From the Screen to the Page: The Metamorphosis of Murder

By J. J. Durham

What’s the difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay?  It’s a question I’m often asked, being someone who earns a living doing both.  The answer isn’t as easy to pin down as you’d think.

An Act of Mercy by J.J. Durham coverAn Act of Mercy began as a screenplay – Pilgrim, a speculative pilot episode for a TV series, or ‘spec script’.  I first had the idea for the story after reading an article about Charles Dickens, who was a massive fan of the newly-created detectives, often writing about them in his journal Household Words.  Unfortunately, his enthusiasm wasn’t shared by the public–at-large, especially the middle- and upper-classes, who thought there was something ‘sneaking and un-English’ about the concept.  Even the Police Commissioners believed that crime prevention was the key to successful policing; detection after the fact was an admission of defeat.

I thought it was a great starting point for a story.

Shortly after finishing the screenplay for Pilgrim, Ripper Street hit our TV screens.  I was gutted.  No-one was going to commission another Victorian crime series now!  But I’d enjoyed the company of Detective Sergeant Harry Pilgrim so much that I really didn’t want to abandon him.  I decided to turn the screenplay into a novel.

I started out with the dialogue and action of the script, and gradually built setting and internal monologue around them. What I also had, right from the start, was structure (as any TV writer will tell you, a sound story structure is crucial if you’re going to sustain an hour-long TV episode). The only problem was that I only had enough structure and story for half a novel.

Turning Pilgrim into An Act of Mercy was a fascinating and occasionally frustrating challenge.  But I’m so glad I stuck at it.  Thanks to HarperCollins Killer Reads I can now share Detective Sergeant Harry Pilgrim with other lovers of crime fiction. I can also answer that tricky question with some authority.  What’s the difference between a writing a novel and a writing a screenplay?  Six months hard work!


 

This blog post was originally posted on March 12th, 2015 for the Killer Crime Festival. J.J. Durham’s first Killer Reads digital first imprint book, An Act of Mercy, publishes today!

You can find J.J. Durham on her website and blog.

Read more from J.J.
Q&A with author J.J. Durham #killerfest15

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