Let me see if this scene sounds familiar. You’re watching a movie at home. Some story that captivates your imagination, sparking a spirited conversation with whomever you’re watching with. As the movie comes to an exciting and satisfying finish, you watch the credits and reflect on what you just watched. The words “Based On A Novel By…” cross the screen and you’re left wondering how that works. How to adapt your novel into a screenplay is a question most authors eventually ask themselves, both traditional and indie published. Sadly, however, few understand what it takes.
This blog, I hope, will help you answer that very important question.
The first thing you must understand, if you’re going to successfully learn how to adapt your novel into a screenplay, is just how different the two mediums really are. If you’ve ever read a novel or a memoir and then watched a movie (or vice versa) then you know what I’m talking about. Books, by their very nature, offer a far more diverse array of ways to tell a story; a movie, which is what a screenplay comes out of, is much more limited. Why? Because it is almost entirely visual.
This is a vitally important concept for you to understand.
Don’t start trying to adapt your novel into a screenplay without understanding what this means. In a well-written novel, a successful author can explore what a character is thinking at any given moment. Thought is a reaction to action and the circumstances the world presents. Depicting character thought is, I would argue, one of the foremost important aspects of writing a good book.
A screenplay is, for the most part, the opposite. Only on very rare occasions does a movie (usually through a character’s voice over or flashback on their past) delve into their thoughts. These elements are, in the opinion of most professionals, highly frowned upon. Almost forbidden. Mostly, when the screenwriter wants you to understand what a character is feeling, they have to show you in some visual way, either in a gesture or an action.
Sounds easy? Well, in my experience, some writers make that translation to visual storytelling quite intuitively; for me, it was a relief to tell a story where the emphasis was on action. For most writers though, the challenge of visually depicting the emotions in a key moment in a story is daunting, a challenge they struggle to overcome.
The first, most important reality for understanding how to adapt your novel into a screenplay, is that you have to think visually first.
If a visual focus is so important, how are you supposed to achieve that?
If that was your question, I think I have a few answers for you. At least a tip or two to help you orient yourself to the task of translating your novel to the screen.
The first thing you need to understand is that everything has a representative value. Nowhere is that more important than in the setting. This is the “where” the story takes place. Screenplays thrive on the harmony (or disharmony) between character and setting.
For example, think of the shiny, Manhattan office building. Can you see it?
When a character struts into the lobby, dressed to the nines, a confident look in their eye, the audience understands they belong. Or, at least for the moment, they think they do. In contrast to that, take the same office building, only this time the character is disheveled and running late, half of their breakfast on their shirt in the form of a stain.
Do you see the immediately understandable difference? We get a lot of information about these two different characters in a little bit of information, setting the tone for a story.
We don’t need to get into the character’s thoughts, either “I belong here” or “oh no, I’m late again” because we’ve seen them behave in accordance with those thoughts.
From that starting point, a screenwriter starts to develop the character more deeply and the situation that will challenge those initial viewer/reader impressions. What challenges are in store for our overconfident character? Will he or she end up getting fired? How will our down-on-their-luck person overcome their insecurity? Will they receive an unexpected kiss of good luck?
These are the seeds of a story. In screenwriting, you plant those visually.
But Wait, My Novel Is Written – How Do Make Those Changes?
That’s right. This article is supposed to be about the process of adaptation. What is a writer supposed to do with their novel, written with the right balance of action, dialog and interior reflection?
You’ll notice that in a screenplay, there is so much less material to work with in a novel. A novel consists of many thousands of words, while a screenplay is, at most, one-hundred and twenty pages.
The art of how to adapt your novel into a screenplay comes down to a matter of carefully considered condensation. What elements of the book are you going to sacrifice, or compress, to make that best visual representation possible?
The first thing I’ll say is that what a character thinks and feels is important – even in a screenplay. The difference, your challenge, is to turn that wealth of thought, in the form of internal dialog, into action.
Are they feeling lonely? Replace long passages of reflection on the state of their life and create a scene. Maybe they’re looking through a window at a loving family eating dinner. When I see this scene in my head, I immediately sense a character who is lonesome.
Are they excited for the day? Maybe we see them wake up an hour before their alarm, snap to action, walking down the street saying hello to everyone they encounter.
Contemplating a decision? Show them thoughtfully confronting both possible outcomes.
A good screenwriter can take a novel, locate those important interior moments, and transform those into a singular, satisfying visual representation. One that stands for all the trauma or thrill the character is experiencing inside in that moment.
When I adapt a novel into a screenplay, one of the first steps I take is to figure out who the really important characters are. Create the cast, so to speak. Quite often, as you can probably imagine, going from 500 pages of fiction to a 100-page screenplay, requires a trim job.
Then I answer the question – who are these characters at heart? What makes each one of them tick, both them as a people, and also, to their community. Doing this helps me sort out how to show, instead of tell, their emotional state.
Lastly, I find the meaningful scenes in the book. What are the big moments that create the core story line? I find those and work on an outline that includes each of them.
How to adapt your novel into a screenplay is a painstaking task. In some ways, when you’re finally finished with it, thinking of the two stories as one and the same can be difficult. Each represents a kind of compromise to the other, but between them, if you’re careful, you can strike a balance.
I hope this blog addressed some of your questions about how to adapt your novel into a screenplay. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.