Writing the Screenplay

Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two vastly different things. Even though you wrote the book, it is very unlikely that you as the author will be invited to write the screenplay. There are thousands of new books published each year, but only about 270 screen plays make it to the big screen. This means that the talent pool for screenwriters that work with movie studios is extremely limited compared to the number of authors who are able to publish their works through self-publishing.

If your book has been optioned for screen rights, the producer will be searching for a professional screenwriter to adapt your book for screen. This is a nerve wrecking process for authors because it means that their work will be changed.

What Changes are Made During the Screenwriting Process

A novel is generally 200-500 pages long while a screenplay is anywhere from 85-130 pages. The main reason for the shortened format is because everything that happens in a screenplay has to be depicted on the screen. While novels can go into detail about the thoughts and feelings of the characters, the setting, and relationships between characters, the screenwriter must rely on the actors and dialogue to portray these things.

Screenplays also follow a specific format of 3 or 4 acts that usually have a linear structure (time jumps may happen through flashbacks). A novel can be structured in many other ways without the strict formatting guidelines that a screenplay has.

Due to the formatting and limited amount of time a movie has to tell a story, there are sometimes scenes cut or characters changed from the book. The setting might also change depending on popular filming locations or trends in the industry. Authors should expect changes to be made to their novels to accommodate the demands of the movie industry and time restraints.

Authors often write a book with other probable future books in mind, adding in characters that could have their own books someday, or leaving room for a sequel. Very frequently, sub-characters and subplots that don’t support the main storyline will be cut in the adaptation process.

Screenwriters will sometimes begin a screenplay with a different scene than the novel starts off with. That happens in part because the screenwriter’s target audience is not the moviegoer, but the producer and director of the movie being made. A screenwriter must be able to convince the producer or director that the screenplay is worth being produced in the first 10 pages of the script. Sometimes this means that the beginning of the novel needs to change to capture the audience’s attention and be marketable to the movie studio.

Authors should keep in mind that after the screenplay is written and the contracts move from being a 'right to option' to 'right to produce, they will be paid a purchase fee and the producer will have to right to make changes to the novel.

How Authors Can Help in the Adaptation Process

Producers and screenwriters will all work differently when it comes to the adaptation process from novel to screenplay. Some screenwriters will encourage the authors to work with them and they will communicate frequently with the author about certain scenes or characters. Other screenwriters will not work closely with the author.

As an author use your point of contact (usually the producer who has the right to option or their named point of contact) to find out exactly how much input you will have in the screenplay and how open the screenwriter is to working with you.

Screenwriters will read the novel they are adapting before they begin writing. After they are finished reading, they may have some questions for you about your setting, character, or plot. In order to effectively answer any questions and make sure your novel is adapted for the screen in a way that you like, you must understand your own story. Some authors who produce several novels a year may not remember the book they published five years ago.

Make sure you can answer these questions about your novel for the screenwriter or producer:

  1. What is the setting and time period of your story?
  2. Who is the protagonist and what is their motivation? 
  3. Who is the antagonist and what is their motivation?
  4. What are the 5 main things about the protagonist and antagonist that readers need to know?
  5. Who are the 5-8 main characters in your story?
  6. What are the backstories of these characters?
  7. What is the major conflict of the story?
  8. What are some of the key scenes needed to advance and resolve the conflict?
  9. What are the essential scenes of dialogue that are needed to develop the characters and advance the conflict?
  10. What is the overarching theme of the story?

What Happens Next?

After the screenplay is written, the producer will send out of the screenplay to movie studios, directors, and actors. The producer will need to sell the concept of the movie to the studios and part of that process is telling the studio which actors and directors are interested in the project. Once the screenplay is greenlit by the movie studio, the producer with the rights to option your novel will be talking to you about the film rights to your movie.