Based on Your Best Selling Novel

As a young bibliophile, I was often disappointed by movie adaptations of my favorite books.  Like many, I waited in dread and anticipation for movies I just had to see, hoping that they would live up to the works I loved.  I know of several authors who have gone on record as being reluctant to sell their other media rights lest “Hollywood mess it up.”  Then, I learned better.  I received some theatrical training in college and learned that movies and books are different by necessity.  After my experience in theater (both live and recorded performance ), I try to judge the movie on its merits as an adaptation rather than a carbon copy of the book.  Using this training, I try my best to keep my major projects adaptation friendly.

#5. Time Frame

Though the average length of movies seems to have been increasing in recent memory, a movie is considered to be long if it runs more than 120 minutes.  Conventional screenwriting wisdom states that one page of script translates into one minute of screen time.  This means that long scripts are only 120 pages long.  In the world of novels, this is about 30,000 words of equivalent space.  In a way, this is the primary motivating factor for cutting material from a book.  It is also the primary advantage of using a miniseries.

I read an article years ago that proposed that movies were limited to 2 hours in run time due to biology and human attention span.  Sure, at home, you can pause a movie for a visit to the restroom, but this cannot be done in a theater.  So, not only do books have more space for content, but they also have the flexibility to be put down and picked back up with greater ease.

The Take Home: When writing an adaptation friendly book, it is essential to have at least one single, continuous, strong, independent throughline.  Keep the complexity, subplots and backstory in your work, but be sure that your main plotline and characters are strong enough to carry the day even if you drop all the subplots and side characters.

#4.Special Effects

The limit of a book’s special effects budget is the limit of the reader’s imagination.  Epic magic battles with thousands of wizards, spells flying in all directions, dragons and huge armies clashing are really cost effective in the written word, but very difficult to arrange in the real world.  If you need to repeat the scene, such as in live performance venues, it becomes even more difficult to do this without breaking the budget.  Early on in my theatrical experience, we had to pump water up into a trash can in the black box theater we were using for an effect to be used in the play.  I thought it would be as simple as running a hose from a water spigot, but to my surprise, it was much more difficult.  It gave me an appreciation for the sheer logistical and practical challenges that come with even simple special effects.

Also, successful special effects artists are frequently very, very good at their jobs.  Hand in hand with such specialized talents comes high price points.  Granted, the price is often well deserved as the results, but it’s another factor to consider.  High quality special effects aren’t easy to pull off and require specialized software and training.  Another point to consider is that through the years, audiences have come to expect what magic and other special effects should look like.  This is a huge advantage for writers, because we have access to the same media that our audience is exposed to.

Say you want to write a space battle.  Pick a few really popular movies and TV shows that feature that aspect and watch the scenes with an eye to the creative style.  Then apply that filter to your own writing.  Not only does this make your novel adaptation friendly, but it also plays on audience expectation and takes some of the burden off your prose.

The Take Home:  Despite the ease of special effects in books, real world wonders require a great deal of time, talent and effort.  Consider using the common visual forms that have already been developed by the special effects community to keep your work adaptation and audience friendly.

#3. Spatial and Temporal Limitations

A skilled writer can tell a story with numerous exotic locations, spanning multiple generations or cover huge amounts of time.  Movies must pick a limited number of locations and a shorter time frame.  I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in high school and having to stop to create massive family trees and pages of timeline to make sense of how everything related to everything else.  It was interesting and frustrating to try to dissect, but because of the necessity of all that effort, that book would be ineffective as a movie without significant work by a talented screenwriter.

Again, it comes down to cost and effort.  Finding good filming locations is only a start, the next step is to transport a variety of personnel and equipment to those locations.  You must be able to do this cost effectively.  If the locations are accessible by the public, controlling the space becomes a huge obstacle.  I participated in and lead a handful of film projects where we reserved public space, roped them off and put up signs that read “filming in progress, please do not enter.”  Whenever we did this, we had to have at least one dedicated member of the production staff enforcing the barricade.  I was shocked by the number of times people would walk up to the caution tape, stop, read the sign and then duck under the tape to keep walking straight through a scene being filmed.  Somehow, they were always shocked that they were actually interrupting something.  This is why there is usually a core of scenic locations used in most film.  Once you build the various parts of a spaceship in a soundstage, they can be used over and over again.

The Take Home: To be adaptation friendly, it is a good idea to have a limited number of core scenic locations that are easy for production staff to create and control.

#2. Dialog Only Writing

In books, we have the liberty of description, both in scenes and actions of the protagonists.  This is not the case for scripts.  One of the best ways to insult and alienate actors is to tell them exactly what to do, especially if you are the writer and not the director.  In all kinds of theater, there is as much art in how a line is performed as how the line was written, and often actors and directors will take great liberties with the script to make their vision come to life.  This means, that if you want your story told a certain way, you must write the dialogue in such a way that your intent is not only clear, but also the reasonable interpretation for your words.

Many writers neglect their skills with dialogue when developing their writer’s toolbox.  It isn’t intentional, but with all the skills involved in quality writing, it is difficult to cover everything.  To write adaptation friendly books, it is necessary to practice dialogue as frequently that is all that will survive the process of being transformed into a script.  The rest of the book will be handed to the production staff as inspiration for the costumers, set designers and directors.  Your audience, however, will be focused on the actors and what they are doing and saying.

The Take Home: Movie scripts must have strong enough dialog and direction for actors to properly interpret what they need to do to accomplish the intent of the scene.

#1. Show, Don’t Tell

Movies can’t tell.  They can only show.  Well, at least not effectively.  The closest analogue for a movie is the voice over, but that technique has to be used sparingly and skillfully as excessively visible narrators become grating quickly.  Again, it comes down to actors as they will be doing most of the showing.  Yes, the scenery and costuming will be showing as well, but the focus of most movies is on the what the people are doing and saying.

The ability to show a great deal of information quickly is one of the great advantages of movies over the written word.  As a writer, I often struggle with which details to include in my descriptions to keep effective pacing.  In movies, this isn’t that much of an issue.  Writers can spend pages and pages describing in exacting detail what everyone is wearing and all the foods being served at the feast.  All this information can be conveyed in a five second pan over of the room before focusing on the characters participating in the action.

The Take Home:  When writing books, be able to supplement the descriptions in  the book for production staff who are looking for inspiration and guidance.

About Nathan Barra

Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to urban fantasy and soft science fiction in both his reading and writing, though he has been known to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” He is an active blogger and posts twice weekly at Nathan is always up for a good conversation, so please drop him a line through his contact page, or write on his Facebook wall (

4 responses on “Based on Your Best Selling Novel

  1. Gregory D. Little

    Great post Nathan. I think the “Take Home” format is very helpful in particular, and you touch on several points I’d either never before considered or had difficulty articulating.

  2. Frank Morin

    Excellent post. We argue about the pros and cons of movie adaptations a lot in our home. We’re all avid readers, and one of my kids in particular is very offended when anything is changed in a beloved story in the process of moving it to the screen. I’ll definitely use some of these points in our next discussion to help them understand the reasons why some things are done.

  3. Colette

    I’ve also had many discussion with people who are disappointed with film adaptations of their favorite books. I’ve tried to explain that a film adaptation is just that, a film BASED on the book, not representing it. Thanks for an excellent, informative post on the subject. Like Gregory, I particularly liked your “Take Home” sum-ups.

  4. Peter Sacco

    Great Post, this post reminds me of many novels that put into a movie production. sometimes we are dissapointed after watching it but come to think of it that it is the way the director of the movie will handle the certain story. for some reasons that we are dissapointed but it is the way the director put the story in several types of approaches.

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