Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Converting a Novel to a Screenplay


On a writer's list I'm on, one of the professional writers asked for advice for where to find books on screenwriting because he wanted to convert one of his novels to a screenplay.

As it happened, this is a subject I've been focusing on lately, so here is my answer.

Syd Field, the great screenwriting teacher, states categorically (in SCREENWRITING) that a novel is NOT a movie and shows you how and why that's so.

That incontrovertible fact is the reason so many writers are bummed when they see their work made for the screen, small or large. Scriptwriters always end up changing the THEME of the work, because they aren't you and can't "have" your idea from scratch.

So they do violence to your idea to conform it to the commercial marketplace. (i.e., they make the protag's motive revenge because audiences understand that better than what you used which the screenwriter just didn't understand. That is, "revenge" is a higher concept than your novel's concept. It is understood more easily by more people. So with big bucks riding on it, the protag's character gets warped into vengeful.)

Doing the conversion yourself, though, unless you comprehend the hard fact of the nature of the difference and the reasons writers assigned to convert a novel fail, will guarantee your screenplay will never sell.

Your novel must BECOME a screenplay or script for TV (very VERY different markets, and not just a different way of laying out the type on the page, but differing in content and where climaxes have to go by page number and the kind of character work you can do.)

Creating characters for a script is to creating novel characters as Japanese Brush Painting is to Rembrandt.

They're both highly advanced art forms -- but they are different SKILLS. The Japanese artist's eye is trained to "see" differently. The scriptwriter's "eye" for character is trained to "see" differently from the novelist's.

For a script to sell, the characters must be OUTLINES, vivid and identifyable archetypes, not individuals.


Because films cost too much to make.

To sell the script, you must attract the best name actors, and those actors will judge your script by how well they can fit themselves inside the outline of your characters. If you fill in all the colors, tones, and dimensions (as Rembrandt) you leave no room for the actor's SELF, and the script will not sell, or if it does, the actor will warp the character to suit himself and the director.

That's not art -- it's business. It's all about the cost difference per minute of entertainment delivered via the novel and the film.

I do intend to convert some of my novels to scripts, and am working through a course on screenwriting now.

I have lots to learn, but if you've learned and internalized the NOVEL paradigm, you can learn any paradigm used for storytelling.

That is, you have to understand intellectually, just how you accomplished the structuring of your original story -- the more you rely on your innate "talent," the more likely you are to fail at the converting of your own novel to a screenplay.

You have to know and understand the story-structure mechanism in a coldly analytical way to be able to accomplish this conversion trick.

If you can turn your "talent" instinct on and off, you can do it.

I highly recommend SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder and the brand new board software (also titled SAVE THE CAT! ) that lets you lay out your material in the standard Hollywood format on electronic 3X5 cards (that grow to whatever size you need as you make notes). Both book and software include the precise beat-sheet which is the key to success in selling your screenplay. (Mention my name if you email Blake.)

See my Amazon review of the book. I'm vetting the software now. It's amazing. It's not on amazon yet. You can get it on blakesnyder.com though.


I also have two review columns in the New Age Magazine column I do focusing on the esoteric reasons for the difference between novel and screenplay. I use SAVE THE CAT! as the basis of comparison. Those two columns will be posted on my own site in February and April. Blake Snyder wants to link to the April review because he thought I explained it well.


The real trick of this head-spinning conversion problem is to realize that a great novel concept is NOT a saleable film concept. The concept needs to be recast from the inside out to become a movie.

And then you have to use the beat sheet to structure the script precisely from that filmable concept - NOT from anything in the novel itself.

The novel's material and climaxes are all in the wrong places -- the character arcs and the character formulations are all wrong. The description is all wrong. The details are all wrong. It all has to be redone from scratch, as if you'd never written the novel and are just burning to tell this story in screenplay form.

Read Syd Field's (he's very repetitive, but that emphasizes the points) opus SCREENWRITING where he explains the how and why of this novel/screenplay conversion process.

You can probably get his books from the library, but I bought 3 of his books and filled them with underlines and post-it notes.

However, my desk reference as I work on scripting a story is SAVE THE CAT! with its complete beat sheet. That beat sheet and accompanying explanation is well worth the price of the book. You can download a copy of the beat sheet without explanation on blakesnyder.com then use it in notepad or Word to structure your story into screenplay format.

Remember, you can't take the novel you've written, it's characters and their conflicts, and just take the words and reformat them into script form scene by scene.

You have to "have the idea" for the novel over again from scratch, casting it in High Concept form, or it just has no chance in today's flooded script market.

You probably already know more about screenwriting than you do about novel writing -- because you've probably seen more movies than you've read books, so you can "sense" the formula behind movies. You always know what's coming when watching a film, don't you? That's unconscious. To write a film, you have to make that gut knowledge into conscious knowledge.

Read SAVE THE CAT! where those current best selling script formulas are revealed in detail. Pick one and re-have your Idea in Concept form. (you don't get ideas for movies, you get concepts -- and there is a very important difference -- but it's all just storycraft.)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I have a very visual imagination. I've been told many times that my stories are very visual and proceed in a way compatible with filmmaking. But, heh, I'd be terrified to even try screenwriting. I think maybe I've watched too many 'The Making of' documentaries!

  2. You're lucky, then, Kim. I don't have a very visual imagination, which doubtless handicaps me in writing the descriptive passages of my fiction. I had to laugh, however, at Jacqueline's comment that we've probably seen a lot more movies than we've read books. NOT!! Except during the two years in high school when I was actively dating, a movie was a rare treat in my life, something that happened a few times per year. After marriage, the same situation applied. Even nowadays, when movies can be viewed cheaply and conveniently at home, the books I read per year far outnumber the movies I watch. (Not counting TV series episodes.) I read CONSTANTLY.

  3. Being a mommy, I'm stuck with 'Finding Nemo' and Bugs Bunny cartoons, actually.