How Screenwriters Can Best Adapt A Novel Into A Screenplay

Adapting a novel into a screenplay

Normally screenwriters face the task of adapting a novel into a screenplay by trimming and pruning a story into 120 pages. A screenplay is a highly stylized document and cannot afford the meandering and additional plot lines of a novel.

Story elements are both added and removed.

Film directors can adapt the story world from a novel

It is not as simple as reversing the traditional novel to screenplay process. A whole new world needs to be built. For instance, a scene heading in a screenplay might be written as an office, or even a plush office. The director will determine what the office will look like.

In your novel, you can afford more description, more texture and more sensation. You can describe a painting on the wall. You can linger to help the reader visualize the scene. Screenplays do not have this luxury, since the texture and pacing of the scene will be determined by the director.

Gideons way screenwriting tips: So now you're a screenwriter

Screenwriting is about economy of words for maximum impact

The backstory in screenplays is often delivered in nuggets through dialogue and action. In novels, the backstory can be expanded into internal and external action and dialogue. Sentences and paragraphs must escalate the tension in both formats to raise the stakes.

Internal musings are generally minimal in screenplays, other than small chunks of voiceovers, narration or cutaway dream sequences. Too many of these result in dialogue rather than visually driven cinema. The mantra of novels is describe to us rather than show us.

The key elements of adapting screenwriting screenplays to novels are:

  • EVENTS – Which plots and characters will make it to the screenplay
  • CHRONOLOGY – time frame and order of events
  • NUANCE – dimension, subtleties, textures
  • IMMEDIACY – bring the action into the present
  • MOMENTUM – trajectory, keep the story moving forward
  • PACE – maintain rhythms, but manipulate them to create tension and excitement.

Reverse adaptation

In this era of multi-platform release it is becoming increasingly common for screenplays to be adapted into other literary forms such as novels, comics, the stage or online interactive formats.

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