Strategies for Adapting Your Novel to a Screenplay

This is a guest post from Bryan Keithley of FinallyFast Blog. Outside of his duties at FinallyFast he is actually a screenwriter by trade, so this is a topic near and dear to his heart.

You’re done with your novel, and you are of the opinion that it would make a pretty darned good movie. Should you consider adapting it? In a word, absolutely! Synergy is never a bad thing when it comes to your book property. Along with social media for promotion and establishing a writing blog to build an audience, why not build further momentum with a ready screenplay you can market to Hollywood producers along with the book?

Rather than tell you what software to use or how to format your script, let’s take a broader view and dive into general considerations you have to grapple with as you think about converting novel to script.

Compression – The chronology of an adapted script is often significantly different from the chronology of the original novel. Adaptation is a process of compression—things happening months or even years apart in the novel/nonfiction book are smushed together to “pick up the pace” for a 90-minute or two-hour film. Think about the timeline of your book, and how you might have to stack events closer together to increase dramatic interest for the screen.

Excision – On the topic of time, a book usually has significantly more subplots, events, and just plain narrative than a movie. You’ll likely need to simplify, and that means cutting out what might be entire episodes, subplots, or even themes. Dialogue is a natural target—characters in novels have much more leeway in terms of lengthy conversations than characters in films. Furthermore, you might find that several characters in your book are performing similar functions, espousing similar worldviews, etc. In a process called blending, you might find it worthwhile to merge those characters into one character for the feature screenplay.

Externalization – Written prose excels at being “in the head” of characters, whereas film has only limited ways to get inside the head of characters. So, you’ll find yourself needing to externalize thoughts, behaviors, and conflict. Show, don’t tell. If you describe at length a character being overwhelmed with anxiety in your novel, you might give him a nervous tic or have him pace back and forth in your screenplay.

Restructuring – Beyond the fairly cosmetic tasks of merging or cutting, you’ll need to find the objectivity and the courage to evaluate your novel in terms of the three-act structure and other conventions of Hollywood films. Think about the “hero’s journey” that often takes place in the Hollywood film. We are introduced to a single, willful protagonist whose life is somehow radically upset by some external event. Pitted against an equally strong antagonist, the protagonist goes about trying to restore what has been upset. By the end, a new status quo has been established, and the protagonist has usually grown or changed in some certain, permanent way. If your novel is missing this basic kind of through line, you may have to make creative choices to conform your story.

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