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A sample lesson from our Screenwriting Course...


More than ever before, scripts are being adapted from novels and news stories. Major bestsellers are practically guaranteed to be adapted for the screen. Ditto sensational news stories. Several schools, including NYU, have a course devoted to this elusive specialty.

Many writers view an adaptation as a daunting task. The looming question is: "how do I turn a gazillion page novel into a 120 page script?" The movie Adaptation pokes fun at this issue.


The truth is, all the hard work has already been done for you. Think about it: the original author created the characters, plot points, story arc, etc.  The same holds true for news stories.

Your job is to cull and shape the "cinematic" elements. If you follow the rules below, the job should be straightforward and enjoyable, without the pain normally associated with a new script (i.e., "blank page syndrome"). Though the term "novel" is used, this approach is also used to adapt news stories and historic events.

Characters and Story Lines

Your first task in adapting a story is to identify the key characters and their respective story lines. This is straightforward and you can probably do it from memory after the first read. Spend time detailing the main character's inner and outer motivation.

Plot Points

Recall from a previous lesson that you should brainstorm many more plot points than you will need.  From this, use only the best in writing the script.

The same holds true for an adaptation with one big difference-- the author has already provided you with a wealth of plot points. The typical novel has many more than you will need.

The next step, then, is to list the best plot points associated each story line in the book. You can do this from memory, but rereading will invariably unearth some gems.

Only The Best

What constitutes the best plot points? Use the rule previously discussed-- each plot point must be unique and more powerful than the last. This is the key to their effectiveness, and it will maintain a tight,  fast moving script.

The plot points you pick should be appealing to you. This will distinguish your adaptation from how another writer might have approached it.

How Many?

The protagonist's outer motivation is generally the most important story line since it forms the spine of the script (a.k.a. though-line). Choose as many plot points as it takes to properly tell this story in the standard 120 pages. You can better judge this by creating a three act structure and grouping the plot points into their respective acts.

Secondary story lines should also have a beginning, middle, and end, so make sure there are enough plot points to propel these stories to a satisfying resolution. Creating a three act outline for each secondary story is helpful, as well.

Inner Voice

Most novels contain a large amount of thoughts and internal dialogue. This is what makes a novel a novel-- the ability to delve into the inner world of characters. Unfortunately, this tool of the novelist is what dogs most screenwriters.

Screenwriting is about what you can see and hear, so how do you handle this internal world? There are three approaches:

Action and Dialogue

The obvious solution is to have the protagonist either perform an act or say something that reflects his inner world. As always, it should be done in a way that is not obvious and moves the story forward.

Secondary Characters

The primary reason scripts have a love interest or best friend is to draw out the inner world of the protagonist. In other words, it allows the protagonist to articulate or act on his desires, doubts, fears, etc. This technique should be used in adaptation as well.

Most novels will have secondary characters for this purpose. If not, it will be necessary to create such a character within the spirit of the story. If you find this objectionable or it violates the story for some reason, use one of the other two options.


Screenwriting gurus say avoid voice-over. Considering that it has been used successfully in the past, it is a viable option when used properly. I would certainly consider the alternatives first, but if nothing else works, then voice-over may be the way to go.


Externalizing the internal lives of characters brings us to another sticky issue-- how faithful must the adaptation be? There are two schools of thought on this. Some writers feel that an adaptation should be faithful, while others feel that they are free to change things around in an effort to create the best script possible.

The truth is, a successful adaptation is a balancing act. You should tell the story faithfully, but within the principles of good screenwriting. If a screen rule is broken (like putting the audience to sleep), a change must be made. After all, you are "adapting" the novel to the screen, not rewriting it to script format.

Your job is to shape the existing material for the screen. This is a big task in and of itself. Do not make it more complicated by introducing new characters and situations. To do so creates a different story, not an adaptation of the original.

Also, do not "tweak" or add to the story simply because you think it is a good idea. And never change names-- it is the fastest way to alienate people familiar with the story.


Ultimately, you should not make changes unless absolutely necessary to convey the characters and events in the source material. If you must make changes, stay within the spirit of the original story. This is the golden rule of adaptation.

Stay within the spirit of the original story.

An example of breaking the golden rule is found in the boxing movie Cinderella Man, directed by Ron Howard. The opponent, Max Baer, is portrayed as being a sadistic killer, however, in real life he was the exact opposite. Much beloved, he became a movie star after retiring from boxing. While it is true that he killed Frankie Campbell in the ring with his powerful punches, Baer was tormented with guilt and eventually put Campbell's children through college. Cinderella Man is highly acclaimed, but Ron Howard has been criticized for making this unnecessary change and distorting Baer's character.

Cinderella Man


The essence of dialogue and subtext should stay the same. Your job is to compress it so that it has the economy and directness of screen dialogue. At this point you will have to carefully reread the novel, adapting the dialogue as you go along.

In news and historic stories the actual dialogue is unknown. It may be possible to personally contact the principals and ask them what transpired. This is when research comes into play,  and it can be time consuming.

In cases where the principals are not approachable or deceased, you must literally invent the dialogue. These exchanges will be acceptable the audience if they are consistent with the real life people, action, and events. If the dialogue is inconsistent with the truth, as in the case of Max Baer, it will alienate some or all of the audience.

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If you are interested in learning more about the movies used  in this
 lesson, click on the title or picture (courtesy 20th Century Fox,
MCA/Universal, Paramount, TCM, and Warner Brothers).

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