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Writing for Adaptation: Key Considerations for Authors Hoping to See Their Books on Screen

FEATURED IMAGE New York Book Editors 4 8 2024 Writing for Adaptation Key Considerations for Authors Hoping to See Their Books on Screen

Some people want to write a book because they want to tell a story in written form. Words can pair together in so many delightful ways. I’ve read passages that changed my brain chemistry. The written word will always be my first love.

But not all of us want to be monogamous with the written word. Some of us want our stories to translate into moving pictures. We may be writing a novel, but that’s just one part of the mission.

The whole mission may include a novel series that turns into a TV show, like Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Robyn Carr’s Virgin River, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Or maybe we want to see our stories on the big screen, like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, or Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada.

For many writers, the endgame isn't just to see your story in print. You're eyeing a presence across multiple mediums.

However, only some books are adaptable to film or TV. Some stories, as compelling as they are on paper, stumble when leaping into film or TV.

That's where this guide comes in. We’ll share questions to ask yourself so you can start thinking like a screenwriter while still playing the role of a novelist.

Let’s get started.

Understanding Adaptation Rights

Before your story moves from page to screen, there's a critical but daunting aspect: the legalities of adaptation rights. You must understand your rights as an author, to protect your work and ensure its successful transition into film or TV.

Before your story makes its grand leap from page to screen, there's a critical, but daunting aspect to consider, such as:

First, do you fully understand your rights over your work and what selling adaptation rights entails? Learn the difference between selling your rights outright and licensing them. These differences impact your control over the work and its future adaptations.

The complexity of contracts and negotiations with filmmakers or studios can be overwhelming. Working with a literary agent or a legal advisor specializing in intellectual property rights is necessary, especially if this is your first rodeo. They can guide you through the process, protect your interests, and negotiate the best possible deal.

Finally, consider how this decision might affect your work's future adaptations and ongoing involvement. Selling adaptation rights is about more than just the immediate financial gain. Are there specific conditions or creative controls you want to maintain?

Once you sell the rights, your story might change to better suit the visual medium. Deciding how much input you want to have in this process is crucial. Some authors prefer to stay involved as consultants, while others step back. Clarify your preferences early on.

By exploring the legalities of adaptation rights and preparing for the negotiation process, you can become a savvy participant in the adaptation of your work.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Adapting a Book to a Screenplay

Leaping from page to screen is quite a jump. Consider the following so that you can adequately prepare yourself for the leap:

How Can Your Book’s Vivid Descriptions Be Translated into Compelling Visual Scenes?

In a novel, your words paint the world and set the scene for readers to dive into. However, on-screen, you’ll need to build this world with visuals. You’ll need to show and not tell, meaning you must create an environment that viewers can see, hear, and feel. Here’s how you’ll do that:

Storyboard Your Descriptions. Think of your most vivid descriptions as scenes in a movie. Sketch them out or create a mood board. What do these look like in real life? This exercise helps you see if your descriptions translate well visually. If you become a consultant on a future TV show or movie (which you can recommend as part of selling the rights), you will be glad you had these storyboards. You can share them with the rest of the team, which is responsible for adapting your story into moving form.

Focus on the Senses. Screen adaptations excel when they engage multiple senses. Consider how your descriptions can be adapted to include visual elements (sight), sound (hearing), and even tactile sensations (touch).

Simplify for Impact. Sometimes, less is more. Identify the core elements of your descriptions that carry the emotional weight or thematic significance. These are what need on-screen emphasis.

How Will You Ensure Your Characters' Inner Thoughts and Complexities are Communicated Without the Luxury of Inner Monologue When Moving From Paper to the Screen?

In written form, you can dive deep into a character's mind. On-screen, you don’t see this internal monologue. Yet, the characters’ inner worlds are crucial for depth and empathy. Finding ways to externalize these thoughts is vital to a successful adaptation. Here’s how you can do that:

Use Dialogue Strategically - Dialogue can hint at what a character is thinking without them saying it directly. The subtext is powerful. How characters speak, their choice of words and their silence can reveal much about their internal states.

Visual Cues and Symbolism - Actions, facial expressions, and symbols can speak volumes. A character’s interaction with objects or their environment can be a window into their psyche. For example, a character constantly fiddling with a wedding ring could suggest inner turmoil about their marriage.

Leverage Secondary Characters - Sometimes, other characters can reflect or reveal the protagonist's thoughts. How they react to the main character, what they say about them, or confrontations can highlight internal conflicts or desires.

Screen Narratives Often Move Faster Than Books. How Can You Tighten Your Story's Pacing Without Losing Essential Details?

Screen narratives zip along, keeping viewers hooked from scene to scene. Unlike books, where readers can pause and reflect, films and TV shows demand constant forward motion. So, how do you keep up without leaving the heart of your story in the dust?

Condense and Combine - Look at your story’s timeline and plot points. Can any scenes serve double duty, advancing the plot while deepening character development? This consolidation can streamline your narrative and ease the transition to film or TV adaptation.

Key Moments Over Details - Identify the pivotal moments that drive your story forward. While your novel might relish the details, the screen version must focus on crucial moments. Find the scene's essence and ensure it contributes to the story's momentum.

Cliffhangers and Tension - Use the end of scenes to create suspense. Cliffhangers aren't just for season finales. Minor, unresolved tensions can keep viewers coming back for more.

Is Your Dialogue Snappy, Natural, and Realistic Enough for Actors to Bring to Life Without Slowing Down the Action?

Dialogue in a screenplay does more than convey information. Dialogue reveals character, builds tension, and keeps the story moving. But is your novel's dialogue ready for its close-up?

Keep It Natural. Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like something someone would actually say? Screen dialogue needs to flow naturally. It should mirror real conversation with interruptions, hesitations, and subtext.

Cut to the Chase. Screenplays don't have the luxury of lengthy monologues or verbose exchanges. Trim your dialogue down to its most impactful lines. What do your characters need to say, and what will the audience understand without them saying?

Action Speaks, Too. Remember, dialogue isn't the only way characters communicate. A look, a gesture, or an action can often convey more than words. These non-verbal cues add depth to conversations and reveal your characters' true feelings.

Who is Your Target Audience for the Screen Adaptation, and How Does This Influence the Adaptation Process?

Knowing who you're adapting your story for can significantly influence the adaptation process. Your target audience shapes not just the content but the tone and style of the adaptation.

Define Your Audience. Who are you telling this story for? Adults, teens, families? Your audience determines the rating, depth, and type of content you'll focus on. A young adult (YA) novel adapted for a teen audience might emphasize different themes than an adaptation intended for a more mature audience.

Tailor Your Story. Once you know your audience, you can tailor your adaptation to resonate with them. Focus on specific characters or plot lines that appeal to your target demographic. For instance, a book with multiple points of view might focus more on the characters that align with the interests and experiences of the intended audience.

Cultural and Commercial Considerations. Be careful of cultural trends and sensitivities, especially when targeting a global audience.

Final Thoughts

As writers, we build worlds with words. The transition from page to screen can be challenging but rewarding. Use the above questions to guide your adaptation process. May your story captivate hearts and minds, no matter the format.

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