How do you turn a film script into a novel?
We hear a lot from writers about their experience when someone turns their novel into a film. In this post, I’m focusing on something I’ve developed a little niche interest in: turning a film script into a novel. Typically, this happens when a filmmaker has a fully developed script, has begun the casting process, and decides that it would be good to launch a novel at the same time as the film. They need a ghostwriter; if you are asked to do this, you may like some answers to the question: how do you turn a film script into a novel?
It’s often said that film and novels are two aspects of the same thing and there’s a sense in which they are – they are both ways of telling a story. Making too much of the similarities, though, can blind us to the differences, and those differences tend to be in the way the script is written and not in the way the film is directed and acted. A novel can tell the same story as a film, but it cannot do it in precisely the same way as it is written in the script. There are many differences in technique, but the two most important are:
- Show, don’t tell; and
- Presentation of location and physical appearance (including clothes).
“Show, don’t tell”
The first of those two main differences may not seem like a difference at all, because “show, don’t tell” is as vitally important to film as it is to a novel. It is not, though, always in the film script, because it doesn’t need to be. Now, some scripts could pass straight into a novel without amendment. Take this, from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (NOT one I worked on):
An old gas guzzling, dirty, white 1974 Chevy Nova BARRELS down
a homeless-ridden street in Hollywood. In the front seat are
two young fellas — one white, one black — both wearing cheap
black suits with thin black ties under long green dusters.
Their names are VINCENT VEGA (white) and JULES WINNFIELD
(black). Jules is behind the wheel.
That will take its place just fine in a novel. But that’s about setting up the scene. It’s a little different when the scriptwriter is advising actors on how they should speak. Like this:
“He says this matter-of-factly, not cruelly, but she seems put off anyway, as if he’s being overly defensive.”
In the film, viewers will see the male character apparently stating something in a straightforward way without any underlying intention, but they will also see a negative reaction from the female character. It takes the screenwriter 18 words to make that clear, and the action on the screen – another 23 words, this time of dialogue – will take only seconds; the screenwriter relies on the skill of the people on screen, and of the director who has to get the required performance out of them, to convey the two characters’ emotions. That’s not how it works for the novelist.
“Show, don’t tell” is second nature to good novelists. You don’t describe what is in someone’s mind by spelling it out, because readers don’t want that – they want to see what the character is thinking from the way the character acts. Imagine the above script writer’s instruction popping up in a novel as dialogue:
“Look, I said that in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I wasn’t being cruel.”
“Well, I’m put off in any case. I think you are being too defensive.”
Okay, that gets the message across, and in the hands of some novelists (not very good novelists, is what I’m trying to say), you might actually find it on the page, but I think most readers would sniff at it, and good writers would stop reading at that point and not pick the book up again.
One of the things that novelists do so that the reader can understand what is happening is to enter the head of one of the characters and describe what’s going on there. My novel, Sharon Wright: Butterfly, starts like this:
The outside tables would have given a better view, but sitting outside in the growing dark would attract attention, and not attracting attention was one of the things that kept Carver out of jail. He watched the girl as she walked down the road. Tart. Look at the length of that skirt. Asking for it.
She turned between the stone pillars. There would have been a gate once, a handsome gate for this had been a moneyed people’s street in the days before they turned the houses into flats. She fumbled for her keys. Carver hadn’t needed a key to get into her flat. A tart’s flat. Cupboards full of drink. It wasn’t womanly. Carver’s mother had drunk Cyprus sherry, and that only on special occasions.
Carver’s mother hadn’t lived alone, either. Not at that age. It wouldn’t have been proper. She’d lived with her family, been a wife and mother, enduring. She’d stayed with her husband till he died, and she’d gone on looking after Carver until he went south, looking for a place where people would pay for good service, properly executed. Properly executed! It still made him smile. There were people who thought he wasn’t the full shilling, he knew that, but he’d dreamed up his own slogan, good as FCUK any day.
Let’s look at all of the things that that short passage tells the reader:
- This character’s name is Carver, and he has some reason for being aware that he could end up in jail, which means that he is involved in villainy of some description – and the reader will expect the nature of that villainy to become clear as the story unfolds in the novel.
- Carver disapproves of women in short skirts, which tells us something about him and his view of life. Also, Carver thinks alcohol in a young woman’s apartment is not womanly – another clue to his thought processes.
- The girl he is watching lives in a house that has once seen better days but has now been broken down into apartments.
- Carver has been in her apartment, almost certainly illicitly, and he let himself in without a key, which tells us something else about the kind of person he is and the things he does.
- Carver’s mother’s life is described as “enduring,” a clue to the relationship she had with Carver’s late father.
- The reference to, “a good job, properly executed,” when added to the other hints, makes us almost certain from the beginning that Carver is someone who kills people for money.
Novelists can’t, however, show us everything we need to say by putting us inside the character’s head. More often, there will be a combination of action and thought, as in this description from my novel, Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, of the first time a rather innocent 14-year-old boy makes love – actually, he doesn’t, he has sex – with an experienced girl a year older:
The first time was a disaster, because it was over before it started and I was really embarrassed and I wanted to cry but Kylie wiped the mess off her stomach with my Y-fronts and then she hugged me and said we’d be able to do it again in a minute and it would be fine the second time, I’d see.
And it was.
And sometimes it’s pure description, with almost no addition of anyone’s thoughts (I have highlighted the two exceptions in black) (this comes later on in Sharon Wright: Butterfly):
Jackie arrived at Ealing with thirty minutes to spare. He went into Waitrose and bought a bottle of water and a sandwich for the journey. Before he reached the checkout, he went back and bought another bottle of water and another sandwich. There was no certainty Sharon, in her current state of excitement, would remember to provide for herself.
He walked to the station. Here a problem presented itself.
‘The Penzance train doesn’t stop here,’ said the ticket seller.
‘It must do.’
‘Well, it doesn’t. The 12.05 from Paddington gets to Penzance at five past five. But it doesn’t stop here. If you want to go from here, you need the 12.33, change at Reading, arrive seven oh two. You want a ticket?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You want me to say it again? Is that man looking for you?’
Gough turned round. Five yards behind him, grinning obscenely through a mostly toothless mouth, was the biggest, nastiest, craziest person of Gough’s acquaintance.
‘Jackie. Jackie Gough. Fancy seeing you here.’
‘Dan. How…how are you?’
Ablett stepped forward and grabbed Gough’s arm. Without apparent effort, he wheeled him away from the ticket office and towards the platform. ‘I’m fine, Jackie boy. Considering. Considering I done five years I hadn’t needed to do if some little shit hadn’t grassed me up.’
They were now on the edge of the platform.
‘How could you do that, you little shit? How could you grass me up? What harm did I ever do you?’
‘I…me? Dan, I don’t know who’s been talking to you, but…’
‘No-one’s been talking to me, Gough.’ He pulled a tape from his pocket and waved it under Gough’s nose. ‘I’ve been listening to this.’
‘I…oh, God. Oh, no. Dan, I…I didn’t…I couldn’t…Dan!’
‘So why tell the bloody Bill you did? Eh?’
The track approaching Ealing station is straight for some distance. Trains that have eased and edged their way through the inner and outer reaches of west London hit their stride as they gather pace for the run to Reading. Fast trains to Wales and the west country, in particular, are closing on their top speed as they streak through Ealing. The 12.05 from Paddington to Penzance is a fast train to the west country. Gough had his back to it, but Ablett could see it clearly, still half a mile away but approaching rapidly.
‘Dan, I swear to you. I said those things because that bloody Prutton woman told me to.’
At that speed, it takes a train less than forty seconds to cover half a mile. The train was now two hundred yards away—a distance that would occupy it for nine seconds. Ablett leaned forward, heaved Gough’s body over one shoulder, took his arm in one huge hand and his leg in the other. He swung the helpless graduate and failed criminal in a huge circle. At the top of the arc, he hurled Gough up and out into the path of the onrushing locomotive.
Gough screamed. He fell onto the tracks, turned, saw the train all but on top of him. He gathered all the strength he had for a desperate leap to safety before three hundred tonnes of accelerating steel hit him in the chest and threw him sideways. He fell on the track under the unforgiving wheels. As the train hurtled over him, his severed head and one hand were flung to one side. The rest disappeared below the speeding train.
There was silence on the platform. Then began a screaming that those who heard it swore they would never forget. The ticket seller rattled down the blind across his window and locked his door.
Mad Dan Ablett turned, grinned at his stunned audience and wandered forth into the street.
No-one made any attempt to stop him.
There are 634 words in that passage. It would be less than half of that in a film script, because significant parts of it (The track approaching Ealing station…) would not appear in the script at all, and other parts would be reduced to a fraction of the number of words they have in the novel, not least because of:
Clothes and locations
Very brief descriptions of where the action takes place are all a script needs, because the director will make her/his own decisions about locations. Nor does the script need to describe the people, because what they look like will depend on who is cast. And there’s no need to describe the clothes beyond saying that his suit is cheap and worn out, or that she is wearing a black T-shirt, because all of that will be settled between director and cast.
That won’t work in the book of the film. Readers like pointers on what the characters look like. They like to have some idea of what sort of place the action is happening in. So the novelist writes:
They had food, wine, cigarettes and coffee. The boat travelled slowly and the locks arrived only after long stretches of nothing to do but smoke, eat, drink and watch the passing woods and farmland. Once in a while, a cyclist passed on the route de halage, outpacing the boat and leaving it behind. Sometimes, the canal bent far enough to the west to be in earshot of cars on the N5 or, more rarely, a passing train. Mostly it was quiet.
Buggy was content.
The stone houses turned in on each other. The few men they saw were dressed in thick woollen check shirts and woollen trousers belted high on the stomach, the women in black dresses and headscarves. Closed, weather-beaten faces glanced away as they passed.
Doyle stared hard at the magnified view of his mark. His heart began to beat with the excitement of an impending kill. The man looked to be in his late fifties, solidly built, a face reddened by the wind and good living but without fat or puffiness. Well-groomed grey hair. An air of authority. A hard man, probably—not in the scrapper’s sense, though Doyle felt he could probably hold his own, but the hardness of the man accustomed to being obeyed. Given another birth, another upbringing, a successful captain of industry. Beneath the unzipped yellow jacket, a white shirt covered a flat stomach. Doyle focused hard on pockets and armpits. He was prepared to bet the man wasn’t carrying.
For those reasons and some others, the “book of the film” will always be longer than the “film of the book.” When the script is in your hands, you need to rough out a chapter by chapter outline of the way that – at present – you think the book might be likely to go. That outline will always change as the book is written. If you’re signing a contract, and the filmmaker is in a hurry, don’t agree to write the outline in less than three days – not because you’ll be working at it for that many hours, but because it needs to sit in the back of your mind while your subconscious works on it.
It’s a large market, and an attractive one, but it doesn’t seem to be one that most freelancers think about. If you decide that you want to get involved, I strongly recommend contacting agents in the film business. They know who is looking. Which means they know where the deals are.