Stories have been told through many different mediums since the dawn of time. From Neanderthals’ earliest cave paintings to immersive virtual reality experiences, our love for telling stories is what makes us human. These days, one of the most popular ways to tell a story is on film.
The problem with making a film, at least one that will be released in theaters or on streaming platforms, is that they cost a lot of money, take years to make, and require the efforts of many people.
Luckily for writers, novels are still a close second when it comes to storytelling mediums, and, other than the time spent writing it, a novel is free to create. And Hollywood loves turning novels into movies and big franchises. Typically, for a novel to transfer well to film it must have cinematic qualities. These include:
- A strong visual element
- An enthralling mystery or journey
- Heroic but relatable characters
- A story that heals the soul
Let’s explore five sure-fire ways to ensure a novel will translate to the big screen.
Create a World We’ve Never Seen
Andy Weir self-published his novel The Martian in 2011 that primarily takes place on the red planet we know as Mars. Adapted for the screen in 2015, the film took us to a fascinating yet terrifying new world where human life should not exist. The premise – humans attempt to live on Mars – has all the mystery, conflict, and drama necessary to support a film. But the most cinematic part of the premise is the visual part: the story is set on a crimson landscape no human has ever seen beyond photographs. This compelling visual element allows us to get lost in the story and makes for an exciting film.
Other books that create a world we’ve never seen before: Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein, Fight Club, Interview with a Vampire, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
An Enthralling Mystery
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris sets up a shocking mystery: a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill is murdering women for their skin. The FBI is investigating, but what makes this mystery truly enthralling are the characters that inhabit the story. Clarice Starling, a young, female rookie FBI agent, is investigating the murder by soliciting help from Hannibal Lecter, an imprisoned killer and cannibal who loves to play mind games. Texturing the story with those fascinating characters builds out the mystery to epic proportions. It’s no surprise that those characters inspired three more books and movies, two TV shows, and an off-Broadway musical.
Other books with an enthralling mystery that became movies: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Memento Mori (a short story that became the film Memento), and L.A. Confidential.
An Epic Journey
The book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum was published in 1900 but it would take three decades for the story to be adapted to film. But what a film! Dorothy, a teenage girl, gets sucked into a tornado and finds herself in Oz – a place very different than her native Kansas. Once she gets to Oz, she goes on an epic journey to the Emerald City where the Wizard instructs her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West.
Journeys function as a metaphor for psychological growth and help the protagonist in a story change or arc.
Keep in mind that not all epic journeys need to be fantasy. Other great examples based on true stories: Eat Pray Love, Wild, Into the Wild, and Tracks.
Heroic but Relatable Characters
The book Room by Emma Donoghue was published in 2010. Surprisingly, as soon as Donoghue turned in the book to her publisher, she completed the screenplay before the book even hit the shelves. In the story, the protagonist Ma and her son Jack are locked in a room, after Ma was kidnapped seven years prior. Jack is the result of rape committed by Ma’s captor. Though Ma is just an average young woman, she’s caught in a horrible situation and knows she must act heroically to save her son. With no special skills or weapons, she relies on her motherly instincts to escape the hell she and her son have endured for so long.
Other heroic but relatable characters: Harry Potter, Black Widow, Clarice Starling, Inigo Montoya, Lisbeth Salander, and Katniss Everdeen.
A Story that Heals the Soul
Published in 2012, The Fault in our Stars by John Green is a love story between two very ill teenagers. Their illness conflicts heavily with their youth, their sexual attraction to each other and their curiosity about the world they may have to leave too soon. Though the story ultimately becomes a tragedy, it’s how the teens Hazel and Augustus bravely live their precious life, embracing each other’s fates and even conducting Augustus’ prefuneral. This story provides the reader with a catharsis that brings a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Other books with healing stories that were made into films: The Color Purple, Little Women, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Book Thief, and Angela’s Ashes.
Bottom line: take inspiration from your favorite books with strong cinematic qualities to create a novel that has the potential to be the blueprint for a feature film. If you, as the writer, get lost in your own immersive world, with your own heroic but relatable characters, your reader – and potential filmmaker – will too.
Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter, journalist and author. After receiving her MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, she was hired to adapt various stories for the screen including Apes or Angels, the true story of naturalist Charles Darwin, and Three Wishes, based on the New York Times best selfing novel by Kristen Ashley. You can listen to her interview Oscar-winning screenwriters on The Script Lab Podcast, or read her book Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers. Follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards