With so many stories going from book to the big screen, I’m often asked: Can I rework my book into a screenplay? There is nothing wrong with wanting to see your story on the big screen. The prospect is very exciting. But there is a huge difference between the technical format and function of a book versus a screenplay. Each format requires a different set of skills and perspectives.
In books, the author uses words alone to paint the picture. In a movie, the sets, character’s physical appearance, costumes, and lighting, for example, are integral parts of the story, but don’t get written into the screenplay.
In a book, the author literally spells out how the world, the characters, the emotions, the actions, and the plot points occur. The book is a complete work ready for readers to add their own imagination to create the three-dimensional scenes, sets, and actions. Meanwhile a screen play leaves a lot of room for interpretation for the director and actors, and the sets and scenery leave little to the movie-goer’s imagination.
Books use an ongoing narrative to describe events and advance the plot. A movie focuses on dialogue and action between characters. Anything that includes direction or explanation doesn’t get written into a screenplay like it does in a book. The author must now go back to the manuscript and delete all description, all native, and any other non-essential text. Meaning that’s non-essential in the form of a screenplay. This process should cut about 50 percent of the manuscript.
Readers get to know the character’s motives and emotions through inner dialogue and dialogue with others as well as through written explanation of expressions, gestures, and actions. In a movie, the actor portrays the emotions and it’s up to that actor to do a good enough job for the viewers to understand. Or the director may manage the emotions portrayed in the movie. Either way, these elements do not get written into a screenplay.
A book can provide the reader with insight from multiple characters, while a screen play will allow for only one main character to lead the story. The more characters in the book, the more levels of conflict, the more levels of romance, and other interaction. But that leads to a screenplay in which it is more likely multiple characters from a book are combined into one movie character or eliminated altogether. So now, the author must go back to the manuscript and figure out which characters are essential to the story and cut or combine all the rest.
A screenplay is cut down to the bare bones if it is to be taken seriously or be successful. A trade standard is that one page of manuscript, which is double spaced, will equal one minute of finished movie product. If those numbers are to be extrapolated into an average movie running time of about 110 minutes, that equals 110 pages of screen play. If you have a 500-page manuscript you poured your heart into, imagine how it’s going to feel to cut out most of it to create a screenplay. This is a very basic overview of some of the technical differences between a book manuscript and movie script—there are many, many more.