How to Adapt Anything into a Screenplay

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In a screenplay, you write in what is to be shown on the screen, and in what order. An adaptation portrays the highlights of a novel, and in the meantime, uses language of film to add depth to the story through symbolism. When it comes to screenplays, you have to pay attention to the number of pages, because one page translates to one minute on the screen.

Yes, you can write a screenplay that has more than three hundred pages, but that translates to three hundred minutes — and chances are, that screenplay will never see the light of day. In a novel, there is also a lot of emphasis on narrative, point of view, and writing style. Depending on the story, you may write your novel in first, second even though this is quite rare , and third person point of view, limited or omnipresent.

Screenplays are always written in third person point of view. Even if the original work was written in first person, you need to find a way to adapt this for the screenplay in a way that shows everything on the screen. In a first person point of view novel, for example, two side characters may do something important related to the plot that we only learn about later through dialogue. In a screenplay, you can show the scene directly, and then have the protagonist learn about it — and even avoid the dialogue entirely, since the viewers will already deduce what the protagonist is being told.

First, you need to read as many screenplays as you can.

The good thing about screenplays is that a lot of them are available to read and download online, and some websites even have collections of screenplays of Oscar-winning films, popular TV shows and more. These will help you understand the difference between screenplay terms, like EXT, INT, how characters are presented for the first time, usually with their names in capital letters, approximate age, and markers of appearance.

Second, you need to read at least the basic formatting rules in screenwriting.

Adaptations by Professor Julia Keefer

The size of the margins, the font and size, 12 pt Courier, the beginning of the screenplay FADE IN , the position of dialogue, different ways of transitioning between a scene, and a lot more. In addition, read a screenwriting book that focuses on everything: from the rules to the structure of a screenplay, and how the inciting incident for the plot must happen within the first fifteen pages fifteen minutes of the screenplay film.

Third, and most important — get a screenwriting software. You can write in a MS word template for screenplays, yes, however, the template is very basic and difficult to translate to each page, while Final Draft widely considered the best screenwriting software out there does the job for you.

The downside is that Final Draft is not free. If you cannot afford it, you can try other programs for free, like Celtx, or even better, Drama Queen which has both a free and premium version, and for the basic screenplay, the free version works quite nicely. If you were writing an original screenplay, this document would be called a treatment.

The treatment basically encompasses every scene and tells what happens in each scene. It should not be longer than five pages, although even one page would often suffice. Many screenwriters disagree on when they write a treatment. However, there are benefits to writing the treatment before writing the screenplay, especially if you like to outline a novel and plot it before writing it.

And when it comes to adaptations, it helps you in realizing problems before you get to them while writing the screenplay. First, you can write an outline that follows all of the scenes in your novel, one by one and this treatment will probably be longer than 5 pages. Then you can analyze it and discover which scenes you need to change in order to tell an 80K word story in about 90 pages in a visual manner.

The first thing you need to remember when writing an adaptation is that you are not writing literature. A screenplay is a guide for filmmakers on what each scene of the film needs to show. And while a lot of writers and authors discard the literary value of genre novels, for example, from this perspective, they are also literature. So, no matter what genre your story belongs in literary or otherwise , when it comes to adapting it for the screen, you need to remember that the same descriptions and even dialogue that worked in the novel will not work for the screen.

You simply cannot copy paste the descriptions and dialogue in screenplay format and call it day.


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You need to show that Harry is a friend of Marry in a visual way, and just writing that in screenplay will not do. This means that you need to redefine your means of storytelling.

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With your treatment and the novel or other literary work you mean to adapt at hand, you can essentially begin the journey of writing the screenplay. In the ideal novel, every scene will answer yes to these questions, which would make writing the screenplay easier — or more difficult, especially if the novel is a massive piece of work like Lord of the Rings, for example the three film adaptations of the three novels in the series are about eleven hours long.

However, just because you cannot portray all of the scenes from the novel in the adaptation, it does not mean that you cannot use the film medium to the fullest to portray the same story. It is impossible to talk about any phase of making a film from writing a screenplay, to filming and editing , without talking at least a little about the grammar of film language.

NOTES FROM THE MARGINS: Adapting Books Into Screenplays

Film is primarily a communication medium, and like any other means of communication, it has its own language and grammar. Of course, the basics of it are easy: a frame is a letter, a shot is a word, a series of shots creating a scene are analogous to a sentence, a sequence of scenes focusing on a single theme or motif is analogous to a paragraph. If we see several photographs behind the characters, what do they signify?

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In addition, how do you dress your characters? Are they dressed in similar colors signifying friendship , or are they dressed in black and white and are at odds with one another? Here, you get help from the novel itself.

How to Adapt Anything Into a Screenplay

A well-written novel will have the symbolism down perfectly, and you can use this to show, not tell, a better story for the screen. However, any screenwriter should get their hands on books that focus solely on this topic, in order to understand not only screenwriting, but filmmaking in general. In a novel, you have a lot more time to develop the plot, the subplots, and the protagonist and the other characters. In a screenplay, you have a lot less time to do this. Meaning, you need to adapt a page plot in about 90 pages.

This means that you need to eliminate a lot of subplots and find ways to incorporate them in the main plot, or, in other words, simplify the plot for the purposes of showing it on-screen. The good news is that all plots boil down to the same thing: protagonist discovers a problem, which is the inciting incident and has to happen within the first fifteen pages of the screenplay. The solution seems to work, at the beginning, then things start going bad for the protagonist and reach a culmination. At this point, the protagonist has learned something, and comes to the right solution for the problem, which is the second plot point.

The rest is the resolution: how the right solution pans out for the protagonist, and we come to the end of the film. It all sounds very easy, in theory.

However, once you write out the crucial parts of the plot, you can use the rule of cause and effect to guide the story, and with the focus on both character and plot, you can and have to, actually , make each scene poignant and important. In a film, you have the main character — the protagonist, secondary reoccurring characters that would appear in more than one scene, and the characters that appear only in one scene and are forgotten afterwards.

This means that you need to analyze your novel and decide which of the secondary characters will you keep in your screenplay in their original form. Less is more in film, and you may have to combine several characters into one, or just omit characters that are not that important. Remember, the plot moves horizontally and depends on cause and effect. The characters are a vertical line that moves across the horizontal one: meaning, everything you show about the characters in the first scene that they appear in needs to be either consistent — or show a sense of progression.

If your protagonist is afraid of dogs in the first scene, then by the end of the film, if she appears in a scene with another dog and does not react to it, then you have an inconsistency of character. On the other hand, stray away from inventing scenes that were not present in the novel just because this new type of scene you have in mind is more awesome and more fun to write, because it is usually these scenes where characters who, since this is an adaptation, are already well known by readers and fans , act out of character.

This might kill the suspension of disbelief in the viewers, and as a result, you create an adaptation that angers fans rather than pleasing them, an adaptation that is not a true retelling of the original. The difference between them is that foreshadowing is a hidden announcement, expressed through symbolism and ambiguity, while foretelling is a loud announcement that the reader or, in our case, the viewer cannot miss. To create tension, evoke an emotional response in the viewers at the moment of the payoff, and tell a more a cohesive story. They have a good laugh. It does not take a genius to realize that later in the film, we will see another jump scare in a similar manner.

For example, we may meet the heroine in the kitchen at the start of what is to be a very long journey that may involve visiting several different states or cities. In the background, we may see her fridge, and on that fridge, we may see several magnets that depict the cities she is about to visit on her journey. Includes bibliographical references p. Also issued online. View online Borrow Buy Freely available Show 0 more links Set up My libraries How do I set up "My libraries"? Jerzy Toeplitz Library. Open to the public Wagga Wagga Campus Library.

Open to the public ; Edith Cowan University Library. Open to the public Book English Griffith University. Griffith University Library.