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How to Adapt a Novel Into a Screenplay

My Personal Game Plan

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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting

I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about adapting novels to screenplays. Specifically, how to tackle the task. And since a project based on existing IP is something that basically every producer desires, I know it’s something that might interest you as well. So I thought I’d share my plan of action.

First, find the throughline

Novels can have a lot more leeway with structure and storytelling than screenplays tend to, which can make adaptation challenging. But you know your movie is probably going to need one strong throughline. Most mainstream movies are structured that way, so if that’s your target, that’s where I’d aim.

So find the throughline in the existing material. This may require you to make some choices about which throughline you want to build the movie on. You’re adapting the material, so you get to choose how to adapt it. What’s the big story arc you want for the movie version?

That comes down to identifying:

  • who is the protagonist
  • what are they doing over the course the movie – that main thing they’re pursuing or trying to accomplish and what’s the main way they go about it
  • what’s the big, primary source of conflict and opposition
  • and what’s at stake both externally and internally?

I’d also pay attention to making sure the plot and the character arc are well suited to each other.

That’s your screenplay’s foundation.

What’s it about?

At this point I’d also think a lot about what the story is about. Both what the source material seems to be about, as well as what you want the movie to be about – and those may be slightly or vastly different things.

The novel may explore a lot of things (lucky novelists with all their leeway). But movies are usually about one thing. One big idea that’s sort of a thematic umbrella for the whole story and all the parts of it.

So I’d get in touch with that, since it can be an excellent North Star to guide your development choices.

Shape the story

Now that you’ve identified the foundation and the big idea you want to convey, you can work out the major plot points, pulling from the source material to service the story you’re telling in this adaptation.

You know what each of the major plot points needs to do – its story function – so you can look to the source material to find the events that fulfill those functions. Or invent the right story event if it’s not already there.

Choose the cast of characters

One of the biggest challenges with adaptation can be the supporting cast of characters. Often novels have many more characters than movies, and sometimes they show up only for parts of the story in a way that might feel jarring in a movie.

So at this point I’d determine which supporting characters are needed in the screenplay. There are some obvious answers, of course. If there’s a love story, you need the romantic partner.

You can also look at the existing characters in the novel and gauge which characters do the most to help or hinder the protagonist’s progress, both in terms of the external pursuit as well as the internal or emotional transformation.

And you may end up combining characters, too. If, for example, one character offers some conflict early in the script, and then a different character provides some conflict later in the script – maybe for the sake of the movie, they can be combined into one strong antagonist who’s active over the entire course of the movie.

Plot the movie

With all of that prep work done, I’d start plotting. Well, let me be clear: I’d take it in steps. I’d use the major plot points and the source material as a guide, and I’d figure out the eight big chunks of the story. And then, still drawing from the source material wherever possible, I’d plot out the individual events and scenes needed to get the movie from Fade In to Fade Out.

And then, you know, write the script. No big deal. 🤣

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

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