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7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

    Categories: Writing

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

If you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Script Reader Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

Reading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

Once you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

A novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

This results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

Joanna Penn:

View Comments

  • Hello Joanna,
    This is a very interesting article. I wish you also publish one about adapting a novel or a book series into a TV series (well, at least for what concerns the script for the pilot). I think it might be very useful, as nowadays there are more chances in the TV show industry than in the film industry. :)

  • Great tips, Alex. I totally agree about outlining. There's nowhere to hide in a screenplay - you can't fudge plot or character issues with a bit of clever writing. It's all on view.

    Can I also add that Scrivener has excellent screenwriting format options - and is considerably cheaper than Final Draft, as well as being very good for all other kinds of writing and outlining.