How to Adapt a Book Into a Screenplay: 11 Tips for Writers

a person adapting a book into a screenplay

Key Takeaways:

  1. Choose the Right Story: Ensure the story is visual, the characters are relatable, and the plot is clear.
  2. Decide the Format: Determine if you’re adapting for a short film, feature film, or TV series.
  3. Identify Theme & Tone: Understand the overall mood and message of the book.
  4. Highlight Key Scenes: Focus on scenes that advance the plot and develop characters.
  5. Develop Characters: Understand character motivations, challenges, and growth.
  6. Outline Plot Points: Create a structured outline of the story’s progression.
  7. Draft the Screenplay: Write the first draft, focusing on structure and dialogue.
  8. Refine Dialogue: Make it sound natural and avoid excessive exposition.
  9. Seek Feedback: Get opinions from peers, professionals, or screenwriting communities.
  10. Write the Second Draft: Refine the story, characters, and dialogue based on feedback.
  11. Polish & Revise: Continue refining until the screenplay is ready for submission.

Got a great short story or novel and want to make it into a script for a movie?

Every writer dreams of seeing their work adapted for the big screen! I’ve helped writers adapt books, short stories, and even a graphic novel into screenplays, and I’ve done the same with my own work.

In theory, it’s a simple process, but in reality it can be a tricky proposition. Condensing an entire novel with hundreds of pages into a lean, mean screenplay is no easy feat. Think about it – a typical novel read out loud as an audiobook can have a runtime of anywhere from 7 to 10+ hours, while a movie based on that same book will typically clock in at 2 hours max.

The big question becomes – how do you know what to cut out and what to leave? How do you go from page to screen?

In this article, I’ll discuss the process of adapting a book into a screenplay and provide tips for making the transition as seamless as possible.

Keep reading if you’re ready to bring your novel to life on the silver screen!

How to Adapt a Book Into a Screenplay

book being turned into a screenplay for a movie

One of the most exciting things about seeing a movie based on a book is watching how the story unfolds on the big screen. But have you ever wondered how your favorite novel makes its way from the bookshelf to the theater? The process of turning an original story into a screenplay adaptation is both an art and a science.

The first step in adapting a book into a movie script is to choose the right story. Not every book is suited for the big screen, and you need to identify the key elements that make for a memorable film.

Spend some time watching movies that have been adapted from novels or short stories, and read both the source work and the screenplay if you can. If you’re wondering which movies to watch, you can check out my list of the top 30 adapted screenplays of all time!

Once the story has been selected, the next step is to condense the narrative into a screenplay format. Screenplays are typically much shorter than books, so this takes some practice. As a result of this change in length, many important details may need to be cut out to fit the story into the required format.

The next step is to flesh out the characters and settings and to develop the plot. This step is where much of the creative work takes place!

Once the screenplay is complete, it will undergo several rounds of revisions before being sent to a film festival, online marketplace, or producer. If all goes well, your favorite book will soon come to a theater near you!

1. Find the right book

How to Adapt a Book into a Screenplay Steps

If you’re a fan of books and movies, you’ve probably thought about how cool it would be to see your favorite book adapted into a film. But how exactly do you turn an original story into a screenplay?

The first step is to find the book or short story you want to turn into a screenplay. While it may seem like any book could make a good movie, a few key elements make for a good adaptation.

  • The story should be visual. Many action and descriptive scenes are essential to give the audience a sense of the world you’re creating on screen.
  • The story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. A meandering plotline is often challenging to condense into a two-hour movie format.
  • Find a book you love! The adaptation process will be more straightforward if you find a book you are passionate about. Your motivation to work on the screenplay will be much higher if you love the book’s story, theme, or message!

There are three types of books that screenwriters often adapt:

  1. Your own novel or book.
  2. A book that you have the right to use.
  3. A book in the public domain.

Make sure that you do not waste your time adapting a popular book into a movie script only to find out after the fact that you do not have the rights to that book or storyline and that all your hard work has been wasted! Do your research ahead of time.

2. Short vs. feature film vs. TV series

How to Adapt a Book into a Screenplay Step 2

Once you’ve decided to adapt your book into a screenplay, you need to decide what format you want to write for. Are you interested in writing a short film, a feature film, or a TV series? Each option has pros and cons.

  • A short film is a great way to get your feet wet in the world of screenwriting, and it can be a fun experiment to see how your story translates to the big screen. This works best when you are adapting a short story into a short film or a single chapter from a novel.
  • A feature film has the potential to reach a wider audience, but it also allows you to get into the complexities of the plot and develop the characters in greater depth. However, writing a feature screenplay also requires much more work and time!
  • If you’re interested in writing for television, you’ll need to create an episodic outline for your series based on the novel and develop characters and plotlines that will grow and change over time.

3. Identify the theme and tone

decide on your theme

Once you’ve chosen the book you want to adapt for the big screen, the next step is to identify the overall theme and tone used in the story. This will help you to decide how best to translate the story into a screenplay format.

For example, if the book is a light-hearted romance, you’ll want to keep the script cheerful and upbeat. But if the book is a dark thriller, you’ll need to make sure that your screenplay conveys the same sense of suspense and menace.

Similarly, if the book has themes of both love and revenge in it, you’ll want to ensure that these themes are reflected in your film adaptation.

4. Identify the key scenes

identify key movie scenes

Next, you need to identify which key scenes from the book need to be included in your screenplay.

This can be a difficult task, as it is often tempting to try and include everything from the book!

However, remember that a screenplay is a different medium than a book, and not every scene will work well on screen. A script is much leaner than a novel, typically with a quicker pace and shorter page count.

Focus on choosing the key scenes that will help to advance the plot and develop the characters. Also, focus on the visual elements of those scenes. If a chapter is told purely from an internal thought process, it can be difficult to translate to screen.

book to screenplay

Once you have identified these key scenes, look closely at each one and consider how to make it work for the screen. This might involve expanding on specific details or cutting others out altogether.

You might want to consider using a beat sheet (like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat beat sheet from his book “Save The Cat”) to help you map out each story beat.

5. Develop the main characters

develop your movie characters

After you clearly understand the world and the story you want to tell, it’s time to start thinking about the people that will inhabit it. As you think about a character arc, consider the following:

  • What makes the character tick?
  • What motivates them?
  • What obstacles do they face, and how do they overcome them?
  • How do they change over the course of the story?

These are all critical questions to ask when developing characters from a novel into a screenplay. The good part is many of these factors will have already been addressed in the novel, so it may be a case of selecting the most vital elements of each character to translate for film.

The next step is to start mapping out each character arc.

  • What events trigger positive or negative changes in them?
  • How do these changes affect the other characters and the overall story?

6. Develop an outline

Adapt a book into a screenplay: outline the plot

The next step in adapting a novel into a screenplay is to develop an outline of the story’s plot points. This process will help ensure that the screenplay stays true to the original work while allowing for creative interpretation.

Identify the book’s major plot points, including the inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution.

Once these moments have been identified, the next task is to determine how they will be translated onto the screen. Remember that film is a visual medium, so this may involve condensing or expanding certain scenes, combining characters, or making other changes.

7. Write a rough draft

How to Adapt a Book into a Screenplay Steps

Once you have completed a detailed screenplay outline, it is time to start writing the first draft. This is where you will flesh out the scenes and dialogue you sketched out in your outline.

Getting the story down on paper at this stage is more important than worrying too much about perfection. You can always go back and make changes in subsequent drafts.

Keep your eye on the overall structure of the story. A screenplay is typically much shorter than a novel, so you must be concise in your adaptation. Make sure each scene serves a purpose and somehow moves the plot forward.

  • As you write, keep in mind typical screenplay structure.
  • Each scene should be introduced with a slugline that includes the interior or exterior location and time of day.
  • Action lines should be written in short, concise sentences that describe what is happening on screen, with a maximum of three to five lines per paragraph.

Remember to leave room for description and transitions between scenes.

While you write, remember not to be afraid to make changes to the source material. An adaptation is not an exact replica of the original; it is its own unique piece of art. So, if something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change it. The important thing is that you stay true to the story’s spirit while still making it work for the screen.

When you start writing the draft of your film adaptation, make sure to use proper screenwriting software. The movie industry expects its scripts to have proper film structure and formatting. Screenwriting software and industry-standard formatting will help ensure your script looks professional.

8. Pay attention to the dialogue

write your screenplay dialogue

Dialogue is one of the essential elements of a script, and it can be easy to overlook if you’re not careful.

There are a few things to remember when writing dialogue for a screenplay.

  • Remember that people don’t always speak in complete sentences. They might start a sentence and then trail off or use incomplete phrases.
  • Try not to include too much exposition. This is information that needs to be communicated by the characters but doesn’t necessarily advance the plot. Exposition can be tricky to incorporate into dialogue without sounding forced or contrived, so it’s essential to be strategic about it.
  • Don’t be afraid to use dialects or accents – they can add authenticity and flavor to your characters. Just be sure not to overdo it, or your dialogue will become challenging to understand.
  • Ensure you write snappy, believable dialogue that sounds natural on screen! Avoid long speeches or exposition-heavy exchanges that feel out of place in a film.
dialogue in a screenplay

9. Get feedback

How to Adapt a Book into a Screenplay Steps

After you have completed a draft of your screenplay, get feedback from others to improve the quality of your work.

Friends and family can be excellent sources of feedback, but getting feedback from trusted professionals in the industry is also helpful. There are several ways to do this, such as sending your screenplay to contests that offer coverage, joining a screenwriting class, or finding an online community of screenwriters.

Feedback can help you identify areas that need improvement, and it can also motivate you to keep working on your project.

Remember that feedback is essential to the process, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t always get positive reviews!

With persistence and a willingness to revise your work, you will eventually be able to create a well-written screenplay that can be adapted into a successful film!

10. Write your second draft

write your screenplay second draft

Once you have finished your first draft of the screenplay and gotten feedback from trusted professional sources or other writers, it is time to begin work on the second draft.

This is where you will refine the story and develop the characters further. You may also want to add new scenes or change existing ones. The key is to make sure that the story flows smoothly and that the characters are believable.

In the second draft, you’ll want to focus on three things: tightening the film structure, deepening the characters, and streamlining the dialogue.

  • Take a look at the overall structure of your screenplay. Is there anything that feels superfluous or unnecessary? If so, cut it out.
  • Evaluate your characters (including minor characters). Are they fully developed and three-dimensional? If not, now is the time to add more depth and complexity.
  • Revise the dialogue. Does it sound natural and believable? If not, try rewriting it or cutting it altogether. Remember, less is often more when it comes to dialogue.

11. Continue revising and polishing

revise your script

The next step to adapting a book into a screenplay is to continue revising and polishing your script until it’s ready for submission.

This will involve ensuring that your screenplay is the best it can be in terms of story and writing.

You’ll want to ensure that your screenplay is tight and well-structured, with solid characters and a straightforward plot with good story structure. You’ll also want to ensure that your dialogue is sharp and polished.

Your end goal is to create a screenplay faithful to the original book – and a great piece of writing in its own right.

Examples of Books Adapted Into Films

Harry Potter Series

Harry Potter

There are many excellent examples of books that have been adapted into films. One of the most successful is the Harry Potter series.

The books, written by J.K. Rowling, follow the adventures of a young wizard as he attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, makes close friends and powerful enemies, and struggles against the forces of evil.

The film adaptations, directed by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, and later David Yates, are widely considered to be among the best in the fantasy genre. They faithfully capture the books’ spirit while adding their unique flair.

As a result, the Harry Potter films are some of the most popular and successful adaptations ever made!

Steven King’s The Shining


One of the most successful examples of a book being adapted into a film is The Shining, written by Stephen King.

The novel, published in 1977, tells the story of a family who becomes snowbound in an isolated hotel. The father, Jack, gradually descends into madness, putting his wife and son in danger.

When the film was released in 1980, it was directed by Stanley Kubrick and starred Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. The Shining was a critical and commercial success, and it has since become one of the most iconic horror films of all time.

What makes The Shining so effective as a film is its ability to capture the slowly mounting sense of dread central to the novel. Kubrick’s use of light and sound creates an eerie atmosphere that ratchets the tension until it reaches a terrifying climax.

No wonder The Shining is considered one of the best adaptations of a book ever to hit the big screen!

turn a book into a screenplay

Final Thoughts

It is important to remember that a movie is not simply a book on screen. Many different elements must be considered when adapting a novel into a film, and it can be tricky to get everything just right.

Remembering the above tips, you will be better equipped to help your book transition from page to silver screen!

Common Questions (FAQs)

How can you make the transition from page to screen as seamless as possible?

Start by analyzing the book’s structure – if it’s intricate with many twists, you might need to simplify it for clarity. Next, consider the setting – will it require elaborate sets, or can you use real locations? Also, evaluate the characters. Determine if their personalities are distinct enough for the screen or if you’ll need to adapt the characters a bit.

What are some tips for success when adapting a book into a screenplay?

Adapting a book into a screenplay requires a delicate balance. You want to stay true to the book’s essence while making adjustments that will be necessary to show the story on the big screen. Here are some pointers:
1. Preserve the book’s core spirit, even if some story elements need condensing.
2. Keep the characters authentic, as readers often have deep connections with them.
3. Aim to evoke the same emotions in the audience as the book did in its readers.

What are some common challenges writers face during the adaptation process?

One of the biggest challenges for writers adapting a book to a screenplay is staying true to the author’s original vision for the story while adding their own spin and take on it! It can also be difficult to know which elements of the book to keep in the script and which to leave out. It can also be tricky to know how to drive the story forward while relying primarily on visual information rather than internal thoughts (those are much easier to convey in a book than in a film!).

What are the benefits of adapting your book into a movie?

The best part is sitting in that theater, watching your thoughts be translated into visuals on the big screen! Having a film adaptation of your novel can boost interest in your written work and drive sales of your book (increasing your revenue!!). It can help you connect with other writers and with bigger players in the film industry.

Looking for more ideas? Check out these helpful articles:

5+ Best AI Story Generator Tools for Fiction Writers

The Best Writing Tools for Fiction Writers (Reviewed!)

How to Make a Book Into an Audiobook [9 Steps For Authors!]

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