Part 2: What a Studio Executive Wants You to Know About Your Novel

A guest post from Art Holcomb

And so, back to our story . . .

When we had last left our hero (that’s me), I had just had lunch at the Paramount Studios commissary with a studio executive named David, who was kind enough to ask me back to his office bungalow to continue our conversation.

We had just settled in when David said, “Adapting novels into film is the lifeblood of what we do, and therein lies the problem.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Not every novel – including some best sellers – adapts well to the screen. Many fantastic stories, some with powerful depth and import, can never make it to this wider audience simply because of the way the story was told.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So what kind of story does make for a great adaptation?”

David leaned back and looked out the window and frowned. “Well, I guess the first group of adaptable stories could be called THE CLASSICS.”

I grabbed my notebook and started writing.

“For example, one type of classic is the stories from the Bible. You know – Ben-Hur, David and Goliath, Noah and the Flood. Think Cain and Abel and you can see the universal appeal. They are all well-known, powerful tales; all have a tried-and-true structure and have that all-important built-in audience. In that way, fables and fairy tales fit into this category as well.”

“Right,” I said, writing furiously.

“And there’s always Shakespeare and all of its re-imaginings. Remember, West Side Story is really just a fabulous take on Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was a turning point in the stories of our Western culture.  He gave us elemental stories with universally relatable emotions – forbidden love, envy, greed, longing, anguish. They’re the types of story that every member of every culture across the globe can relate to. The whole of human experience can be found in his work.  And universal appeal means at least the possibility of a world-wide audience.”

And, of course, you have to include here the Other Classic – that is, anything that you read – or avoided reading – in high school.  Gatsby, Huck Finn, Animal Farm, and the Scarlet Letter – like that. They’re well known, millions are at least familiar with the story, and so have that built-in audience. Attach a bankable star and you’re half way there.”

I was beginning to see where he was going.

“What nearly all these stories have in common,” David said, “is that they are in the public domain. These older stories mean that we don’t have to worry about acquiring their rights so we’re free to adapt them immediately, and that’s always attractive.”

“But the most valuable thing about these stories is that the writer and director can take the bones of these classic stories and put their individual twist on them. I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s Richard III, which was originally set in 15th Century England, re-imagined into a modern day Nazi Germany-like society.  Very much the original story, but set in a completely different time and place. And it was fantastic! The same thing might be done with any public domain film.”

“That’s a lot of possibilities,” I said.

“Now – the second group: There are some novels that are so popular that they simply cannot be ignored. Books with such Gone Girl, Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey. They all have built-in audiences and massive followings. And there are so many readers who can actually see the book already playing out in their head that they can’t help wanting to see it on the big screen. They are a slam dunk for adaptation.”

I really needed him to slow down a bit.  My hand was beginning to cramp.

“In this group, there are also what I call The Beauties – books that immediately spark the imagination. They have breathtaking images, historically powerful moments-in-time, sweeping space battles – they’re stories that immediately thrust us into their world. Movie stars are particularly are drawn to these projects because they can immediately see themselves as these heroes. And certain directors will see in the story a chance to really put their personal vision to work and make it their own.  They can become the kind of films that can really make a career. These are the films with great story universes and locations that really come alive in the telling – where the world itself almost becomes one of the characters. Adaptations for these can be an easier sell.”

David paused and sat back in his chair and stared at me, waiting for me to draw the obvious connection.

“But. I said, “Should novelist even consider the possibility of an adaptation when they write? Aren’t novels about bringing the author’s unique vision to life? Shouldn’t they just tell their story THEIR way?”

David smiled. “Sure, and we need that, but we’re talking here about the WAY the story is presented more than the author’s vision for the story itself. Remember, a great story is a great story! Movies, books, TV – from our standpoint, these are all the FORMS in which you choose to tell that story. But you can choose to execute the novel is such a way that it naturally invites adaptation for the screen. Screenwriters do it all the time, as do studios. Do you believe that Disney only wanted a movie out of the Pirates of the Caribbean?  That was inspired by a ride. And look where that has gone!  And don’t you think that Michael Crichton had more than a film in mind when he wrote Jurassic Park – it’s now an entire land at Universal Studios.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“What each of these things has in common is that they were all great STORIES first.  Nothing can happen unless that happens first, and the novelist must first learn to be a great storyteller – anyone who doesn’t work hard to learn their craft will never really succeed. But the power of a great story is in how it captures the imagination, how it inspires others with its vision.  If you can write a great story and present it in a way that arouses the creative talents in others, you have the possibility for your novel to do more than sell a couple of thousand books.”

I suddenly got what he was saying. This is the way that screenwriters think but novelists don’t.  Every writer dreams of having their book made into a movie but so few have any idea how to make more likely. There are so many things you can do to make your story more attractive to filmmakers and improve your storytelling skills in the bargain.  But no one teaches that.

David looked directly at me. “You can have the possibility to tell a story that could reach millions more people around the world than your novel alone ever could – just by the way you present it.”

“So,” I said, “How does a novelist do it?”

David leaned in.  “Well, let’s start with the obvious,” and he ticked off a list on his fingertips.

  • “You need a novelist who understands not just writing but storytelling. A novelist can make a compelling read but it takes a great storyteller to make you feel and live the story enough to be start seeing the possibilities in the world they’ve created. Just think Star Trek and Star Wars. People are drawn to the world these writers have created – Hell, people want to LIVE in these worlds.”
  • “Second, many novelists write a story that, in the end, ONLY THEY are interested in. You have to write universally, with universally relatable issues.”
  • “Next, you need a very simple plotline with an easily understandable goal. In this type of story, someone wants just one thing.  Or someone wants to get to some certain place to escape some specific fate.  Most novels glance right over that, and write convoluted plots because they think that’s what good stories are made of.  They’re not!”
  • “Then, you require a compelling, human hero. He or she has good points and flaws, strength and weaknesses.  The audience has to be able to recognize something of themselves in the hero in order to make a real connection.”
  • “You need a powerful, clear and understandable obstacle, villain or antagonistic force. And the more your villain believes that they are the hero of your story, the better your story will be.”
  • “And you need life-and-death stakes. Understandable, palpable stakes.”

“You see,” David said, “Movies aren’t complex and so much of the problems in adapting most novels is that movies are all visual and so many novels aren’t.

David and I talked well past sunset.  I had completely forgotten about my pitch session (luckily I was later forgiven) and, over the years, I had used what David and Bob taught me to teach a new group of screenwriters and novelists.

And now, it’s available to you.

I’ve gone on to use this information to create a new seminar we’re offering this year called Writing the Cinematic Novel.  

In it, we cover:

  • How to find and exploit stories in the public domain (we include a great list of stories!)
  • How to think like a screenwriter and paint your story with a filmmaker’s brush
  • How to bring out the most evocative and cinematic images in your story
  • How to create characters who can thrive on the screen
  • And how to write great and powerful scenes

The on-line class starts later this summer and we have a special discount price for all of Larry’s loyal StoryFix readers who act right away.

If you’d like more information about this seminar or to find out more about our other classes and services, drop us a line at with the subject line ADAPTATION and we’ll send it out.

Remember, seats are limited and this special pricing in only good through June 15th.

Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry’s coming up shortly with his return post – it’s a great one.

So, until next time – Just Keep Writing.


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5 Responses to Part 2: What a Studio Executive Wants You to Know About Your Novel

  1. Terrific post, lots of information clearly and understandably presented. Thanks, Art!
    But…if there is supposed to be a hot link on “special discount pricing,” it doesn’t work. How do I find out more?

  2. MikeR

    I used to like to read the novel before I watched the movie. I don’t usually do that anymore, because doing so just shows me how very different the two mediums are: print, versus film.

    I read Scott Turow’s novel, “Presumed Innocent,” before I watched the film. Having done so, I of course knew at every turn what would happen next, but I also observed how the movie’s version of both the plot-line and the presentation was much more simple.

    For instance, at the climax of the story, the hero discovers that [SPOILER] is the one who framed him. In the movie, the hero makes this sudden discovery when he pulls a [SPOILER] from his [SPOILER]. This is a =visual= reveal. The [SPOILER]’s reason (“singular …”) for doing so is subsequently, =visually=, also revealed.

    However, in the novel, Scott’s interpretation of the entire situation is much more multi-layered, =and= the motivations that he ascribes to the finally-revealed villain are much more complex … and, ambiguous. Scott was able to do this because of the nature of the print medium, which allowed his storytelling to pursue multiple overlapping threads of time and place.

    A motion picture CANNOT do that!

    In the end, a motion picture consists of a consecutive series of self-contained scenes. Each one must present its content visually. There is essentially no room for backstory. “If the audience can’t SEE IT, it isn’t there.”

    Scott Turow designed his story so that it could be reduced to a movie-compatible series of scenes and still remain a viable story.

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