Friday, June 17, 2011

An Insider's Look at Screenwriting

We're excited to post a Q&A with scriptwriter, novelist, and journalist Karen Lin, winner of many national screenwriting awards and competitions. For more about Karen, see her bio at the end.

What should readers expect from a good screen adaptation?
First know that the screenplay will usually be different than the book. It should capture the essence of the story and main characters but not the step-by-step moments. There are exceptions such as Holes, which is YA – just the right length to lend itself to following the story exactly. Movies that try to stick too closely to the books usually end up dragging and boring. If you need something for the story, make it up. If too many subplots or characters are in there, nix some of them. As to the nitty gritty: Grab the audience’s attention with opening image. Introduce your protagonist right away. We want to know early. Don't overwhelm your reader with dozens of names in the first ten pages (each page is a minute on the screen). Limit details that don't move the story forward. Focus the reader's attention where it should be. Give us the clues we need to "get it” as early as possible. Many other things go into making a great adaptation, but those are the bare bones.

What are some examples of crime novels that made great movies?
The Godfather (1972) very effectively and seamlessly stripped subplots way back and it is consistently listed as one of the best adaptations. Similarly, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – streamlined the plot line. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) would have been a bit short if 100% true to the novella, but just the right amount of meat was added. As to true crime: William Goldman (arguably the greatest screenwriter of all time) believed that in historical screenplays, one doesn’t need to be accurate about the people involved, only to the historical event and the result of that event. Example: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn’t even true to his own novel, Marathon Man (told in the head of the kid). In it the only scene that stayed the same when he adapted it to a script was Olivier in the diamond district.

Can you name some failures and tell us why the novel didn’t adapt well?
Most scripts fail when trying to stay too true to the book. They aren’t well acted or directed or edited or visually successful. This is true even for a great book. One example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Have you seen it? Some books are brilliant but are hard to pull off as movies. One recent example of that is The Time Traveler’s Wife. A great effort was made but it still didn’t touch the book. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dune and many others don’t work. Interestingly, Stephen King didn’t like the feature-length adaptation of The Shining but he liked the other adaptations. In my opinion it was the reverse of that. The Shining, partly because the vision didn’t remain 100% true to the book, was the best. The others stayed more true but were duds on the screen. Hope King doesn’t read this. Adaptation is NOT being true to the original. There is controversy over fidelity. But altering the author’s original vision may be required.

What value is there for a novelist to learn the craft of script writing? Can it enhance storytelling abilities?
It helps tremendously. I’ve written over a dozen screenplays, a few of them shorts. I can tell you that my prose has greatly improved because of it. I learned to write tighter, less on-the-nose, with snappier dialogue and to pick and choose the most telling details in the “direction” of the narrative. It improved my storytelling skills and gave me an important lesson in writing visually. It also gives a sense of completeness much quicker so it’s a great boost to the self-confidence.

What is the hardest adjustment for writers to make when moving between the two genres?
First, film is collaborative. They will change your script; believe it, accept it. Most painful when you go to sell, it’s a who-you-know industry. There’s lots of business acumen and rules about it: Outright Sale versus a Development Deal (your script is a lure to pitch your ideas), Auditions (sample script secures you an audition for writing assignment), Options (usually 6-12 months $0-$20,000) at the end of the stated time, the producer pays purchase price or passes.

Then there are differences between who represents you. Agents are Writers Guild-signatories, 10%, no reading fee, 90 day termination clause. Managers (not WG signatories, they nurture your career but can’t sell without attorney, often 15%). There’s the Hip Pocket Deal—when an agency signs someone only to sell a spec script (not to get the writer any other work) It's better than nothing but you want an agent that believes in you as a whole and not just one of your scripts. The bigger agencies tend to offer only this to newer writers.

As to adjusting to the writing of a script: it will to be shorter if adapted from a novel. Since Voice Overs are somewhat frowned upon (Forest Gump is an anomaly), you must be prepared to tell the story without lots of internals. Show Don’t Tell is definitely the rule for screenwriters. And you can’t boss around the director or actors. Avoid camera directions like Close Up – unless it is essential for the plot. Avoid telling the actor to speak sarcastically; this should be evident from the dialogue. If not, improve your dialogue. And don’t put into your directions things that a director can’t portray—like a quick thought backstory that won’t ever come out on the screen. Try to avoid Dawn and Dusk scenes because capturing the moment in several takes is difficult. Film is a more restricted venue. But on the bright side, working in a box is easier for many people. It makes the structure and rules less of a guessing game.

If novelists can visual their story as a movie, should they go ahead and write the script or does it make more sense to shop the novel?
Good question. That depends on who you ask. My entertainment attorney told me to write the book first because more money comes that way, since selling the rights to a movie is more lucrative and easier than selling a spec script (assuming it is a popular book). Personally I didn’t wait to finish a book to write it as a spec script because a producer told me that if I turned it into a screenplay he’d take it on. It never sold (the young producer died before having a chance at it), but it sent me down a detour from my novel writing that I don’t regret at all. After my solo stint, I teamed up with a few other writers on different projects, got an agent (who took scripts to Sonnenfeld, Cameron, HBO, Showtime, and Sci-Fi), and I finally had a co-written short produced. I ended up having to terminate my agent and am looking for another. In the meantime, I have irons in the fire for features, webisodes, and made for TV movies. While I market, I’m back to writing novels with my new skills well in place. How can I regret writing spec scripts?

Do you need a Hollywood agent to sell your novel/screenplay or are there websites and services that put authors directly in touch with production companies?
Yes and no. If you are willing to go the indie route you can team up with small budget director/producers through lead services such as Inktip, learn about the business and what’s hot through e-newsletters like MovieBytes, join local groups like Colorado Actors and Screenwriters Assembly, go to festivals and pitch, and gain attention through contests. When you are starting out, I suggest contests like BlueCat and ScriptVamp that offer great feedback on your work. When you are ready and confident, try The Nicholl Fellowship—cream of the cream—if you even make quarterfinalist you’ll get attention. There are many other great contests. Do your research. Be sure the contest gets your work into the right hands if you final.

What resources do you recommend for a writer who is just breaking into the genre?
Read the trades like Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Read directories like Hollywood Creative Directory. Lead services like InkTis (One service is free; their more complete services cost.), MovieBytes on line.

Don’t be intimidated by the format. There is great software out there like Final Draft and MovieMagic but I wrote most of my scripts using Word…easy…thanks to tabs. I believe has on-line screenwriting software for free.

To learn the nitty-gritty on formatting, start by reading The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. For foundations: Syd Field’s Screenplay. For story development: Story by McKee. For understanding the industry: The Writer Got Screwed by Brooke Wharton and Hello, He Lied by Lynda Obst. For taking it to the next level: Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. There are also many on-line sources for learning the art and business of screenwriting:
  • CASA:
  • Learn the difference between coverage and consulting here.
  • Good site to learn more about the construction of a pitch by Christopher Lockhart.
  • Excellent site for articles on screenwriting by Michael Hauge.
 Most importantly, dive in and try. I suspect you’ll be glad you did.

Karen is a novel, screenplay and nonfiction consultant and editor. But her own writing is her first passion: novels, literary cookbooks, magazine and newspaper articles, and screenplays. She’s garnered international, national and regional awards for feature length and short screenplays (solo and collaborative) including: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and Pikes Peak Writers Contest.  One of her co-written short scripts has been produced. She has been represented by a Hollywood agent, an LA entertainment attorney, and a top NY literary agent who sells book to film. Learn more about Karen and her writing at her website.


  1. This is a terrific post. I plan on revisiting it when I can take the time to read it in detail. There's a ton of great information here, even as 'skimmed' as I've done it so far.

    Thanks, Karen and L.J.!

  2. Nice insight. Another resource is the blog Let's Schmooze - Doug Eboch on Screenwriting. He was the Screenwriter for Sweet Home Alabama and he teaches script writing at Pasadena Arts Center. He has lots of great posts on both craft and business.

  3. Thanks, L.J., for hosting this Q&A with Karen! I keep trying to transfer a novel into a script without dropping threads or favorite secondary characters. Sigh! I know Karen is a pro, and I need to take her advice. Thanks Karen!

  4. What a great topic for a post! I would add A SIMPLE PLAN to crime fiction that made a great movie. (And the screenplay was written by the author--he won an Oscar for it, I believe). Congrats on your success and flexible approach--best of luck in the agent search.

  5. Karen

    Excellent post. I’ve adapted several novels to screen along with an original and have had good Hollywood agent representation, but have not sold. I also believe that scriptwriting does help fine tune dialogue skills for novels. Prior to the screenwriting, I also adapted two graphic novels, the first with my husband Don Pendleton, and the second on my own, ie: War Against the Mafia and Death Squad, book one and two of Don’s Executioner: Mack Bolan Series. Although with Comic scripting, we became the writer, director, set designer, wardrobe designer, and sound effect editor, having done Comics made screenwriting much easier—not in any sense as director, of course, but in visuals.

    One of my favorite books is the Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. It was adapted for a TV movie and I don’t believe it turned out well. But a screenplay which I have read and have seen the film, is L.A. Confidential, and I believe it to be a brilliant screenplay. I did not read the novel but have heard the book is heavy and complex.

    Although I have not written screenplays for some time now, I use Movie Magic Screenwriter and found that easy to use.

  6. Excellent post, Karen! Very interesting and informative, and you cover all the angles. I really loved the book Holes and was thrilled with the movie, which, as you say, was able to closely follow the YA novel. Normally, once I've read the book, I find the movie disappointing, so if I hear about a great movie adapted from a novel, I purposely don't read the book so I'll enjoy the movie more.

    I loved your basic advice for writing an effective screenplay: "As to the nitty gritty: Grab the audience’s attention with opening image. Introduce your protagonist right away. We want to know early. Don't overwhelm your reader with dozens of names in the first ten pages. Limit details that don't move the story forward. Focus the reader's attention where it should be. Give us the clues we need to "get it” as early as possible." This is all advice I give my novel-writing clients.

    Thanks for this great post! Thanks, Karen, for all this valuable info, and thanks, LJ, for introducing Karen to us.

  7. ...and I also really appreciate how you covered all aspects of writing screenplays with your links and list of resource books, Karen. I'm saving this article and link to refer to my fiction-writing clients who might like to try their hand at screenwriting. You're not the first person I've heard say that the skills needed to write a successful screenplay can apply to any kind of fiction writing. And I think that's especially true for writing suspense-thrillers, which are my favorite genre to read and edit.

  8. Thank you for inviting me! Karen


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