If you’re wondering how to adapt a novel into a screenplay, you’re in good company. So were Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), Larry McMurtry (Brokeback Mountain), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and Dave Eggers (Away We Go) at one point.
If you’ve found some success as a novelist (or even if you haven’t yet) maybe you’ve considered adapting a novel into a screenplay, but are having trouble knowing where to begin?
If so, here are ten clear steps you should follow while adapting a novel into a script for the silver screen.
How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay Step #1: Decide If It Would Make a Good Movie
While Hollywood absolutely loves making movies out of novels, not all novels should be made into movies. You need to take a good hard look at your story and be honest with yourself as to whether it would make a good film.
Is It Visual Enough?
Is there enough conflict? Is it commercial enough? Would people pay their hard-earned money to go see this in a movie theater? Are there a good number of scenes that you can easily imagine up on screen, thrilling audiences worldwide?
If the answer’s “yes” proceed to step #2.
If, on the other hand, your story is very small, deeply personal and mainly concerned with your characters’ inner thoughts, it’s probably not cinematic enough to consider adapting into a screenplay.
Step #2: Learn How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay by Reading Books
As you probably know, writing a book and adapting a novel into a screenplay requires two completely different approaches and techniques. Therefore if you come from a novel writing background, it’s a good idea to first garner as much information as you can on how to write a screenplay.
One of the best ways to do this is to simply get started reading some screenwriting how-to books. Aim to read at least ten before embarking on your screenplay.
Here are just a few of our favorite screenwriting books. They’re not too heavy and also explain things in a clear, concise manner.
♦ Your Screenplay Sucks by William M. Akers
♦ Inside Story by Dara Marks
♦ Save the Cat Stikes Back by Blake Synder
For the full list, check out this page The 10 Best Screenwriting Books To Read In 2019.
Step #3: Learn How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay by Reading Pro Scripts
Not enough aspiring screenwriters do this regularly, but reading the scripts to your favorite movies is maybe the best way to learn how to write. And it’s also one the very best things you can do when it comes to adapting a novel into a screenplay.
There are a ton of sites where you can download professional screenplays for free but we have a put together a post 50 Of The Best Screenplays To Read And Download In Every Genre that’s a great place to start.
In short, reading a ton of professional screenplays should be an essential part of your weekly writing routine.
Step #4. Learn How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay by Writing Outlines
Writing a movie tends to be a much more structurally “formulaic” process than writing a novel. So here’s a great, hands-on technique you can use to familiarize yourself with how movies are constructed.
All you have to do is open your laptop and simply write down the key actions in every scene. Stick to the essentials of each scene—just what’s happened and how the plot’s moved forward—and keep it to two sentences max per scene.
Once this is done, study the outline, break it into its three acts and note why each scene is in the movie. Repeat this enough and before you know it, you’ll be an expert when it comes to how scripts are put together structurally and can begin adapting your novel into a screenplay.
Step #5: Write Out Your Novel As an Outline
Having focused on steps #1 to #4 for a while, it’s time to write an outline of your book. Read it once more, picturing the events up on a movie screen and summarizing each scene in the same way as in step #4.
Only put down scenes that advance the story in some way—either by developing the plot or by revealing character.
A scene in which we see a character realizes he has one hour to stop a bomb going off is obviously moving the plot forward. A scene in which we see a character choose not to talk to anyone at a party and lock herself in the bathroom is revealing character.
Essentially you only want to include things we can see on screen. This means leaving out all interior monologues, descriptions of the rolling countryside, political theories, and so on.
Step #6: Zero in on Your Movie’s Main Conflict
Much of this might be familiar to you, but it’s worth reassessing your novel from a basic screenwriting perspective when it comes to adapting a novel into a screenplay.
In contrast to penning a novel, writing a movie script is mainly about giving the protagonist a clear goal to achieve. This should have high stakes attached to it and be very hard to accomplish due to the opposition they face from a strong antagonist.
It can be very useful to try to condense your novel/screenplay’s core idea down into what’s known in screenwriting jargon as a “logline”—a short summation of the film’s core conflict into a couple of sentences. (We have a post here on How to Write a Logline.)
Go to IMDb.com and take a look at the plot summaries/loglines for some of your favorite movies. You should find that each logline neatly encapsulates just why you wanted to go see that movie in the first place.
Distilling your core idea down into a couple of short sentences is the ideal way to make sure it contains enough conflict and is exciting enough for people to want to see it up on screen.
Step #7: Turn Your Novel Outline Into a Script Outline
Now it’s time to take the outline you wrote in step #5 and, having refined your movie’s core idea, turn it into an outline for the actual screenplay. Editing, refining and polishing your outline is vital as it could potentially save you wasting many months of working on a story that’s not quite there yet.
Resist the temptation to jump right into writing the screenplay and spend some time beating out the story—working out what from the novel you should keep and what you should cut. As well as what new characters, scenes or plotlines you might need to write.
Novels usually run between 200 and 400 pages in length. As screenplays are considerably more concise, writing this outline may require quite a bit of editing: removing characters, subplots and anything not associated with the protagonist’s goal.
You want to make sure that you only include scenes in this outline that move the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by revealing character.
If you find yourself including scenes about the protagonist’s aunt who has no impact on the story at all, she should probably either be removed from the story or maybe melded together with another character.
Keep the narrative as clean and focused as possible.
Step #8: Buy Some Screenwriting Software
If you’ve made it this far it means you’re committed to writing this screenplay and so now might be a good time to purchase some screenwriting software. The last thing you want to do is start writing the screenplay on MS Word or some other regular writing program.
Screenwriting software will take all the formatting heavy lifting off your hands while adapting a novel into a screenplay, and here are the five best screenwriting software options on the market.
While all of these screenwriting software programs will do much of the formatting work for you, it’s still worth getting to grips with the best practices concerning how to format a script.
Step #9: Start Writing Your Script
Having concentrated on writing novels up to now, you may be used to spending a great deal of time describing tiny details and giving characters long speeches and internal monologues. In a screenplay, though, everything needs to be as brief and concise as possible.
As they say in the screenwriting business, you want to leave lots of “white space” on the page. This generally means avoiding detailed descriptions, like of a stain on some drapes, or what the moon looks like in the sky.
The trick is to only include dialogue and describe action or scenery that’s important to the advancement of either plot or character.
Keep your scenes short and sweet. Remember the old screenwriting adage to “get in late and leave early” and that one page in a script roughly translates to one minute on screen. Generally, you don’t want your scenes to run over two pages.
Above all, remember that as opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is all about revealing story through visuals. Rather than remaining in a character’s or narrator’s head, approach each scene from this angle: what do I want to show the audience with these characters’ words or actions?
Here’s a post on 35 Common Writing Style Mistakes In Spec Scripts that you should check out.
Step #10: Learn How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay by Getting Feedback
Keep writing and learning the craft of screenwriting, but also don’t forget to get some script coverage on your work as you go along. Otherwise, you may end up writing away in a bubble, as some fundamental mistakes that could be easily rectified, go left unchecked.
Obviously, the best people to get advice from are professional writers, script readers, producers, managers, etc. If you know someone in the industry who can give you some free feedback, grab the opportunity with both hands.
We also recommend the online screenwriting forum, Stage32, as a great place to get honest advice from fellow screenwriters. And it’s free.
Once you’ve taken someone else’s notes on board, it’s often a good idea to step away from the script for a couple of weeks or so to let them sink in. Make notes. Mull them over for a while and then return to the script with a clearer head to begin the rewrite process.
Getting to grips with screenplay writing may be hard at first, but stick at it and who knows? Maybe soon you’ll be following in the footsteps of Cormac McCarthy and Emma Donoghue.