“Lawyers, doctors, plumbers, they all made the money. Writers? Writers starved. Writers suicided. Writers went mad.” -from the only novel about scriptwriting that matters,“Hollywood” by Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s novel Hollywood is a hilarious depiction of a writer’s first fling with the process of filmmaking, based on his own experience writing the script for the 80’s movie Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke. If you haven’t read Hollywood or seen Barfly, we suggest you do both. Here’s an idea. What if someone made a movie adaptation of the book about the making of the film? Well, that’s another article entirely…
If you’re reading this chances are you’ve written a novel you plan to adapt to the screen, which means you’re already in too deep. My condolences, my salutations. There’s only one way out and that’s through to the other side.
You always knew your novel would be made into a feature film someday, against your better judgment. So, what are you waiting for, a step-by-step guide? Do we need to spell it out for you? Oh ok, we wish you would have said something earlier. Here it is, in ten not-so-easy steps.
Step 1: Write A Treatment
Condensing your novel down to a one-page treatment may seem like a daunting task…and it is. The thought of this first step is what keeps many authors from adapting their novel to the screen in the first place. Relax, every author who has adapted their own work for film or television has gone through the anxiety of chopping their beloved into pieces for the sake of writing a filmable story. You can do it, too but it’s probably going to require letting go of some of the non-essential story elements, like superfluous subplots and side characters, in order for the story to translate cinematically. Part of the challenge is deciding which elements of your book to consider “non-essential” to the film version. Remember, the most important thing when adapting a novel is conveying the overall tone and emotion of the story in a cinematic way, so don’t be too precious with your original story. Easier said than done, right?
A treatment should take the reader from the beginning to the end of the film in a one page synopsis. It should be easy to read, maybe even fun to read, but free from flowery writing and dialogue. Just the facts, Jack. Get it all down on one page and save the scene by scene descriptions for the next step.
Step 2: Step Outline
Writing a step by step outline can actually be a lot of fun, once the hard decisions have been made in your treatment about which characters and plot points to scrap. Here’s your chance to write what happens in the film, scene by scene, in concise paragraphs no more than five-ten sentences long, before writing the actual script. Each paragraph represents a scene in the film, so don’t get caught up in the details. Like your newly completed treatment, a step outline should only contain the facts–no need for fancy prose or dialogue just yet. A ten-minute scene can feel quite long when watched on the screen, so
be aware of the action that’s happening in each scene to ensure it’s not a snoozefest (unless that’s what you’re going for, of course.) The step outline becomes your map for navigating those intimidating blank white pages in Final Draft or Studiobinder, filling them only with valuable information that will push the film forward, and hopefully in an interesting way. A step outline is also a great tool for gauging the pace of the film before you commit to writing the script. Format your step outline by writing Scene 1: the details of that scene, and so on. In parenthesis at the end of the paragraph, write how many minutes of screen time that scene translates to, roughly. (11 min.)
Step 3: Write The Script
I feel another existential crisis coming on. But wait! We already have some tools in place to help you avoid a full mental and spiritual collapse into the abyss. Your step outline is a flashlight with GPS navigation that will guide you through this midnight forest of turning your novel into a screenplay. You didn’t know we were getting so hi-tech, did you? Bust out your step outline and follow your own directions!
Keep in mind that writing a script is different from writing a novel in that you should only write what can be filmed. In other words, as screenwriter, professor, and Orson Welles biographer, Joseph McBride says, “Write in pictures.” That’s not to say you can’t spice it up here and there to make a script more entertaining to read but the focus should be on conveying information, feeling, and tone through what we will see on the screen (the actions of the characters, the scenery, etc.)
Simply writing what a character is thinking about in your script is the hallmark of bad scriptwriting. You need to show it in pictures. For example, rather than saying “James is filled with anxiety about his turn on the rollercoaster while standing in line” you would say “James pees his pants while standing in line for the rollercoaster” or something to that effect. I sincerely hope you do better than I just did when writing actions that convey the internal psychological landscape of your characters. Also, avoid writing in camera directions such as pan, tilt, dolly, or close-up, unless you plan on directing the movie yourself, which you very well might be doing. If that’s the case, go for it. Add whatever you feel might help you through the shooting day down the line. If you’re not going to direct the film, don’t patronize your future director by outlining camera angles in the script. Shots can be conveyed through good writing without having to come right out and put the words “long shot” or “close up” on the page. For example, “Jimmy zig-zags his way through the crowded amusement park. He stops at a concession stand and eyes the popcorn, licking his lips.” There’s a longshot, medium shot, and close up in two sentences without spelling it out. Whoever is going to direct the film down the road will appreciate some room for creative interpretation, or at least the illusion of making his or her own choices with the camera set-ups.
Step 4: Scout Locations
Congratulations! You’ve successfully adapted your film to screenplay format without killing yourself. You’ve survived. Let’s celebrate by taking a walk through the locations where we plan to shoot and snap some photos to reference when collaborating with the rest of our filmmaking team and to show investors where their money is going.
Step 5: Create A Budget
Oh damn, it costs a lot of money to shoot at the Hoover Dam. We may have to re-write that scene.
Step 6: Raise Some Money
Here’s where you can use your book trailer as a proof-of-concept to show investors to help raise money for the film version of your book. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Go Fund Me are kind of burnt out at this point, but you should definitely choose one and try a campaign as one of many possible revenue streams to fund your film. Also consider offering some cool incentives to donors through Patreon, especially if you have a social media following you can direct to support the page on a monthly basis. Maybe a signed copy of the novel? Call your Aunt, donate blood, participate in some kind of medical experiment, sell your reproductive stuff–there’s a lot of money to be made inside of your own body! But wait…this would violate the number one rule of any successful start-up business, “Never use your own money.” But this is art…Coppola mortgaged his house and winery to finish Apocalypse Now, so we say do whatever it takes to get the film made. However, you’re much better off stealing locations and offering incentives to your cast and crew on the back-end if you can get away with that in order to cut costs. Whatever you do, keep things as cheap as possible without starving people, screwing anyone over, or sacrificing the overall quality of the film, and use other people’s money if you can.
Step 7: Casting
Yes, if you can manage to raise enough money to hire “a name” to be in the film it will look great when the time comes to try and sell it, but don’t make this your goal. The goal should be to cast actors that can play the part and that will carry the story as close to the original idea because the original idea is always the best. In David Lynch’s wonderful book on pretty much everything in life and art, Catching The Big Fish, Lynch shares some of his musings on casting.
“There are some actors I return to–Kyle MacLachlan, for instance. I like Kyle, and maybe he’s kind of an alter ego. But the rule of thumb, obviously, is to get the right person for that role. And that’s what you go for. So the thing is, even though Kyle is my friend, if he’s not right for the part, unfortunately he doesn’t get that part.”
Step 8: Shoot The Damn Thing, Already
This is the fun part where you take a month off work and hit the road with a van full of friends and a digital camera you rented from Samy’s with Aunt Joan’s credit card. Ah, what a dream come true–or a living nightmare. Anyone who’s been involved in the filmmaking process from start to finish knows it’s going to be a combination of the best and worst feelings imaginable. The greatest pay off of all is that you won’t have to ask yourself “what if?” ever again.
Step 9: Fun With Editing
The road trip is over and I see you’re a little banged up, but never worse for the wear. Get some sleep then let’s dump those hard drives into Premiere and start organizing the bins. Is this still art? What was I thinking maxing out Aunt Joan’s credit card? Is my ego really that huge and fragile? Do these shots even make sense? Is anything in focus? Oh my god, this might work. Look, a finished movie! And just like that, it’s done.
Step 10: Promote, promote, promote
Before hitting the festival circuit, hit up Film-14 to create the trailer for your film. We shoot cinematic trailers for books, but we also shoot cinematic trailers for…cinema! It’s even better when the movie comes from a book. We love seeing that happen.
Need a little inspo? Check out 12 of the best book-to-film adaptations in 2020 (so far)