Adapting Your Story for the Screen
What to consider when turning your literary work into a drama.
Who doesn’t want to see their story told on the big screen? Whether it's film, television, or the burgeoning medium of podcasts, the preponderance of intellectual property-based projects in the current marketplace is enough to make any writer consider converting their short story or novel into a screenplay. Then there’s the money.
According to WordsRated, 70% of the top 20 highest earning films were based on books. Additionally, films based on books generate 53% more revenue than original pieces.
Here are a few things you should consider before converting your favorite literary piece into the next binge-worthy series.
Nobody’s Coming to Save You
Unless you’ve written an international best-seller - and in some cases even if you have - don’t expect Hollywood screenwriting agents to answer your inquiries. It’s an industry standard for them not to accept unsolicited material. If you have a book agent with film and television contacts, you should certainly ask for a referral.
If you’re not represented, there are many smaller studios and production companies who are always looking for new content. Every year, the American Film Market posts its list of exhibitors with contact information for each group. Comb through it and reach out to the companies most likely to be interested in your book based on their previous titles. While you’re waiting to hear back from them, check out lawyer Mark Litwak’s book “Dealmaking in the Film & Television Industry”. It’s an excellent resource to answer some of your more basic questions about intellectual property rights.
No matter which route you choose, you will still need a script (or at least a treatment for one) which leaves you with 2 options: pitch your book to a screenwriter or take a crack at writing it yourself.
If you choose the former, using IMDB Pro is a great way to find contact information for industry creatives. Look up writers from shows or films that match the genre of your book. You’ll likely have more luck with staff writers or story editors than upper level writers (i.e. writers who are producers on the show).
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to writer-directors who are still in grad school. There’s plenty of talent in this area and these creatives are much more likely to take on a project they really like without immediate money attached to it.
Here are a few tips for writing the script yourself:
Read books on the subject.
Download screenwriting software.
Final Draft is the industry standard, but there are a few other programs you can use, such as WriterDuet. Take the time to go through the tutorial so you can be very well acquainted with your new writing tool.
Find a great writer to read your work.
After your initial draft, you will need to get feedback from someone who has experience writing screenplays. Consider this part of your due diligence in the same way you would have beta readers for a book. You can find these writers clustered together on social media in groups like Zero Draft Thirty. Join one and ask around. There are usually at least a few kind souls willing to give you feedback on your script.
Rewriting is writing.
Expect this part of the process to be the same. A desire to constantly improve your piece will make you an attractive partner for a production company. They want to know that you’ll be open to taking their notes during the development process, which could last a very long time.
Choose the Right Platform
Film and television aren’t the only game in town anymore. As mentioned earlier, the boom of scripted podcasts has created another viable doorway into the marketplace.
Writer and producer Aaron Tracy discovered this firsthand during one of the biggest meetings of his career. While pitching to James Patterson Enterprises - the company that represents the best-selling author of all-time - he needed to separate himself from the competition.
“Most of the writers they talk to are big name showrunners, and I just didn't think I had much of a chance competing with them for one of Patterson's major titles,” said Tracy. “I pivoted and brought up the idea of doing a show together for Audible. Amazingly, Patterson loved the idea.”
Tracy’s smart move eventually landed him a deal with Patteron’s group, but it didn’t come without its share of scrutiny.
“The deal-making took forever because his publisher was concerned it would be too similar to one of his audiobooks. Everyone had to be convinced this wasn't just going to be a narrator reading a book.”
Tracy’s first project, “The Coldest Case,” was well received by listeners and has since led to more work with Patterson as well as his own originals. You can catch his latest audio drama, "Nowhere Man,” Dec 14th on Audible.
With lower production costs than a traditional TV pilot and the opportunity to sell the TV rights for a fully produced piece, a scripted podcast should be strongly considered for writers working on an adaptation.
Stay True to Your Story
Stephen King’s disappointment with the film version of “The Shining” underscores a very important point in adaptations: stick to the essence of the original piece. This was a rule Aaron Tracy adhered to when adapting characters from James Patterson’s “The Black Book.”
“Patterson's existing characters have devoted fans who would spot inconsistencies a mile away,” said Tracy. “I try to be loyal to how they're already conceived, while finding ways to make them come alive in the show. I think the most helpful way to develop interesting characters in a script is to put them in positions where they're forced to make a choice. What they end up choosing defines them for us.”
Make the Necessary Adjustments
If you choose to work with a screenwriter, allowing them some ownership of the story is crucial.
“Screenwriters have to put their own voice into their work,” said Tracy. “My favorite thrillers based on books, like Silence of the Lambs or Witness For The Prosecution, are loyal to the characters and tone of the original stories, but they're totally reinvented by screenwriters who have their own style, humor, pacing, and point of view.”
Tracy has this tip to set your new writing partner up for success:
“A great trick is to go through the book you're adapting, and literally write down every scene on note cards, with lengthy descriptions about who's driving the scene and why it works. Outlining the book in this way takes what can be a really overwhelming task, and allows you to get your hands around it, to easily move scenes around, and to throw out what doesn't work for the new story you're telling.”
As you can see, getting your story from book to screen is an arduous and uncertain process, but such are most things in the life of a writer. With persistence and a willingness to learn new skills, your next project could be the one that has your fans debating whether the book was better than the movie.