It’s every writer’s dream: To see your book on the big screen. But how does it happen? Why do some books become movies and others don’t? Is there a secret process writers should know about? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Read on to learn how to adapt your novel into a screenplay, as well as questions you as the author should ask yourself along the way.
Step 1: Become familiar with book-to-screen adaptations
The best way to learn about the process of screenplays is to read and watch them. Find a book that has been adapted into a film, then study both—read the original story and watch the motion picture. What was similar about the two? What parts were omitted (and why)? This allows you to understand how stories are altered from page to screen, and how visual storytelling differs from written word. Imagine how your book would be shown in a movie theater—can you see the scenes come to life with actors and effects? It may be helpful to take notes or even create an outline of existing adaptations to visualize the plot and break down the beats.
Step 2: Consider how movies are structured
Not every single detail from a book makes it to the screen. Some scenes and characters are cut entirely, while others are tweaked for length or detail. This can be frustrating to readers who expect movies to be identical to the book, however, it’s a rarity for movies to mirror the exact nuances of their literary counterparts. Films are limited to time—not many people want to sit through a movie for more than two hours. Movies often follow a three-act structure, which screenwriters can study and implement for the book they’re adapting. Identify your key scenes, your main plot, sub-plot, and other storytelling elements that will fit the basic template of screenplays.
Step 3: Determine which type of screenplay to write
Is your book appropriate for a full-length film? Or is it more conducive to a short film or even TV series? Each has its advantages and challenges, but it will depend on the individual project to find the best fit. When choosing a book to adapt to the screen, be sure that the story has the essential elements that make a successful screenplay: conflict, tension, stakes, and good character development. Movies without these things will feel flat and boring.
Step 4: Read screenplay craft books
Just like you have your favorite craft books for novel writing, you should also spend some time reading film books from experts in the field. While many of the same storytelling approaches apply to both, screenplay direction will focus on how to make it work for the big (or small) screen in a way that’s unique to that format. Some suggested titles include:
- 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 5: Create an outline
Outline your story following the common three-act structure you studied in Step 2. Break up your story into chapters and scenes, and be sure to identify your major plot points. The whole time you’re mapping your screenplay, imagine how the story would unfold on the screen. Keep the action high and the inner monologue to a minimum (this is a big difference between books and films). Even if you’re not writing a high-stakes car chase, you still need to be sure there is enough tension and conflict to keep the story moving forward. You may find yourself wanting to include everything from your book, but remember one of the key skills in screenwriting is to trim, trim, trim—you will need to cut parts to fit. Brevity is your friend.
Step 6: Write the screenplay
Once your outline is complete, it’s time to start drafting the screenplay. Many screenwriters use professional software such as Final Draft, Movie Magic, or WriterDuet, which help narrow the scene down to its core. While drafting, remember to stay focused on the central conflict, and write as tightly as possible. One page of script translates roughly to one minute on screen—that’s a lot fewer words than a 300-page book! Another exercise to narrow your story is to write a logline, a one- or two-sentence summary of its premise. Loglines are used to pitch your project to production companies. With so many ideas flying their way, it’s easy for projects to get overlooked or lost in the shuffle, which is why your logline must be strong—engaging yet concise.
Step 7: Revise and Pitch
Take the time to thoroughly revise your screenplay, just as you would your book’s manuscript. Step away, take a break, then come back with fresh eyes. Have a friend read it for a new perspective and outside feedback. Once you’re happy with the final result, prepare your pitch for the right industry professionals. Sites like iPitch.tv and Movie Pitcher allow you to submit your pitch and then help with the rest of the process. Other ways to pitch screenplays are through film festivals, writing competitions, studios accepting submissions, or by securing an agent.
Some of today’s most beloved movies started out as books. Will yours be next?