Screenwriter to novelist: tips for adapting to a new storytelling medium

106883364_01d431ba83_oI’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.

I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?

What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.

First: expand your story ideas

A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.

Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.

I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.

You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.

Specialised reading

Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.

Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).

And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)

The English PatientSometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.

So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.

Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)

In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.

As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)

And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.

You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.

How description can do more than just show what’s there.
Handling passage of time in a novel.
Dialogue in prose.
Story tricks that don’t translate well from the screen.

(Thanks for the pic Derrick Tyson)

Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?

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  1. #1 by Ken Farmer on August 30, 2015 - 6:38 pm

    Interesting article, Roz. It hit me that I had done the same thing as your reader. I’ve got over forty years in film and TV mostly in front of the camera…I also have a degree in drama…Did write and direct one feature film, but like most actors…I wrote screen and teleplays. Always thinking I can write something better than some of this crap.
    After basically retiring from on-screen work…still do a lot of VO, but that’s another story. Four years ago, a buddy of mine from the Marine Corps called and asked if I could adapt his novel to a screenplay. I said sure, send it down. He sent me a 974 page novel…over 350,000 words. Well, long story short, my partner, Buck Stienke (he executive produced the film I wrote and directed) and I sat down and in twelve weeks, we adapted John’s 350,000 novel to a 125 page screenplay that is currently making the round at Disney.
    Buck and I looked at each other when we finished and said, “Hell, we can write a novel.” We had written some twenty-five screen and teleplays over that last three or four years. Three months later, we finished our first novel, (110,000 words) “Black Eagle Force: Eye of the Storm” and it was published Feb. 14, 2012. We have just published novel # thirteen and are almost half way finished with # 14…That’s around one and a half million words in the last four years.
    Our second novel was an adaptation of a western screenplay I wrote back in ’86. It was a full length script, 122 pages…around 25,000 words. The finished novel was over 75,000 words. And yes, we did have to add some scene, but mostly when I write, I not only see a movie, but I also hear (the dialogue), feel, taste and smell the scene…I just write it down. The actual dialogue was almost identical to the screenplay, but the actor in me always comes out in the action lines. I write exactly what the camera would see. I like to create a visual…I call writing word pictures. Oh, that novel just won the Laramie Award for the best Classic Western – 2014.
    The biggest problem I had in transitioning was in my tenses. I was so used to writing in present tense for screen/Teleplay, I really had to watch that I maintained past tense when writing my novels. Other than that, I thought the transition was quite easy, especially in writing dialogue. Now, to be honest, I think the ease of writing dialogue came from my acting experience or skills and not from my script writing bg. In forty years, I never did a movie or TV show that I didn’t change my dialogue from what was in the script…with the director’s approval, by the way.
    The first movie I ever did was called “Split Image”, directed by Ted Kotcheff (First Blood, Weekend at Bernies). Starred James Woods, Brian Denehy, Karen Allen…and me. One scene, Ted thought was real flat. My character didn’t have any dialogue in the script (I was Woods sidekick) Kotcheff asked me, “Kenny, what would your character say in this scene?” I replied, “Hell, I don’t know, Ted, let’s run the God damned camera and find out.” We did, I improved some lines, Woods improved back, Ted said, “Cut, print, star that.” Farmer, you don’t get writing credits…next set up.” On the way over to the next scene, Ted walked beside me and said, “Kenny anytime you think your character needs to say something, go ahead…you have carte blanche. He gave me the same freedom in “Uncommon Valor.”
    My point is, as an actor, I relied on my instincts in playing the character to fix or correct the dialogue. As an author, I just play each of the characters in the story and create their dialogue as the story unfolds. That ability to play each character also holds me in good stead when I do the audio versions.
    One of my favorite quotes: “I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.” – Edgar Rice Burroughs
    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 1, 2015 - 7:24 am

      Hi Ken! Wow, thank you for the guest lecture!
      I’ve often thought that writing must be a close cousin to acting. I’ve never done any acting, but I often feel as though I have to dig deep into the characters’ world view in order to discover their individual breaking point. And I’ve definitely had the situation of running the camera and being surprised by what they say and do.
      I liked so many points about this comment – but particularly the tiny practicality of the tense! Congratulations on what you’ve managed so far, and long may you reign. Or, in your westerns, rein.

  2. #3 by Andrew Toynbee on August 30, 2015 - 9:25 pm

    I’m part-way through a project to turn my 160k novel into a screenplay. It’s interesting to see how many of the descriptive passages simply have no place in the manuscript.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 1, 2015 - 7:25 am

      Hi Andrew! Interesting. And are you finding that the descriptive passages have other functions that you need to create in the screenplay, translating them into mood, a look on the characters’ faces…?

      • #5 by Andrew Toynbee on September 7, 2015 - 6:02 pm

        Yes, the descriptions have to be reworded to emphasise gestures, expressions and movements.

      • #6 by Andrew Toynbee on September 7, 2015 - 6:02 pm

        Yes, the descriptions have to be reworded to emphasise gestures, expressions and movements.

  3. #7 by tomburkhalter on August 31, 2015 - 5:01 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with your remarks about the ability of the novelist to stage manage his own effects. I enjoy writing screenplays mostly because it forces you to concentrate a little more on the characters and their interactions. Describing the flight deck of a bomber in a novel can include relevant personal details recalled by the pilot; in a movie you’d just show the flight deck, and anything else would require a flashback by one of the characters. The flashback probably wouldn’t come across the same way to someone reading the scene as opposed to someone watching it.

    Besides, I’ve also read that a screenplay is nothing more than a blueprint which a host of other people will be required to bring to the box office. With a novel, it’s all yours.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 1, 2015 - 7:29 am

      Hi Tom! Yes, I’ve heard that description of the screenplay as blueprint. I’d never properly realised that until I heard Moira Buffini describe a screenplay as a document from which the film is made. With novels, the reader obviously makes the second half of the equation, but it seems far more personal and controlled.

  4. #9 by Alexander M Zoltai on December 17, 2015 - 6:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    There is quite a bit in today’s re-blog about changing from screenwriting to novel writing; but, also, much about other storytelling transformations🙂

  1. Screenwriter to novelist: tips for adapting to a new storytelling medium | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

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