Turning Novels into Screenplays – Part 2

Part 2 (of 2) of a Guest Post by Art Holcomb

Click HERE to review Part 1… then hurry back here for the pay-off.


Welcome back!

We’re talking today about adapting novels into screenplays. Last time, we talked about the basics of the art of adaptation that I use with my students and professional clients. Today, let’s dive right into the meat of the subject – actually writing the screenplay.

#1 – Getting ready to write:

• You need to identify and write out the Story Beats, using Larry’s model of the story (see previous Story Fix posts on these points). This will help you see the novel as a whole unit. Every screenwriter has to be INTIMATELY familiar with the structure of the story, perhaps more so than a novelist because of the limited size of the screenplay.

• Now it’s time to sketch out the Character Arcs for the Main Characters. Pay particular attention to these three questions:

o What does each character want? (Goals)
o What/Who is standing in his/her way? (Obstacles)
o What will happen if they don’t get it? (Stakes)

Understanding the motivation of the characters is paramount. Remember: character and plot are two side of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.

• Now for a bit of fun. Take one of the copies of the book you bought and start tearing it apart. Identify the parts that you want to use and put those pages in one pile, and take the remainder and set it aside. During this process, you are asking yourself whether you need any specific diversion, back story or deeper character development. At the end, you will have the skeleton of the adaptation in your hand. Don’t be surprised if it is very small – remember the limited word count of a screenplay.

#2 – The Writing Process:

• Your first draft will be overwritten, perhaps by a lot. Don’t worry. The single most important thing in the entire adaptation process is this: Get the First Draft DONE!! Remember – Nothing can ever be made better until it is first on the page.

• As in novel writing, the second draft is all about the cutting. Use all your skills here.

• Next, give it to someone you trust to read. Pay particular attention to where they say the movie fails to make sense or drags – these can be the most important bit of info anyone can ever give you.

(NOTE *** Larry can be a great help here. Just as you would send him your outline or first draft of a novel, the same rules for structure apply to a screenplay. Larry has an extensive knowledge of film structure as well and he can review your work and keep you on the right track. Email him for particulars: storyfixer@gmail.com.)

• A table read is the next step and can be a lot of fun. Gather some of your friends and have them read through the screenplay aloud. You can gain valuable insight by hearing the words out loud read in a voice other than your own. Listen closely to their comments as well.

• Here’s a key lesson I’ve learned about the final draft. Remember that, regardless of the size of your audience, every screenplay is a communication between just two people: the writer and a lone reader. Always write directly to one person – this will keep your writing intimate and personal, a real advantage when you send it out to busy agents and producers.

#3 – After the final draft:

• Now it’s time to register your work with the Writer’s Guild of America (www.wga.org). Like a copyright, a WGA Registration can protect your work against claims of theft. Remember to show the work as an adaptation and credit the source material’s author CLEARLY and often. That can help keep you out of trouble down the road – believe me!

After this is the step you’ve been waiting for (admit it) – Selling the screenplay – but that is the subject of more than one blog post.

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.

Adaptation can be a great deal of fun and is a good way to enter the world of screenwriting. Never be afraid to give this a try, but remember to choose a work for which you have a real passion. And drop Larry or I a line and let us know how it goes.

And above all, always keep writing!


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


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4 Responses to Turning Novels into Screenplays – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Turning Your Novel into a Screenplay, Part 1 - Storyfix.com

  2. Ever since I started reading Larry’s blog I’ve been fascinated by the connection between a good novel and a good screenplay. Best Beloved and I have taken to yelling “Midpoint!” and “FPP!” when we watch stuff at home. (We try to avoid it in theaters.)

  3. Joel: *Laughing* Many screenplay books caution the reader that he will never again be able to simply enjoy a movie–the urge to analyze it and identify the beats will be overwhelming.

    Now, my criteria for a good movie is that it pulls me in and makes me forget to analyze it.

    I look at a screenplay as a story where the beats and twists are brought to high relief.

    If I could add to Art’s excellent advice, another good exercise for those interested in adapting a novel to a screenplay is to find movies that are based upon a novel and read the book then watch the movie.

    When you do so with Papillon, for example, you will be shocked at how much was sliced out of the movie, but understanding storytelling, you understand why, since the book consisted of multiple escapes, and movies must build quicker and there is no room for repetition, unless it makes some point that is central to the plot, like Groundhog Day.

  4. MikeR

    An excellent example of these principles occurred for me when I read Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” =before= watching the movie. I noticed three things right away:

    (1) There was only one story-line being presented at any time. There had to be a clean transition between them. If the screenplay switched from one POV to another, there was always a very hard “anchor” that was set right before the POV switch, and a very hard “pickup” of that anchor when the POV returned.

    (2) Absolutely none of Scott’s fine-tuned nuance and “suspenseful uncertainty” was there. The #SPOILER# did it, but for only one reason, and there was only one denouement when that secret was revealed: when the #SPOILER#, being a #SPOILER, found the #SPOILER# in the #SPOILER#. In the book, the #SPOILER#’s motivations were much more complex, with one interpretation that was actually that #SPOILER# was trying to do good.

    (3) There was absolutely no pause for reflection. Every step of the movie was action. Every possible interpretation of that action which the audience might be intended to see was =shown= =to= the audience.

    Of course, all of these things are derived from the fundamental nature of the medium. In addition to the suggestions of reading books about screenwriting, I also suggest that you should read a book about cinematography.