As more streaming services come into being, stories are needed more now than ever. Tim Hawken shares his experience turning a book into a TV series, what (and who) you need to know, and how to bring that dream closer to reality.
Having your book turned into a film or TV series is every author’s dream. With streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and more buying up content left, right and center, there has never been a better time to be putting a pitch together for your own story.
But where on earth do you start and what do you need for the best shot at having it picked up? I recently went through this process for my Hellbound Trilogy of books, teamed up with screenwriter/producer Ken Kabatoff (Travelers on Netflix) and actor Charlie Bewley (Twilight, The Vampire Diaries). The experience taught me a lot about putting a pitch together, as well as managing emotions and expectations throughout the process.
Here’s a step by step guide on what you need for a pitch and who you’ll need to think about attaching to the project to get it over the line.
1. Find The Right Partners
A TV show isn’t built in a vacuum and neither is a TV pitch. At the very least, you’ll want people to give you feedback. Better yet, you’ll have a writing partner or a team to help push the project’s momentum forward.
For me, it all started after an editor of a magazine I had written for gave an actor friend of his (Charlie Bewley) the first book in the Hellbound series. Charlie identified with the lead character Michael, so got in touch direct asking if he could help bring the story to the screen. He in turn was friends with a few screenwriters and suggested up-and-coming talent Ken Kabatoff for the job.
You could say it was blind luck that this all happened (in a sense it was) but remember, I’d done the work to write a book in the first place and put it in the hands of the right people.
Lightning has since struck twice with another actor getting in touch out of the blue to work on a different project. Sew your own seeds and they should also grow. Hustle to get your book to people who know folks in the business, or go direct by looking at shows in a similar genre and looking at writers that might fit.
Of course, the creators of Game of Thrones aren’t looking for their next job, they have more than enough offers on the table. But plenty of screenwriters are hustling for their next gig as much as you and are willing to put in the hours to create something. IMDB is a great resource here to not only find possible leads for writing partners, by finding other talent to attach as things progress (more on this later).
2. Write A Pilot
A TV pilot is a script of your first episode for the series. Every pitch needs at least one full episode written out, to prove the worth of the story and to prove whoever is writing the thing actually knows what they’re doing.
Thankfully, I’d been approached by Ken and Charlie on this front, after Charlie had read and loved the series. Ken and I worked to put together a workable draft, then polished it up until it shone.
Screenwriting is quite different from novels, so it was huge to have an experienced person guiding this along and doing the lion’s share of the work. I acted more of an advisor to the story, making sure the concept stayed true to the books.
Be warned that there will likely be scenes in your own work that might not work visually on the screen. Some things need to be tweaked to suit, so find a good balance of protecting the integrity of the work, while being flexible to adjust scenes and maybe even combining two minor characters into one.
If you’re writing the thing yourself and aren’t quite sure where to start, I recommend reading a few good pilot scripts to get a feel for the structure and pace. This article is also quite helpful when it comes to hints and tips.
3. Write a Show Bible
A show bible is a pitch document that outlines the world your story is set in, summarizes the key narrative arc of the season, sketches out key characters and offers an episode-by-episode breakdown of the first season.
Assuming you’re going beyond a single season, which most shows would like to, you should also outline what will happen in seasons 2, 3 and beyond. If you’ve got a series of books, then it makes sense to follow the same pattern and have each season based on a single book.
Because a lot of show bibles can look a bit bland, we also commissioned concept artist John Gallagher to bring the world of Hellbound to life visually. It’s quite a cool way to prompt the imagination and give TV executives a more visceral sense of how the show might look and feel.
Another way to lift up the pitch to be fun to read is by writing it in the voice of the main character. One incredible pitch I came across during my research was the show bible for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. If you’re interested, have a read here. Be prepared for a laugh.
4. Attach some talent
There are a bunch of ways you could approach this part. Some advice out there says it’s best to leave the show open for a studio to attach talent themselves, others say it helps to have a lead actor, director and maybe a producer.
At the very least, you’ll need a reputable agent to get the idea in front of the likes of Netflix. We used Charlie and Ken’s current representation to help with this, so I only needed an entertainment lawyer for contract negotiation. I was lucky.
Finding an agent can be tough of course, just like in the book world. Unfortunately, however, there’s no reasonable self-publishing option in TV or film, so it’s a necessary step. Just make sure your pitch and pilot are as sharp as they can be, do some research into which agencies might suit your genre (look at shows like yours and find out who repped them), and query, query, query. ICM Partners and CAA are two of the big ones if you need somewhere to start.
5. Nail Your Verbal Pitch
You’re going to have to nail your verbal pitch both for an agent and for whenever the time comes you might find yourself in a room of TV executives. This should add color to the documents you’ve already produced, foresee any questions or issues people might have, and make a good case for why your show is going to make them money.
Like with anything, practice makes perfect. Rehearse in the mirror, roleplay with others in your team and really dial it in. Because I’m based in Australia, our screenwriter Ken Kabatoff was doing the pitching in LA. We went over scenarios countless times on Skype and Ken also did the same with Charlie. It meant that when he walked into the offices of Netflix, Hulu and more, he was ready to give things a red-hot crack at making Hellbound a reality on the screen.
Unfortunately, despite the team’s best efforts, Hellbound wasn’t picked up by any of the major studios. After months and months of work, the pitch was received incredibly well. However, the asking budget of over $100M for the first season was just too much. As Ken joked ‘we could make Earthbound for less’, but that wasn’t a compromise we were willing to make, so let the project go to rest.
Still, I learned so much during the process, made some great contacts in the industry and had a wonderful time talking story with true professionals. Hopefully, I’ve been able to impart some of that learning to you and it will help you turn your own novel into a TV series.
Happy writing and happy pitching.
Have you considered turning your book series into a TV or streaming script? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Tim Hawken is an award-winning author of 4 novels and numerous short stories.
You can sign up here to get a free copy of the first book in his Hellbound series. It’s a thrill ride through the depths of Hell with Satan as your guide.
Allan L Mann says
Great information. It’s such a pity that writing a script or treatment is so different than for a novel. Often indie authors don’t have the financial resources to hire someone to write the treatment.
Patricia M Robertson says
Thank you for this helpful information. Question – You mention that the studios weren’t willing to pay 100 million budget for first season of the series. Did you have to put together a budget as part of your proposal? I wouldn’t have the first idea how to begin!
Joanna Penn says
When you write a screenplay, you do have to keep budget in mind, but it’s something you can learn about quite easily. When I pitched it, the agent said it would be that expensive 🙂
I’m only 15 and I’m writing a book right now. I have a huge imagination. I’m sure you hear this from a lot of kids but when you have a big imagination you do something with it and I feel like writing a book isn’t enough. is there any way I could try to use your steps at my age?
Joanna Penn says
Hi Jasoni, That’s fantastic 🙂 I suggest you just keep writing! Check out NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program (for under 18s) https://ywp.nanowrimo.org/ and you could also check out http://www.wattpad.com
Also keep an eye out for screenwriting competitions for young people. Wishing you all the best,
Very helpful and guidance to make the experience easier. As I have two books published and having the one turned into a film or tv series would be awesome as it is one of a six book series.
Question about process: would an author ever pay a scriptwriter to adapt his/her novel as a script to pitch? Or would you simply team up with a scriptwriter on spec to pitch it?
Sanzana Tahsin Mithila says
I want my book to be turned into a tv series.
JENNIFER A MORRISON says
I am helping a friend of mine who is a published author who wants to turn his book into a Mini-Series. Is there any guidance you could suggest for us. The book is already in some stores “A Dream Within A Dream” by Gary Wayne Cade. Is it possible for you to email me back at firstname.lastname@example.org about how to start in the process.
Sean Bai says
Would you have to fork over $100 million yourself, as an author? Is it like:
Author: “Here’s my idea.”
Producer: “I’ll produce it and pay $100 million for it.”
Also, how would you get paid?
Joanna Penn says
How you get paid will all depend on the contract so everything is possible – lots of money or no money at all!
Tijuana D Collier says
YES, I am very interested in turning my children’s book into a cartoon series!
Sanjeev Khurana says
I have written and published a novel ‘Doomsday Next’ with my co-author and it is available on Amazon as ebook and paper back edition.
I am looking for web series producers who can turn it into an action packed series.
Heather Lilac says
If anyones looking for crime books to be made into a series. Robin Roughleys Lasser books are brilliant. So far theres 24 books and they just get better and better. If you’ve not read them give them a go. Robin self publishes so they are only on kindle but hes as good as if not better any famous crime author.
Kathleen Webb says
Hi, great comments – I expect like thousands of other people I would love to have my first novel made into a series – I am currently writing my second novel and any help would be greatly received. My book is on Amazon – The Past is Present and I have received many 5 star reviews. I self published my first novel but will look to get the second via the usual channels however hard this may be! Thank you – Kathleen Webb.
J A Newman says
I would love my memoir adapted into a film or TV mini series. It’s a roller coaster romance set in 1966 and 1987. There are some train station scenes and I feel It would appeal to lovers of Brief Encounter. It is already written in first person with a lot of dialogue so it I don’t think it would be too much trouble to turn it into a film.
Martin Preston says
Gained a lot of information from your website. I want my book to be a TV series or something similar, its my first book of three. I am writing the second one now.
Its called JIGSAW EVOLUTION and is for sale on Amazon. Everyone who has read it gave me a lot of praise and loved the book. I am new to all this and quiet lost to be honest.
Are there people that could turn my book into a screenplay out there ??? No way can I do this. Please help.
Regina Maria says
Thank you for the information. My sister is writing the third book of her series, Pure Dynasty. Just in reading the first book I can see the layout being a television show, each book being a season. Now I understand more about how to assist her when she is ready to take that journey.
Lynda Jo Farquhar says
Hi Tim: Great information! Can’t believe they didn’t want to produce your book. You got to far into the process though, must have been a great experience. I am a mystery writers and have written 8 books in a series. I think it would make a great
mystery series on tv and want to learn script writing. Reading your experience is daunting and discouraging, but hey nothing ventured, nothing gained. I have asked my publisher, who owns the copyright on my work, to react to the idea. The publisher has a subsidiary rights agent and I’ve asked to have her input as well. Thanks for your help. Lyn
Maira Imran says
Okay, I’m the youngest author 21 and I wrote a book called Winchester. Book 1 of the Cambion Series. It’s a YA, Supernatural, Teenage, Romantic drama fiction. I want to see my book as a tv series or a movie. I really don’t know what to do so please guide me.
Maira Imran says
Hi, my name is Maira Imran and I’m an author. I wrote a book called Winchester, book 1 of the Cambion Series. It’s a YA, Supernatural, Teenage, Romantic drama fiction. I really need a film director. It’s my biggest dream to see my book stories into a tv series or film. Please, anyone who can help me out is much appreciated.
Albert Clark says
I have written a four book Science fiction series with three of the books published in 2012 and then my readers wanted answers to questions from the first three books so I wrote book four in 2017 to answer the questions or most of them. Most of my readers have said it should be a movie series or TV series. I have no agent or even an editor as the books were self published on Amazon with my only expense being the government copyright and books that I bought to give away to friends and family. There are eight main characters if you count in artificial intelligence called SHIP.
Most of the action would take place on the ship. A couple of the original cast get replaced and a new main character is introduced in book four.
I’m not rich but I don’t need money but I think my story is very interesting and would like to see it interpreted on screen. I have become very bored with most of the new movies seeming to be repeats.
The central plot is survival of humanity through colonization of space.
Dorane Caravaglia says
Does self publishing hurt my chances of getting an agent to represent me? I would like to have my work (trilogy) made into a mini TV series. Thank you for your time.
Joanna Penn says
If you’re very successful, then agents will come to you. For example, The Martian by Andy Weir and 50 Shades of Grey by EL James, both started out self-published.
But most authors and most books never get made into TV or film, regardless of how they publish!
The best thing to do is research agents who you want to target and then pitch them. It’s a journey!
Sally Gordon says
My memoir: My House on Booksie.com would make a good mini TV series. The part of my mother-in-law from hell was made for Brenda Blethyn and Alun Armstrong as father-in-law. David Leon as my husband Charlie Gordon.