How to Write a Screenplay: 7 Starting Tips for Adapting Your Own Novel

photo by esotericsean

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a copy of my newest book, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. It’s a book all about how to build your visibility, brand, network and discoverability so you can better market yourself and your books. I’m giving away 1 copy to a random commenter based in the U.S. or Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: Louis won.)

Plenty of times, writers come up with an idea for a novel that could translate visually to film. The good news is that if you want to see your manuscript converted into a screenplay, there are two different routes that would make an adaptation possible.

Most books that get released by a major publisher or are repped by an established agency get passed to an agent who tries to drum up interest in film/TV rights for a project. This makes total sense. A writer creates a good story, so the obvious goal is to sell it through every means possible — be that print books, e-books, foreign rights translations, serial excerpts, audio books, and, yes, movies/TV. If your new book-to-film agent (usually brought onboard by your book agent) can generate adaptation interest from producers, your work gets bought/optioned by Hollywood, and you’re off and running. This exact thing happened to my humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack. Sony optioned the book and hired a screenwriter to adapt the work.

But what if you want to see your work adapted into a screenplay, but are either indie-publishing it or the work hasn’t sold yet? The obvious option is to —

ADAPT IT YOURSELF: 7 IMPORTANT TIPS FOR BEGINNERS

You can always just take matters into your own hands and compose the script yourself on spec. But the truth is that writing a screenplay is a completely different monster than tackling a novel or memoir. If your finished product doesn’t fit the usual mold of what a screenplay should look like, then a producer or agent won’t even consider it, and your time was wasted. So with that in mind, I wanted to lay out several simple-yet-important tips on how to write a script for any persons considering adapting their own book into a screenplay. Keeping in mind there is still much more to learn beyond this post, here are 7 basic pieces of advice to get you started if the concept of scriptwriting is new to you.

1. Watch your length.

Just as books have typical word count ranges, screenplays have length requirements, too — and the recommended length for a beginner’s screenplay is 90-109 pages. Since each page represents one minute of screentime, that sets up your movie to be 90-109 minutes. Most writers go wrong in this arena by trending long.

2. Screenplays thrive on minimalism.

Always be thinking about how to cut, cut, cut. Screenplays rely on brevity. When characters have to say something, the best value you can provide is getting your point across in as few words of dialogue as possible. When you have to describe a scene or explain that a helicopter explodes, the quicker you can properly convey such information, the better you are. Give us information and dialogue in short, quick bursts. A lot of your novel will end up on the cutting room floor throughout the adaptation — and that’s OK. Plenty of a novel/memoir content does not translate well visually to the screen, so cutting out sections or characters or subplots actually will improve your final script. (If you’re not good at killing your darlings, perhaps screenwriting is not the best arena for you.)

And speaking of minimalism, it’s your job to write, not direct. That means you should never include any camera notes such as “Dolly in” or “Close up.” Avoid these directorial cues on every page.

3. Structure is valued (perhaps even to a fault), so read guides on plot & story.

In the book writing world, you have some areas where a formula is present and expected — such as what a reader comes to expect out of a romance novel or a mystery. And  on the other hand, you’ve got literary fiction, where there is no thing as formula. Anything goes.

New screenwriters need to know that generally, Hollywood is much more former than latter. They oftentimes look for a recognizable structure, beats in the right places, an action sequence every X number of pages, an inciting incident around 12 minutes in, and so on and forth. If you want to get serious, here are trusted plot/story guides that many screenwriters swear by:

4. Invest in some good screenwriting software.

Everyone’s used to writing in Word, so it’s not uncommon to balk at the thought of spending $200 or more on screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. But professional software is the best and only way for your script to look great and have perfect formatting. Buy it, and take some time to learn the basics of using it correctly.

5. Read lots of scripts! (And watch lots of movies, too!)

See how a great story looks on the page before it gets translated to the screen. For example, if you don’t know how to format a flashback in your script, find other successful screenplays that did dealt with similar things and study how those writers handled it.

Plus, once you start reading a bunch of movie scripts, you’ll learn all about screenwriting in other ways, noting simple things such as how “cluttered” pages — where there are big blocks of action text and dialogue text — are difficult to get through, whereas pages with short bursts of dialogue and sparse narrative create pleasing “white space” on the page. You’ll start to notice proven ways of introducing characters effectively, getting a point across quickly, or creating tension right before something bad happens. Learn by reading — simple as that. This is probably the most important thing you can do before writing your screenplay, but also the tip you’re most likely to skip. Why? Because doing this right — truly researching and reverse-engineering hundreds of stories to immerse yourself in the craft (i.e., reading scripts and studying movies) will take months. Most people do not want to put in such time. Those that do will love these websites:

6. Think visually.

Screenwriting is the epitome of “show, don’t tell,” because, unless you have a voiceover narration, you will never be inside a character’s head. Dialogue is your key tool, and you will use that and simple action beats to flesh out characters and conflict. Always have your characters doing something, not thinking something or rehashing what we already know.

7. Once you’re ready, register the script and consider your options.

The first thing you need to do when your script is complete is to register it with the Writer’s Guild of America for a small price. Following that, there are several options for attracting attention to your script. (I’m assuming you lack a slew of contacts and friends in the business who can guide you or pass your script around.) Possible next steps include the following:

  1. Enter your script in a contest. The biggest contests that cost a lot of money and attract thousands of entrants (such as the Nicholl Fellowship) are watched closely by agents and producers alike. There are so many entries that even if your writing were to place in the top 25, it would still be an accomplishment that garners attention.
  2. Cold query people who work with new writers. Simply send your work out. The usual tools are the same as in the literary world: a one-page query, a one-page synopsis, and a logline. The tricky thing here is that a lot of screenplay agents don’t make their contact info widely available like literary agents do, so research can be difficult. You can search for contact info using the Internet or message boards or the latest resource directory found on Amazon.
  3. Consider a manager instead of an agent. In Hollywood, “agents” are top-tier people who primarily seal deals and negotiate big-time contracts. Script “managers” act more as one would expect — finding their clients jobs, guiding them editorially, etc. New writers without contacts would probably be best aiming for a manager.
  4. Pitch production companies directly. I’m not talking about Universal or Disney. I’m talking about hundreds and hundreds of small production companies — some of which may specialize in a specific type of story (zombie horror, for example) that you’re writing. Again, finding contact information is hit & miss, but some companies may be worth a shot in terms of cold comtacts.
  5. Attend a pitch fest or conference. There are several large “pitch fest” events in the Los Angeles area featuring lots of producers and agents. Most have a high price tag, but top-tier do manage to gather a large collection of industry pros that are open to working with new talent. (Disclosure: Writer’s Digest West, our fall conference in LA, has such a pitch fest.)
  6. Think local. If your area has a local filmmaking group that is looking for good material to produce, you could pass the work on to them. There would probably be little money in such an independent production, but a much better chance than normal of actually seeing your writing come to life on film.

Again, recognize that this is just a post full of first steps for those considering an adaptation of their own novel or memoir. There is much more to learn. I myself have taken to reading the website Script Shadow as of late as a helpful resource. Any websites, guides or tips for amateur screenwriters you want to share? Leave some helpful info in the comments.

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a copy of my newest book, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. It’s a book all about how to build your visibility, brand, network and discoverability so you can better market yourself and your books. I’m giving away 1 copy to a random commenter based in the U.S. or Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: Louis won.)

 

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About Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM. Connect with Chuck on Twitter or at his website.

Comments

  1. Carmen says

    Beginners need not purchase Final Draft or Movie Magic. There is also Fade In, which is far less expensive, or for free you can get Celtx and get by just fine. If you do eventually get paid to write, you will need the industry standard professional software, but you don’t at all need it in the meantime.

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  2. says

    Great tips, and for those courageous and willing to try writing scripts based on their novels, this post and the recommended links are a very good place to start. :)

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  3. says

    Interesting information, Chuck. As a middle school reading teacher, I have written Reader’s Theater plays for use in my classroom and enjoyed the process. I have always wondered how one went about reducing an 80,000-100,000 word novel to something for the screen. It seems that my Reader’s Theater experience and screenwriting share some commonalities, the most important being to think visually while painting the picture with words through dialogue.

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  4. Laura says

    Some of the rules that apply to screenwriting are applicable to writing a novel too – thinking visually as you write your novel is a good precursor to adapting it later.
    Brevity is certainly important – every reader wants you to get to the point. So practicing brevity in dialogue can help cut down on the the additional cutting you’ll need to do later if you adapt it.
    This is an excellent post. I’m not ready for this yet, but I cut and past this article into my TIPS folder for future reference.
    Thank you!

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  5. Timothy Hicks says

    Thanks, Chuck. You gave some great ideas in your article. How about coming at the writing from the other direction; a novel based on a screenplay or at the same time? Both formats could contribute to each other.

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  6. says

    Thank you for sharing this post. I was intrigued as when I was very young–eons ago–I remember standing on a bridge overlooking the railway tracks as a train passed under. Steam whirled up and around creating a sense of being in another place and my mind took me far away. (Of course, talking about steam trains shows I wasn’t kidding when I said eons ago.) Ever since, when creating a story, it is as if I am standing above the action looking down–part of and yet beyond. Like the eye of a camera. No, I have never created a movie script, but your post opens up possibilities.

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  7. says

    Thanks for this information, Chuck. I wrote a book a while back, and I always thought it would make a great movie. I haven’t delved into screenwriting yet, but this post is a great place to start.

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  8. says

    Check out “Let’s Schmooze – Doug Eboch on Screenwriting.” Doug was the original writer on Sweet Home Alabama and teaches script writing and pitching at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. He analyzes a lot of scripts, which I find interesting even as a novelist. He also shares advice on pitching and other elements of the business.

    http://letsschmooze.blogspot.com/

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  9. says

    Thanks for the links! Going to take more reading and research but one can’t give up before they even start. Good advice is hard to come by.

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  10. Kassie says

    I also enjoy writing plays and have often thought about venturing into screen writing for fun. It’s a different type of story telling, which I think could be very useful in opening my eyes and broadening my horizons.

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  11. says

    This seems like a fun thing to try. I may create a screen play for my current novel, “Killing Hemingway”.

    It is my understanding that Amazon is getting into the optioning screenplays game. Do you know anything about that?

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  12. Ray Pace says

    Nice post! Probably good, too, to remind writers that once their script is in the hands of movie makers just about anything can happen to it. It becomes the product of group creativity. The director has his vision based on what the writer has presented. Input from folks doing the music, lighting, costumes, and editing all play a part in getting the final product to a screen near you. Someone will always have the reaction to it that, “this is a bit different from what I expected from reading the book.” Hooray for Hollywood and group creativity.

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  13. says

    Hi,
    I just completed my third book, which will be published in July, but my next project is to adapt novel #2 into a screenplay.
    Thanks for the tips – I hope I win!
    Ever yours,
    Colette

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  14. says

    Next month I fulfill a dream that was a few years in the making: I self-publish my first novel, Trial By Fire. It not only fulfills a vision, but it’s also full of visuals. Another dream I have is to transform my novel into a screenplay – for the challenge and satisfaction of it all. Desire is not enough; a professional approach is key (as you point out). Quite simply, your post, “How to Write a Screenplay: 7 Starting Tips for Adapting Your Own Novel,” just gave me a boost of confidence. Thanks for providing that encouragement.

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  15. says

    As always, Chuck, you lead us forward with a clear and steady hand. You are the “go-to” man.

    I’m not ready for a page to screen adaptation, but my husband is. I’ve done what I can to encourage him to make the leap, but I think your tips may be a better nudge. Thanks, Chuck.

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  16. says

    Interesting Chuck,

    I wouldn’t have thought about putting a screen play together with a novel.

    This is definitely a new way to look at it.

    If your script becomes a great play you could still write the book.

    If your book does well you could still make a play.

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  17. says

    Another possibility is designing your novel from the beginning to be adapted.

    I use Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as an integral part of plotting – and can see going back to the same ‘skeleton’ and putting on leaner muscles and skimpier clothes.

    I also use Dramatica for plotting fiction; when considering a screenplay, it’s supposed to make it easier to transfer all your structure to Movie Magic, though I haven’t done that yet. I did use Dramatica to structure a play, which made it much easier to write.

    Now I may go back and flesh the play out – into a novel, from the already-established structure.

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  18. says

    Chuck, I have the novella written and published. I don’t want to write the screenplay, but I do want my book made into a movie. Perhaps you or someone could do a post about the steps a newbie should take from book to finding a screenwriter. I would love to have some tips and advice!

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  19. says

    Though I think my current WIP has cinematic qualities, the thought of turning it into a screenplay makes my eyes bleed. (I will be ready for a long break from this story when I manage to finish it.)

    However, I do have ideas floating about that I think would make better movies than novels. Thanks for the tips!

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  20. says

    Other books to help:
    “Writing the Pilot” by William Rabkin (applies to movies as well as TV pilots);
    “John Truby Presents The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller”

    imdb.com has a pro level that provides access to the agent/manager/etc. info you need–sign up for it when you’re ready to begin shopping your script to get the details you need.

    Trai Cartwright (http://www.craftwrite.com/) recommends calling, not emailing or snailmailing query letters etc. (in her workshops and via coaching, she steps you through how to do this–more info than I can write here, plus she’s the expert in it).

    Scriptapalooza (http://scriptapalooza.com/home.php) is another high profile, well-respected competition for new filmwriters.

    And Celltx (software) is a great (and free) way to learn formatting, etc. It also has formatting options for stage plays (generally not the same format as film scripts), graphic novels, etc.

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  21. james carter says

    How thoughtful to post this. Thanks from myself and any future “followers” of my twittings. It was tweet of you. I’d leave my twitdress but since I never use it myself I forgot it. But am sure all would be entertained if all hapened upon it. ;>~Q

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  22. Carole Caprice says

    Thank you SO much for these tips! I have a great MG story I’m working on that I KNOW would transition readily over to a Disney-style movie so your guidance is much appreciated!

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  23. says

    Thanks for the great advice to budding screenwriters. I’ve always thought a screenplay is way more daunting than a novel, but now I’m getting excited about how to translate my novel to the screen. I appreciate your suggestions on screenwriting software and registering a script too.

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  24. says

    Chuck,

    Following your advice, what would be an author’s chances of seeing their novel on the big screen? We realize it would probably be low, but we’d still like to get a rough estimate.

    Thank you.

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  25. says

    I am particularly struck by your comment on minimalism after watching the 2nd season of Game of Thrones. Having read the books I was fascinated by how the storyline was simplified, characters combined, scenes moved away from out of the way keeps to the battlefield (thinking particularly of Rob Stark’s marriage), etc. Some were irritating changes, some brilliant. Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

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  26. Bonnie West says

    I loved this post. Thanks so much. And I love killing my darlings!!!!
    will repost on Facebook.

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  27. Margay says

    I’ve always toyed with the idea of turning my books into screenplays, so this is some great advice.

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  28. says

    Thank you for all the great information. I have two of my books I would like to adapt to a screenplay, MISSING CLAYTON, a thriller about a missing child, and IN HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS, a boy’s adventure novel. I have Scivener, I hope this will work for adapting my novels.
    Thanks again, Bev Irwin

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  29. Louis says

    The item here that I think cannot be stressed enough is to think visually. That includes dialogue. In movies you have to eliminate needless dialogue wherever you find it. The images carry a lot of the load in telling a cinematic story; don’t let your words get in their way.

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  30. says

    I think #6 is the hardest transition for a novel writer. You can go into the minutiae of a character’s head or expansive description, often with the encouragement from others to make the book denser. Thanks for the reminder and the stellar article.

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  31. says

    Worth the purchase price many times over. Win or no, I’m still buying a copy. If I win, I’ll give one copy to my son and keep the other for myself.

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  1. […] to adapt your own novel into a blockbuster movie? Wonder no more as Chuck Sambuchino serves up Adapt it Yourself: 7 Important Tips for Beginners, including how screenplays rely on brevity, structure is king/queen, advice on investing in good […]

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