Turning Your Novel into a Screenplay, Part 1

A guest post by Art Holcomb

Part 1 of 2.

In June, I’m speaking at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference on how to adapt a novel into a screenplay and I’m really looking forward to it. A good part of my practice, both with students and professionals, comes from taking a story from one form and telling it in a different form so as to increase both its sales potential and the fan base of my writers. This is the nature of a burgeoning field called transmedia, which offer writers like you a multitude of possible ways to get your stories out there.

Since most of you are novelists and want to find a greater audience for your ideas, I wanted share the highlights of my talk and experiences with you.

So, today, let’s go over the things you need to know before you start screenwriting – and next time, we’ll dive into the actual process of adaptation.

#1: Basic Understanding:

• A screenplay is a VERY DIFFERENT THING than a novel. First of all, screenwriting is a minimalist form, taking roughly 5000 word to tell a two-hour story. The main challenge of adaptation lies in the fact that novels contain between 5 -20 times more information on theme, mood, setting, plot and character development than a film ever could (regardless of what Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings might have you believe). Your job as an adapter is to find the gems moments and quotes within the story that bring forward the real voice and essence of its characters and plot.

• Movies are very much a VISUAL MEDIUM and screenwriting really only has dialogue and description as tools to tell any story. The exciting part here is that film has so many ways of communication your message even within those constraints– through visual action, sounds, music, and cinematography – that you can actually discover new ways to bring your story to life.

• Structure is paramount – so learn all you can: Here is where you, as reader of StoryFix, have an incredible advantage: the principles of structure that Larry teaches in Story Physics, Story Engineering and the great posts here online, contain everything you need to know to get started. Learn and embrace Larry’s concepts of plot points, pinches, set-up, confrontation and resolution and you’ll be farther along than 99% of other adaptors at this point.

• Invest in some good screenwriting software: The film industry currently likes the FINAL DRAFT and MOVIE MAKER products, but you can find others to your liking as well. These programs make the screenplay form easy to emulate and many have apps built-in that make the process simple. They can cost a couple hundred dollars but are well worth it, because bad or incorrect format – usually found when writers try to use programs like WORD to write their screenplays – can get your work tossed out by script readers after the first few pages.

• Read lots of scripts: Just as reading novels makes you a better novelist, reading scripts will incredibly improve your chances of success as a screenwriter. Learn as much as you can about the art – I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. A great place to start is at Scott Myer’s site gointothestory.blcklst.com which not only has more than 80 free screenplays for you to download and study but also many hundreds of pages of great advice on the craft.

• Watch lots of movies: A love of movies can be the single most important part of being a good screenwriter. It always comes out in the writing! A good practice: watch any single movie a couple of time: once for pure enjoyment and then again with a critical eye for structure and content.

#2 – Securing the Rights:

• I suspect that most of you are interested in adapting your own novel into a screenplay. If so – no problems. US Copyright laws grant you the right to do so, no different than your right to write the novel in the first place . But if you want to adapt someone else’s novel, you’ll need to execute an OPTION or PURCHASE AGEEEMENT with them to do so. They’re not complex documents and I can write about in another post if there’s interest, or you can contact me directly at alh.andromeda@gmail.com for more information.

#3 – Do Your Prep Work:

When I get ready to do an adaptation, I start with the following:

• Buy or get ahold of at least three (3) copies of the book. You’re going to physically cut a couple of them up, discarding the sections that you can’t use in the screenplay, and keeping what remains for the next step.

• Read the book at least twice, even if you are the author – you want to look at the material as if you were seeing it for the first time. This is essential, because the mind will fill in parts of any story that you’re intimately familiar with. You need to see the material for what it is – something you have permission to mold and shaped into something new but with the same spirit and feeling of the original.

• Close your eyes and ask yourself “What is this story really about?” As you go through the book, think about what is the core story that you’re trying to tell and what will not translate well onto the screen. Always be thinking about what you can cut.

• Remember, film is a visual medium. Pay particular attention to the passages in the novel that describe strong visual moments – these gems will likely make up some of the vital structural parts of the film. I personally find that most authors have painted great visuals for the Inciting Incident, Midpoint, Act Turns and Climaxes, in part because these are the target point of the acts.

That’s it for now. Next time we’ll briefly go into that actual process of writing the screenplay. Remember that this is just a brief overview. There are some excellent books on the subject as well as wonderful classes available on the process.

See you next time.


( Click HERE to go to Part 2 of this series.)

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and instructor. His most recent play is THE PERFECT BRACKET and his new TV pilot is entitled THE STREWN.



Filed under Guest Bloggers

7 Responses to Turning Your Novel into a Screenplay, Part 1

  1. Good stuff, Art!

    I turned one of my novels and one novella into a screenplay as an exercise in story structure when, after reading Story Engineering and other such books, I could see that my novel was seriously off-track.

    What I got out of it that can be applied to novel writing:

    A clearer concept of scenes, how to write them, write them visually, and to begin each scene with a specific goal in mind.

    How to distill a story down to its basics.

    A better understanding overall about story structure.

    How to say something with an economy of words.

    For those who want to try their hand but don’t want to blow $100 on software, I recommend the free version of Celtx


    It works great, you can feed a text file into it, and you can output your script in pdf format (must have an internet connection.)

    I am glad you are writing a series on this. I think many writers can profit from the exercise of adapting one of their stories to screenplay format. It forces you to make some hard decisions.

  2. Art Holcomb

    @Curtis: Thanks. I get requests for this from clients and readers all the time. Happy to do it.

    Keep writing!

  3. Every year after the Oscars, I lie in bed and imagine delivering my acceptance speech for Best Screenplay. Come on, everybody–admit it, you know you’ve done it, too! Mine usually runs along the lines of “You can do it. Never give up your dream!” *sob*

    Right now, though, I’m working on a novel using the Larry Brooks system. Trying to master a whole new art form would spread me way too thin.

    It would be wonderful, so thanks for the great tips, Art. Maybe someday . . .

  4. Elizabeth,

    A person of your talents could knock out a good screenplay draft based on one of your books in probably a month, dedicating a few hours a day. With good software it goes quickly. It’s an excellent exercise to help you truly nail down what your story is and what the key points are. You can’t fudge it with a screenplay!

    I was surprised how fast I progressed once I got going. Of course, that is given you already have the story, and have decided which parts to include/adapt. For me, that was the part that took a lot of pondering. Anyway, I think you would enjoy it, and it does force you to focus like the proverbial laser beam on those key parts of the story. Syd Field’s books cover much the same territory as Larry’s but from a screenplay perspective, and Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ series is almost indispensable. All three of his STC books are stuffed with valuable information, and nothing he says contradicts what Larry teaches about story structure/story physics.

    For me, the only downer of writing a screenplay from scratch is that it seems very cold and clinical to me since you can’t get all cozy with your emotions and wallow in them as they gush out of you. There’s no room for that in a screenplay. So, to me, a screenplay is kinda like a crossword puzzle or sudoku of writing. You still need writing talent, but now you have to execute it to very exacting parameters.

    At least that’s this amateur’s take on it.

  5. I haven’t gotten to the point of turning my novel into a screenplay yet but I like the idea. I’ve kicked around the idea of turning it into a graphic novel. Perhaps a screenplay would be a good intermediary?

  6. Art Holcomb

    @Sonia: You have an interesting idea. Both screenplays and graphic novels are produced from scripts that are very similar. It would be a simple transition from one to another. Sounds exciting! Best of luck.

  7. Pingback: Turning Novels into Screenplays – Part 2 - Storyfix.com