How to adapt a screenplay to a novel

Overcome the top six hurdles writers face when adapting a screenplay to a novel.

Adapt a screenplay

 

The last decade has given birth to the biggest revolution in the printed word since the invention of movable type. The convergence of software technology, legacy print publishing, and the Internet has leveled the playing field and given most people the ability to read, write, and distribute the printed word on unprecedented scales. Now, anyone with the will to write can find an audience, publish their work, and make a life for themselves as an authorpreneur.

Along with this self-publishing revolution has come a series of “mini-revolts.” One of those involves a major shift in the traditional way novels have been adapted for the screen. Creative writers of every stripe are now searching for a way into the ever-growing ocean of print and e-books. Among them are screenwriters hoping to leverage a prose fan base in order to, ironically, get their original script ideas sold as movies or television programs.

 

A changing industry

Traditionally published novels have always been a lucrative source of literary properties for the entertainment industry. But in the last decade, more and more self-published books have joined the page-to-screen trend and are responsible for building some of the biggest entertainment franchises, supporting billions of dollars in global box office revenue [e.g., Amanda Brown’s Legally Blonde, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, Andy Weir’s The Martian].

While this fits with the familiar pattern of adapting books to film (or TV), something else is happening, something that was not possible prior to the self-publishing revolution: Screenwriters are adapting their screenplays to novels, so that they can attract producers to option those adaptations for film/TV development. Yes, you read that right: Rather than writing the book first, then optioning to a production company, and then writing the screenplay based on the book, the trend now is script first, then book, and next the option sale, followed by a rewrite or full-on purchase of the original script that started the process. In many ways, the old model of adaptation has been turned on its head.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.

There are many reasons for this new mini-revolt among screenwriters, not the least of which is that selling a screenplay or teleplay is nearly impossible, even for experienced screenwriters. But with more producers and production companies scouring the self-publishing world for material, it only makes sense that screenwriters should want to dust off all their old screenplays and jump into the adaptation game. Why? Because a novel with a built-in audience makes a sounder investment than a spec script coming in over the agent transom or through the conventional script pipeline. This has always been true for traditionally published novels, and now it is increasingly true for self-published books. What this means is that a new sales channel has opened for screenwriters wanting to leverage their work in multiple distribution windows: film, television, and print. And even if the movie/TV windows fall short, the writer still has the print/e-book property to fall back on. It’s win-win for writers.

 

How to adapt

So, screenwriters should just write a book – right? How hard can writing a novel be? There are tons of how-to books on the market with tips, tricks, and “top 10 secrets” for knocking out a novel, so just go buy a book and start writing.

Think again.

This same bad advice is often given to novelists who want to write screenplays – i.e., just do it. Yes, there are many how-to books on how to adapt novels to screenplays, and several now deal with how to adapt screenplays to prose. But anyone who writes screenplays will tell any novelist that there is a “screenplay sensibility” that has to be developed in order to write a professional screenplay. You just can’t follow some cookie-cutter how-to book.

The same is true for screenwriters trying to write their first novel. Developing a “prose voice,” and bringing that prose sensibility to your writing, is daunting at best, and insanity-inducing at worst. I know, because I’ve just survived the process myself.

As a screenwriter, I bought the books, and tried out the cookie cutter, and realized that because of our training, screenwriters face specific challenges that make us ill-equipped to handle novel-writing. Some of those challenges are story-development related, and others are writing-process related. But no how-to book, no story guru, and no “top 10 secrets” list can coach you through them. They can only be overcome by doing. Knowing the road ahead of you – before you start the adaptation process – can at least prepare you for the potholes, pitfalls, and hairpin turns you will encounter along the way.

Here are the six basic hurdles you will need to clear as you learn the process of novel adaption.

 

Mistakes to avoid when you adapt a screenplay

 

Prose sensibility vs. screenplay sensibility

“Sensibility” is defined as “the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences.” Screenwriters and novelists respond to that complexity very differently.

 

The basic mantra for screenwriters is:

  • Keep it clear;
  • Less is more;
  • Show, don’t tell;
  • Get to the emotional point, and move on;
  • Move fast and don’t waste time with exposition beyond what you need to set the scene.

 

The movie or the TV show is the finished product; a screenplay is not. Scripts are only one step in a complex chain of events leading to the final show or film. As a result, screenwriters don’t write scripts for the reading experience (though they have to be written well).

Yet the biggest issue for screenwriters-turned-novelists concerns what I call “story real estate.” You have around 110 pages of story real estate for a feature film, and around 52 pages for an hour-long TV drama. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of story real estate to go long, or deep, or too complex in character development, emotional resonance, backstory, etc.

But prose is all about language, the written word, the musicality and rhythm of the sentence, paragraph, and chapter. Unlike with screenplays, novels are meant to be read, not produced, and the finished book is a final product, ready to be consumed by an audience.

In fact, there are many novels with weak or non-existent stories that captivate readers solely on the power of the written word (In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust; Lectures in America, Gertrude Stein). This would never happen with a screenplay; having a weak story – or worse, no story – equals an immediate “pass” from anyone in the industry.

 

So the mantra for novelists is:

  • Show, don’t tell, but exposition is your friend, and a necessary one;
  •  You have no strict length constraints, so write, write, write;
  • Go deep, go long; leave no emotional stone unturned.

 

Story real estate is never an issue. Sure, you may have some constraints with publishers in terms of page count, but novels have no set limits based on time constraints (unlike a 52-minute drama or a two-hour feature film).

Ironically, however, having no constraints can be as crippling a liability as having too-tight constraints. Which is more frightening: looking into a yawning abyss, or into a six-foot trench? Novelists face this abyss and can find themselves paralyzed.

So screenwriters and novelists see the world of storytelling in very different ways, and have very different observing devices for interpreting their fictional worlds. Shifting from a screenwriting sensibility to a prose sensibility is the hardest hurdle you will face and also the most difficult one to wrap your head around. It can only be accomplished by writing prose and having your writing critiqued by great readers and other prose writers. It’s a school of hard knocks, I’m afraid. Novel-writing is a brand-new craft; a new skill set must be learned. Invest in good teachers, and never use screenwriters as your beta readers. You need feedback from people who are voracious book readers, not film/TV fans.

 

Point of view, voice, & tense

The next hurdle is one that ties every writer into knots: point of view (POV), narrative voice, and tense. Screenwriters don’t have to worry about any of this, because screenplays are all written in third person and present tense (though dialogue might have some first person voiceover), and narrative voice in scripts is conveyed mostly through character dialogue, not exposition. The voice of the work lies completely in the spoken word. For novelists, however, POV, tense, and narrative voice are complicated and intricately tied to the writing. (See “POV and Voice: A Novelist’s Toolkit” for more information.)

So, screenwriters have one POV, one tense, and a limited flexibility in narrative voice through dialogue, helped out occasionally by stylistic or colorful exposition. Novelists have at least five POVs, two tenses, and unlimited flexibility with voice. How does a screenwriter adapt to all this flexibility? Once again, it is all in the writing. You have to play with all of these options to see what works for the story, and this takes time and effort. Even novelists struggle with POV and tense. It is not unusual for novelists to write a book once in one POV/tense and then do a rewrite of the entire book that changes both POV and tense. Experiment, play around, and you’ll find your way.

 

Subplots, supporting characters

Subplots exist in screenplays, but not like they do in novels. Screenwriters have to learn the proper use of sub-plotting and how it plays into expanding supporting characters who have their own stories within the story. There are many different kinds of subplots (i.e., the need subplot, expositional or background subplot, thematic subplot – to name just a few), but most screenwriters are used to just one or two subplots. (Very few screenwriters know how to weave multiple storylines together to support a mainline narrative, and these are almost always employed in films with large ensemble casts.) But even in a screenplay with a small cast and only one main storyline, multiple subplots will need to be created in the translation to prose. This is one of the key areas where screenplays always have to be expanded to accommodate the novel form, because subplots support the middle of the novel, and the middle is where most stories fall apart. Coming up with two, three, or four “sub-stories” from a screenplay that tells only one major storyline can be nerve-racking and intimidating, but this hurdle must be traversed if your screenplay is going to support a three- or four-hundred page narrative. But don’t despair: look to key supporting characters and let your imagination run by giving them their own stories within the story. Just know that you will initially crack your shins on this hurdle.

 

Narrative scope

Narrative scope refers to the complexity of the story form. In prose fiction, novelists have many “containers” to choose from: short story, novelette, novella, novel, and the series. Screenwriters also have various “containers” to choose from: feature film, series, hour-long drama, half-hour sitcom, and the short. Each screenplay format has its own peculiarities and requirements, and screenwriters are well aware of the constraints and demands for each. The same holds true for novelists. But screenwriters have to study prose forms in order to understand their oddities and demands before any adaptation is attempted. For example, each prose format has word count considerations that must be understood: short story (7,500 or less), novelette (7,500-17,000), novella (17,000-30,000), novel (30,000 and above). A screenwriter must learn to gauge which prose “container” is best suited to his or her screenplay and story.

 

Reworking the premise

Adapting a novel to screenplay format always means deleting material and reducing the story to fit the constraints of film or TV. This often means reworking the original story so that it can fit the page limits of the script format under consideration (feature, hour-long drama, etc.).

The same is true moving from script to novel. The screenplay’s premise will almost always have to be reinvented to build in subplots, new action lines, and more complex story elements. The knee jerk is to use the script as a great outline for the book, i.e., follow the script’s story beats and all will be well.

This almost never works.

If you do not go into the adaptation process with a mindset that you will have to retool your story from the ground up, then you may be setting yourself up for major struggles down the development road.

 

Exposition: showing and telling vs. show, don’t tell

Screenplays are about showing everything on the sleeve. There is some very minor telling (in the form of montages), but “show, don’t tell” is a must in this purely visual medium. Yet novels allow for far more telling than showing. This is naturally difficult for screenwriters, because the script development process rejects long exposition and non-visual storytelling. Learning how to utilize lengthier exposition requires a whole new mindset.

One of the telltale signs that the screenwriter is a novelist is that their exposition tends to be many paragraphs long – a kiss of death for any screenplay. In contrast, for screenwriters trying to write prose, the opposite is true; exposition tends to be short, curt, stunted, and in sentence fragments. The solution is not some simplistic strategy of writing in complete sentences and adding more words for the sake of volume. The key to success is learning how to leverage all the story real estate by going deeper into the motivations of your characters, finding lyrical ways of describing the story world, and luxuriating in writing that fills in the expositional holes of the story organically, using just the right amount of words.

The two main potholes waiting for you here are rambling, overly detailed descriptions and purple prose (extravagant or ornate prose that breaks the narrative flow and screams “Isn’t my writing clever?”). You will do both, so get over that anxiety. But you will ultimately find the balance between economy of words, meaningful content, and proper pacing.

 

These are six important hurdles that must be leapt over in order to make your script a successful novel. In my opinion, no how-to book, no story guru, and no master class can really prepare you for jumping. However, if you can at least know what is waiting for you in the high grass, you can avoid surprises and prepare yourself so that your transition from script to novel becomes an encounter and not a confrontation.

 

POV and Voice: A Novelist’s Toolkit

Omniscient (present/past)

The story is told through an observer with the author’s narrative voice.
This narrator knows how the story progresses, though ideally does not reveal all at once.

First-person (present/past)

The story is told from the point of view of the “I” narrator, who only knows what she or he sees and experiences, so all feelings, questions, and internal thoughts
are in the narrative voice of a
unique individual.

Third-person limited (present/past)

The entire story is told through the viewpoint of one character, using the pronouns he or she.

Third-person unlimited (present/past)

The story is told through the viewpoints of two or more characters, with shifting points of view.

Second-person (present/past)

The story is told by the storyteller to another “person” using the word “you.” This is the rarest POV used in fiction today.

 

Jeff Lyons is a published author, teacher, screenwriter, and story development consultant with more than 25 years of experience in the film, TV, and publishing industries. His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line, is published through Focal Press. Web: jefflyonsbooks.com.

 

 

 

 

TW Freemium CoverLooking for an agent?

Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.