A sample of my screenplay with a reference image.

Going from novel to screenplay

Writers need to tell a story the way it needs to be written. And with my latest work-in-progress, my post-apocalyptic novel needed to be a post-apocalyptic screenplay. Changing directions turned out to be the right decision. The screenplay format enables me to develop characters and take scenes in directions I hadn’t thought of in prose. Humorous scenes are becoming more humorous. I can create more suspense. I’m happy with the direction the story is going.

But switching from novel to screenplay has several challenges. You need to think about storytelling in a different way. Here are a few things I had to look at.

Brevity forces focus

Novels can be as long as you need to tell the story, but scripts for feature movies are limited to 100–120 pages. That’s not a lot of space to tell a story, especially when you’ve become used to writing 250-page novels. You must strip your story down to the essentials and use only necessary scenes and story lines.

As I convert my novel to a screenplay, I’m throwing out a lot of cherished scenes and dialogue. These are painful decisions, but they’re helping me get more clarity about the characters and which plot points are necessary. One scene is essential in building the relationship between the main characters, but it’s in a part I must cut. So, I’m moving it to another part.

I’m looking at The Wizard of Oz as I’m writing this story. (It follows the same basic plot: A disaster forces the hero into a strange world where she meets interesting people and goes on a dangerous quest to save the day and come home.) Everyone remembers the movie for what happens in the Technicolor parts, but the sepia parts at the beginning set up the story. Just like The Wizard of Oz, I need to get through the “sepia parts” as quickly as possible while giving viewers enough understanding about the hero and what motivates her to go on this adventure.

The editing process forces me to ask myself, “What is this story really about?” My script not only needs the essential elements to move the plot forward, they must reflect the theme. (If you need more information about theme and why it’s important to movies, Alex Goyette did an excellent TikTok.) As I choose which scenes to keep and which to cut, I must also decide what is essential to get the theme of the story across. I’m tossing out some fun set pieces so I can keep a character who is essential to the story’s message.

Screenplays are the art of the possible

Writers can do whatever they want in a novel. Set it in a different time period or galaxy, create fantastic creatures, develop new forms of physics—anything goes. But if you’re writing a screenplay, especially for a low-budget picture, you need to consider what the producers can reasonably do with the money and tools they have available. A producer may love your story, but they’ll pass on it because it’s too expensive to make.

This goes beyond settings and costume. Do you have scenes that require stunt people? Are there firearms? You can look at the tragedy on the Rust set about the need for careful management of firearms and the liability producers face in using them. Do you have children in your story? There are certain laws governing the use of child actors. Here too, recent stories show the issues and liability involved when children are on a set.

This doesn’t mean you can’t use fantastic settings, action sequences, children, and other elements in your story. But these elements determine who you pitch your finished screenplay to. If your story requires lots of big-budget special effects, you’re better off finding an agent who can pitch it to a major studio instead of pitching to an indie producer with a $1–5 million budget.

Trust the filmmakers

In a previous post, I wrote about the work I did to develop characters and use generative AI to create reference images for this story. All of that got tossed when I moved the story to a screenplay. The description of the teenage boy has been reduced to this:

…a scrawny 13-year-old boy. With his worn-out t-shirt and jean shorts, he has clearly lived rough even before the apocalypse.

I’m leaving it to the casting department and costume designers to decide what my characters will look like.

Unlike a novel, writers don’t have ultimate control over the story. We don’t even have the final say about the plot and dialogue. Screenplays go through multiple rewrites before shooting. On set, directors can change scenes and actors ad-lib. The final movie may be considerably different from the script you turned in.

And as the scriptwriter, I’m fine with that.

Ultimately, moviemaking is a collaborative effort. We start the process by coming up with the idea and basic framework, but teams of other professionals shape it into something that can be shown on a screen. We need to trust these filmmakers and be open to what they contribute to the story.

Screenplays are another way of connecting with an audience

Writing for me has always been about connection, whether it is through the pages of a book or a speech. Scriptwriting is a way to do it through a screen. The story I’m working on is one that is best told as a movie.

Dan Kopcow, a friend of mine who’s an award-winning author, pointed out Stephen Sondheim’s three rules of lyric writing:

In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone:

  • Content Dictates Form
  • Less Is More
  • God Is in the Details

all in the service of

  • Clarity

without which nothing else matters.

The same rules apply to choosing a storytelling format. And as I work with the limitations of the screenplay, it becomes clear this is the form my content requires.