Plenty of times, writers come up with an idea for a novel that could translate visually to film. The good news is that if you want to see your manuscript converted into a screenplay, there are two different routes that would make an adaptation possible.
Most books that get released by a major publisher or are repped by an established agency get passed to an agent who tries to drum up interest in film/TV rights for a project. This makes total sense. A writer creates a good story, so the obvious goal is to sell it through every means possible — be that print books, e-books, foreign rights translations, serial excerpts, audio books, and, yes, movies/TV. If your new book-to-film agent (usually brought onboard by your book agent) can generate adaptation interest from producers, your work gets bought/optioned by Hollywood, and you’re off and running. This exact thing happened to my humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack. Sony optioned the book and hired a screenwriter to adapt the work.
But what if you want to see your work adapted into a screenplay, but are either indie-publishing it or the work hasn’t sold yet? The obvious option is to —
ADAPT IT YOURSELF: 7 IMPORTANT TIPS FOR BEGINNERS
You can always just take matters into your own hands and compose the script yourself on spec. But the truth is that writing a screenplay is a completely different monster than tackling a novel or memoir. If your finished product doesn’t fit the usual mold of what a screenplay should look like, then a producer or agent won’t even consider it, and your time was wasted. So with that in mind, I wanted to lay out several simple-yet-important tips on how to write a script for any persons considering adapting their own book into a screenplay. Keeping in mind there is still much more to learn beyond this post, here are 7 basic pieces of advice to get you started if the concept of scriptwriting is new to you.
1. Watch your length.
Just as books have typical word count ranges, screenplays have length requirements, too — and the recommended length for a beginner’s screenplay is 90-109 pages. Since each page represents one minute of screentime, that sets up your movie to be 90-109 minutes. Most writers go wrong in this arena by trending long.
2. Screenplays thrive on minimalism.
Always be thinking about how to cut, cut, cut. Screenplays rely on brevity. When characters have to say something, the best value you can provide is getting your point across in as few words of dialogue as possible. When you have to describe a scene or explain that a helicopter explodes, the quicker you can properly convey such information, the better you are. Give us information and dialogue in short, quick bursts. A lot of your novel will end up on the cutting room floor throughout the adaptation — and that’s OK. Plenty of a novel/memoir content does not translate well visually to the screen, so cutting out sections or characters or subplots actually will improve your final script. (If you’re not good at killing your darlings, perhaps screenwriting is not the best arena for you.)
And speaking of minimalism, it’s your job to write, not direct. That means you should never include any camera notes such as “Dolly in” or “Close up.” Avoid these directorial cues on every page.
3. Structure is valued (perhaps even to a fault), so read guides on plot & story.
In the book writing world, you have some areas where a formula is present and expected — such as what a reader comes to expect out of a romance novel or a mystery. And on the other hand, you’ve got literary fiction, where there is no thing as formula. Anything goes.
New screenwriters need to know that generally, Hollywood is much more former than latter. They oftentimes look for a recognizable structure, beats in the right places, an action sequence every X number of pages, an inciting incident around 12 minutes in, and so on and forth. If you want to get serious, here are trusted plot/story guides that many screenwriters swear by:
4. Invest in some good screenwriting software.
Everyone’s used to writing in Word, so it’s not uncommon to balk at the thought of spending $200 or more on screenwriting software such as Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter. But professional software is the best and only way for your script to look great and have perfect formatting. Buy it, and take some time to learn the basics of using it correctly.
ATTEND A WRITERS
CONFERENCE IN 2024:
5. Read lots of scripts! (And watch lots of movies, too!)
See how a great story looks on the page before it gets translated to the screen. For example, if you don’t know how to format a flashback in your script, find other successful screenplays that did dealt with similar things and study how those writers handled it.
Plus, once you start reading a bunch of movie scripts, you’ll learn all about screenwriting in other ways, noting simple things such as how “cluttered” pages — where there are big blocks of action text and dialogue text — are difficult to get through, whereas pages with short bursts of dialogue and sparse narrative create pleasing “white space” on the page. You’ll start to notice proven ways of introducing characters effectively, getting a point across quickly, or creating tension right before something bad happens. Learn by reading — simple as that. This is probably the most important thing you can do before writing your screenplay, but also the tip you’re most likely to skip. Why? Because doing this right — truly researching and reverse-engineering hundreds of stories to immerse yourself in the craft (i.e., reading scripts and studying movies) will take months. Most people do not want to put in such time. Those that do will love these websites:
6. Think visually.
Screenwriting is the epitome of “show, don’t tell,” because, unless you have a voiceover narration, you will never be inside a character’s head. Dialogue is your key tool, and you will use that and simple action beats to flesh out characters and conflict. Always have your characters doing something, not thinking something or rehashing what we already know.
7. Once you’re ready, register the script and consider your options.
The first thing you need to do when your script is complete is to register it with the Writer’s Guild of America for a small price. Following that, there are several options for attracting attention to your script. (I’m assuming you lack a slew of contacts and friends in the business who can guide you or pass your script around.) Possible next steps include the following:
- Enter your script in a contest. The biggest contests that cost a lot of money and attract thousands of entrants (such as the Nicholl Fellowship) are watched closely by agents and producers alike. There are so many entries that even if your writing were to place in the top 25, it would still be an accomplishment that garners attention.
- Cold query people who work with new writers. Simply send your work out. The usual tools are the same as in the literary world: a one-page query, a one-page synopsis, and a logline. The tricky thing here is that a lot of screenplay agents don’t make their contact info widely available like literary agents do, so research can be difficult. You can search for contact info using the Internet or message boards or the latest resource directory found on Amazon.
- Consider a manager instead of an agent. In Hollywood, “agents” are top-tier people who primarily seal deals and negotiate big-time contracts. Script “managers” act more as one would expect — finding their clients jobs, guiding them editorially, etc. New writers without contacts would probably be best aiming for a manager.
- Pitch production companies directly. I’m not talking about Universal or Disney. I’m talking about hundreds and hundreds of small production companies — some of which may specialize in a specific type of story (zombie horror, for example) that you’re writing. Again, finding contact information is hit & miss, but some companies may be worth a shot in terms of cold comtacts.
- Attend a pitch fest or conference. There are several large “pitch fest” events in the Los Angeles area featuring lots of producers and agents. Most have a high price tag, but top-tier do manage to gather a large collection of industry pros that are open to working with new talent. (Disclosure: Writer’s Digest West, our fall conference in LA, has such a pitch fest.)
- Think local. If your area has a local filmmaking group that is looking for good material to produce, you could pass the work on to them. There would probably be little money in such an independent production, but a much better chance than normal of actually seeing your writing come to life on film.
Again, recognize that this is just a post full of first steps for those considering an adaptation of their own novel or memoir. There is much more to learn. I myself have taken to reading the website Script Shadow as of late as a helpful resource. Any websites, guides or tips for amateur screenwriters you want to share? Leave some helpful info in the comments.