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How to Turn Your Book Into a Screenplay in 11 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 21, 2020 • 4 min read

Many Hollywood movie producers are on the lookout for new source material to turn into the next big feature film to hit the silver screen. The movie industry relies, in part, on book-to-film adaptations for its success, and movie studios are optioning the film rights to novels and memoirs at a breakneck pace. If you’re working on your novel-writing career, you might at some point adapt your own literary work into the screenplay for a film or TV series.



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How to Turn Your Book Into a Screenplay

Whether you’re a bestselling author or a novice writer more accustomed to self-publishing, there’s never been a better time to consider adapting your existing material for film and television.

  1. Read screenwriting books. If you’re new to the adaptation process, there are plenty of film books that break down screenplay structure and literary adaptation.
  2. Invest in industry software. Screenwriting software is a necessity before you start writing a movie script. Final Draft is the industry standard, though there are free alternatives like Celtx and WriterDuet that are perfectly sufficient.
  3. Read books that have been adapted into screenplays. A great way to learn about screenplay adaptation is to read an original story that has been adapted into a motion picture. Studios look far and wide for intellectual property they can turn into films. Look for books that have been adapted for the screen in a genre that you are interested in exploring, be it thrillers or love stories.
  4. Watch film adaptations. There are so many famous film adaptations to watch in order to learn more about the adaptation process. The work of famous authors like J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), J.R.R. Tolkein (The Lord of the Rings), Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights) and Stephen King (The Shining) has been adapted into countless film adaptations. Watching the film version of a book you are familiar with can give you insight into how stories can be altered and enhanced by the visual storytelling of film. Learning about the elements of film, like cinematography and lighting, can help you start to visualize how your story would play in front of a movie theater.
  5. Study movie structure. A key step in learning how to turn a book into a movie is educating yourself on film structure. Generally speaking, films have more length and structural constraints than books. There are of course exceptions to this rule but it’s definitely worth learning about classic three act structure and how the key scenes in a feature film function, especially in the realm of literary adaptations.
  6. Outline existing films. A great way to learn about screenwriting is to write your own outlines of existing films before you start adapting your own work. Outlining some of your favorite films can help you understand the ins and outs of film structure and visualize plots and subplots.
  7. Analyze which of your original stories would make a good film. Before you start on a movie adaptation of your original work, it’s important to consider which of your works would make a good movie. A great movie can be adapted from many different sources including a short story, nonfiction book, original novel, or any number of other types of books. It’s important to analyze your original work and look for books with a clear core conflict and concise storyline to make your life easier as you start on the adaptation process.
  8. Break your story up into scenes and acts. Before you start on your own film adaptation, map out your storyline and major plot points in an outline. Screenwriters often put a fair amount of time into the prewriting outline process. As a novice screenwriter, this stage of writing can help you develop your skillset and make sure you understand your screenplay structure before you sit down to write in earnest.
  9. Learn about the limitations of film. Filmmaking is a visual medium that allows many techniques and storytelling devices that are not possible in books. That being said, it also has some limitations. The interiority inherent in many books—attainable through use of first-person internal monologues from a character’s point of view—is harder to achieve in film unless you use extensive voice-over. You might also have to cut down the number of main characters in a sprawling epic or the amount of backstory you include in your film adaptation to streamline your narrative.
  10. Come up with a logline. An important part of pitching a project to a production company or studio as a professional screenwriter is coming up with a descriptive and concise logline. A logline is a short description of your main character and premise that is usually only one or two sentences in length. It may seem daunting to reduce a full story to such a short summary but suffice it to say that all films, even major Hollywood blockbusters, once started as loglines pitched to producers and financiers.
  11. Consider adapting existing content. If you don’t have any published original content that you think would make a good movie, consider looking for existing source material. It can be hard to get the rights to a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller or a true story recounted in a magazine feature article—but there are plenty of public domain stories available for anyone to adapt.

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