Should screenwriters adapt their screenplays into novels, and if so, why? It might sound counter-intuitive.
Here we offer five simple and intriguing reasons why you should consider turning your scripts into them into novels.
On the flipside, if you have a novel that you think would make a great screenplay, enter the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Contest here.
1. Hollywood Loves Pre-Sold Audiences
Since the double punch of the WGA Strike and Economy Collapse of 2007/2008, Hollywood has been obsessed with pre-existing intellectual property. Of those types of properties, novels are the most desirable and most commonly adapted by movie studios.
Most novels that are adapted into successful screenplays for studios and major production companies are those that already have a huge following. Look no further than the Twilight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games franchises of the 21st century. And those are just the most extreme examples of how adaptions dominate the film industry platform. Beyond those franchise hits, there are multiple adaptations of single feature film installments that stand the test of time as some of the greatest movies we’ve ever seen — To Kill a Mockingbird, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Silence of the Lambs (not including the sequels or prequels), The Shawshank Redemption, and No Country for Old Men, to name just a few.
Having a successful “source” novel can be an easier way to get your screenplay picked up by Hollywood, compared to trying to maneuver your spec screenplay through agencies, management companies, production companies, and studios. It’s no easy task trying to get your spec scripts represented, read, optioned, purchased, or produced.
Sure, writing a novel, getting it published, and getting paid for that is no easy task either. However, if you’re looking to get your script made, and made well by professionals and visionaries, having a novel offers some more evenly stacked odds.
You can self-publish. You can also package both the novel and the script as a selling point to both publishers and studios.
Let’s be honest — there’s nothing wrong with a little hard truth. Chances are your spec script isn’t going to be produced. Most specs are used as calling cards for writing assignments, and Hollywood is very risk-averse. But if you go the novel route, your odds of seeing that story on the big screen increases tenfold. Yes, even tenfold, the odds are tough, but why not broaden your reach and give Hollywood more of a reason to at least consider your story?
A prime example is Dances with Wolves. The late Dances with Wolves author Michael Blake originally wrote the story as a screenplay in the early 1980s. He later worked with Kevin Costner on the 1983 film Stacy’s Knights. Costner was staying over at Blake’s house early on in his career when he read the Dances with Wolves script. Costner and eventual Dances with Wolves producer Jim Wilson agreed that despite its worth, no studio would produce it. They recommended that Blake write it as a novel and try to get it published — and then work to use a reader base to entice studios to adapt it for the screen.
Blake did just that. It was first published as a paperback and sold primarily in airports. It soon became a bestseller, allowing Kevin Costner himself the chance to obtain the rights later knowing that the film adaptation would get the necessary studio distribution. The rest is Oscar-winning history.
2. You Can Take Pleasure in Shattering Every Screenwriting Rule and Convention
Once again, let’s be honest. It sucks adhering to the industry rules, conventions, guidelines, and expectations when it comes to format, structure, and the hundreds of other big and small wants and needs that you read about here on the ScreenCraft blog and in screenwriting books.
Make no mistake, many of those rules, guidelines, and expectations are there for a reason when it comes to screenplays. Scripts are blueprints for a cinematic collaboration that will involve upwards of a thousand people and millions of dollars of investment. The industry standard format and various structures that work in film are essential for filmmakers to create a cinematic experience.
Now imagine never having to worry about those restrictions with your characters, your stories, and the way you write them.
When adapting your screenplay into a novel, you’re allowing yourself to break free of those chains.
Too much character development? There’s no such thing in a novel.
You can go on story tangents, you can write sub-stories, you can over-describe visuals, you can offer detailed backstories, and, yes, you can delve deep into the inner thoughts of your characters. You can embrace your omniscient narrator.
Transitioning from being a screenwriter to becoming a novelist is best described in one single word — freedom.
3. You Already Have a Detailed Outline for Your Novel
As a screenwriter transitioning into the literary format, you already have a detailed outline in the form of your screenplay.
Screenwriting is harder than writing a novel. It’s a highly structured, competitive, very tight format for storytelling. So, if you have a script, you’ve already done the heavy lifting. When most authors begin to write their next novel, they’re starting with a blank page. Some outline beforehand, some don’t. But it always begins with an intimidating blank page.
You know the beats of your story, the beats of each character arc, the major plot points, etc. You even have 95-120 pages or more of the novel written. Your job now is to expand on those elements and build them into a 300-500 page (less or more) novel.
And as mentioned above, the thrill of being able to write more freely should be able to carry you through the process as you use your script pages and launching points.
Those story moments and plot points that you had to cut during your script rewrite? They can all be brought back to life in novel form.
Those characters that you had to cut because their scenes were adding to your page count? Roll out the red carpet and welcome them back into your story.
Those monologues you had to cut because some consultant, executive, or producer said they were too long and too aplenty for a movie? Give your characters more voice by adding them into your novel.
No, we’re not saying that writing a novel is easier than writing a screenplay. Both of these platforms and formats have struggles that you will face and must overcome. But going from a screenwriter to an author means that you’ll be experiencing less restriction and facing fewer directives that you feel the need to follow.
And using the script as a detailed outline takes a lot more weight off of your shoulders compared to the thought of being a new author developing and writing your first book from scratch.
4. It’s Much Easier to Reach an Audience
Let’s face it – you write because you want your story to be read. While both screenwriters and authors tell stories to an audience, the paths to which those different writers take to get their stories to that audience are very different.
As a screenwriter, for your story to be told to an audience, you need to:
- Write a screenplay
- Try to get representation to read it
- Have your agent or manager get it to producers, executives, and talent
- Have producers or executives take it to studios and financiers
- Have studios or financiers spend millions to make it
- Get directors and name actors attached to the project
- Have your script survive the rewrites that often come with the development process
- Hope the director and actors schedules match up with that of the studio and/or financier
- Understand that if that doesn’t happen, which is often the case, the whole process has to start over
- Remember that if that process is a success, then hundreds of people will be in charge of telling your story
For an author, it’s a more straightforward process. You need to:
- Write a novel
- Find a publisher to publish it, or…
- Self-publish and market it yourself
- And then have someone buy your book and read it
Sure, this may be an oversimplification of the novelist’s journey to many, but compared to that of the screenwriter, it is significantly easier to reach an audience with a novel compared to writing a spec script.
5. With a Screenplay and Novel, You Now Have a Multi-Platform Package
Hollywood loves multi-platform performers. A movie that also has a book is a powerful marketing package. Studios work with the publishing industry behind-the-scenes, creating packages that consist of movies, television series, and books. Hollywood will even invest in the film and television rights of a novel before it even hits the shelves, knowing that publishers will do their part in making sure that the novel gets as much publicity as possible.
So, when you go in with both a screenplay and novel, it just adds to the allure of the project with some publishers and producers.
It’s no guarantee by any means, but it elevates what you are bringing to the table.
And one creative option you have is choosing to use your screenplay as part of a book proposal. Book proposals usually consist of a breakdown of the story, a general outline of the chapters from beginning to end, and a completed chapter or two. Interested publishers will then offer an advance as you complete the remainder of the book.
Showcasing a completed screenplay offers you the ability to display more of the project’s potential.
We know that with many screenwriters, they want to see their stories on the big screen. They choose a cinematic platform for that reason. And for that reason, many resist the idea of writing novels.
But you have to remember that adapting your screenplays into novels isn’t about giving up on your script. It’s about pinpointing a new and more direct audience — all while increasing the chances of your story making it to the big screen thanks to two industries (Hollywood and Publishing) that love to intermingle.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies