Monday, June 20, 2011

Column: Screenwriting: More to Consider Before Turning Your Story Into a Screenplay by Karen Albright Lin

Notice I said story instead of novel.  Most of us could name dozens of bestselling novels that have been adapted.  Three recent ones: Memoirs of a Geisha, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Time Traveler’s Wife

But there are numerous examples of other story forms that have been successfully adapted:  autobiography (Pursuit of Happiness), YA (Holes), novella (Shawshank Redemption), picture book (Where the Wild Things Are), Comic Book (Spider Man), nonfiction (Helter Skelter), short story (Brokeback Mountain), collection of short stories (Trainspotting), play (Death of a Salesman), journalism (All the President’s Men), lecture (An Inconvenient Truth), blog (Julie and Julia), T.V. Script (X Files), TV skit (Blues Brothers), graphic novel (V for Vendetta), video game (Mortal Kombat), poem (Iliad adapted as Troy), earlier film (Oceans Eleven 2001, 1960).

If you obtain the rights to adapt another author’s work, and even if you adapt your own story, be aware that film is collaborative; your script and the way it comes off on the screen will likely be different from your vision of it.  Other writers have a go at it.  Even the directors and actors implement their own visions.  Some say the writer is the lowest woman on the totem pole. 

I’ve heard successful novelists insist the writer’s dream is to sell the script and have it NOT made, get the money but not have the work butchered.  When eating lunch with David Morrell, I was surprised to hear that he wasn’t happy with the hugely successful adaptation of his novel First Blood/Rambo.  His main beef: a character he considered very important to his story was simply dumped for purposes of the movie.  Though it went on to become a Sylvester Stallone vehicle franchise and made Morrell loads of money, it disappointed him.

Don’t let the warnings discourage you from adapting your story, however.  There are still good reasons to do it. 

1)    If your agent can sell your book to Hollywood (ka-chink), having the script ready to go means the agent can more easily negotiate for you to be paid to do the first pass at the script (ka-chink).  Count on other established script writers being brought in to do a rewrite or two or three…
2)    You might be one of the lucky few whose script sells before the book or simultaneously.
3)    As I will preach throughout this series, writing screenplays will improve your other writing.

Next time I’ll discuss methods of turning your story into a screenplay.  In the meantime, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief.  Don’t step on the director.  Avoid dusk and dawn. 

Karen is an editor, ghost writer, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. Karen, even the term 'collaberative' strikes fear in my heart. I'm a peace-maker and that would surely doom any of my own efforts.

    I thoroughly concur that learning about screenplays can make your fiction better. On the recommendation of a friend, I purchased The Hero's 2 Journeys with Michael Hauge (a big screenplay guy) and Christopher Vogler, who wrote THE WRITER'S JOURNEY.

    My generation grew up in front of a screen. Either the small one, or the big one. Knowing that, it's important to find a conection between my reader's screen and the page their processing. Knowing a little about screenplays is important.

    Thanks for these posts!

  2. Thanks for a good post. I think if I did sell the rights to my book, I would definitely want to see it made into a movie, even if they "butchered" it. It would be too much fun to resist, and the film would of course sell more books.


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