The differences between a screenplay and a novel are equivalent to the differences between a blueprint and a finished building.
Over time, screenplays have come to be structured in a very specific way so that each page equals approximately one minute of screen time. And the three act screenplay structure, where major events happen at 30 minutes, 60 minutes and 90 minutes (assuming its a 120 minute movie), is a proven model.
But a screenplay is not a finished product. It’s a blueprint. A plan. A goal.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process and the screenwriters job is to take a reading experience and present it as a potential visual experience. It is then the directors job to take the story and show it in anyway they see fit. They can change the story or locations or dialogue or roles and the writer often has no say in the process.
A novel, however, is the finished product. It is complete with sights and sounds and characters and depth. It is not an outline of a world that could have been, but an emersion of a world that is.
Adapting a screenplay, therefore, is much harder than one might think. It’s not simply taking a screenplay structure and putting it into a novel structure. It’s more akin to taking an outline and expanding it into a novel.
Having adapted two seasons of Gabby Wells scripts (13 episodes each) into the first two Gabby Wells novels, I’ve learned quite a few things about the process. Here are some tips.
Screenplays move at an accelerated pace. They have to. For a half-hour TV show, for example, you only have 25 pages of mostly white space to weave all of the twists and turns together.
- TIP ONE: Take a step back, read each scene and jot down what is happening, who it’s happening to and why it is necessary. Don’t get more specific than that.
How a story unfolds in a screenplay is often not the way you would reveal it in a novel.
When you’re done, you will have a high level look at how the story evolves. You will quickly find what are the core components that must stay and other things which can be cut. You’ll find some consistent themes you may be able to link together and others you may want to either discard or expand upon.
- TIP TWO: Take the time to decide what you have to add to the story that occurs prior to the screenplay. What are the holes? What’s missing… history, motivation, character drivers, etc?
Since screenplays are intended to be movies, the writer doesn’t have to invest a lot of time defining the world the story takes place in because that will be done visually. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Actors, as well, can bring their own personas to a role and you may not have to expound on it in the movie. For example, if Bruce Willis is a hitman in a film, you just believe he’s a hitman. You don’t really need to know why, you just need to know what he’s supposed to do and what’s getting in the way.
In a novel, however, you may need those thousand words to make the story in the screenplay make sense. You will need to explain why the hitman is a hitman because you won’t have Bruce Willis’ persona to provide you a shortcut.
So, identify where the holes are in the story and determine how you will fill in the gap.
Those are just two tips I’ve learned so far. I’ll share more in the future.
Have you ever adapted a screenplay into a novel? I’d love to hear about your experiences.