Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book to Screen: Seeing Your Book as a Visual Story

Do you know what two important verbs typically go into the making of a screenplay?

Doing and Saying. Characters do things, and characters say things.

Like a book, like any good story, movies have plots and subplots that tie into the same question: what does the protagonist want and what keeps him/her from obtaining that want? In the quest to see how this story ends, characters do and say things.

Why am I repeating this and why is it important to know—especially in regards to seeing your book visually for the screen?


Check out one of the many free scripts at Simply Scripts. One thing that you will not notice in a screenplay is heavy exposition, pages upon pages of description, of characters’ thoughts and feelings, of minute detailing that brings a story to life in a book but would weigh a screenplay down in the worst kind of way.

In a screenplay, writers are quick to give just enough definition, description, or setting of the stage, but primarily, they are concerned with telling a story by speech and by action. The vast majority of a book is exposition; the vast majority of a screenplay is dialogue/action. Long passages in which a character is musing do not necessarily make for great movie entertainment. Because of this, we need to rethink our printed book for the visual screen.

Adapting a book into a screenplay is not just about moving from a book format to a script format. It’s about examining your book with screen eyes to discern what parts make for visually-stimulating moments for the screen, which parts have strength in character action and speech, which sections do not and if vitally needed, how can they be changed in order to be visually appealing. We need to realize that 1) movies and TV shows are a part of visual media and 2) you need to see how your book can become a part of that visual media.

How can we do that? First, print a copy of your book (or you can read on the computer if you don’t want to kill trees) and start to parse the manuscript. Read through it, making note of visually-appealing scenes/moments, making note of scenes/moments that aren’t visually appealing and figuring out if they are needed for the story and how to make them visually appealing if they are needed, and going through all the exposition to discern, if needed, how to make it visually appealing and make it fit into the action and speech that are vital to good visual storytelling.

At this stage, we are not concerned with order or structure or how the book will be a screenplay. We are concerned with looking at the artifact and figuring out if it has the goods to be a screenplay. Not every book is made to be a movie, and this is a great stage to look at your book with screen eyes to see if this is a story best kept in print or if it has the chops to be developed for the screen.

When you read your book with those screen eyes, try to read, to see the story as a movie goer, not the writer of the book, which I know is hard as the literary parent. Is there enough action in the story? Is there enough strong dialogue that reveals characters and moves story along? Can the exposition and description be trimmed for the screen or made into visually-appealing components? Start thinking like a movie goer and not just a book reader.


Here’s a bit of homework: It’s always a good idea to see how others have successfully gone from book to screen. Below are links to three books (and their adapted screenplays) that have won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay Adaptation. What's cool about one of the examples is that the script was developed from a short story—not a novel. This exercise will allow you to see differences in formatting books and scripts, to analyze the adaptation process itself, and to begin to see how you might begin the adaptation process with your own novel.



Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment.

20 comments :

  1. Great tutorial, Shon. My first screenplay that won a few awards was adapted from a short story, and it was quite a learning experience to turn the story into something visual. In addition to what I learned in some scriptwriting workshops, I used the the Syd Field book, Screenplay, to learn formatting and structure. That book was most helpful for a beginning scriptwriter as was Linda Segar's Making a Good Script Great.

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    1. I love those two books, Maryann. I was also a fan of Robert McKee's STORY.

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  2. Good tips ... and I was with you, Shon, until I saw the word HOMEWORK, at which point my brain immediately went into vapor lock.

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  3. Love the examples. I write dialogue and action first, then fill in exposition and description later. A bare-bones first draft is more like a screenplay. Why waste time perfecting paragraph after paragraph if it could be cut anyway?

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    1. I work this way a lot too. But in a novel, "place" is a character for me, so I NEED to develop that character too. Still, consciously separating that "character" from the ones engaged in real action, is a good way to approach the writing. I guess. Still thinking this stuff through myself.

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    2. My brain automatically goes into visual overload when I'm writing novels, so exposition always burst forth, but I am a MAJOR fan of good dialogue, and usually try to focus on that.

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  4. So much is dependent upon the directorial and actor interpretations - seems scary to release your story control to this degree. Can anyone elaborate on that?

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    1. Considering how many people may actually have their fingers on a script once it's bought makes it almost imperative for writers to know that their version might come to some major alterations before a big (or small) screen release. Other writers joining the team for revisions perhaps, and of course, the directorial and actor interpretations. For a writer who is a bit of a control freak, yeah, not good times for them.

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  5. Ms. Bacon,
    Your idea is good in many respects. Frequently our work is slowed down and lost in too much exposition, but what a screen play does NOT show is the visual image and those are often as important to the success of the film as the words and actions are.
    We writers don't provide visual images so we have to create them for our readers. The places in which the conversation and action take place DO color the story. I am working on a piece in which preserving the place, its beauty and its culture, are big driving forces for all the characters. The real homework here is doing that skillfully so that the reader can see it in his/her head without feeling bogged down and wanting to skip over it.
    We also have the added advantage of being able to relate the inner thoughts of our characters. Once again, we have to do that economically and artfully.
    But, the point you raise about good dialogue and appropriate action are well taken.

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    1. I totally agree with you, Lynn. As Dani noted in a reply above, setting and place often play major roles for the development of a story, so they can be as important (and sometimes more important) than the characters within those spaces. I love, as a fiction writer, that I can develop those more so than in a screenplay, but as a person who also thinks very streamline and barebones sometimes, I like that aspect of screenwriting, too.

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  7. Great article. My friends and colleagues who are screenwriters have also suggested to me that, in a screenplay, the writing does indeed describe the scenery and action, often in poetic rather than instructive terms, so that the director has creative leeway but understands the mood and ideas he/she must interpret audio-visually. What those writers have emphasized is that characters do not speak until the writer is sure there's no way to show what's going on without dialogue. Screenplays often closely resemble a sort of mosaic poem - it's a beautiful form.

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  8. Barry Eisler once "rewrote" the opening chapter to one of his Rain books as a screenplay. Totally different, especially when it came to POV.

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    1. Ooh, really, Terry? Is that available to read somewhere?

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    2. It's in my paperback copy of The Last Assassin.

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  9. Shonell, I clicked over and read the script. Loved it!

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  10. Love this article, Shon. Back in the 90s, a writer friend and I adapted a novel she wrote to screenplay format. It was optioned but not ever produced because someone decided it seemed too close to Dances with Wolves, which the story was nothing at all like. However, the title (Return of Red Wolf) did suggest some similarities.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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