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Screenplay to Novel: 5 Steps to Novelizing a Script

Script's Editor Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares why screenwriters should take on the NaNoWriMo challenge by adapting backwards, screenplay to novel.

As many novelists know, November 1st marks the launch of National Novel Writing Month, a personal challenge to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. But what about a screenplay? Is there any value in turning a screenplay into a novel?

(Your NaNoWriMo Survival Guide: Before, During, & After)

Absolutely. No writer should ever box themselves into one medium. Storytelling is changing, even for screenwriters. Sure, we dream of seeing our scripts come to life on the big screen, but that is not an easy task. It's not impossible, but it could take millions of dollars and a champion advocate to make that kind of dream come true.

However, you don't need to let your story rot on your hard drive. Let that baby free and adapt it into a novel yourself. Hollywood loves intellectual property. Just look at the latest movies and TV shows. Most are adapted from books or short stories. It's time to shift your game plan and double your odds of success.

That goes for novelists, too. You should be considering the potential of adapting your novels and short stories into features and TV pilots, or the very least, think about structuring your stories to attract Hollywood producers. But I'll address bringing you all over to the dark side when Script officially moves to Writer's Digest site by year's end. (Yes, we're joining forces to bring all storytellers and resources together on one site!)

Do I hear adaptation skeptics out there? Well, zip those negative lips. Professional screenwriters are even doing it. Yes, many pro screenwriters are also writing novels: Daniel PyneDoug Richardson, John August, the Thornton Brothers, Joe Gazzam, my own writing partner, who is a ghostwriter for Hollywood, Unknown Screenwriter, plus many more. While they write screenplays for studios and production companies, they are taking the leap into prose, some to ultimately adapt into TV series or features. By putting their stories on the bookshelves now, they get the satisfaction of sharing their art while growing their fanbase.

Writers write to emotionally move people, but you can't move anyone if no one is reading your stories. NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to give novel writing a shot since your script serves as a fantastic outline.

If you're still looking cross-eyed at my suggestion, please stop and take a deep breath. Open your mind and see the change in the industry before it smacks you aside the head. You already have everything you need. You just need to put your big-girl panties on and dive into the challenge.

Change is scary, but allow me to suggest something even scarier: No one ever discovers your screenplay or your talent as a writer. Read that again. That's a terrifying thought. I'm sure you've had friends ask, "Have you written anything I've seen?" Then they scoff because you haven't. Does that mean you aren't a real writer? Now imagine your friends ask you about your scripts, and you can hand them a book adapted from one. Physical proof of your talent. Imagine how that would feel.

You can do this.

Screenplay to Novel: 5 Steps to Novelizing a Script

As a screenwriter, you're trained to write cinematically and to make stories a "fast read." That's what we do. We pull the studio reader in immediately and make then have to keep turning the page. Trust me. That skillset translates into great novel writing. Not to mention, with society's attention span being that of a gnat, an increasing number of readers want novellas and stories they can read in one sitting. The trends are always shifting, and it's important you, as a writer, try all angles you can to stay ahead of them.

Another benefit is when you dive deeper into your story, you might find new characters, new subplots, and new perspectives you can then take back to your original screenplay in its next rewrite. Whenever I have explored new scenes, even if just for the heck of it, those shifts taken off the "main path" have always led to a richer writing experience.

But before you start writing, be sure the story works as a novel. Not every screenplay makes an excellent book. You want a story where you can crawl in the characters' heads and a reader can sink into for longer than the two hours it takes to watch a movie.

If you don’t have a script that would work as a novel, then use these 30 days to get a first draft of a new screenplay done. Challenge yourself to write every day. After all, it takes 28 days to develop a habit. After the 30-day challenge is over, you’ll have a new routine that promises to get more scripts written in the coming year.

Anyone who reads my Script column regularly knows I’m no wimp when it comes to a challenge. Just the mere thought of one makes my skin tingle with delight. I’m a competitive freak when I need to be, even more so when the person I’m challenging is myself.

Instead of telling you all about the values of doing NaNo, including simply getting in the practice of writing every day, you can read a piece I wrote, sharing the 10 lessons I learned from NaNoWriMo.

How do I turn my screenplay into a novel?

I polled some of my professional screenwriter friends who have done just that. Here are their top five tips:

1. The hard part is done

You already have a story with structure and characters. That’s one hell of a detailed outline for a novel. Copy and paste that puppy into a Word file or Scrivener.

2. Decide on a point of view

As screenwriters, we always write in the third person, but if you’re writing a novel, you can decide whose point of view you want to tell it in… the antagonist, the protagonist, the third person, or the first person. You can even use a different character’s point of view for each chapter. Your story could be more interesting told from a specific character’s perspective.

3. Start with a skeleton

Take your script and transform it into the prose of a novel, one scene at a time. Don’t worry about descriptive prose or getting into the characters’ heads yet. Just put the basic story down into novel form. The average novel has an 80,000-word count (but can be more or less, depending on the genre). Once you get the skeleton of your story down, you’ll have a better idea of how far off you are from the mark.

4. Beef it up

Now is the time for fun! The benefit we have as screenwriters is our natural ability to write visually. Take off your screenwriting shackles and let loose with the flowery prose and start crawling inside your characters’ heads, telling their thoughts and feelings… things we can never do as screenwriters! At first, it won’t seem natural, but in time, I promise, you’ll start enjoying the freedom to explore your story mentally rather than visually.

5. Fill in the holes

Screenwriters are trained to write lean and mean. Go back and find those scene darlings you had to cut in order to get your script to the 110-page sweet spot. Oh yeah, you can add those suckers back in! You can even add other subplots and characters; though I’d still be sure any subplot you add relates to the theme of your story.

(Script Classics: Adapting to the Adaptation Process)

Now, I’m not suggesting you write the next War and Peace. Quite the opposite. A lot of successful, self-published ebooks are written efficiently in order to make the books a quick read. The readers of today often want to read a book in one sitting, and if they like the author, they want their next book to be out in a month or two. As a screenwriter, you’re the perfect writer to take advantage of that market. Grab that pile of spec scripts and start adapting!

Bottom line: It’s hard to get a script produced, especially since the 2008 market crash. But as a novelist, you can get your work in the public eye, even by self-publishing, and possibly get interest in your script from the exposure. Again, Hollywood produces tons of book adaptations every year. Why not yours?

You really have nothing to lose. In fact, you might even discover you’re good at being a novelist and branch out into a new form of writing. Now, do you see why Script and Writer's Digest are merging? We're planning on world domination of all things writing, so get ready for the ride!

As I always say, writers write. My new career plan is to write both novels and scripts. I want to move people with my words, and I can’t do that if they’re sitting on my hard drive waiting to get produced.

But how can I find the time to “win” this challenge?

The disclaimer: Most of us work full-time jobs, and it’s hard to imagine how we’ll find the time to write 50,000 words in 30 days (it breaks down to 1,667 words per day). My plan is to simply write something… anything… every single day. Even if at the end of the 30 days I only have 20,000 words, that’s 20,000 more than I have today. I’d rather have 20,000 quality words than 50,000 crappy ones. I've done that, too. Even that had its benefits. To hit the 1,667-word count a day, I let my characters run wild in my mind and did stream-of-consciousness writing. They took me places I never imagined, which are now part of a new outline of that novel.

I love the pressure of a deadline and ticking clock. In my post about the lessons I learned in NaNoWriMo, I describe a word-churning program called Write or Die. You enter the desired word count for that writing session, as well as the time you want to write it in. While you’re writing, the program will start honking at you if you slow down. It’s a fun way to keep the pressure on!

Consider joining me in the challenge and find me on the NaNoWriMo site, username jeannevb, Add me as a buddy. We can keep track of each other’s progress, send messages of encouragement, and build a whole new community of writers to support our efforts. I made amazing friends when I took the challenge in 2011 and 2013, and I know I will only widen that circle this year.

Put your NaNoWriMo usernames in the comments below to connect with each other!

Writing the Adaptation

In this workshop, you will formulate a five-page treatment designed not just to keep you on course with screenplay but also to use as a possible sales tool. By the end of the workshop, you will also have the first act of your story in script form, along with a step-by-step outline of your screenplay. All the tools you need to get your adaptation ready for Hollywood!

Click to continue.

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