A Novel Idea for a Series: When Writers Think About Adapting Their Novel for TV

Kath here.  If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a television series, today’s guest poster Laurie Scheer has invaluable advice to help you acheive your goal. Laurie is a former vice president of programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment. She has worked as an assistant, d-girl, and producer for ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC-Cablevision. She has also been involved in producing series for the web and films for video games. Laurie has been an instructor at numerous universities across the U.S. from U.C.L.A. to Yale. As a professional speaker, she has appeared at annual conventions for NAB, NATPE, Reel Screen, WIFV, FTX West, and the Willamette Writers Conference. Currently, she is the Director of UW Madison’s annual Writers’ Institute, managing editor of the regional publication Midwest Prairie Review and a writing mentor. Laurie says:

I am passionate about assisting novelists as they adapt their work for filmed entertainment for a number of reasons.

First, novelists often do not even think their work could be considered as content for television (and film) based projects and they should know that buyers are always looking for quality content.

Secondly, because I feel the next wave of programming is going to include more complex storytelling as reality-based content has played itself out and we need writers who are writing longform content such as novels to share their stories.

And finally because novelists know how to write longform content and it is longform content that can be easily repurposed and distributed among the varied and numerous entertainment platforms.

I want to help the novelist at every step of the development and adaptation process of book-to-filmed-entertainment.

Her most recent interest is in exploring ways to preserve good storytelling within the trans media marketplace. She will be conducting a seminar entitled ANATOMY OF A NOVEL BECOMING A TV PILOT with novelist Josie Brown at various industry and writing conferences in 2013.

We are so lucky to have Laurie guest post with us today. Enjoy!

I often work with writers who approach me to assist them in prepping their novel for the television series marketplace.  When they do I am reminded of the statement:

“There are a lot of good ideas, but are those ideas necessarily good ideas for television series?”

As someone who has worked for nearly two decades in development departments for TV production companies working her way up from a lowly d-girl to a V.P. of Programming for a major national cable network, I’ve seen, heard, and worked with a number of writers as they have developed their ideas for television-based (network and cable) projects.  Currently, I am a writing mentor who continues to work with writers and when I meet a novelist who has interest in turning their novel into a television series I must admit, I am always apprehensive – mostly because I want to make sure they can answer the above stated question correctly – and that is, “Yes, my novel’s main plot is not only a good idea for a novel but it is also a good idea for a television series.”

If you are certain you have a novel that would be perfect to be developed into a television series, do make sure you can address the following points:

1.) Characters. Do you have strong, solid characters that audiences would want to invite back into their living rooms and via their laptops/mobile devices over and over and over again?  In other words, does your novel feature well developed characters that could consistently appear in scenes and episodes over a time span of at least 3 to 5 seasons (30-100+ episodes)?  

2.) Place. Do you have a place or situation-based theme within which many storylines could grow?  Each series episode must have what we refer to as an A, B, and C storyline meaning not only do you need multiple and well developed characters, but you also need a strong solid place where your story takes place. (Think of all the comedies that unfold in bars, workplaces, apartments in NYC, etc. and all of the dramas that are inherent to where they take place; i.e. NCIS Los Angeles, Boardwalk Empire in Atlantic City, and say for instance, Hart of Dixie that takes place in Bluebell, Alabama.)

3.) Series Bible. You must be willing to construct and create a bible for your series. A bible is the creation document. Think of it as the item that would be given to any writer who might be hired to write for your series. And yes, if that scares you – and it probably does – then you’ll need to be prepared for your precious characters, subplots and the future of your novel’s credibility to fall into the hands of other writers.  The television industry consists of many writers writing on ideas conceived and developed by someone else.

4.) Pilot Episode.  It is not entirely necessary to write the pilot episode for your series adaptation, however, it would help in order for you to maintain creative control of your material.  Yes, learning how to write within a visually based format is completely different from prose writing.  This is not impossible, however, you’ll need to be prepared in case you’re asked to do so – and it could mean another $50,000-$100,000+ for you in the long run when the deal is being made!

To recap, know that longevity is necessary and your story should have expansion potential.  You’ll need characters that can grow and develop beyond the limitations of your novel’s beginning and ending.  And finally-and this is a big one-you’ll need a willingness to let go of your idea as it is shared in the hands and minds of other writers.  These are the elements you’ll need to be prepared to embrace should you wish to adapt your novel into a TV series.

I encourage every writer who expresses the willingness to adapt their novel into a television show to give it a try.  After all, look at the success of Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, and Game of Thrones.

Follow Laurie on Facebook or on Twitter @UWwriters.



  1. says

    I’ve often wondered about how I might adapt a project I’m working on for TV, so I’m really happy to read this post. You gave some really valuable tips and suggestions that offer me a good starting point to investigation. Thank you for a timely post!

  2. says

    I’ve never thought about a book-to-TV process. Interesting. I can see whet strong, distinct personalities for characters and a central tension theme would be vital. Great food for thought.

  3. says

    I have the characters, the plot device that allows diverse adventures and 15 episodes written (one book length). What I sorely need is how to bring it all to the attention of savvy series evaluators like you.

  4. says

    As a writer and an avid TV watcher, I found this very interesting, thanks!

    I’d also be curious to know, are most TV companies *approached* by writers (or their agents) who want their work developed, OR do they *seek out* writers that they’ve heard about and whose work they are interested in developing? And do a novel’s sales figures and/or reviews matter? (Because I’m thinking of a number of shows that have been praised much more highly than their original source material.)

    • says

      Good question-and the answer is yes to both. Development folks and producers at agencies and networks seek out novel material via sources like Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and many other online media-related sites and newsletters AND authors and their agents can seek out producers and production companies to sell their product directly to the buyers. It works both ways and everyone is looking for product that will produce box office success or ratings. The amount of volumes that are sold are important, yes, however, sometimes small books are optioned and developed also-it all depends on the subject matter.

  5. says

    Wow. This was an eye-opener. I was ready to blow this one off at way too pop for my literary snoot., but I thought about the YA seuel to my (as yet un-agented) masterwork. I wrote the so-called masterwork over two years, tying every detail together, and making what I proudly consider a piece of artistic legacy. But the kid of one of the protagonists has a world of his own, with passions, unmet longings, and most importantly, a unique voice.

    For the first time ever, I got the notion that Ezra also has a skill that will create ongoing adventures – creating something captivating ans serious for kids stuck with ICarly.

    What an eye-opener!

  6. Ray Pace says

    Excellent post. It’s a good idea for novel writers to familiarize themselves with screen writing software and perhaps get a handle on some of the Save the Cat books and software available. Doing so can make for better novels and lead to film and TV opportunities.

  7. Jenny Tavernier says

    Having worked in LA in the industry – (performer), and in writing – (jingles,etc), but not TV, I have always been curious just what the pitching/submission of shows entails. Just recently a friend who still lives there still, took a treatment class, and sold it when agents came to do a talk! Would love to see more on this. May the universe bless the writers, and the Guild, who DO know longform/story. Love seeing some of the Art-related reality shows, but so done with the other virtual reality shows.
    We need the well-written story BACK.
    Thank you for this!

    • says

      You are so right and I agree with you-bless the writers who know longform writing. Storytelling is an art and to master it is an achievement. Thanks for your comment.

  8. says

    Think visually when writing. I remember a Janet Evanovich interview from somewhere that her first Plum book (she’s up to nineteen now) included a car explosion to purposefully make it more marketable to the movie industry .. and what, a year ago, a movie hit theatres based on this book – including the car explosion.

    Of course I have at least two car explosions, a plane, and some building demolitions for good measure in my paranormal trilogy.