Q&A: Should I Adapt My Own Book Into a Screenplay

Q&A: Should I Adapt My Own Book Into a Screenplay

Writing a novel is a massive feat. I tip my figurative hat to any writer who completes such a monumental task.

The accomplishment alone often makes an author feel invincible for a time, but when reviews start rolling in and words like “cinematic” or “movie-worthy” are dropped in like glitter-bombs, it becomes difficult to accept a book’s natural shelf-life without seeing a blockbuster run in the near future.

Invincible suddenly becomes immortal.

I've witnessed more than one author slapped silly with Hollywood stars in their eyes and asking themselves, “I just wrote a novel … how hard could the screenplay be?” Seems like a logical question, right? Too bad the film and TV industry is anything but logical.

Before starting, I would like to say that I admire and appreciate a writer who has a large vision for their work. In fact, I would argue that you truly must be the biggest fan of your own creations to inspire an audience who will catch the same enthusiasm and cast their support your direction. If you're not excited about your work, no one will be.

Now, for the newer authors out there with no clue how film/TV works, casting a large vision usually means a healthy level of ignorance when it comes to the landscape and the scope of effort required to find success in that vision. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but you should try to understand the nuances before committing to a very (very, very) long process that rarely leads to the screen.

I know those stars are beginning to dim … but wait: let’s go by the numbers.

First, understand that writing a great screenplay is hard. Why? Because you are attempting to execute a well-paced, engaging narrative within a very limited space.

Mark Twain paints a great portrait of this conundrum when he says, “I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” If your novel lies in the length of 80,000-100,000 words, then adapting it and cutting that sucker down to a clean 120 pages or less is going to take some work.

Screenwriting is a completely different craft than novel-writing. You do not have paragraphs upon paragraphs of description to establish the world, nor the ability to sail inside a character’s innermost thoughts to aid the audience in their emotional connection to the main protagonist.

Screenwriting is the written representation of a visual medium—meaning there are rules and limitations as to what you can put on a page. I cannot emphasize this enough, if you are going to write a screenplay LEARN THE CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING. Yes, this effort will take time. Probably as much time as it took you to become a competent author.

But it can be done. You learned how to write a novel, and you can learn how to write a screenplay.

Screenwriting is not a “shortcut” form of storytelling, it is a craft unto itself, and it should be treated as such. Anything less will result in a screenplay doesn't enhance or adequately reflect your book.

Do yourself a favor and do it right.

Second, understand that adapting your own book into a screenplay is not expected in the film and TV industry.

Once a book is optioned by a production company or other entity, the typical process involves the company hiring their own screenwriters to adapt the work into a film or TV series. Unfortunately, throughout that adaptation, the author may be rarely (if ever) consulted. More often than not, an author may not even recognize their book once the adaptation process is complete.

So if the thought of someone coming in and reshaping your carefully constructed world bothers you, then adaptation is probably not for you.

Now—there are of course cases out there in which the original author retains a significant role. George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) being the most popular examples. However, those authors had the advantage of being mega-bestsellers. If you haven't sold, oh, 100 million copies, don't negotiate yourself out of a deal if the studio is clearly not interested in your writing expertise beyond your signature on the option agreement.

But if you dive into learning the craft of screenwriting, having a first draft of an adaptation of your book might be helpful to the studio or production company. Why? Because story development costs a fortune, and you'd be giving them a first draft for a professional screenwriter to work with. That not only saves them a small fortune, but the execs also want the author to love their book's adaptation, making the author eager to promote the movie. A successful movie also means more future book sales.

But again, just know that draft will change ... a lot. Potentially. So be prepared. Your number one goal is to help make your book as attractive as possible without being an obstacle. Be respectful of the collaboration process.

Third, understand that you do not need a screenplay to shop a published book in the entertainment industry.

That’s right. As was emphasized in the section before, the film and TV industry doesn't expect an author to walk into a production studio with a screenplay adaptation of their book. In fact, unless that author has significant experience in the entertainment industry, then doing so could be viewed as presumptuous. Being an author is often a solitary endeavor, but producing a film or TV series is extremely collaborative. Credit for the final product goes to numerous people who all left creative indentions on the project over the course of its assembly.

Needless to say—but I’ll say it anyway just to be clear—if an author waltzes into a studio demanding to be given final script approval, they will be promptly led to the exit. Good thing a great book can stand on its own. Established IP is always the perfect place for film and TV producers to find gems that need to be adapted for the screen. Especially if an author can show excellent sales and a strong audience.

Finally, understand that the multifaceted creator is a force to be reckoned.

A growing trend within the entertainment industry is the emergence of the creator who knows no bounds in terms of mediums. Story is story. And the creator who instinctively molds their project to the medium that best presents the narrative as it needs to be depicted is a force that all creative spaces are desperate to find.

Why am I bringing this to your attention?

Because film and TV are not the only conduits by which a book or a pre-existing work may find adaptation opportunity. Graphic novels, comics, YouTube series, animation, narrative podcasts, video games, and other evolving forms of storytelling could act as a platform to expand your IP into a completely new audience. Even adapting your novel into a short story and pitching it to magazines (like this one!) can help get the attention of Hollywood.

Your creative expertise is not contained to the work itself. You must apply your imaginative instincts to the business of the arts as well. Become an expert on the marketability, trends, and audience appeal your project poses as an adaptation candidate.

In the long stretch of this journey, you'll need to think outside the box in search of the proper platform and the right people willing to champion your work.

*Feature photo by Ron Lach

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Ruth Sabin has a secret identity: children’s book author by day and by night... a screenwriter who loves a gritty adventure. Makes for an eclectic portfolio and a fun career of creative consulting.
More posts by Ruth Sabin.
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