A Novel is a Hamburger (aka The Difference Between TV Scripts and Novels)

When I left TV to write a novel, I really believed I’d be done in a year. Why not? I already knew how to put together a story. Yet as an episodic freelance screenwriter, I’d only been working with the “meat” of a story, not the whole hamburger. That’s right, I’m going all food analogy on you. Whatever. It’s the long weekend and I’m in a barbequing kind of mood, so here we go…


Novel is a Hamburger


Burgers on salad

As a freelance television screenwriter, I only wrote the meat, never the bun. Sometimes I wrote salad, but that’s different than a bun. In television, the salad involves creating a world and characters with lots of unending conflicts between them. The key word there is “unending”. The characters must exist in this world for many episodes, indefinite episodes, as long as the ratings are good and the network keeps the show on the air. The characters can’t solve their biggest problem, or the series is over. For example, a cartoon I wrote for (Kid vs Kat) is about a kid trying to expose the family cat for what he is – an evil alien. If the kid ever succeeds in exposing the cat and getting rid of him, the show is over.

But in a novel, characters should resolve their issues by the end. The cat should be exposed! Hence the bun. You need a different kind of set up, one that is more character-focused than world-focused. Because in a novel, a character’s journey is only satisfying if it changes them. The character’s change is the reason they overcome their problem. Whereas in TV, the characters don’t change all that much. They remain the same people with the same flaws. This allows them to keep making mistakes episode after episode after episode. If they ever get it together, the series is over. Because nobody wants to watch a show about well-balanced people with no more problems!

So that’s the big difference between writing television scripts and novels: CHARACTER CHANGE.

It didn’t take me years to figure that out, but it did take me years to get good at making that “bun”. Writing takes practice, after all. I scrapped a whole bunch of novel ideas because, by the time I got to the end, my character hadn’t changed, or they had changed but not in a meaningful, exciting, surprising or moving way. There were no sesame seeds on top. I needed those seeds.

And all of this character change stuff is tied to THEME, something else I didn’t have to worry about as a freelance screenwriter. But I’ll talk about that in another post. Right now, I’m going to eat a hamburger…

Next Up from Heather5 Reasons to Outline Your Novel

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

2 thoughts on “A Novel is a Hamburger (aka The Difference Between TV Scripts and Novels)”

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: