So you’ve written a novel and it’s been getting a lot of buzz and traction…congratulations! Writing a story that resonates with readers is a major accomplishment. Frequently, stories in the publishing world get adapted to film and/or TV series–so how can you turn your novel into a Hollywood IP (Intellectual Property)?
First off, full disclosure on my end — I actually did it “backwards” with CYBER FIGHTER. My story began life as a feature screenplay, so the structure was already there. It was just a matter of expanding it to novel format (which is how many movie novelizations are done). Now, I’ve done a short film adaptation of the full-length story, so many of the techniques I used with the short script (and comic book) will apply to a regular adaptation.
So, you’re coming from a completed novel; how do you turn that into a screenplay? It’s true that most movies have a typical three-act structure, and yet some movies don’t follow that exactly. But going with the typical structure is a good way to adapt your story to the screen as that will make it easier for production companies to consider your idea as a movie.
Now, there are certain genres that translate well to the screen — adventures, romantic stories, historical fiction, and even science fiction novels have all been turned into movies. But if your novel is an epic adventure with many characters, it can really be challenging to turn that into a feature film. It may need to instead be turned into a TV series, like George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire becoming Game of Thrones (the title of the first book in his series).
I’m more of a feature film writer, having written several screenplays, some of which I was hired to write (so I don’t own the IP on those). Feature films have their own structure based on a page count of 90 – 120 pages. Each page is about a minute of screen time, so a screenplay within that range is the standard running time for a movie. Over the past 30 years, I’ve noticed page counts getting closer to 90 whereas older scripts from the 80s and earlier coming in at around 120. And older scripts had a lot more scene description, making those a bit harder to read through.
Why is readability important with screenplays? Well, most scripts are submitted to production companies or producers who employ readers to go through and write “coverage” on the script. Coverage is a basic breakdown of the story, characters and whether or not the producer should pass or consider it for production. These readers are going through multiple scripts per day, and if you’ve written an overly-descriptive screenplay, they’re probably going to pass before getting to page 10.
So, how do you get past the gatekeepers? My advice is to not worry about that when first writing the script adaptation. You need to capture your story accurately, but cinematically. The best way to do this is to get a hold of as many scripts you can get your hands on. It’s best to look at more recent films (within the past 15 years), to see the current trends with screenplays. One of the best free resources is Drew’s Script-o-Rama website: (http://www.script-o-rama.com/ ). If you focus on scripts that were adapted from novels (especially ones that you have already read), you will learn a lot about what was kept from the source material, and what was left out.
A feature film doesn’t give you enough time for major character development for all of the book’s characters — you will need to select which characters are most important, and either combine several minor characters, or omit their storylines from the feature altogether. This is especially true with epics — in my opinion, world-building is more important that tracking all of the characters in the books.
To use CYBER FIGHTER as an example, when adapting it into a short film script (to shoot as the proof of concept for the full length feature), I had to eliminate most of what is contained in the novel. I just focused on the basic premise of Brian Baldwin’s going through the VR experiment, getting programmed with the fighting skills. I also showed some of the animated scenes of the VR world and training to give a flavor of that, and then showcased a few fight scenes to show the progression of Brian’s abilities.
Gone was the main villain of Lau Xiaoming as his story arc was way too big for a short film. I also eliminated most of the side characters, only focusing on Brian, Kate and Humbert Cloogey as they were central to the VR program development in the main feature. So the story arc for the short is just focused on that basic premise that I built the whole novel/feature on. Adapting your epic novel to a feature film will be very similar.
Take a hard look at your story and ask yourself which is more important — your characters or the adventure and setting? If you take something like the Tolkien adaptations of the “Lord of the Rings” series, they did a great job of staying true to the novel, but also cutting out any extraneous material that didn’t advance the story on screen. If your character development is what stands out in your story, then focus more on those characters whose heads you get into with your writing.
But also realize that it’s very hard to show inner monologues on screen. If the camera can’t see it, it doesn’t work for a screenplay. Action pieces are very easy to translate as there’s lots of action. But scenes where your character is deep in thought about something isn’t cinematic at all. Instead, you have to just capture that emotion visually and move on to advancing the plot.
This article would actually be its own book if I were to get into the actual “how-to” of screenplay adaptations, so instead I just want you to start thinking about your story cinematically. Read screenplays, and also some books on screenplay structure to get you to start thinking like a screenwriter. My favorites are Syd Field’s “Screenplay”, Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” and Robert McKee’s “Story”. Each of these books approaches the art form differently. I recommend using those books as a starting point to help you instead of as gospel truths. Don’t get caught up in the “rules”, just use those guidelines to help you “color within the lines” of the movie format.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!