Novelization Of A Screenplay
(Laguna Beach, CA USA)
Question: I have the rights to a complete screenplay that has not yet been made into a film. It's a very compelling and mostly true historical drama. I have done a full outline for a novel of the story and would like to ask if there are any simple guidelines and/or formulas you can offer for writing a novelization?
Screenwriting has had a strong influence on novel writing over the past century or so. Certainly, it has prompted many novelists to see the value of "showing vs. telling," since screenplays are almost all showing. Also, screenwriting has a strong emphasis on story structure, to the point where you can often locate the major turning points in a film with a stopwatch.
These traits will help you in converting the screenplay to novel form. Your plot, structure, characters, and major scenes will have been already created.
Yet the two formats have important differences as well. You will notice that when a novel is made into a film, people usually say, "the book was better." The reverse is also true: novels created from screenplays are often second-rate novels. Sometimes that's because second-rate writers are hired to do the conversion (first-rate writers being too busy with their own original stories). But it's also because each medium has its own requirements.
You should probably think of the screenplay as an outline for your novel rather than a draft and focus on creating a great novel rather than a straight conversion.
Here are some things to consider...
1. Novel time is more elastic. The guideline for a feature length screenplay is that pages 1-30 is act one, 30-60 is act two, 60-90 is act three, and 90-120 is act four. Each page is roughly a minute of screen time, and 120 minutes makes an average feature length film.
However, these guidelines don't apply in a novel. Acts and events don't have any set length. An entire act can be told in a brief flashback, or perhaps in 20 or more chapters.
2. If the essence of film is action, the essence of a novel is characterization. In a film, the audience infers what's going on in the main character's head. In a novel, language is used to give the reader the feeling of being the main character. The reader is privy to all the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the main character -- or of other viewpoint characters if you are using multiple points of view. This means that characters are more fully developed. Subtext is reserved for non-POV characters -- those who the reader learns about only through the main character's perceptions.
Novels also allow you the opportunity to explore characters' backstories in far more detail. And readers, in turn, expect to enjoy the experience of knowing the characters in depth.
A minor point: in a film, characters
usually look most like the actors hired to play them. So character descriptions can be minimal. A novelist has the freedom to design every aspect of the characters, including their appearance.
3. Stories in novels are more fully developed. The tyranny of the 120-minute film format means that brevity is key in screenplays. A novelist can and should tell the story in more detail.
Sometimes, when screenplays are converted into novels, they can feel under-written -- lacking in the depth of characterization and complexity of plot novel readers look forward to.
4. Same is true about depicting the story world. A screenwriter can count on a production team to flesh out the details of costumes, sets, locations, etc. A novelist has to provide the richness of details needed to portray the settings. That doesn't mean you should have lengthy exposition or "infodumps." It's a matter of interspersing the telling details that build a detailed picture for the reader. Just as novels have room for character backstories, they also allow for background exposition regarding the story world.
5. Narrative mode is different. Screenplays are always written in present tense, 3rd person, omniscient narration. Most novels are written in past tense and either first or third person limited. However, literary fiction also employs a greater variety of narrative modes. You will sometimes see novels written in future tense or stream-of-consciousness -- sometimes even second person narration. There are also epistolary novels, written as diaries or letters. While voiceover narration is frowned upon in film, main characters or narrators in novels can speak directly to the reader at great length.
All this adds up to ...
6. Style and voice. The style of language makes a big contribution to a novel. Great novels have narrators with personality.
In a film, the personality of the story is usually created by the director with the help of the technical and artistic team. It has to do with things like camera work, lighting, editing, and design elements. In a novel, the personality is created by the writer. The novelist creates a narrative voice with a vocabulary and style of language that is unique and fun for the reader to experience, whether the novel uses first or third person narration.
Some novels adapted from screenplays are less than satisfactory because the writer fails to create a personality through the language. So they come across as somewhat lifeless.
If you wrote the screenplay you are adapting, you probably have a better chance of creating a good novel. You know the backstories and the thought that went into the screenplay. If you didn't write the screenplay, you need to invent a style of language that features a strong voice and personality for the story.
You should also research the historical period, because there will be many details you need to get right.
Best of luck.