The Author's Guide to Turning a Novel Into a… | NY Book Editors
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How to Turn Your Novel into a Screenplay


Would you like to turn your novel into a screenplay?

Get comfortable. This is going to take a while.

Writing a script isn’t the same as writing a novel. It requires a totally different skill set. But fortunately, if you already have the talent, passion, and inclination to write, you can acquire the necessary skills to write your own movie.

Let’s dive in.

Start By Answering This One Question: Will Your Novel Make a Good Movie?

Let’s be brutally honest here: Not every story adapts well into a movie, and that’s not because the story sucks. Far to the contrary. Some stories are better experienced through reading. An author in his or her prime can write in such a way that the reader is hanging onto every single word.

In fact, most books are better than films simply because it’s impossible to compete with the vivid imagination of the avid reader.

But people still love films. It’s a billion dollar industry, after all. And it’s not just about the money. Filmmaking is also a legitimate art form, as is screenwriting. While your screenplay may take a different path than your novel, it can still be just as engaging to the right audience and your message can still translate.

Use the Right Tools

Let’s talk about screenwriting software.

Can you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs to type your screenplay? Sure.

Should you? Probably not.

It’s crucial that you format your screenplay correctly, especially if you’re planning to shop your screenplay around. Producers, directors, and actors all cringe at poorly formatted screenplays. Not only will it make your screenplay look more professional, but correct formatting will also make your screenplay easier to read and reference.

This is why you need to invest in a quality screenwriting software tool. Screenwriting software will format your script automatically so that you don’t have to fool around with tabs or worry about setting indentations. It just makes the whole process a lot easier when using the right tool.

Here are a few screenwriting software tools to consider:

Learn the Mechanics of Screenwriting

While a screenwriting software tool will help you with the formatting side of things, it’s important that you know the basics of writing a script.

Because filmmakers and moviegoers both expect a certain pattern of events from movies, many screenwriters abide by a popular formula known as the three-act structure. This structure breaks the script into three parts:

  1. Act 1 - The setup
  2. Act 2 - The confrontation where the protagonist must make a series of decisions
  3. Act 3 - The resolution

Acts 1 and 3 each take up approximately 25 percent of the script. Act 2 takes up 50 percent of the script. For a more in-depth look at the three-act structure, check out this post on Elements of Cinema.

Additionally, start reading other screenplays to get a feel for the structure and cadence of a film script. Here’s a good place to start: The 50 Best Screenplays to Read and Download in Every Genre.

To learn more about screenwriting in general, check out this post from Writers Store for an introductory guide to screenwriting.

Re-Read the Novel

Turning a novel into a screenplay

Before you actually start writing, re-read your novel so that it’s fresh in your mind. While you’re definitely familiar with the story, there may be some elements that you’ve forgotten and want to emphasize in your screenplay.

It’s actually pretty common for screenwriters to read a novel several times before deciding on the right angle for a screenplay. Doing so can help you identify the heart, tone, and pace of your story.

After reading through your novel, don’t rush to write. Let the story sit with you for a while so that you can reflect on its themes, tone, and plot. You may need to change elements of the original story to make an understandable and enjoyable movie.

Choose the Main Storyline

Most novels are packed from cover to cover with a ton of information that can't possibly be condensed into a two-hour film. When adapting your novel, focus on the top 10 scenes that define your story from beginning to end. These are the scenes that can provide a condensed but accurate idea of your story and its theme(s). Think of them as the skeleton of your story. Your story simply wouldn’t make sense if you dropped one of these scenes.

After choosing these core scenes, start to flesh out your story. How will you take the main characters, especially the protagonist, from scene one to scene 10? And while the external struggles are easy to identify, what internal struggles do your main characters have, and how can you best show this in your screenplay?

Your screenplay is made up of a series of scenes where the characters should be doing something, not just thinking silently while looking at a beautiful sunset. Every scene you write should move your characters towards the next core scene of your story.

Keep an Eye on Timing

When writing your screenplay, keep an eye on timing. The ideal screenplay is 120 pages or less.

Remember that each page of your screenplay translates into about one minute of screentime. Your goal is to write two hours worth of content, which is approximately 120 pages. Some pages, particularly those with lots of dialogue, may only take only 30 seconds. Others, like those with lots of action, can take several minutes to unfold.

Choose the Right Characters

When you’re condensing your story into a screenplay, you may have to combine multiple characters to tell the best story. Don’t hesitate to do so. I know you love certain characters. I know you don’t want to kill them. But remember that your screenplay is a different beast than your novel, and you may need to tell the story slightly differently. Give yourself permission to do so.

For the characters that you do keep, ensure that each has an arc (i.e. an inner evolution that the character takes during the story) and that you complete their arc within the screenplay. If you do not have space to complete a character’s arc, that’s a telltale sign that you need to either combine the character with another one or eliminate that character altogether.

Kill your darlings.

Also, avoid adding too many characters to your screenplay. Your viewers will thank you. Viewers simply cannot invest as much time into your characters as your readers can, and so they’ll get confused by a bloated cast of characters.

Trying to cram too many characters into your screenplay can also lead to shallow characterization and stereotypes.

Avoid Narration

You’ve written your novel in the first person, so it makes sense to add narration to your screenplay. Hold on just a second.

Voice-over is over-used and over-rated.

While voice-over can work in some films, many beginner screenwriters use voice-over as an easy way to sneak in “writing” instead of “showing.” Remember that a movie is a visual feast. You must show what’s happening instead of telling what’s happening. Otherwise, your audience will lose interest quickly.

You can still rely on the narrator or protagonist’s point of view when writing your screenplay. Just consider the scene from their eyes, as if they’re holding the camera. What do they see, hear, and feel? Use visual clues, such as the setting, facial expressions, and voice tones to tell the full story.

Edit the Screenplay

Editing is a fact of life for all writers— novel writers and screenwriters. When adapting a novel into a screenplay, you’ll need to edit a lot. You’re whittling down a 200+ page novel into a 90-120 page screenplay. This requires you to cut out and rearrange as much as possible.

Avoid Directing

Turning a novel into a screenplay

Screenwriting isn’t the same thing as directing.

In your screenplay, don’t add camera directions such as, “camera pans into face.” The director is the one who decides camera angles. Instead, describe the scene. Show what you’re seeing, but don’t make decisions for how the director will shoot the scene.

Go Forth and Make Your Movie

Have the dream to adapt your book into a story, but don’t know the right people?

Movies aren't just for Hollywood.

If you think your book is movie material, you don't have to wait for a big shot producer from Hollywood to come a-calling anymore. Some creatives with the passion and vision to see their words in action can turn from author to filmmaker. Just like self-publishing is a thing, you can also produce and show your own film in an actual movie theater or online. Here’s more information from No Film School on how to show your movie in theaters.

Over to You

We want to hear from you. Would you like to turn your novel into a screenplay? Let us know in the comments below.

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