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How Do I Adapt My Book Into a Screenplay?

By July 7, 2021 No Comments
How Do I Adapt My Book into a Screenplay

Spending months (or sometimes years) on a script or book only for it to land in a drawer is a frustrating scenario every writer faces.

It doesn’t have to be the end of the journey for that story, though. If it’s a script, you could produce the film yourself. If it’s a book, you could break off pieces of that story for other stories you’re working on. If it’s either, you could adapt the story into another medium.

There’s many benefits to adapting stories. If you’re determined to see your story told the way you see it, adapting your script into a book, serialized novellas, comic graphic, or graphic novel could be an excellent option. If you want to add another important skill to your creative repertoire, adapting books into screenplays is an excellent one to have.

However, writing a book isn’t the same as writing a script. So, let’s go over some of the main differences between the two, some advice on how to approach an adaptation, as well as how to know if it’s a good idea to try to do this with your stories.

Study the Reverse

The benefit of the different medium allows you to more deeply dive into the inner monologue of your characters, expand scenes that would be shortened on the screen, and go off on side quests that the firmer structure of a screenplay doesn’t allow. 

Viewers of book-to-film adaptations often debate which version of a story is better, breaking down how the story has changed drastically from one version to the other. Watching these kinds of adaptations is a great place to start with your own as you reverse-engineer the process. A great film to check out is Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on the science fiction novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. (Fun Fact: Netflix’s new series Shadow and Bone is another one of Heisserer’s adaptations.)

Case Study: Arrival vs. Story of Your Life

Scripts have to find the big, tentpole moments of the hero’s character arc and find the three-act structure that strings those moments together, but the book is able to expand. 

Story of Your Life is a book about linguistics, whereas Arrival is a story about first contact with aliens, and both question the concept of time. The book can play more with this idea of a nonlinear universe which brings in issues of free will. The reveal towards the end of Arrival doesn’t sit with the conversation of free will and instead leads into a more active third act where Louise must save the aliens that feels very different in tone, ultimately, than the novella. Heisserer still used the tentpole moments from the books, but he added some as well and used them to create more active tension.

Get Pruning

Consider what you can drop from your script to tell a more internal and emotional story. You don’t have to drop anything, but test the waters and see what that train of thought inspires.

Book fans also lament moments that are missing from their favorite books when adapted. Consider opportunities where scenes can be bigger, where you can explore secondary characters more, and other moments that would be cut if your book were a film — especially because you have to consider the budget of your story when it’s a script You don’t have to do that at all for a book.  

Arrival

‘Arrival’

“Should I?” Well, They Did. 

Another big question you might be wrestling with may be whether or not you should adapt your book into a screenplay. Well, there are lots of screenwriters who work on writing novels too, and their experiences and careers can actually reveal how beneficial that can be. So, seek out interviews and resources where those writers discuss their process, because it might give you the inspiration and direction you need to take the next step.

Suzanne Collins: TV Staff Writer Turned Novelist

One of the most famous examples is Suzanne Collins, who had a long career writing children’s television for Nickelodeon (Clarissa Explains It All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, Little Bear) before she penned the juggernaut series The Hunger Games. As we all know, the series was later adapted into films starring Jennifer Lawrence, which went on to gross nearly $3B at the box office.

Evan Spiliotopoulos: Making Adaptation Your Thing

Evan Spiliotopoulos might be one of the best-known screenwriters for adaptation, though he focuses on book-to-screen, and has written Snow White and the Huntsman, Beauty and the Beast (live-action), a myriad of Disney animated sequels, and this year’s Snake Eyes. He recently did an interview on the Act Two podcast, which is hosted by Tasha Huo and Josh Hallman, that is worth a listen.

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis: Flipping Adapting on its Head

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis are working screenwriters approached with a unique opportunity as they filmed the contemporary YA project, Five Feet Apart. The film centers on a pair of teens with compromised immune systems who can’t be within six feet of each other.

Five Feet Apart

‘Five Feet Apart’

The film was directed by Justin Baldoni (Jane the Virgin) for CBS Films and, during pre-production, someone suggested they reverse engineer the project into a book. As Daughtry said in an interview with ScreenCraft:

“We’re making changes to the script as we’re casting, so we’re in the midst of those changes when they say, ‘Oh let’s make this a book.’ Simon and Schuster took the different drafts of the screenplay and they hired a writer [Racheal Lippincott] to adapt it to a novel. So it was literally the exact opposite of how it usually goes where the book comes first. And all of the dialogue came straight out of the script and [different drafts] than the shooting script. But Racheal was able to put all of those scenes that were cut into the book.”

Daughtry and Ianconis worked with Lippincott to write the adaptation, not only using the scenes that were in the shooting script but also scenes dropped from previous drafts and new material to tell a story that both matched and expanded on what the audience would see on the screen. In the past, novelizations of film and television projects (particularly genre shows and film with a massive fanbase) have provided fans with new material to expand the on-screen universe.

So the idea of adapting your project into a book isn’t just a new opportunity to put your story out into the world, it’s also great supplementary material if the project ever is filmed. 

Read Books

Just as if you were writing a script you would want to read as many scripts as possible, you should do the same with books and find similar works in your genre and format. Study them, break them apart and see where they deviated from the traditional structure of a film. See where they leaned into a moment that would normally be a blip on the page. Play with word choice and styles that you would never consider before when writing a script. 

This isn’t just an opportunity to keep your fresh idea alive, it’s a chance to develop your writing skills and push yourself in a new arena, potentially even bringing what you’ve learned back to improve your scripts. 


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