Sunday, February 13, 2011

Turn your screenplay into a novel

Ten easy steps for screenwriters to turn that unproduced script into a novel.

Well, okay, not entirely easy, but doable.

(Previously published in Written By, the journal of the WGAw, as How To Become A Novelist In Your Spare Time.)

1. I bet you have that unproduced script that you’ve always secretly thought would make a great novel. Pull that out and let yourself remember everything you loved about it. If it’s been sold or optioned in the past, consult with your lawyer and the guild Contracts Department to make sure you have the unencumbered right to write a novel.

2. Now, take that script, and format it as a Word Document, double-spaced. Look at that! You have 80 (rough) pages of a novel already!

3. Now, start at page one and start adding words, images, descriptions – all that stuff that we have to compress and combine and edit and shorthand when we’re writing a script. When I was writing The Harrowing and The Price I really did think of the process as directing onto the page (Cast it, production design it, light it, score it, edit it…). You will be shocked at how quickly in this process you will find the point of view and the voice of your narrator or point-of-view character – which is truly the most fun part of writing a novel. You’ve read a million books – the fact is you actually know how to do this already.

4. Work on the novel every day. Even if it’s only five stolen minutes at a time. Commit to it and your creative mind will realize you’re serious and work overtime to make it happen.

5. Start to familiarize yourself with the publishing industry through the vast number of internet resources available to you. I’ve compiled a list, with links, of everything I wish I had known about publishing before I broke in, and tons of free resources available to authors (I've compiled some links on my website.)

6. Find a great critique group or a critique buddy. It’s a sad fact that overworked and underpaid editors don’t edit much any more, and they expect authors to get intensive editing notes from critique groups or beta readers.

7. Read your work aloud. Your entire book. To yourself or others. There is no better way to catch errors and awkwardnesses, and polish the flow and pacing of a novel, than reading aloud.

8. When the book is wonderful and amazing, the best you can make it, use your film agent to help you get a literary agent. That’s your fastest route in. But also, literary agents are far more accessible than film agents; they actually go to writing conferences specifically to meet aspiring authors and hear pitches.

9. Network in the genre community (ies) that suits your book. Authors are mindblowingly supportive of up-and-coming authors, and there are blogs and message boards where you can meet authors who can do worlds to help you, from passing your book on to their agent (really!) to providing you with those all-important blurbs for the cover.

10. Know that you can do this! There is nothing different about it but the medium – it’s all writing. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to try.

- Alexandra Sokoloff


laughingwolf said...

excellent timing, alex... i'm in the process of doing that now, started last week, in fact!

really appreciate your insights :)

Vicky said...

Great idea! Thanks for the tip. I've got an old radio drama I sold to the CBC yonks ago whose rights should have been reverted. With a little creativity, it ought to make a great YA.

Ms. Blasé said...

After I post this comment, I'm printing this article out immediately. I had just thought about converting my screenplays into novels last week. Thanks!

Tina Folsom said...

Great instructions - I have this old screenplay lying around that I wrote when I studied screenwriting at UCLA extension in 2001 --- OMG that's 10 years ago!
Let's see how bad it was and whether it can be salvaged!

Bob Larrison said...

Great idea but a little over optimistic. An 80 page script doesn't make a novel but a novella. Most lit agents want a 200 to 300 page tome, that's about 60,000 words. Short works have a better chance publishing to eBook formats.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's great news, LW! Always happy to be in sync.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yonks ago, I love that.

If you have a YA script - ABSOLUTELY, do it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, more synchronicity. Go for it, Ms. B.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Tina - yes, for screenwriters, our old scripts are the equivalent of "shelf novels". Time to do something with them.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Bob, I think you misread me. Coverting the script to an 80 word document is a first step, Day One. It's really just an outline of a novel (but 80 pages is nothing to sneeze at.)

After that you have to start from the beginning and put in all the stuff that you KNOW about the story, but had to take or compress out to condense it into a screenplay. But believe me, once you've done several passes and put in all that stuff, there's plenty of material for a full-length book. I've done this twice myself.

Greg Gountanis said...

Alexandra, thanks for the post. One thing that cannot be stressed enough is getting your work vetted by others. It's often the hardest thing to do as a writer--get out of your shell and have people go to work on "your baby."

But it has to be done. There's a lot of great writer's organizations and screenwriter's organizations that can be accessed online or through one's local community, that offer support to budding writers. Having someone critique your work, especially someone who's a writer and is going through the same process as you, is extremely beneficial. And setting a daily goal really helps you get through in the end. Set a daily word count goal of 1000-2000 words, and you'll have a hunk of a novel after a few months, and by hunk I mean something close to 400 pages. It may come out as the worst 400 pages ever, but hey you've written your first draft of a novel. You can do this. Now those words may take you an hour, or they may take you 5 hours. Just get them done, like all professional writers do.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex. 15 yr screenwriter here who has had lots of validation on the quality of my writing/stories from pros, but have no options/sales. In fairness, my efforts to market have been less than poor mainly b/c I am constantly stopped by all the negative opinion regarding the near impossibility of selling, let alone doing so from outside of LA. Lackluster sales efforts on my part aside, do you believe there is a greater chance for commercial success by opting for the novel rather than the screenplay format? Seems as though there would be given that there are fewer obstacles in the way and self publishing is always an option (but by no means do I think it's "easy" - I am just curious if I should explore other formats if breaking into screenwriting is truly near impossible). Second question: I understand "it's all writing" but to be frank after writing in one particular format for 15 years it literally frightens me to branch out into the novella/novel format. I have the screenplay structure embedded in my brain and tell all my stories in this manner. And I know this sounds overly rigid, but having a rigid structure in place allows me to be creative within those boundaries and I am comfortable with that. And I’m sure some novelists (not inferring you) would view this as inferior writing but that is an unfair charge as complexity of character and emotions and all that good stuff can still be there in a screenplay. Granted, in a LOT of Hollywood films it is NOT there, but I’m sure there are quite a few books out there that are less than a good read as well. My hope is I can simply apply my screenplay structure boundaries to the novel/novella format and express my stories. Is novel/novella writing basically the same except the audience is now exposed to character(s) thoughts/opinions/feelings whereas these had to be masked through action in screenplay format? Because THAT I believe I can handle. But if this format relies on "flowery" language (poor choice of words but I hope you understand what I'm getting at- I'm not comfortable writing in the manner most novels are presented nor do I enjoy it- but I DO respect those who can do this), I think I'd have more of a problem doing this. I do believe my voice lends itself to books probably even more than film (certainly the most commercial films), as stories like “About a Boy”, “Family Man” and “Sling Blade” are right up my alley. However, I really enjoy the screenplay format. And that’s why I’m kind of stuck here. Actually, very stuck. I know I can write, I've worked hard at it for years and have validation I'm good and continue to be my own harshest critic (which is a good thing so long as it doesn't totally derail me) so that isn’t the issue. The issue is I want to work in a format that gives me at least a chance of having success and unless I’m wrong (and believe me, I wish I was but sadly, don’t believe so based on everything I’ve read), that would seem to be novel/novella format. Last question (sorry to go on and on): is it fair to just concentrate on transferring an existing screenplay to Word (as you recommended) and then expand on the thoughts & feelings of my Hero while leaving the rest essentially the same? I mean, obviously a bit more details about settings and the lay of the land so to speak, but without the sidetracked verbose ramblings that are typical in novels? And again, I am aware that’s coming out as an insult and I mean no offense at all by this, I’m just trying to convey how it seems to me and how it reflects my fears b/c I CANNOT write this way. Perhaps a novella would be my best bet? I mean a novella must be close in length to a screenplay and seems as though it may fit the bill of what I described I may be comfortable with trying. Anyway, sorry to chew your ear this long. Any advice you have is appreciated and again, I mean no harm in how I worded anything here. Just frustrated. Thanks.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Greg, thank you - I couldn't agree more with every single word of what you said! And it really can't be said often enough.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, Anon, that's a lot of questions, but I'll take a shot!

I believe there's a better chance of ARTISTIC success in writing novels. I believe the chances of commercial success at novels and screenwriting are about even. That's just my empirical observation. Most of my good friends are writers determined to make a good living at writing and succeeding at it. That SOUNDS easier than it is in practice, btw. But impossible odds are part of the job. You have to learn to ignore the statistics and do your work.

Having said that, I do think you have VERY little chance of being a successful screenwriter in this country if you haven't made the move to LA. In fact I would say you have NO chance, but I do know a few screenwriters who make it work. However, I would argue that they are ready to be in LA at the drop of a hat and they know that being there at the drop of a hat is part of their job.

I also think that with the explosion of indie publishing, at least for now, you have a MUCH better shot at success with books. It's radically changed the income level of most authors I know who are doing it.

I hear you on the fear of trying a new medium, but honestly, how is that different from the fear I feel every single morning when I sit down to write? Every book has its own new challenges and terrors. Every screenplay I wrote did, too. With every single story, you're reinventing the wheel. And I never seem to realize what's going to be hard about what I'm writing until I'm too far into it to stop. And then I just have to suffer through it until I solve it. I don't complain about it because I know that every single writer friend I have goes through the exact same thing every day. Okay, I do complain about it. We all do. But we do it anyway.

Fear is part of the process. If anyone knows some way around it, I'd love to hear it, because I sure don't know.

As for the process of turning a script into a novel, yes, start with putting it into a Word doc and then do a pass expanding on the thoughts and feelings of your hero, as you say, and then read it through, and see what else you need to put in to make it a satisfying book.

I think of novel writing as directing onto the page. I write an outline that is like a screenplay, and then I do lots of passes through it as the characters, as the production designer, as the composer, as the DP, as the editor - you get it.

And you stop when you have a book that you're proud of.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Anon, also, it seems that you might be new to this blog and you haven't read some of my other articles on the job of screenwriting.

You might want to take a look:

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. Appreciate both the promptness and thorughness of your remarks.

The notion of 'having' to live in LA to write screenplays is utterly perplexing to me. I am not saying I disagree with you as I too, have heard this from a number of sources. But I do not understand it. Given the technology today, there are many tools that eliminate location as a drawback to conducting work. And writing is not the type of work that relies on being in the same location. IMs, email, teleconference, etc - there are a wide variety of tools that folks use EVERYDAY in other businesses to get the job done. I myself, use these every day as folks I work very closely with are located all throughout the US. And the irony is that once a screenplay is sold, the writer is typically removed from the entire process anyway. My understading is writers often times aren't even allowed on set!

To me, it would seem as though if someone in LA reads and enjoys my material, they would then want to have a face to face (totally understandable) and if impressed, the relationship would go from there. And sure, there would be many future meetings for writing jobs, assignments etc- but as previously outlined, there are technological tools to help bridge the location gap! The location bias is so very odd. And frustrating. And frankly, SUCKY. On the plus side, I have seen a few contrary opinions, but what you passed on I agree seems to be the norm. Who knows, maybe this will change in the future. Seems quite outdated to me. At any rate, thank you again so much for your time. I most definitely am thankful for your two cents on all of this.

Sukey said...

Thanks for the good advice, Alex. I am working on a novel that in fact started out as a novel almost 10 years ago. It then became a screenplay about five years ago when I took a screenwriting class, then went into a figurative drawer without ever being finished.

Clearly this is a story I need to tell, so I went back to the novel format. Plus I was realistic about the chances of selling a script. I agree that movies today are mostly awful, and it seems to me that the best movies, with the best narrative, are written and directed by the same person, or directed by a director who has hired a screenwriter to tell that particular story.

Writing the story as a screenplay in between two passes at novel writing (the first was awful and almost none of it has survived) has given me a much better sense of where the story is going and who out of a complicated cast of characters is telling the story.

If you like to write dialogue and don't want to get "bogged down" with a lot of description and inner thoughts but see the wisdom of having written a novel, trying writing a script and then your novel. If I ever finish this one and start on another, that's exactly what I am going to do.

To Anonymous: I was worried when I sat down to write the story as a novel again that I wouldn't be able to capture a mood or write adequate description since so much had been condensed in the screenplay. But it turns out that the more you apply yourself to it, the easier it gets.

Funny thing, too: Reading the parts I have converted into a novel, I now have a hard time seeing them as a written screenplay.

My next step is to find or form a writers' group. I worked with one I had started for screenplays, and it was immensely helpful.

Anonymous said...

When you add all the details and everything Alex said to add, it gets much longer. And maybe you wanna add things in the novel that you didn't want in the script. When they make movies and shows from novels, they take some things out of it to shorten it so its not to long.

Delphine Itambi said...

This has been so helpful.Actually thinking of converting my screenplay into a novel.Nust couldnt get the funds to make a movie...and am so much in love with this piece.Perhaps i can get a novel done.if and when i raise some money i will then embark on producing the film...Since i love to write ..produce and direct my own movies...Actually i dont trust another director totally bringing out the best of my screenplays when am not onset..i am not in USA where all these LA rules apply...i live in a world where stories can be told freely without so much protocol..Some of you may want to visit Cameroon and you may be amazed a vigin land of film with crazy young independent filmmakers...may be nust where u get ur breakthrough...come and do low budget films...with the little money you got....

Delphine Itambi said...

This has been so helpful.Actually thinking of converting my screenplay into a novel.Nust couldnt get the funds to make a movie...and am so much in love with this piece.Perhaps i can get a novel done.if and when i raise some money i will then embark on producing the film...Since i love to write ..produce and direct my own movies...Actually i dont trust another director totally bringing out the best of my screenplays when am not onset..i am not in USA where all these LA rules apply...i live in a world where stories can be told freely without so much protocol..Some of you may want to visit Cameroon and you may be amazed a vigin land of film with crazy young independent filmmakers...may be nust where u get ur breakthrough...come and do low budget films...with the little money you got....

Unknown said...

Mt screenplay is 95% dialogue...I can't keep writing, "said Mark" or "said Liz" after every line. What to do?