Also, if you’re the type of writer who cannot look at your work objectively and rip it to pieces, then you’re probably not the best choice to write the screenplay for it. Being an author myself, I know that a little piece of my heart and soul gets put into everything I write. It can be difficult to look past that but you have to when you’re writing a screenplay. You have a very limited amount of time to convey your entire novel in. If you’re not prepared to cut out chunks of it, you’re not prepared to turn it into a screenplay.
What is the absolute first thing a writer should do when converting a novel into a screenplay?
Make sure you have the film rights for it. This is an absolute must. No legitimate production company will even think about looking at your screenplay without them.
Even if you’re converting one of your own novels, don’t automatically assume you have the rights. If you’ve published your story through a publishing company instead of going the self-publishing route, odds are you no longer have the right to film it without their permission.
There are thousands of novels out there where their copyrights have expired and they are now in the public domain. Anything in the public domain can be turned into a movie without written consent.
How would a screenwriter go about securing the rights to a novel?
There’s a couple different ways you can do this. Which one you choose is really dependent on your personal preference and budget. They both begin with contacting whoever presently holds the rights to the novel in question. If it’s a print novel you can buy off the shelves of a major bookstore, odds are the publisher listed on the inside front cover holds the rights. If it’s a self-published print or eBook, generally the author still has all of the rights to it.
There are two ways you can contact them; yourself or with the help of a lawyer. Personally, I think it’s more professional if you use a lawyer. Getting a lawyer might be a bit of an investment but you’ll show that you’re serious as a screenwriter and should be taken seriously in return.
Once you contact the rights’ holder of the novel, the next step is to see if they’re even willing to let you write a screenplay based upon it. If they’re interested, you then get to hammer out the details of the contract: how much the film rights will cost, how much say the original author has in the screenplay, how long you have the film rights for, etc …
If you haven’t consulted a lawyer before now, I highly recommend that you do so for this step. While you can create any sort of contract you want with the rights’ holder, a lawyer will be able to help you plan for any potential complications you might encounter down the road and ultimately protect you and your screenplay in the process.
There is nothing worse than pouring your heart and soul into converting a novel into a screenplay that you can’t use because you didn’t take the time to properly secure the film rights first.
Where can a screenwriter find works that are in the public domain?
Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org
) has thousands of books written before 1933 whose copyrights have expired in the United States. Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org
) also has a search feature that will allow you to find works you might be able to use, depending on the Creative Commons license assigned to the novel by the author.
Please note, this information is good for residents of the United States only. Laws vary in other countries. If you live outside of the US, be sure to check with the proper authorities in your country before using any work you find in the public domain to write your screenplay.
How would you go about converting a novel into a screenplay?
The first place I would start is by reading the novel. It should go without saying that a screenwriter would read the novel first but it’s amazing how many don’t. Even if it’s one I’ve written, I would take the time to read it from start to finish. I would try to get it read with as few interruptions as possible. You don’t want to rush through it but you don’t want to take weeks to get it finished, either.
After finishing the novel, I would set it aside for a few days. During that time, I would try not to think too much about it or the screenplay I plan on writing.
Once several days have passed, then I would sit down and think over what I read; jotting down any scenes, plot points, and characters that immediately come to mind. Odds are good if it’s something I remembered several days after I finished reading the novel, it’s something that’s integral to the overall plot and should be included in the finished screenplay.
With that list in hand, I would go back to the novel to fine tune the scenes, plots, and characters that need to be in the screenplay and flesh out anything else I had forgotten about but feel should be included.
What are some things writers need to keep in mind when writing a screenplay? Why are these important?
The average feature length screenplay is anywhere from 90 to 120 pages long. With one page of a screenplay equating to roughly one minute of film time, that means the average feature length film is anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours long. It’s very important to keep this information in mind while writing your screenplay because most production companies and screenwriting competitions will not accept screenplays that fall outside of the 90 to 120 page range.
Some will make exceptions if you are a few pages under or over but that’s it.
Even though your script most likely hasn’t been picked up for production yet, it’s still a good idea to write with some sort of budget in mind. Basically, you want to try to keep the budget small. It’s easier to spend more money if you have any leftover than it is to cut costs later. A smaller budget also means you can pitch your script to more production companies.
The absolute cheapest script to shoot is one that can be filmed with one camera, in one location, with a minimal amount of actors, costumes, and special effects. Obviously, these restrictions aren’t always practical for the screenplay you’re writing but it does help explain why adult films and B-horror movies tend to be the biggest money makers in the movie industry.
Generally, action sequences are quicker to shoot than dramatic ones, but can be expensive depending on the props and special effects involved. Unless you know the cast ahead of time, dramatic scenes can be a total crapshoot. You can get a shot done in one take or take all day just getting one good take of one shot. There are so many variables that come into play that can make dramatic scenes deceptively expensive and time consuming.
The best course of action is to be flexible and to try to keep a good balance between the two. If you have to write drama, keep the number of actors and locations to a minimum. If you need to go the action route, start small with fist fights and foot chases with dreams of going bigger if the budget allows for it later.
There will be much more to follow [in this series].