Q: Have you ever adapted a novel into a screenplay? If you have, how’d you break down the book into what you felt would translate well into the script? Also, I was thinking about adapting one of my favorite books. Do you think this is a good idea?

A: I’ve adapted four novels into screenplays. (One of these I did early on just as a practice run; the other three were paid assignments.) Here’s how I handled the last adaptation I was assigned:

After reading the novel, I went through it all again page by page and highlighted everything that I felt could be successfully translated to the screenplay. If a character did something or said something, then it got highlighted. If a character thought something, or if the author was providing background info that wasn't absolutely relevant to the scene or the progression of the story, then it probably didn’t get highlighted. (The reason I say it “probably” didn’t get highlighted is because you can oftentimes find useful material in an author’s exposition, so keep an eye open for it.)  I did this throughout the entire text of the book. Then I wrote up a beat sheet of everything that was higlighted, breaking it all down into separate scenes and providing a thumbnail sketch of what took place in each scene. Your "beat sheet" looked something like this:

1). Joe arrives at work (a widget factory) and finds the office has a new receptionist. Her name is Jane. She’s mid-20s and hot.

2). During the course of the next few hours, Joe can’t get any work done—he’s too busy thinking/dreaming about Jane.

3). Later, Joe has lunch with Mike at the corner burger place. Joe can’t stop talking about Jane. Mike says, “Forget it, bud. She’s a lesbian.” Joe asks, “What makes you think that?” Mike says, “Because I asked her out for lunch and she turned me down flat.”

4). Later, as work is letting out for the day, Joe confronts Jane in the parking lot. He shyly asks her out on a date. She accepts!

Feel free to expand on your beat sheet, including any character descriptions, dialogue, descriptive passages, notes, etc. The last novel-to-screenplay beat sheet I worked from was about 45 pages.  

Remember, novels tend to go off in several directions, veering away from the central characters or plot. You can’t necessarily do this in a movie. In a movie you have to stay on course, including only what is pertinent to the “spine” of the story you’re trying to tell.  Once you have your beat sheet/outline, chip away at it a bit further, trimming it down to a lean documenta document that will serve as a trusty road map for the story you want to tell and the screenplay you want to write. 

As for your last question: Sure, you can adapt any book you want. But if you weren't actually paid to do it, DO NOT SHOW THE COMPLETED SCREENPLAY TO ANYONE. Seriously. If you don’t own the rights to the book, or if you weren't commissioned to adapt the book, you can be sued if the script gets sent out and read by anyone.

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Rod Serling, Writer

I recently finished reading As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling," Anne Serling's wonderful memoir of her father, who sadly passed away in 1975 at the young age of fifty. I'm sure many of you know Mr. Serling from TV's The Twilight Zone (he introduced all 156 episodes, wrote 92 of them) , but he was far more accomplished than that. He was a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and teacher. He was also a fine man and a wonderful father to his two girls. There's a wealth of interesting and insightful Serling-related material on YouTube, including interviews and documentaries. I urge those of you not familiar with Mr. Serling to explore these videos and discover the myriad contributions this talented man made to the film and television industries.

Just a few videos to check out:

Rod Serling on Writing, Part 1
Rod Serling on Writing, Part 2
Rod Serling on Writing, Part 3
American Masters documentary
My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone