Turning Your Novel into a Screenplay, by David Farland

David Farland

David Farland

(From David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants)

Recently I’ve been hired to turn my first Runelords novel into a screenplay. I’m nearly finished with the last book in the series, and I want to complete that first, but it’s not too soon to begin thinking about the challenge—and it is a challenge. Always remember that the book is not the movie. They’re different mediums. A book is long enough so that you normally can’t just remove the excess description and still have a workable movie. You need to simplify the plot—not all of it, just the right parts.

So as I prepare to write the Runelords screenplay, I think I should go over the history of the project, first, so that you can understand why I want to take on the challenge.

Many of you know that I began writing the book in 1996, or at least began plotting it then. I plotted the novel knowing that it had excellent potential as a film and videogame franchise, so I made sure that as I plotted it, I kept the special effects budgets fairly inexpensive (it’s easy to write a novel that would cost a billion dollars to make into a movie), and I paid attention to creating a story that I would want to see as a movie.

As the books began hitting the New York Times bestseller list, interest in them heated up. In 2001 I was invited to take a trip to China with some movie producers to see about filming the movies there, and I took another trip in 2002. I decided against working in China at the time, but began a development company in 2002 and helped raise millions of dollars to create the movie.

The project got derailed for reasons that would take much too long to explain here, and so the rights to the Runelords got tied up for several years. During that time, not a month went by that I didn’t have some producer, director, or studio exec phone me up and ask about the availability of the franchise.

Recently the rights reverted to me, and I’ve had a lot of interest from one of my favorite producers, who is tied to one of the top studios in the world, so the possibility for a movie has been getting very serious once again. But the studio would like to see a fully developed film—one with a screenplay completed, a director attached, and some concept art.

That’s where I come back into the picture. I’ve worked with screenwriters before in a number of capacities. Back in 2002 I began working as a producer, so I took meetings with several writers in relation to the Runelords itself. I also have worked doing green-lighting for independent investors, as a consultant on scripts for producers and writers, and as a screenwriter for movies and as a scriptwriter for videogames. So I’m not new to the field, and I’m well aware of the problems that I face.

When you as a novelist hand your book over to a producer, director, or screenwriter, you should know that you’re instantly in trouble. When a filmmaker buys the rights to transform your book into a movie, you’ll almost immediately find that you have “creative differences.” The filmmaker will have investors to satisfy, and that means that it is incumbent on him to make a film that he imagines will offer the highest potential return on the investment. That means that if he wants to turn your eight-year-old kid into an eighteen-year-old and give him a live-in girlfriend, your filmmaker will do it, and he’ll be right to follow his instincts, even if it does mean that it feels like he’s ripped your heart right out of you. When a filmmaker buys the rights to your story, that’s what he’s paying you for—to rip your heart out, if he wants.

But remember that sometimes there are other less-altruistic reasons that the filmmaker might have to alter your story. For example, when I met with writers and directors to make the Runelords, on more than one occasion, when the writer or director heard my story, they would say, “Wow, that’s a GREAT story! Can I get screen credit for it?” I would patiently explain that, “No, it’s my story. It’s already been published in a novel and has millions of readers, so you can’t really take credit for it.”

However, in Hollywood they CAN get screen credit for the story if they alter enough of the elements to the book or short story that it is based on. So each writer and director would try to “make it their own” by changing as much as possible to suit their ultimate goal. One writer hired to work on the project pretty much disregarded everything in the novel. He was guaranteed a paycheck no matter what kind of crud he turned in. Others changed the nature of the world, the focus of the characters, or tried to write out major scenes and create new major conflicts.

You have to keep in mind when working with Hollywood that there are two things others can steal from you: your money or your credit. And when it comes right down to it, stealing credit will get a filmmaker farther in this business. There are many ways that this is done. One of them is to change your story, but there are ways that credit can literally be stolen. For example, it’s not uncommon for an author to have a movie producer “forget” to give him story credit when making up the title cards to a film. In fact, when you sign your contract, there is a clause which says that if the producer doesn’t perform on one part of the contract, it doesn’t negate the rest of it and you aren’t allowed to hold the producer financially responsible for any such errors or omissions. Thus, the producer can “forget” to give you credit on the film when it goes to theaters, forget again when it goes to DVD, and forget a third time to give you credit when it goes to television. I know of one case where that has actually happened. You have no way to make sure that he ever “remembers” to give you credit, since the contract is unenforceable. Of course, not all producers are such cads, but if you really want to make sure that you get your credit, you have to tie a monetary penalty to the contract to ensure that the producer remembers.

In short, it is in the best interest of your writers and producers to change your story and make it their own. Of course, in doing so, they often ruin the story in the process. In some cases, the story becomes unrecognizable. That’s one reason why movie adaptations are so often far weaker than the original novel.

Of course, if a screenwriter commandeers a story, it will offend the fans of the written version. Most screenwriters are happy to take that risk, even though, at times, the novelist has sued to get a movie removed from distribution. For example, Jean Auel and Anne Rice both went to extremes at times to stop filmmakers from commandeering their tales.

Given all of this, after trying to guide several filmmakers through the task of adapting the Runelords novel into a screenplay, I realized that it’s easier just to do it myself. I haven’t wanted to do this. Initially, I came in as a creative producer, feeling that a screenplay by an established writer would carry more weight with the studios. But I’ve gone through the drafting process now with seven different writers and one director, taking hundreds of hours of story meetings, and I haven’t been very happy with the end results. Some were good, some were a travesty, but none has felt perfect. More importantly, I have a history of doing well on first projects. The first story that I wrote after deciding to “get serious” about my art, called “On My Way to Paradise,” won the Writers of the Future Gold Award for Best Story of the Year. My first novel, by the same name, won a Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for “Best Novel in the English Language” for the year. My first videogame, Starcraft’s Brood War, became an international bestseller that is still used for national championship matches throughout Asia. My first fantasy novel launched a New York Times bestselling series, and my first historical novel recently on the Whitney Award for Best Novel of the Year.

I’m thinking that if I make a serious attempt at this, I’m ready to write a screenplay that will impress the right people. So what do you need to keep in mind when you transform your novel into a screenplay? Here’s what is on my mind:

1) The novel is not the screenplay. While many elements might be the same, you may have to make some changes. For example, I have some back story in the Runelords about Gaborn’s childhood. Since by showing Gaborn as a child I can also help bring in a younger audience (much as Mel Gibson did with Braveheart, or producers recently did by showing Kirk and Spock as children in Star Trek), it makes sense to start the screenplay with my protagonists as children. Similarly, I might change locations of scenes or leave out minor characters.

2) At the same time, I’ll need to speed up the pacing of the tale, particularly in my plotting through the early middle. This means that the story needs to be simplified. There are some scenes that are pivotal, such as the battle at Castle Sylvarresta, that absolutely are so memorable to fans that I dare not touch them. However, I think that there are elements of the battle at Longmot that can be cut.

3) In writing a novel, we often isolate moments in time by writing great description. Many readers will read a scene and feel transported into it. But with a screenplay, description is a minor element. I might write notes to capture some of the description, but it can’t go into the screenplay. So while I may be doing character design and creating settings in my mind, most of that will happen as I work as a creative producer in tandem with costume and set designers.

4) Instead of description and narrative, in a screenplay we need to focus on dialog. Currently, my dialog and speech patterns are strongly inspired by high-Middle English. In order to appeal to a broader market, I’m going to make the speech patterns more modern. Also, I’m going to have to focus a lot of energy on making not just workable dialog, but great dialog—writing lines that will hopefully be remembered by film fans for decades.

Beyond all of these major points, there are dozens of finer points to the craft of screenwriting that you have to take into consideration—the kinds of things that you can learn from various books and classes on the topic. For example, there are timing issues with making sure that you provide appropriate commercial breaks. There may be opportunities for product placement (such as scenes that can form the basis of video games) that you need to include. And of course Hollywood has its own list of do’s and don’ts that might distinguish a beginner from a pro.

In other words, turning a book into a movie should be something that you approach carefully only after you have studied both crafts.

A final note: Currently, I’m getting ready to take my Runelords series to Hollywood. I’ve written what I believe is the best screenplay for a fantasy in many, many years. Worked my tail off. But in order to get the movie made, I’ll need to convince Hollywood that it is worth doing. One way to do that is to simply look at how many people are interested. If you would like to see a great fantasy movie—in line with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, please go to my web page at www.runelordsmovie.com and then like it and—this is important—share it on Facebook. We need a couple of million fans right away.

If you do that, I can do the rest.


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READ: Nightingale, by David Farland

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One Response to Turning Your Novel into a Screenplay, by David Farland

  1. Hi David. Thanks for writing this article. I did turn my first novella into a screenplay. I felt that it was helpful to take my manuscript and plot out the scenes, what I wanted to convey in the scene and what I wanted the audience to get out of it. It was a difficult task (especially when dealing with a character’s thoughts). It was also difficult to select a camera angle for the scenes (I kept thinking, “Shouldn’t the director figure this part out?”) How much description for facial expression and body language to give the actors is hard too. There appears to be two school of thoughts: one is that they are professionals, let them go with their feel for the character and the director’s direction; the other, give them your sense of the character so that they really know what you want them to convey. Somewhere in the middle is where I landed. Good luck with the writing. It’s so personal that when we send our writing out to the world, it’s like sending a child off to school. We want them to be liked, no one to treat them badly and to make something of themselves!

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