You might have noticed that we’re pretty big into books here at TCK Publishing.
We love books—and we love to talk about them. We’ve led discussions on just about every aspect of the business of literature (fiction and nonfiction), from writing and editing tutorials to publishing advice and unique tools for marketing and promoting your projects.
But books aren’t the only things people write.
There’s poetry, short fiction, essays, blogs, reviews—and the glitziest and most glamorous of them all, movie scripts.
The Allure of Screenplays
Folks love to say that Hollywood has run out of ideas, but even in the era of web series and streaming services, silver-screen movies are still the belles of the ball. And for a large percentage of writers—myself included—making a real Hollywood movie based on one of their stories is a long-term goal … or at least a life-long dream.
Think about it: the opportunity to see a book you wrote reimagined as a big-budget feature film, to watch your characters brought to life by capable actors, to watch your vision take shape on screen …
Let’s just say the appeal should be apparent.
And so, it should come as no surprise that many fiction authors write their books specifically to be as “cinematic” as possible, crafting their stories with enough mass appeal to make them attractive to filmmakers looking to adapt a book.
Transforming Your Book into a Screenplay
On the surface, screenplays contain the same major story elements of a book, but are formatted very differently so that they better translate to the process of filmmaking.
We won’t go over every minute distinction between these two forms of media, but these are the core things to keep in mind when rewriting your book as a screenplay.
1. Format Your Screenplay Properly
A screenplay can tell the same basic story as a novel and cover all the same plot beats, but how it tells that story couldn’t be more different.
To illustrate, let’s look at an example of a short passage from one of my own stories written in both formats. Here’s the passage written in novel format:
The man in red leather lifted off the throttle of the black Ducati, and the bike nattered to a stop in the dust beside the Nevada 580. He killed the engine and stood with his boots planted on the hard, cracked clay, scanning the desert. He didn’t remove his helmet, which was red also, with a black visor smudged around the edges of the Plexiglas by fingerprints. The helmet rotated like a turret as he stared out across the landscape. The sun was sinking off at the edge of the desert, baking the horizon orange, then red, then purple, lighting up the sky with all kinds of Technicolor hues that glinted off the expressionless visor. The last of the day’s heat rolled off the ground in waves, shimmering along the outmost edges of the world like a force field.
And here’s the same material written as a screenplay:
EXT. NEVADA DESERT – EVENING
A SHAPE in 70s-era red leather motorcycle gear stops his bike beside a dusty desert highway. It stops the engine and plants its boots—its expressionless helmet turns, scanning the horizon.
Opposite: the sunset. A lightshow in the desert sky. We PULL BACK to reveal the sunset reflected in the black motorcycle visor.
Notice that the screenplay forgoes much of the poetic language in favor of a more concrete style.
That’s because screenplays aren’t meant to tell a story alone—they act as baseline instructions for directors, film crews, and actors to build a movie around.
Pick and choose only the most essential elements of each scene to include in your screenplay, and let the imaginations of your collaborators take it from there.
2. Cut Back on Content
The lack of flowery language in the screenplay passage conveys an important fact about how screenplays are written.
The language is simple, delivering the same basic information as a novel in far fewer words. And while a screenplay’s language can be beautiful (in its own way), professional screenwriters must prize function over elegance to effectively tell their stories.
Here’s the thing: while a novel only has its language to create characters and imagery in the minds of readers, film is a visual medium … and a collaborative one at that.
A screenplay doesn’t need to describe how the clay beneath the rider’s boots is cracked, or that the sunset shimmers “like a force field”—good filmmakers will include those visuals automatically, or even tinker with them to better suit how they want the overall project to look and feel.
So not only does the spare language of a screenplay better suit its instruction-like nature, it affords the hundreds of other people working on the film greater creative freedom to interpret the events of the story, bringing its characters and world to life in new and inventive ways.
3. Focus on Dialogue and Visuals
Whenever a movie adaptation of a popular book is released in theaters, what do people always say?
“The book was better.”
“You gotta read the book first.”
“The movie leaves so much out.”
And while the quality of any project—book or movie—is entirely subjective, I’m usually inclined to agree with this evaluation.
While theatrical adaptations have the advantage of adding visuals and actors’ performances to the stories we love, they often lack the imaginative spark of the original books.
Yes, things get left out or changed or cut for time or misinterpreted, but the biggest thing most movie versions of books miss is something called digression—asides that provide background information or emphasize a particular intellectual or philosophical idea.
Typically, these asides are handled either as interior monologues, like Patrick Bateman gushing about ’80s-era pop music in American Psycho, or as separate expository chapters, like Herman Melville setting up the naval politics of late-1700s Britain in his final novel, Billy Budd, Sailor.
Unfortunately, unless a movie makes heavy use of voiceover narration (like the film version of American Psycho) or scrolling text (like the Star Wars films), screenplays just can’t include this kind of dense philosophical content.
Remember, screenplays are a blueprint: they focus on the building blocks of a movie, namely, dialogue and visuals.
This leads to more streamlined, action-focused, and “cinematic” storytelling, but it does lack the background and subtext that can make a novel so thematically rich.
That’s not to say that movies can’t be thought-provoking, but a film must rely solely on its dialogue and action to convey its themes—all of which must be reflected in the screenplay alone.
4. Think about the Budget
Here’s something a lot of first-time screenwriters forget: movies cost money.
Let’s check out some numbers: The first Avengers movie cost $220 million to make, and most of that money was spent on the film’s groundbreaking visual effects. And while the 2016 drama Paterson was a far smaller movie with almost no special effects in it, the movie cost more than $5 million to produce—which is still a lot of cheddar.
While novelists only have to worry about how their stories will be received by readers, screenwriters have to budget their stories, constantly worrying about how much each scene, setting, or additional character will cost filmmakers to render onscreen.
Will the film be a period piece? You’ll need era-appropriate costumes. Are there any explosions? You’ll need disposable sets and pyrotechnics. Does the movie take place across many different locations? Better budget in travel expenses for the actors and crew.
Despite how lucrative big-budget movies can be, movie producers usually won’t accept an expense-riddled script from an amateur or unknown screenwriter. No matter how compelling your narrative and characters are, the first thing they’ll see is an expense sheet longer than their arm—and slam the door in your face.
5. Get the Right Eyes on Your Project
When you’ve completed your cinematic masterpiece, check out our post on the best places to submit your screenplay for review.
BONUS ROUND: Turn Your Screenplay into a Book
Some writers decide to write their stories as movie screenplays instead of as books, eliminating the middleman by taking their ideas straight to the filmmakers themselves.
But if your screenplay isn’t getting any traction in Hollywood, it’s not too late to find an audience for your story.
Many writers find that the easiest way to share their screenplay with the world is to publish it as a novel first. After all, novels are inexpensive to write and produce—and thanks to eBook publishing, you can start making money off your new book just as soon as you finish writing it.
Sound intriguing? Check out our simple guide to writing a book in 60 days.
And when you’re all finished, as a forward-thinking independent publishing house, TCK Publishing offers full professional publishing services for authors of all genres. Check out our submission guidelines to see if publishing with TCK is a good fit for you.
If you want to submit to a Big Five Publisher like Penguin or Simon & Schuster, you might want to find a literary agent. Just know that it can take time to find an agent and even more time to get a book deal and finally get your novel on bookstore shelves.
And if you plan to self-publish your book, be sure to check out our free course on self-publishing.
Turn Your Book into a Movie
You can also check out our interview with Hollywood producer Ken Atchity where he explains how to turn your book into a movie.