Indie author’s guide to adapting your novel into a screenplay

I love films. I write novels. So I’ve always wanted to give screenwriting a go.

I began by reading some great books, including Save The Cat by Blake Snyder and The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. I soon plan to continue the learning process at the end of February through a free online course via Futurelearn and the University of East Anglia.

There’s nothing like hands-on experience, though, so while learning I figured I’d dive right in. I purchased Final Draft, which is the screenwriting software used by most of the pros.

As an author, I guess I have a small advantage jumping right into screenwriting. I’ve often been told that my writing style in novels and short stories is cinematic. I think this is because I tend to keep scenery descriptions short — just long enough to evoke an image — and then jump into action and dialog.

However, screenwriting is still a different language to writing a novel, with its own syntax, vocabulary and even indentation styles! I knew going in that the hardest part would be learning the actual style and formatting for screenplay.

Screenwriting software like Final Draft helps, of course, since it automatically keeps indentations correct and guesses when you’re writing dialog or a scene heading. But there’s still a lot it won’t automatically do for you, from things as basic as capitalizing a character’s name the first time he appears, to more complex questions like the proper style for a quick series of flashbacks. If you couldn’t spell, you wouldn’t rely on auto-correct, right? It’s much the same here — you still need to have some knowledge to be sure the software is doing the right thing.

So that I could focus on getting the format right, I decided not to spend a lot of time creating a new story from scratch for my first screenwriting effort. Instead, I chose to adapt my first novel, We, The Watched.

Cover for We, The Watched by Adam Bender
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We, The Watched follows an amnesiac who wakes up in a dystopia. Told from a first-person present perspective, the story places the reader in the shoes of Seven as he struggles to go unnoticed in a surveillance society and discover his true identity.

It seemed like an easy one to turn into a screenplay. The way I figured it, I could basically just move the book over scene by scene. I imagined fuzzy shots through the lenses of surveillance cameras and exciting gun fights between the Underground rebels and the government police force known as the Guard.

However, when I started thinking about the movie in a traditional three-act structure, I immediately found pacing problems in my story. They were scenes that I maybe got away with in the novel, but now seemed extraneous when I was trying to cram the book into a two-hour film. In a screenplay, each page represents about one minute of screen time. So while novels can be anywhere from 200 to 1000 pages, a spec screenplay has got to be about 100 to 120. And you’re not writing with paragraphs that fill the page with text. Thanks to all the indents, loose line spacing and Courier New 12-point, there’s actually quite a bit of white space on each page!

Rather than freak out about all this, however, I looked at the project as a fun puzzle … and an opportunity! We, The Watched was my first novel, and while I am proud of it, there are things about writing stories now that I did not know then. So it was actually great fun to analyze each scene and pull out only the most essential details and dialog.

I ended cutting a few scenes and even a few minor characters (sorry, Eric). I also massaged the logic of a few bits, like how the hero meets the Underground for the first time. It wasn’t all cuts and edits. I added a few bits between characters to add more tension and amplify character emotions.

Another challenge was that I didn’t want to use voice-over narration, even though the novel is told in first-person present tense. I had to think of ways to convey the hero’s emotions through his expressions, actions and dialog. While inner monologue can totally work in a book, it can come off as a bit lazy in such a visual medium as film. This proved not to be an impossible task; I just had to be creative — which is the whole point, right?

While I ended up having quite a bit of fun every time I sat down to write, I must admit that I had trouble keeping on track. For most of this time, I was simultaneously writing a novel (also coming soon!) and working full-time as a journalist. I’d given myself a loose “finish by end of 2015” deadline, but I discovered this wasn’t great motivation for most of 2015.

What ended up really helping was finding a competition in which to enter the script. It was December when I learned about a “first ten pages” contest. The script was mostly done, but I hadn’t spent much time reading through it to work out the kinks. When I heard about the competition, I thought to myself, “Hey, I can definitely spend time polishing up the first ten pages of my script!”

Lo and behold, just focusing on tidying up the beginning motivated me to get the rest of the screenplay in order, too. You know what? I have no idea how well I’ll do in this competition, but it doesn’t really matter. Having a formal deadline gave me the encouragement I needed to finish.

Well, anyway, thanks for reading my ramblings! Happy to answer any questions in the comments below, and I hope to share the screenplay (and hopefully one day a movie!) with you soon!

 Get We, The Watched (e-book) for free!

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