You have a knack for storytelling and for language, and you like writing. But do you know which medium is best suited for what you have to say?
It all depends on where your conflict lies. I don’t mean the conflict of a particular story, I mean your personal, core conflict. What do you struggle against, day after day? This is not something new, or something you discovered in college. This is who you’ve been since puberty.
If your conflict is internal — if you judge the world, your friends, success and failure not in objective terms, but personal — you are a novelist, or at least a short story writer. For example, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is a good novel, in part, because the conflict is internal. The sheriff, the hunter, and the assassin are each doing their own things, following their own philosophies, and their lives at the end of the book are the result of those inner drives, not purely the result of bouncing off each other or being shaped by society.
If your conflict is interpersonal — if you primarily imagine life in conversations — you are a playwright. Plays focus on interpersonal conflicts shown through dialogue. Family, friends, lovers. Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Rent, and Hamilton are primarily scenes with dialogue about interpersonal relationships, not about what’s going on in the characters’ heads.
If your conflict is with society and the physical world, you’re a screenwriter. Star Wars is not internal. Luke may sense Vader’s “conflict,” but they’re still fighting each other with light sabers before throwing the bad guy into a bottomless pit. Film is designed to show that kind of action. It’s hard to make a good film about internal conflict or talky relationships — though it can be done. Most of Woody Allen’s films are plays done in front of a camera. Likewise, most of Shakespeare’s plays work as screenplays, and many have been made into successful films. I think he was doing plays because that was the best medium at the time. If he were alive today, he’d be a writer/director.
Of course, each method borrows from the other two. A novel that’s purely in someone’s head isn’t going to be a fun read. A play without some kind of action — to quote Krusty the Clown, “I guess we can’t afford pies right now, well… throw something!” — isn’t going to be a fun evening. And a movie without internal or interpersonal conflict… that’s called Transformers. It’s movies for cats. (Yes, yes, the robots are on teams that hate each other… but why? No, don’t backstory me, I’m already looking at my phone.)
Sometimes a work doesn’t fulfill expectations and pisses off the audience. The Coen brothers film of No Country for Old Men, which I also love, is one of those. If it were a movie-movie, the sheriff would have a showdown with the assassin. If it were an American movie-movie, the sheriff would win. But it ends like the book — the sheriff decides he doesn’t want to keep betting his life to defend a world that no longer makes sense to him. (The novel goes deeper: He feels he’s a coward because of something he did during WWII.) In that world, both novel and film, the only man who sleeps easy is a psychopath.
I’m a novelist not because I write novels. I’m a novelist because my conflict is internal, and I like writing. If I didn’t enjoy writing, I might be a monk or a forest ranger or a therapist.
There are famous, successful writers who work in the wrong genre because they have to. Hey, I get it. Few people read books or go to plays in this century. There’s a much, much bigger audience for stories told through TV and film. And, there are successful writers across all three mediums who have no core conflict to express, but are good technicians. If you had a good time reading it or watching it, you probably don’t care. That said… there’s a difference between Cormac McCarthy and [some hack who puts out 10 books a year], between the Coen brothers and [a popular director who makes pretty films but has nothing to say]. And you know that difference when you’ve finished the book or the credits are rolling, and you’re quiet for a while, because something sacred just happened.