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 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!
Blog by JJ Durham
Latest book: An Act of Mercy