Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

Please help me welcome back a dear friend and talented storyteller, Steven Ramirez. The last time he guest posted on TKZ he discussed Pantsing Through the Pandemic. Today, he’s sharing his experience with— Well, I’ll let him tell you…

Recently, I took a break from writing fiction to focus on screenwriting. Currently, I’m adapting my latest novella, Brandon’s Last Words, as a feature screenplay.

If you’re wondering why anyone in their right mind would take on something like this, it’s simple—I live in LA. Trust me, you can’t swing a dead cat at Starbucks without hitting a screenwriter huddled at a corner table, determined to crank out the next Black Widow.

Okay, that’s partly it. The other reason is, I wanted to see if I could do it.

The novella is a prequel to a new thriller series. It takes place in the same universe as another of my series—only this time, with new characters. For those who have written a screenplay, you already know you need a log line. Here’s what I originally wrote for the novella:

Brandon Wheegar has just joined a secretive government-funded lab as a security guard. Why did no one warn him about the murderous test subjects?

That’s not bad. The question is, does it work for a movie? We’ll see. Of course, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about. For this post, I’ll focus on three lessons learned.

The Beats, They Are Different

As fiction writers, we are keenly aware of story beats. They’re hammered into us starting in the womb. I’m tempted to joke that our friend James Scott Bell has beat that concept to death, but it would be low-hanging fruit, so.

The point is, screenplays need beats, too. But these are different and immutable. And without them, you effectively have something that is not a screenplay.

There are lots of resources out there that can teach you about screenplay structure. For simplicity’s sake, here are the high-level story beats, courtesy of Syd Field:

INCITING INCIDENT

This scene brings the main character into focus. Without this beat, there’s no story.

FIRST TURNING POINT

What happens here sends the MC off on a new path, similar to the Hero’s Journey.

MIDPOINT

This is where things get interesting. Maybe the MC makes an important decision that changes the course of the story. Or they realize that what they thought was the truth isn’t.

SECOND TURNING POINT

This scene moves the character from conflict to resolution. The MC has a plan and intends to execute on it.

RESOLUTION

Often, these events bring physical and emotional closure. In Hero’s Journey terms, the MC returns home and shares what they’ve learned.

Now, there are many other elements you should layer in to make a killer screenplay. If you want to see a more fully realized story beat list for some well-known movies, check out Save The Cat.

Limiting the Character Count

When writing a novel, I include lots of characters. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a little Russian blood in me. In my case, the names don’t all sound the same, though. Anyway, I take this approach because my main characters tend to travel far and wide.

Unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury when it comes to screenplays—unless you’re Quentin Tarantino.

Why?

Because a script is a blueprint that tells the producer how much money they must spend. And the more characters, the more the above-the-line costs skyrocket—things like actors’ salaries, hair, makeup, and snacks.

My novella has a fair number of supporting characters. And they serve the story well. But for the screenplay, I had to find a way to either cut or combine characters. Which brings to mind that most famous of advice, which admonishes the writer to kill your darlings. Most people attribute the quote to Faulkner. But, in fact, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote, “Murder your darlings.”

Now, he was talking about prose. In screenwriting, you pretty much have to take out the entire family. Here’s an example. In the novella, I have a chief security officer, a head of security, and two ruthless security specialists. Each has a part to play, and in Brandon’s Last Words, it’s all good. But for the script, I realized I had to combine the two security chiefs into one character and do the same with the two specialists. And it really doesn’t matter what kind of fiction you adapt. Chances are, you’ll slice and dice like a boss.

Getting the Genre Right

My novella can best be described as a horror/sci-fi thriller, with some comedy thrown in. I know, I know—welcome to my world. But, like any successful novel, you should tailor your screenplay to a target market.

When I sent off my first draft to a professional reader, I got back lots of notes. Some centered on the fact that my script didn’t read like horror. I had missed essential tropes, and many of the beats weren’t right.

Rereading the work, I realized I was clinging to my original mashup. Fine for novellas, not so much for screenplays that sell. I’m rewriting now, and let me tell you something. Scripts aren’t written—they’re rewritten. You thought it was a big deal writing three drafts of your novel? Try ten—or fifteen. Yeah. Also, in the real world, once the project is greenlit, they bring in other writers to “punch up the script.” Call it insurance.

Using the reader’s notes, I took a crack at turning my story into classic horror. But I ended up losing much of the humor. Now, if I were as cold-blooded as the chemically modified test subjects who terrorize my main character, I’d continue down this path. Most of you would because it’s the smart thing to do. And after all, you’d like to make some money, right? Me, I’m a rebel. I decided I prefer the story as a comedy thriller. Who knows, I might still have a shot (he said, nursing his tepid tea at Denny’s).

Look, there are quirky films out there that defy genre. I mean, did you ever see a little movie called Naked Lunch? It was directed by David Cronenberg and based on the William S. Burroughs novel. Yeah, so you know what I’m saying. Anyway, my advice is this: If you’re serious about selling your screenplay, then, by all means, write to market. Who knows? You might end up as a big-time Hollywood screenwriter. Me, I just want to create something surprising.

Final Thoughts

We writers are well acquainted with copyrighting our work. Technically, your novel is protected the moment you put pen to paper. Unfortunately, when it comes to screenplays, there’s more to it than that. In this town, a good movie idea gets stolen faster than you can say Coming to America. The point is, register your script with the Writers Guild of America. It’s no guarantee some no-account won’t try to take your precious, but at least you have legal recourse. For more information, visit the WGA West website.

The other thing to consider is screenwriting software. There’s plenty out there, including traditional writing apps like Scrivener, which support the screenplay format. If you’re planning to make this a career, though, I suggest you purchase Final Draft. It’s arguably the industry standard. Also, when collaborating with other screenwriters, there’s an excellent chance that’s the software they use. For more information, visit the Final Draft website.

Well, that’s me done. Happy screenwriting. Oh, and wish me luck with the next Naked Lunch.

Steven Ramirez is the award-winning author of thriller, supernatural, and horror fiction. A former screenwriter, he’s written about zombie plagues and places infested with ghosts and demons. His latest novel is Faithless, a thriller. Steven lives in Los Angeles.

Join Steven’s newsletter here or connect with him on Twitter.

For discussion: Have you ever considered turning your novel/novella into a screenplay? What actor would you want to play your hero or antagonist?

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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion, and will be a panelist at the 2021 New England Crime Bake. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

29 thoughts on “Three Things I Learned from Movie Adaptations

  1. Welcome back to TKZ, Steven, as you coming bearing this pot of gold offering for a Monday morning. Thank you. It’s a keeper.

  2. This is fascinating information and well-presented.

    I have never considered turning any of my novels into screenplays. Maybe it’s because I’ve always lived on the other Coast. However, if I do ever go that route, I want Daniel Day-Lewis to play my private investigator because I think Day-Lewis is a brilliant method actor and my PI is a brilliant method sleuth.

  3. Thanks for the, er, mention, Steven. I learned about structure by studying screenwriting, Syd Field being a primary text. But mostly by watching. (I was able to contribute to theory by finally defining what that first “turning point” should do; before that, even in Field, it was fuzzy.) “Classic” screenplay and novel structure are virtually identical.

    The best King movies, IMO, are adaptations of his novellas (The Body, Shawshank). So you have good precedent on your side. Good luck.

    • Thanks, Jim. You’re right about the beats. The principles behind them have evolved over the years as storytelling becomes more complex. One of these days, I’ll break down ‘Tenet.’ Of course, I’ll need the economy-size bottle of Advil.

  4. Thanks, Steven, for joining us and giving us a peek into the screenwriting world. I’ve never considered turning any of my books into a screenplay, and after your description of the work I’m not sure I could handle it. Wow, 15 edits, then punch-up writers. It gives me a new appreciation for your work. Good luck with your project!

  5. Good morning, Steven, and thanks for this primer on screenplays!

    I enjoyed reading about your journey. I especially liked your approach of “Me, I just want to create something surprising.”

    Several folks (not all family members 🙂 ) have mentioned that they would like to see my first novel as a movie. Maybe all new novelists get that. So yes, I’ve thought about writing a screenplay. I even bought Save the Cat and read it. But then I realized I still have a lot to learn about writing novels and I haven’t yet found a way to extend the 24-hour time limit on a day, so I put that idea on the shelf.

    Best of luck with the screenplay. Let us know if/when it becomes a movie.

  6. Welcome back to KZB, Steven! Loved your post this morning. I’m with you when it comes to not writing to the center of a genre bullseye, and I can see where that would make writing a screenplay more challenging, given the near omnipresent marketing considerations film agents, producers and studios tend to have. That said, I like that fact that you kept the elements that drew you in the first place. Like Kay noted, above, I really liked your desire to create something surprising.

    I’ve thought about my first series, The Empowered, becoming a film or a TV series. When I first tried writing it back in 2012, I conceived of it as a TV style “serial” (then popular in indie publishing, now revived in Kindle Vella) with novella length episodes and “seasons.” I couldn’t make it work, and eventually wrote the five-book series.

    My hero, Mathilda Brandt, is a rangy 6 feet two inch woman, with anger issues, who has just turned 21 when the series begins. I have no idea who might play her in a movie version.

    Great seeing you here again. Best of luck with your screenplay!

  7. Dale, thank you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you uncovered another idea that’s suited to movies or television. I see lots of synergy between writing for platforms like Kindle Vella and television. Good luck.

  8. Always glad to see you at TKZ, Steven!

    Although I don’t plan to visit Hollywood, the study of screenwriting helped me finally grasp story structure. Before that, my plots meandered aimlessly and never gelled. Larry Brooks did some great deconstructions of movies that really hammered home what needed to happen and where in the story.

    So knowledge of screenwriting is valuable for novelists, too.

    Best of luck with yours. Comedy thriller sounds right up my alley.

  9. Three great points here, Steven. Limiting characters makes smart economical sense for novel writing as well as screenwriting which is something I’ve been playing around with for the past half year. I just looked at Final Draft’s website and it looks very interesting. I might just download it. Thanks!

    But I have to say I’m a wee bit peeved because Sue introduced you as her “dear friend”. I thought I was her only one. Something you’re not telling me, Sue?

  10. Timely post! I’m currently negotiating TV/movie adaptation rights for my debut novel about the birth of NYC (historical fiction). After I’d nixed the initial offer, my Hollywood attorney asked if I’d consider writing a spec screenplay myself. I paused a half-beat—get it?—before saying, “Absolutely not; I’m not crazy.” Actually, it’s just that I don’t want to start learning a new craft at this point. I’d rather someone else do it. And pay me for the rights. UPDATE: the original offerers came back with a better deal and we’re re-negotiating. Have no idea if it will work out, but if it does, I’d love to see Colin Farrell play the key role of Henry Hudson. He would be roughly the same age as old Henry was in 1609, and I bet he could nail the late-Elizabethan accent. The Native American side would be more difficult as there’s apparently only 1-2 left in the world who speak the Lenape tongue (Munsee dialect). But I would lower my actor expectations to increase the snack budget!

  11. Harald, that’s very exciting. You’re right. If you’ve never written a screenplay, it’s much better to let the producer hire someone and, with any luck, give you script approval. Good luck, and keep us posted.

  12. Great post, Sue and Steven! It made me rush right over to your website and download my free book.

    If I could wave my hand like Yoda, and turn No Tomorrows into a screenplay, have it picked up and made into a movie, I’d want Julia Roberts to play the lead, hands-down. At the end, we’d see her lovely, sun-beam-wide smile as she finally figures out what is truly important in life.

    🙂

  13. I love screenplays. They’re my natural home. I find them much easier to write than novels, though I am taking Mr. Bell’s suggestion to turn my screenplay into a novel just to see if I can.

    I love Final Draft and Save the Cat.

  14. My historical novel began as a one-act play, based on: What would happen if a psychiatrist discovers his current patient is a murderer and has the weapon with him? Flashbacks required multiple costume changes, so I went to film. Research revealed way too much good stuff, so I adapted the script to a 260 page novel. I’ll soon back-adapt the novel to film. For film, I’d want Harrison Ford as the psychiatrist.

    As a writer, I was advised to study acting. Good advice and resulted in my IMDb page. From the course, I also put together a post on writing for the stage:
    https://jguentherauthor.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/20-scriptwriting-tricks-from-an-actors-pov/

    From Wim Wenders’ 50 Golden Rules of Moviemaking:
    #42: Don’t adapt novels.

    • What a great story. Reminds me of Erich Segal. According to the lore, he originally wrote ‘Love Story’ as a screenplay. When no one would buy it, he wrote a novelization. Once again proving that there are many paths up the mountain.

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