Adapting Your Book
Into a Screenplay
You have achieved your dream and published your novel. Everyone who has read it loves it and keeps telling you, “This story should be turned into a movie!”
But how would you even go about it? How do you turn your manuscript into a screenplay? The first thing you must realize from the outset is that the best portrayal of your story on screen requires a totally different approach than the one you used to write your book.
Let’s look at three of the major differences between book writing and screenplay writing.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Your readers connect with your book’s characters as you open a window into their minds and unlock their emotions. You have the ability to paint detailed explanations of what your characters are thinking and provide insights into past experiences that have shaped their personalities and have culminated in their present behavior. However, moviegoers are not as privileged as your readers when it comes to discovering the inner workings of your characters’ minds. While your book describes things in detail, your movie would focus mainly on dialogue and action. The movie-going audience can only interpret your characters’ feelings and emotions through the dialogue, their facial expressions, physical gestures, and actions.
Actors Hate to Share the Spotlight
Several of your book's characters will likely share your story's limelight. However, a movie's focus is generally set around an individual's tale. While your book may be more about a situation or an incident and how it has affected a group or a whole community, your screenplay will need to focus more on how that incident has made an impact on an individual within that community, how they have been changed by it, or how they have grown to rise up and fight against it. Your characterization will probably require a shift in your storytelling. You will need to focus on a single character and decide which others need to be toned down or eliminated entirely. There are a number of adaptations where two of the book's protagonists were combined to create a new, more compelling character that better suited the onscreen interpretation. It is quite common for the story in the movie to become vastly different from the original book it is "based on" or "inspired by."
Less Is More
We all know the old saying, "A picture paints a thousand words." Well, that is a pretty good measure of how much your manuscript will need streamlining. The basic rule of thumb is that one page of a movie script is equivalent to one minute of film. Figuring that most movies today run at around the two-hour mark, that equates to around 120 pages of screenplay (and that is leaning toward the absolute maximum length). How many pages are there in your book? Now you have an idea about the scale of the task ahead.
Your book is a complete, polished article ready for your readers to enjoy. Therein lies the fundamental difference between a book and a screenplay. A book is the final work of art, whereas a screenplay is the first step in a creative process that involves the collaboration of dozens—even hundreds—of people.
Once you have decided to turn your manuscript into a screenplay, here are five things you will need to do.
1. Your Movie's Point of View
Identify all the main characters in your novel. How many of them are absolutely essential to the central theme of your story, and how many can you exclude? Refer to your original notes from when you started conceptualizing your story and developing your characters. Remember, you are going to have to reduce your entire story into about 100 pages, so think about which characters and characteristics are essential.
2. Lights, Camera, ACTION!
Action is the operative word here. Movies are more focused on action, so identify these key scenes in your book. These scenes will be imperative to moving your storyline along, so you may need to flesh them out by adding more visual descriptions of what is going on. Remember, in screenwriting, your audience will only be able to see what is going on without the benefit of a constant narrative explanation.
3. There's a Reason They Called Them "Talkies"
Dialogue drives a movie between action sequences. Identify the key conversations between your characters that will hold the viewer’s interest until the next frenzied fight scene, exploding building, or car crash that lies in store. Highlight any powerful phrases or catchy one-liners that might become a character’ trademark or could even be used as the movie’s tagline.
4. The Opening Scene
You will not be able to provide as much background to your story as you did in your book. The opening scene of your screenplay might, therefore, commence at a different point in your story than the first chapter of your book. Your choice of character will also make an impact on your starting point.
The first ten pages of your screenplay are the most crucial; you have to grab the audience's attention immediately.
Presenting your screenplay in a professional manner that conforms to standard industry formatting is essential. A screenplay obviously differs greatly in appearance from a book. Remember that less is more. The editing process can be brutal; descriptions and dialogue must be pared down to the absolute essentials.
Take The Maltese Falcon as an example. The screenplay was adapted from the great Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name. Compare the original literary version to the version revised for its movie script.