ADAPTATION: The 8 Steps for Adapting a Novel

Many of you – both novelists and screenwriters – have asked about adapting novels (either your own or those by other authors) into screenplays. So here are my best suggestions for turning a novel (or a play or a short story or a true story) into a commercially successful script:

  1. I hope it goes without saying that before taking any other steps, you must secure the rights to the story. NEVER adapt a story unless you have acquired the rights to do so from the author of the novel or from the subject of the true story.
  2. Begin the adaptation process by creating a step outline of the story: a list, in sequence, of the events in the novel, and the actions the characters take in response – nothing else. Forget about the thoughts of the characters, the omniscient voice of the narrator, the style, the mood, the tone, the author’s voice or even the characters’ dialogue.
  3. From that list of events, find the single, defining Outer Motivation for the protagonist – the visible finish line the hero is desperate to cross by the end of the story. This will be the toughest step, because novels might have lots of internal desires and conflicts, multiple heroes and/or sequential goals. But the movie must be limited to one or two heroes pursuing a single finish line – one that anyone can easily envision a soon as they hear it. If you are adapting a love story, there may be two visible goals that are intertwined. But whatever the genre, there must be at least one which carries us – and your hero – through to the end of the movie.
  4. Using only the step outline, identify the actions and events that either lead your hero on the quest to achieve the Outer Motivation(s) or which create the obstacles to achieving it/them. Now put that those events into a new sequential list.
  5. Divide the hero’s actions from this shorter list into the six stages and five key turning points of a properly structured film. If you are unfamiliar with my approach to plot structure and character arc, see the Streaming Video, DVD or CD of my lecture with Chris Vogler, The Hero’s 2 Journeys (Hey, I’ve got to get a plug in here somewhere).
  6. Because novels often reveal events out of sequence, and have a much more fluid sense of time than screenplays, you will need to rearrange some of the events of your structural outline, so they occur sooner or later than they did in the original story.
  7. Once you’ve worked out this basic, six-stage outline of the plot, you can return to the novel itself for passages of description, action and dialogue, for ideas about the hero’s inner journey, or for other emotional elements – but only if these additions support your hero’s singular Outer Motivation, and contribute to your hero’s inner and outer journeys.
  8. Finally, you MUST be willing to create new actions, events, characters and qualities for your hero that will enhance the movie story you’re now telling – even if this means changing elements of the novel you’re adapting. And it will ALWAYS mean that.

If this process proves too daunting, frustrating or depressing, or if the resulting story is just an anemic version of the rich, textured and emotionally gripping novel that you loved, then move on to a new project – either a novel more conducive to adaptation, or an original screenplay of your own that doesn’t depend on any outside source material.

But if you believe you now have a completed story that has real potential, then contact me about coaching you on this new outline. You want to be absolutely certain that the screenplay you’re about to write can stand on its own as an emotionally involving script – one that will truly appeal to the studios and the mass audience. I know this sounds like another plug, but I promise that working with me (or some other experienced story consultant) at this stage of the process will save you a lot of time and frustration once you begin writing in script format.