that John Travolta was attached to – the notes were thicker than the script.”

All writers work differently; there’s no set pattern to the process. Some, like myself, procrastinate for a long time and clean the kitchen and do the laundry, again and again, some get drunk, some get high, some stay clean, some even go jogging to start the day. It’s a mystical process but in film and television there is a lot of order, despite the idiosyncrasies of how the writer works.

Before the script there are meetings. Between the writer and the script editor and the producer (sometimes a number of producers), maybe with a director and even an actor. During the course of a meeting many aspects of the script will be discussed and argued over. For a writer this is often a process of carefully navigating the politics of the dynamic, appearing to be extremely confident, clever and witty; it’s diplomacy and above all nothing matters more than exerting confidence in your skill to – when the time comes – actually write.

After the series of meetings where, ultimately everyone is “on the same page” and the writer is good to go, you start writing. But you don’t start writing the script. Hang on. There’s another step first. You have to write the outline, also called a treatment. It’s the script, before it’s written, whittled down to a prose document, like a short story, of about 10 to 40 pages long. Remember a script isn’t really prose; it’s made up of dialogue and stage directions. The outline allows all the interested parties (who’ve held those meetings with you) to sign off on the process and green-light the script… or not; perhaps the outline throws out a few unexpected moves in the narrative or character development, or perhaps there are a few too many scenes on a ferry at night. Notes are given. The process of writing a script is laden with notes. (I was once working in an office in LA and Columbia had sent notes back on a script that John Travolta was attached to – the notes were thicker than the script. Over 120 pages of notes. It could be said that the more expensive the movie the longer and more intense the notes on the script… but, sadly that’s not the case; even the cheapies can attract copious notes on how to make it better.)

“Always, in the back of the mind of a scriptwriter, is: will this get cut because it’s so expensive?”

Once the notes have been digested and the writer has responded to them (don’t ever ignore notes because, if you do, the author of those notes will come back to reiterate their point at a later stage, often in a most unpleasant way, like: “we can’t go forward investing in this film because you didn’t listen to what we said in our notes”) everyone re-groups to agree that the direction now charted for the script, based on the writer’s absorption of everyone’s notes, is good. Now the writing begins.

This then is the first major difference between writing for the screen and writing a novel where it’s you and the publisher and editor… and, profoundly, where the writer’s word is final.

As a scriptwriter I very much relied on the outline, the point by point, paragraph by paragraph layout of the screenplay. To use a dumb analogy it was the architectural plan for the building. This was how I thought I needed to write a novel; start with the detailed outline and build from there. A tremendous failure. I’d start writing what I thought was the outline – the prose stuff – and soon it would become a chapter; more prose stuff. I was being derailed. I was meant to be building a set of narrative points in this short outline but as I wrote I was getting into the character, the descriptions, the inner monologue. I was writing the novel. And I was enjoying the process. And I was really enjoying developing the narrative as I wrote, as opposed to working from a set of already-agreed-upon plans. This was, for me, trapeze writing, being on a high wire. I didn’t have a clue where I was going but, as I kept traversing this unexpected territory, I was increasingly happy with the results. I had some idea of where I was going. I knew my hero would triumph at the end. But I had no clue how I’d get there. I just knew I had to follow the internal logic of the characters and their intentions.

"Imagine... that Lee Child decided to create Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script."

“Imagine that Lee Child decided to create Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script.”

When you write a screenplay you often avoid giving a character a physical description; imagine, for instance that Lee Child decided to create, nearly twenty years ago, Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script. Because casting is so critical and because you don’t want to close the door on any potential actors (who are big at the box office) you just don’t restrict yourself with a detailed character description that locks the production into finding a guy who’s way over six feet tall when you’ve got Tom Cruise to consider for the part. With that in mind – not Reacher and Cruise, but the instinctive reluctance to describe how your character looks – I happily wrote my first novel without laying in any physical description whatsoever. When my publisher read it, one of the first comments that came back to me was: ‘Can you tell us what they look like? Starting with your main character.’

All of this goes to the single biggest difference between writing a script and writing a novel: one is intended to be read, the other is not. A script is designed to inform a number of investors and technicians and then, at the end of the shoot, they are literally returned to the production office and thrown into an industrial bin. Of course many are now put online but to be read, like a novel or a short story or an article in a journal, is not its primary purpose. And that, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, knowing that the structure and meaning of the words are to be printed, bound, published then read, is the freakiest, most profound difference in the process.


Thanks to Tony for contributing this great new piece to our series of Booktopia Exclusives. Don’t forget to check out his upcoming novel Dead Girl Sing, and the noise coming from it suggests it’s one not to be missed.

Pre-order Dead Girl Sing today from Booktopia, Australia’s Local Bookstore.



by Tony Cavanaugh

Praise for Promise:

I read Promise over a few nights while propped up in bed. Midnight wasn’t the smartest time to read such a book. Promise is truly creepy. All of our worst fears are played out before us. The Australian setting just makes it worse. It could be happening in your suburb, town or city. I don’t know what most disturbed me, the insights into the minds of the police hunting the killer or the chapters in which the killer talks directly to the reader. Each is chilling for different reasons. Accomplished, addictive and evocative, Promise is everything you want from a crime/thriller novel and more.
Four out of five stars.

John Purcell, Booktopia.


Click here to buy Promise from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

VIDEO INTERVIEW: Caroline Baum talks to Judith Lucy – Australia Funniest Spiritual Guide

DRINK, SMOKE, PASS OUT – An Unlikely Spiritual Journey

by Judith Lucy

Caroline Baum: I wasn’t sure whether Judith Lucy’s deadpan drollery would work as well on the page as it does in her stand up shows and TV series. But the good news is it does. She had me giggling helplessly in chapter one, and it doesn’t let up.

She doesn’t spare herself. In fact she lays herself bare in all her drunken mess as she stumbles and staggers her way towards spiritual enlightenment. Intoxicated, needy, confused, vulnerable and endowed with a heightened sense of absurdity which just about rescues her from toppling over the edge, she is raw in her revelations without it ever feeling ickily self-indulgent as it would if she were some gushy over-sharing US soapie star .

You don’t have to be on a search for meaning or interested in religious belief to find this highly entertaining – sceptics and heathens included.

Blurb: At last, a book about life that discusses liquor and lovemaking as much as it does the point of it all.

Judith Lucy has looked everywhere for happiness. Growing up a Catholic, she thought about becoming a nun, and later threw herself into work, finding a partner and getting off her face. Somehow, none of that worked.

So lately, she’s been asking herself the big questions. Why are we here? Is there a God? What happens when we die? And why can’t she tell you what her close friends believe in, but she can tell you which ones have herpes? No-one could have been more surprised than Judith when she started to find solace and meaning in yoga and meditation, and a newfound appreciation for what others get from their religion.

In her first volume of memoir, the bestselling The Lucy Family Alphabet, Judith dealt with her parents. In Drink, Smoke, Pass Out, she tries to find out if there’s more to life than wanting to suck tequila out of Ryan Gosling’s navel. With disarming frankness and classic dry wit, she reviews the major paths of her life and, alarmingly, finds herself on a journey.

Click here to buy Drink, Smoke, Pass Out from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

Robert Drewe on drowning, sharks and other watery obsessions…. (In an Interview with Caroline Baum)

Montebello : A Memoir

by Robert Drewe

Listen to me,’ my mother says. ‘They’ve let off an atom bomb today. Right here in W.A. Atom bombs worry the blazes out of me, and I want you at home.’

In the sleepy and conservative 1950s the British began a series of nuclear tests in the Montebello archipelago off the west coast of Australia. Even today, few people know about the three huge atom bombs that were detonated there, but they lodged in the consciousness of the young Robert Drewe and would linger with him for years to come.

In this moving sequel to The Shark Net, and with his characteristic frankness, humour and cinematic imagery, Drewe travels to the Montebellos to visit the territory that has held his imagination since childhood. He soon finds himself overtaken by memories and reflections on his own ‘islomania’. In the aftermath of both man-made and natural events that have left a permanent mark on the Australian landscape and psyche – from nuclear tests and the mining boom to shark attacks along the coast – Drewe examines how comfortable and familiar terrain can quickly become a site of danger, and how regeneration and love can emerge from chaos and loss.

Click here to buy Montebello from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore


1 The Fats Domino Voice

It was that fabled occasion, a dark and stormy night, the sea just a blacker inked line in the distance, and I was lying in bed in the deep gloom of three a.m., singing Blueberry Hill in my Fats Domino voice.

We were on the trailing edge of a cyclone and wind buffeted the timbers of my rented cottage on the cliff edge at Broken Head. The house’s rocking gave the sensation of being in a sailing ship. Palm fronds lashed and rasped against the window, more rain, endless rain, thundered on the tin roof, and I’d hardly have been surprised if the cottage, an architectural folly that resembled a nineteenth-century schooner almost as much as a house, sailed over the cliff onto the sodden sugarcane fields below.

If we’re speaking of the true life, of genuine self-awareness, it was a night of pivotal moments when things could go either way. I could either plummet to the depths or shape up, brush myself down, pick myself up, pull my finger out, turn a frown upside down. Basically, get a grip. The odds at that stage favoured plummeting.

Anna, my anxious seven-year-old daughter and my youngest child, was insisting I sing to her, and had chosen the song. As the rain crashed down, she complained, ‘You need to sing louder.’ If I sang any louder I’d lose the throaty timbre of Fats Domino. Anyway my breathing was still shallow and irregular because I’d just killed a brown snake by her bedroom. read more…

VIDEO: Caroline Overington talks to Brett Osmond about her new book Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy

by Caroline Overington

Sisters of Mercy is the haunting story of two sisters – one has vanished, the other is behind bars…

Snow Delaney was born a generation and a world away from her sister, Agnes.

Until recently, neither even knew of the other’s existence. They came together only for the reading of their father’s will – when Snow discovered, to her horror, that she was not the sole beneficiary of his large estate.

Now Snow is in prison and Agnes is missing, disappeared in the eerie red dust that blanketed Sydney from dawn on September 23, 2009.

With no other family left, Snow turns to crime journalist Jack Fawcett, protesting her innocence in a series of defiant letters from prison. Has she been unfairly judged? Or will Jack’s own research reveal a story even more shocking than the one Snow wants to tell?

With Sisters of Mercy Caroline Overington once again proves she is one of the most exciting new novelists of recent years.

Click here to buy Sisters of Mercy from Booktopia,
Australia’s No. 1 Online Book Shop

Caroline Overington, author of Ghost Child, I Came To Say Goodbye, Matilda Is Missing and now Sisters of Mercy, answers Five Facetious Questions

Booktopia Presents: Robyn Davidson, author of Tracks in conversation with Caroline Baum


by Robyn Davidson

The international bestseller of one woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian Outback.

‘I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.’

So begins Robyn Davidson’s perilous journey through some of the harshest spaces of the world. A camel-trek from the heart of Australia, across 17,000 miles of hostile desert, to the sea – with only a dog and four camels for company.

Tracks is Robyn’s award-winning account of her adventure. Her story beats a track across bush, rock, sand and dust, across magnificent landscapes and through ancient sacred land, through frustrations, triumphs, joy and despair.

And as she treks further and further away from civilisation, and ever closer to the burning ‘heart of the world’, she realises that this desert will either make her, or break her.

Click here to buy Tracks from Booktopia,
Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop

I Eat Therefore I Cook : Guest Blogger, MasterChef’s Matt Preston asks, ‘What’s in a Name?’

The hardest thing about writing this book – that’s “Matt Preston’s 100 Best Recipes” by the way – wasn’t writing the recipes but on deciding the title. As this is a recipe book for people who like to eat, and who have to cook, perhaps I should have called it I Eat Therefore I Cook as one smart twitter follower suggested.

It is certainly a better title than Great Food Isn’t Posh Food which is my motto and one of the great truths about eating but is hardly inspiring. And way, way better than my original idea; Quick, Simple and Cheap! which I liked because it not only ended with a “!” but, also neatly refers to both me and to the recipes that you’ll find in the book. You see, if working for magazines like “delicious” and for the “Taste” section in your favourite metro newspaper has taught me anything it’s that if a recipe isn’t easily achievable, affordable and minimum fuss for maximum flavour then you and me just aren’t going to make it.

The actual title “Matt Preston’s 100 Best Recipes” does capture what the book is about as it is about how to make the best stuff I eat at home but it is also one big lie. Actually there are well over 100 recipes (well, actually it’s about 203 but who’s counting – well, other than some poor intern at the publisher’s!) using some of Australia’s favourite ingredients that are common from Albany and Ballarat to Cooktown and Darwin. This is affordable, easily-achievable, and delicious food that I hope you’ll want to try – and then cook again and again.

In fact, that’s really the only selection criteria for the recipes that made it into the book – that these are the things I love to cook regularly at home for my friends and family; and that they love to eat! And there are rather a lot of them because like I said… I like to eat and I like to eat well.

I promise that these recipes are free of any cheffy trickery unless it’s a wheeze or tip that will help you do something quicker or more easily. Oh, and you won’t need to fill up the tank to take a tedious trip around town searching out expensive, hard to find ingredients either. Here you’ll find great, easy and sometimes surprising recipes for using such much-loved staples such as mince, salmon, chicken wings, lamb chops, eggs, veg, and supermarket ice cream. You’ll also find great suggestions on how to lift everything from your chocolate brownies and banana bread to Bolognese or a favourite soup to new levels of flavour and texture with smart tips on how to accessorise or improve those familiar dishes. There’s also a really good meatloaf recipe.

Here is not the place to find recipes for preparing eel, making dusts of obscure forest mushrooms (that you have to forage for, obviously) or recipes that begin “please start this dish four days before you want to eat it”.

No, here are ideas for lunch, tea & dinner that you can throw together within minimum fuss for maximum impact. These are recipes for home cooks written by a home cook who actually cooks them at home, which I suppose makes this book a bit of a rarity these days! Even better, you’ll probably already have all the ingredients in the fridge or cupboards. (I’d say “pantry” rather than “cupboards” but I’m worried that if I do this might let slip the mask that hides my “Downton Abbey” delusions.)

So basically the best title for this book would have been Home Guide to Cooking Most of the Stuff that Most of Us like to Cook. Oh, and Using Readily Available Ingredients And Which Can Be Cooked Without The Need To Equip Your Kitchen with $8k of Lab Equipment. The trouble is that 38 word book titles went out in the 19th century so “Matt Preston’s 100 Best Recipes” it is!

So here’s the pitch: From the novice to the innovative cook, this book is destined to live above the fridge to provide inspiration and illumination for Australian cooks of all levels. Please buy it and feel free to stain the pages with your favourite recipes. I will take this as the greatest compliment. And please feel free to copy out your favourite recipe and pass it on to a friend. Recipes should be shared with an open hand; for only when you give away a recipe does it truly become “yours”.

Matt Preston, thank you very much for being a guest blogger
on the Booktopia Blog 

You may buy a copy of Matt’s bookHome Guide to Cooking Most of the Stuff that Most of Us like to Cook. Oh, and Using Readily Available Ingredients And Which Can Be Cooked Without The Need To Equip Your Kitchen with $8k of Lab Equipment

AKA > Matt’s Preston’s 100 Best Recipes HERE

Matt Preston is a food journalist, restaurant critic, television personality and passionate home cook. He writes a national column for the Taste section for all News Ltd’s metropolitan papers. Best known as a judge on MasterChef Australia since 2009, Preston currently writes for delicious and MasterChef magazines. A keen home-cook, Matt Preston has written recipes for Delicious, MasterChef magazine and Taste for several years, taking home classics and adding his own Preston twist, bringing a whole new world of flavour to the everyday.

Click here to buy Matt’s Preston’s 100 Best Recipes from Booktopia,
Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop

Booktopia Presents: Craig Silvey, the author of The Amber Amulet and Jasper Jones, in conversation with Caroline Baum

You’re in safe hands – The Masked Avenger and Richie the Power Beagle are here to protect you! A brilliant jewel of a book from the acclaimed, best-selling author of Jasper Jones.

Dear Sir/Ma’am,

Please find enclosed this AMBER AMULET.

That must sound unusual to a citizen, but you will have to trust me on this count because the science is too detailed for me to outline here.

All you need to know is that the AMBER AMULET will eliminate your unhappiness by counteracting it with POSITIVE ENERGY.

This should see you straight.

Fear not, you’re in safe hands now.

Take care,

The Masked Avenger

Meet twelve-year-old Liam McKenzie, who patrols his suburban neighbourhood as the Masked Avenger – a superhero with powers so potent not even he can fully comprehend their extent.

Along with his sidekick, Richie the Powerbeagle, he protects the people of Franklin Street from chaos, mayhem, evil and low tyre pressure – but can he save them from sadness?

This perfect jewel of a book by the award-winning author of the 2009 Book of the Year Jasper Jones will hold all readers in its irresistible power.

Click here to buy The Amber Amulet from Booktopia,
Australia’s No.1 Online Book Shop


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