For an author, adapting their novel into a screenplay can be extremely rewarding, both creatively and financially.
Creatively, because the author is opening themselves up to a whole new discipline and form of telling stories.
Financially, because if you know how to adapt your own novel into a screenplay, and know how to do it well, you can cut out a lot of the "middle men" and "middle women" between you and that screen credit, and that sale, and those fine, fine residuals from the WGA.
But turning a novel into a screenplay isn't exactly easy.
I own and run Screenplay Readers, a script coverage service. Our job is to read screenplays and provide feedback to their authors or representatives, or producers who have rights to the material. Our clientele ranges from amateurs and new writers to A-list screenwriters and producers.
So, as you can imagine, we read a lot of screenplays -- many of which are adaptations of novels by the writers of those novels. One great benefit from having read so many books-turned-screenplays over our almost two decades in business is that my team and I now have an acute sense of what most writers get wrong when they're trying to translate their book into a screenplay.
Here's the top 3 things we see writers doing wrong when adapating their books to scripts:
#1 Not editing themselves
A novel, to quote Andrew Marvell, has "but world enough and time" to "seduce" its reader. That is, the page and word count of a novel can be as long as required, with only arbitrary, industry standards of word count placed on it for reasons of financial and technical viability.
The imagination of the writer is practically unbridled when it comes to rendering "scenes" in a novel.
Not so in a screenplay.
Yet many first-time screenwriters adapting their novel fall into the trap of simply not being able to edit themselves, when it comes to paring down what makes it into the screenplay, and what doesn't.
One of the most common critiques our readers offer our novelists-turned-screenwriters is that many scenes or sequences that end up in the screenplays are completely unnecessary.
Another common critique is that the nonlinearity that an author may have rendered to near perfection on the pages of her novel may be too hard to understand when compacted into the limited space of the motion picture screenplay.
Writers of novels can take as much time as they need to make a non-linear storyline "gel" in the mind of their readers. In a screenplay, where the space is limited, as are the "dimensions" available to the writer (see below), it's much more difficult to jump around in space and time while being 100% clear at all times.
The failure to squeeze things down, to merge key plot and character points and to see some elements of their stories as redundant or even obtrusive on a screenplay page, is the biggest failing we see in adaptations.v
We suggest to our clients who fall into this sandtrap that they take a step back and do more "logic" work. Compress more. Merge more. Think visually, rather than literally. Remember that a film is limited to, generally, 90 - 120 minutes, and a TV show episode is limited to usually 40-65.
We emphasize that significant time compression, plot point compression, exposition overhauling, and the elimination of large chunks of the novel's sequences or chapters are the key things a writer must do first when adapting their novel as a screenplay.
"Kill your darlings" is one of those sayings that come closest to what the philosophy is here, but an even better term would be "genocide." Be ready to scorch the earth of your novel, and shoot everything that moves, until you're able to distill it down to the completely different beast you're asking it to become.
#2 Overdescription and prose
Knowing what's important and what's not is good on a macro level, as mentioned above, but it's also vital to know how to stick to what's important on a micro level as well.
When a Hollywood agent or her assistant picks up a script, they look at one thing first: the page count.
Not the title. Not the author name. Not the words on page 54. Page count.
Why? Because they need to know how much time this read is going to take out of their day.
White space on a page is key to keeping a reader turning pages. By white space, I mean: blank, white space.
The fewer words you have on your script page, the easier the read, and the faster and more easily the reader will be able to visualize your script as a film. With relatively few exceptions (scripts by Coppola or Tarantino, for example.)
With that in mind, a novel writer must be prepared to take all of her pretty, evocative description out of the prose format of 20 words on a line words and be ready to say everything she's trying to say in 4. Or 6.
Keep in mind, a novel has ample space and unlimited dimensions for description, dialogue, action, inner monologues, and all sorts of florid details to squeeze into that can add to the reader's experience.
But when it comes to number of dimensions in a screenplay, we're limited to exactly two:
What we can see and what we can hear.
A film has the image and the sound, and that's it.
All of your characters' thoughts? You can't just write them in a screenplay. You have to be able to transmit those thoughts to us via image and sound only. So either the character has to say what they're thinking out loud, or say it as a voiceover, or they have to be projected onto the film screen as words, or conveyed in any number of creative ways you can think of, as long as they're either visual, sonic, or a combination of those two dimensions only.
#3 Getting hung up on script format
The third biggest mistake novel writers make when adapting their novel to a screenplay format is worrying too much about the screenplay format itself.
Yes, it's a different format than prose -- wildly different -- and there's an entire industry that worries about that and services writers with a variety of script formatting software and templates and other helpful sundries.
And yes, you should learn it, or find a screenwriting app that makes it easy for you.
And yes, you should worry about your screenplay looking like an actual screenplay so that that aforementioned agent or her assistant looks at it and sees that it's legit, and that it looks like every other screenplay she's read.
But don't worry about the format or the details of how it looks until you've made sure you've worried about the previous big areas: paring down your novel's story and character points until its lean and can fit elegantly into a screenplay, and getting your description and dialogue down to a size that serves that compact format as well.
After those biggies are taken care of, format can and should be addressed and even worried about. At least a little. (Some great film screenplays have come in some pretty atrocious packaging (i.e. formats), but those are those rare exceptions you might not want to count on your script being among.)
Before you sit down to start paring down your novel, read good screenplays. Feel the pacing with which the story unfolds. Note how little exposition we're given and yet the story still manages to work. Hear the voices of the characters. Read the description and action and see how sparse it is.
The goal is to get into the mindset of "pictures and sound only." Limit yourself to those two dimensions. Re-read your novel from the perspective of an audience member being limited to those two dimensions only: sight and sound. How much of your novel still works? I'll bet a lot works, but a lot ends up on the cutting room floor.
Visit B. O'Malley at Screenplay Readers and on Twitter - @scriptcoverages.