How to Adapt a Novel to a Screenplay

Monday, October 08, 2018

This past summer, I wrote my second screenplay, an adaptation of a novel I coauthored. My second screenplay wasn’t as easy to write as my first (a documentary) because tackling fiction is a different story.

What I haven’t done, and wish I had only begrudgingly, is take a screenwriting class. I also failed to read a single tutorial book on the art of screenwriting, and there are loads of them out there. What I did do, and served me well, was to read as many screenplays as I could get my hands on. I also spent a good bit of time outlining movies and binge-watching films specific to my genre, and, since I’m someone who learns by doing, I found a film that was relevant in structure and used it, if loosely, as a guide.

Initially, when it came to story structure, I focused on two foundations:

1. The plot’s core conflicts

2. The plot’s key visual elements

Once I’d nailed these down, I outlined the novel scene by scene. It wasn’t about reinventing the wheel; the heavy lifting—rising action, character development, etc.—had already been accomplished. Beyond deciding a provocative way to establish my protagonist in the opening scene, I went ahead and identified what I felt confident were stronger sections of the book’s dialogue.

From here, I cut and pasted these, now highlighted, sections into Microsoft Word’s screenplay template. This was surprisingly tedious, and yet, I didn’t change much of anything, except to occasionally abbreviate what my characters said. In fact, if there was ever a doubt, I shortened what was there with a contraction. In other words, I revised the “she is” to the “she’s” and the “we are” to the “we’re.”

When it comes to dialogue, what’s been offered doesn’t necessarily need to be a mistake, at least, not grammatically. Anything awkward, and anything that’s less than pithy, lessens its impact, so be as sparing and direct as possible. Watch your commas, gerunds, and adverbs. As a rule, and this typifies writing in general, less is more. When it comes to screenwriting, in particular, what your characters do is, potentially, just as important as what they say.

Finding ways to offer visual and parenthetical directives proved challenging, but for me, the single and most curious stumbling block centered on the issue of backstory. At the beginning of the process, my main concern was how I would convey my characters’ backstories. What of the past did viewers need to be able to navigate how and why things unfolded? I came up with elaborate ways to accomplish this and held fast to the idea that for my novel to really sing on screen, backstory was critical. Yet, as I deconstructed my story and then reconstructed it for the silver screen, I slowly learned backstory wasn’t an issue. At least, not as much or in the ways I’d originally envisioned. Simply put: audiences figure out who characters are by the choices those characters make.

By definition, film is a visual medium. Telling the story isn’t enough. With film, it’s about delivery. It’s about emotion, point of view, figuring out the best ways your characters enter and leave a scene, and too, figuring out how to transition between scenes and what those transitions tell the audience.

Ultimately, I found the whole experience of adapting a novel was easier to navigate when I trusted my instincts. So, while someone might have explained all the steps, described and coached me as to the rudimentary how-to, similar to writing a novel, there are exceptions to everything, and, over and above any formula, I learned by doing.


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Ellie Maas Davis

Ellie Maas Davis owns Pressque, a publishing consultation firm located in downtown Charleston that offers editing and ghostwriting services to authors and publishers.