Do you long to see your story on the big screen? If so, I have good news. Every streaming platform is desperate for new content to give them the edge in the ongoing streaming wars, and traditional TV stations and movie companies are just as prolific as ever. Even radio stations and theaters are looking for new content.
But how do you turn a 100,000-word novel, which would be a 12-hour audiobook, into a two-hour movie or a six-hour TV series? Is that even possible? Where do you begin?
Few things boost a book’s sales like a giant Hollywood marketing campaign for the movie based on a book. Even a decades-old book will see a massive spike in sales ahead of the movie’s launch.
But how do you turn your novel into a screenplay?
I asked Charles Harris to help us navigate the process of turning your novel into a screenplay. He’s a bestselling author, so he knows the writing side, and he’s an international, award-winning writer and director. Additionally, he is a director of the UK Society of Authors and co-founded the world’s first screenwriters workshop. Charles has helped hundreds of authors turn their novels into screenplays.
How is writing a screenplay different from writing a novel?
Thomas: How is writing a screenplay different from writing a novel?
Charles: Books and movies are two different mediums that work very differently. They seem similar because you can imagine the film as you read a book, but there are massive differences.
Firstly, you must consider the relationship between the consumer, whether the reader or the audience, and the medium itself. When you sit down with a book, you can stop, start, and flip back a page. You can take your own pace because it’s just you and the book. Reading is a solitary experience, and it’s very much under your control.
With a movie, you’re either in a darkened room watching it on DVD or streaming it. Either way, you’ve got a limited amount of control.
You can go back and forth, but you have far less control than when you’re reading a book.
Movies and books also have different relationships with their audiences. Movies need to reach a lot of people. Even the smallest TV audience is probably vastly larger than most book audiences.
Movies require an idea that will appeal to a wide audience. The last time I was on your podcast, we talked about pitching. Your pitch for a movie must be very strong, even for a low-budget independent movie, TV program, or series.
Thomas: Every year, a million books are published on Amazon, but only 500 or so films are made, and that’s assuming the pie of consumers is the same. More people watch movies than read books, so you have to appeal to more people because of the math. A book that sells 100,000 copies would be considered successful, but a film that sells 100,000 tickets is not considered successful.
Charles: Definitely not. Add to that the sheer cost of production. Normally, movie production costs start around $1-3 million and go upwards to $300 million. Someone has to invest a lot of confidence in your idea before they go any further.
Thomas: For comparison, $300 million will build a power plant or 10,000 single-family homes. A producer needs to know they’ll make their money back because they’re paying interest on the loan for that production money. Before they invest, they need to know your story will appeal to a lot of people. That’s why filmmakers like to use books that have a preset audience.
If a book has been successful, there’s an assumption that a film based on that book will have a built-in audience, but that’s not always the case. A book that was only a moderate hit or somewhat unknown can still be adapted into a popular film. Sometimes, the movie is more popular than the book it was based on.
Charles: It’s interesting to look at the Oscar-adapted screenplay nominations. You wouldn’t think of many of them as being adaptations. In fact, over the years, half of the Oscar-winning movies have been adaptations, and you wouldn’t even know it.
How do you film a characters internal thoughts in a movie?
Thomas: One of the differences I’ve noticed is that in a book, you can get into someone’s head. You can hear their thoughts, which you can’t do easily on film. You could use some voiceover, but audiences don’t like that. Critics definitely don’t like that.
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, you can put so much more detail on the screen.
One common change between a novel and its screenplay is that the screenwriter will rewrite a scene in the book where a character is alone. In the book, the character might be thinking to himself. In the film version of that scene, the character will have somebody in the room to talk to. That adaptation allows the audience to hear their thoughts.
Example: Ender’s Game
The author of Ender’s Game struggled to adapt it for the screen because the story takes place in Ender’s head.
The story is about the struggle of 12-year-old Ender becoming a genocidal general of an alien species and dealing with the moral implications. They adapted the film by making Ender’s friend Bean a more prominent character. Bean gave Ender someone to talk to and work through what was happening inside his head in front of the camera.
Charles: You’ve put your finger right on it. Understand that it’s almost like turning a carpet upside down. All the bits that work in a book work differently in a movie. The good things won’t work, and the bad things may actually work better. There’s an old adage in the film industry that the best novels make the worst screenplays and the worst novels make the best movies.
In fact, the great Hollywood director Howard Hawks was at a cocktail party with Ernest Hemingway talking about exactly that. Hemingway challenged Hawks to make a movie of his worst book, which they decided was a novel called To Have and Have Not. It’s a very, very good movie. It’s similar to Casablanca, but I think it’s better than Casablanca.
How do you know which of your novels will work best as an adaptation?
Thomas: Is the Hemingway technique of picking your worst novel the best strategy for choosing which book to adapt?
Charles: It may well be.
Hunger Games had the same problem as Ender’s Game in that much of it is in her head. When Katniss thinks about how the games are being run, you can’t have non-stop voiceover. You can’t have her telling people what she’s thinking. To solve that problem, the filmmakers enlarged a character who was running the games and invented the whole area where the games are being run.
Thomas: That’s a great example of an excellent adaptation. The books are well-written and popular. One of the most interesting things about the books was the degradation of the point of view. The books are written in the present tense, first-person narration, and Katniss, the main character, slowly develops more PTSD throughout the story. Over time, her interpretation of events becomes less reliable as she’s losing her mind and experiencing all the trauma. In the book, the reader only sees the world through her eyes, and by the third book, you’re not sure what’s going on because she’s become such an unreliable narrator.
It’s handled so beautifully, but none of that is in the film. The film producers rightly decided to shift the POV from first person to film omniscient. The movie allows you to see what’s going on in the room she’s not in, giving you a different perspective on the same events.
The actual beat-for-beat events are similar, but the difference is that you see it from an omniscient point of view. In the movie, you see what’s actually happening rather than Katniss’ interpretation of what’s happening.
Charles: Films are external. There are several key elephant traps, one of which is exactly that. There’s no way to do a first-person point of view. The best first-person narrators are unreliable because that’s part of the fun.
In a film, you lose the authorial voice, and that’s another crucial part of the problem. In a good book, the authorial voice is largely what holds you in the book. It gives you a sense of what’s going on. You can film a beautiful desert landscape, but you don’t get the beautiful words in the book that brought it to life.
Thomas: The pressure rests on good characters and good dialogue. If you can convey your story with good characters and good dialog, the story will work. But if you’re using a lot of the other tools to tell your story, it will be harder to develop your novel into a screenplay.
Charles: I’m going to disagree with you a little bit because while characters are important, the biggest and first question about whether your book’s going to work is the through line. Even a fairly meandering film will generally need a very strong throughline with a motivated, active plot pursued by an active, motivated character that drives the film forward.
Books do that to a certain extent. There’s a lot of pressure to do it more as people read film-type books on structure and apply what they learn to writing novels. Books are still much more forgiving. They can have a looser plot that is enriched by the voice, other characters, subplots, and all the other things that are going on.
You just can’t do that in a movie. You must have that driving line going through. That would be my first question when choosing a novel to adapt: Is the through line there, or can it be discovered?
Example: Land of Stones
I’ll give you an example. I did an adaptation of a Portuguese trilogy titled Port Wine, and we called the movie Land of Stones. The book’s title doesn’t often work as the title of the movie.
When I analyzed the trilogy, I did a massive spreadsheet analysis. There were four main plots, each with a set of subplots attached and far too many main characters.
There was far too much going on, so I essentially had to roll up my sleeves, plunge my arm in, grab one of the plots, and say, “This is the one we’re going to follow.” I’ve been listening to your fascinating podcasts on pruning, the older one and the more recent one, and massive pruning is what it’s about.
A good novel, or even a bad one that will adapt well, can work if you can find that throughline. Cut everything else away. You may invent a throughline that wasn’t quite there before and enhance and sharpen it, so you’ve got what a good film or TV series needs.
Thomas: Pruning helps you get to the core story.
For many authors, pruning the plot is easier than pruning characters. They can see the main plot thread that needs to go through. But it’s harder to prune a character because authors are so connected to them. They feel like their characters are their children. However, having too many characters is a problem from a storytelling perspective and from a budgeting perspective. Every good actor you hire for a film increases the cost of the film, which increases the pressure for the film to be successful.
I was reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my four-year-old daughter, and I’m reading them with new eyes now that I’ve been in the publishing industry for a while.
Disney did such a bad job adapting The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that they stopped the Narnia movies after its disastrous performance. I think it failed because they pruned the story in the wrong way.
If I had adapted the book for film, I would have cut Edmund’s character because he’s not actually needed for the plot. When viewers need a modern English perspective, Eustace can tell how it was done in England. If viewers need the kingly perspective to find the noble path, Caspian can show the way. Very rarely does Edmund say anything that is uniquely Edmund’s perspective.
I think Lewis kept him in because in one scene, after Eustace has encountered Aslan, Edmund shares his story of being rescued by Aslan, and they can commiserate. Besides that one conversation, which is important for the story, Edmund’s not really needed. If you can cut Edmond altogether, you can tell that story perfectly well and simplify every scene.
Charles: You’ve really hit on something. That’s one of the main reasons it’s so difficult to adapt a good, well-known book.
How much freedom do you have to cut characters like Edmund? I imagine many fans would say, “Hang on! You can’t leave out Edmund! He’s one of my favorite characters!”
That’s why adapting a story nobody knows is so much easier.
You can get away with one to three main characters in a movie unless you’re doing a multi-stranded thing, which breaks the rules. Either way, you have very little time to establish the character.
That’s another point to consider when you’re pruning. You want to evaluate how quickly you can acquaint the viewer with the character. You don’t have 30 pages to ease your way in and include nuances, background, and history. Aim to hit the audience right away with what that character is like in a rounded form, and that is not easy.
Thomas: Fewer characters are better because the more characters you have, the more similar they’ll be to each other. Having similar characters will require more time for you to explain the nuances and differences.
For example, you can explain King Arthur and one of his knights. But if you have Gawain, Galahad, and Lancelot, you have to explain how those knights are different, which takes time. In a long book or series, you can really establish Gawain’s nobility, Lancelot’s duplicity, and Galahad’s purity. If you only have five minutes to introduce that character for a film, you may not be able to develop the character well.
Don’t think of pruning as cutting the character. That’s too painful for authors. View it as giving your other characters more time to be developed. The more characters you have, the less time each one gets.
It’s better to have a few well-developed, well-rounded characters than a bunch of characters with only one note because they don’t have time to play more than one note.
Charles: I like that way of putting it. How can I give my characters more time?
It brings us back to something we said earlier about films being exterior. The camera lens is filming you. It’s all very well saying Lancelot is noble, but how do we know that?
We don’t have the author telling us, and that is where the show-don’t-tell adage comes from. Show-don’t-tell fundamentally means that we only find out he’s noble because he does something noble.
I talk about GOATs being my best quadruped friends in screenwriting and book writing to some extent.
- Goal: What is their goal?
- Obstacle: What is the obstacle?
- Action: What is the action they take?
- Tactics: What tactics do they use?
By putting an obstacle in someone’s way, you force them to reveal the kind of tactics they use. In other words, someone noble will act nobly.
What are the fundamental skills a great screenwriter needs?
Charles: One of two fundamental skills of being a really good writer is finding the right obstacle to put in Lancelot’s way, to show his nobility through the way he acts, or maybe show him falling short and then realizing he needs to be more noble.
Again, you don’t have much time. Most screenplays are 90 to 100 pages long, which is about 2,000 to 3,000 words. It sounds scary when you think of your 90,000-word novel being distilled into a few thousand words. It was bad enough writing the cover blurb, and now we’re saying you must tell the whole story in a few thousand words.
But each of those words must count and bring out some character.
Overlaying is another skill that makes it easier to fit everything into fewer words. In other words, every scene must do at least two or three things.
You aren’t allowed to have a scene that does only one thing. Ideally, your scene with Lancelot will show his nobility and two other essential things. It may plant something important for the plot later. It may pay off something that happened earlier. Multiple layering is crucial with screenwriting.
Scenes in movies and TV series rarely last more than four pages. They are often as short as a quarter page with two lines, and you’re out.
That brevity has to be learned because you just don’t have that requirement in a novel. Scenes in a novel can run for a long time, but in a movie, you’d be lucky to have two or three scenes that go longer than four pages.
You can have a couple of big scenes that people remember, hopefully. But most of the scenes could well be three or four lines of dialogue with a bit of action, and then you move on.
Thomas: Sometimes you’ll have a scene with no dialogue because it’s all visual storytelling, especially in shows targeted at children. My kids will be watching something on the screen, and as I’m listening from the other room, I only hear music and my children giggling because they see the cat trying to catch the mouse.
How do you write a scene with no dialog?
Thomas: How does somebody write a scene like that? Is it done on the storyboard level? Do you write the blocking of what’s happening visually in a dialogue-light scene?
Charles: A good screenplay, whether it’s animation or not, has the description written in. It’s a weird thing because it’s one reason I moved to writing more novels. I so enjoy writing descriptions, but no one ever saw them because they turn into film. So, yes, a good screenwriter will add the necessary description, but it’s still very little.
Screenplay writing is very much like writing haiku. A few words do the job.
Think of the scene in Bonnie and Clyde where Bonnie Parker is standing in the window putting on her lipstick. She looks down and sees Clyde Barrow about to steal her car.
A lot is going on there. He looks up and sees this extraordinarily attractive young woman, but not a word has been said, yet so much action has taken place. That’s about the first quarter page of Bonnie and Clyde, which is well worth reading.
Thomas: That underlines another difference. When you’re writing a book, you pretty much have control over the final version. If you’re traditionally published, your publisher will have edits, but you get to approve them. The publisher picks the title and the cover, but they ask for your feedback.
I spoke with one screenwriter, who told me, “Three films are made. There’s the film that I wrote, the film that’s shot on camera, and the movie that comes out of the editing bay. Each one is a different movie.”
If you wrote a sentence about Bonnie looking at Clyde, the director and actors collaborate to add richness to that sentence, and you don’t really control that. The editor gets a shot at that scene, picks the take he wants, and chooses the order in which the scene appears.
The editor can completely change a scene and sometimes save a faltering film. By the same token, he can change plot points and ruin it, depending on your perspective and how good the editor is.
Before you undergo this process, understand that you don’t get to control the end result. You’re not the director or editor, so you have to hope that a good director and editor have been brought on the project.
Charles: To a certain extent, everyone has to let go.
One of the best ways to learn how to write a screenplay is to read loads of scripts and watch DVDs with commentary tracks. They’re like a film score on their own. Most importantly, read scripts.
If you’ve written novels, you’ve probably read hundreds of novels. But how many screenplays have you read?
Where can you find screenplays to read?
Thomas: How can I read the screenplay for a film I really like?
Charles: You can buy them. Sometimes you can buy them as printed books. There’s also a great website called Drew’s Script-O-Rama, which has links to nearly every screenplay around, including some from TV. You can download them for free. Most of the scripts are from genres that tend to be popular with people on the internet. You’ll see more science fiction and fantasy, but it’s still a good source.
On my website, I offer a free Adaptation Workbook, which includes much of what we’re talking about.
How do you cut 95% of your novel to make it a 3,000-word screen play?
Thomas: As people read screenplays, they’ll realize how small the word count is. People may have thought you misspoke when you said, “3,000-word screenplay,” but you didn’t.
Most films are built on three characters.
The protagonist makes the decisions that move the plot forward. The protagonist might be the hero, but it doesn’t have to be.
The antagonist is the character putting obstacles in the protagonist’s way. Usually, it’s a person, but it could be nature or one of the other classic antagonists.
I’ve heard Hollywood people refer to this third character as the relationship character. It’s the person the protagonist talks to so that viewers know what’s going on.
The relationship character is the most mysterious for an author because each story potentially has dozens of relationship characters.
How do you choose which character from your novel is the relationship character in the movie?
Thomas: What kind of character is the relationship character, and how do you determine which character from your novel is best for the screenplay?
Charles: What I’m looking for is a relationship line. In other words, the main story will only show part of the protagonist’s character because certain aspects of his character will never appear while he’s busy fighting for the future of his village. The relationship line exists to help develop the softer or more personal sides of his character. It may well be a romantic subplot, it could be a buddy, or you could have both.
Thomas: Choosing the right relationship character is tricky. You can tell a totally different story from the same novel just by swapping out the relationship character. You may have to write two or three different screenplays from your novel to determine which relationship character is right for the plot.
You’re probably stuck with the protagonist and antagonist because they’re critical to the plot. But the relationship character adds the emotional context of the story, and you have a lot more flexibility there.
For example, Obi-Wan Kenobi is the relationship character initially. He’s the mentor, which is classic in fantasy and sci-fi. But eventually, Han Solo becomes the relationship character. Obi-Wan Kenobi doesn’t have much of an arc, but Han Solo has a great arc as he goes from scoundrel to hero.
In some ways, his arc is just as emotionally satisfying as Luke Skywalker’s. But Han Solo returns at the last moment, resolves his relationship with Luke Skywalker, and defeats Darth Vader. That makes the ending emotionally satisfying.
Charles: I always found Han Solo the better character, to be honest. He’s got a much better arc.
Mentors as characters are generally antagonists. They’re a different kind of antagonist, but they’re basically opposing the hero, making the hero do things they don’t understand or don’t necessarily want to do.
Mentors appear in all sorts of movies. Anyone who’s telling the protagonist what they should be doing is a useful character, but they need to do it in an antagonistic way.
There are usually at least two support characters. You’ll usually have a support character for the main antagonist so the antagonist can bounce ideas off the support character. The antagonist can say, “Well, we’re going to destroy the entire village with napalm. Is that a good idea? Have we got enough napalm? Go and get me some more napalm.”
Those characters are useful, but they must be developed characters in their own right. They won’t be as rounded, but they must have a certain amount of complexity, contradiction, and interest. Often, the supporting characters make the movie and bring the hero to life. A well-cast, well-developed support character can lift it away from cliche and make it more interesting.
Thomas: And the support character needs to be the protagonist of his own story. His whole world can’t revolve around just supporting the hero. This character must be a real person with real desires, which is why Han Solo works well.
Han Solo has a clear desire because he’s got creditors on his tail. He’s introduced when someone demands money from him. He doesn’t have the money, so he shoots the creditor, at least in the original version of the film he does. Changes to that scene in later versions of the movie were controversial because Han Solo starts as a bad, murderous villain. That’s his starting point.
How does he handle the problem? He’s the kind of person who will run if he can, but if he can’t, he’ll kill somebody and keep himself alive because he’s the most important thing in his world. That’s his primary value.
That’s how we’re introduced to Han Solo. At first, his desire is aligned with what the core protagonist wants. Han Solo needs money. Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi have money, so Han Solo takes the job. But eventually, their desires diverge, and Han Solo has his own arc.
A good supporting character has their own arc, but it doesn’t steal from the protagonist. The supporting character has to be developed as a character with his own arc that doesn’t steal the show from the protagonist.
If the supporting character or antagonist gets too much screen time, you don’t know who the protagonist is after a while, and it muddies the story.
We have just scratched the surface of screenwriting. We’ve yet to discuss acts, beats, aerial shots, angles, interior versus exterior, continuous, cut-to, fade, and many more. The art, craft, and science of becoming a professional screenwriter can’t be learned by listening to a single podcast.
Being a novelist doesn’t make you a skilled screenwriter. You must study this profession if you want to be a great screenwriter. As a novelist, you have an advantage in that some skills you learned as an author will help your screenwriting. Other skills will need to change, and you’ll also have to develop new skills.
Charles: I’ve got a book called Complete Screenwriting Course, which will take you from beginning to end, from the first idea to selling. I also offer my free Adaptation Workbook when you sign up at my website. Besides the workbook, you’ll get my monthly articles on books, movies, and reviews. You can unsubscribe at any time.
Thomas: The Complete Screenwriting Course is $20 for 350 pages that walk you through exactly what you need to know to write a screenplay.
You can get the ebook for $5.00. Reading books on writing is one of the best investments you can make because if you want to be a writer, you must be a reader. Learn the easy way from somebody who lays it out page by page.
Read Charles’ book and read screenplays. A screenplay’s look and structure differ from that of a book. After you read a few, you’ll get a sense of what they should look like, how they should be laid out, how to structure your scenes, and how to incorporate dialogue.
Even if your book is never developed into a film, you can still turn your screenplay into a podcast or a local theatre production. Your local improv troupe or community college actors can easily read your 8,000-word screenplay into microphones so you can record it. It’s not hard or expensive, and it can become a fantastic radio theater version of your book.
The Complete Screenwriting Course will help you unlock that skill, whether it’s for screen, radio, or theater.
Do you have any final tips or encouragement?
Charles: If you’ve written a screenplay, even if it’s an early draft, get people to read it to you. Whether you record it or not, you’ll learn so much. If you’ve got any kind of theatre troupe near you, think about writing for the stage and adapting your book for a stage. It’s a whole different medium. It has its own requirements, but you will learn so much. Put on even a small production with a couple of weeks of rehearsal and a week’s break. A real performance is pretty equivalent to making three feature films in terms of the experience you’ll get.
Listening to how audiences respond will help you adjust things for the next night. You’ll get experience, a track record, and a wider audience to whom you can sell more books.
Thomas: Nothing will improve your writing or give you a new perspective on your writing like doing a table read where actors read through your script. You get to hear your words in someone else’s mouth. You’ll take furious notes, and after you rewrite, the next table read will be much better. A table read will give you a good perspective as people interpret your written words. It will give you an idea of what might show up on the stage, screen, or radio.
Charles: Absolutely. A table read is often followed by hearing constructive criticism, but by that point, you don’t need it. By the time they’ve read it through to you, you know all the bits that work and don’t work. The best thing the actors can do is pick you up and say, “Yes, it will be better. Don’t worry about it. I really like that bit. That was a good part there.”
Can the one-armed detective rescue the young girl and discover who wants him dead before the assailant succeeds?
The Coyote and a One-Armed Man is the action-packed second book in the One-Armed Detective series. If you like suspense and mystery combined with a high-stakes mission into a foreign country, then you’ll love BD. Lawrence’s thrilling private detective novel.