How I turned my screenplay into a novel (and how you can too!)

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Photo courtesy: Conrad Press

Back when I was in film school at UCLA, a friend told me about a real woman named Ada Lovelace who lived in the 1800s. She was a mathematician and worked with inventor Charles Babbage to create programs for the world’s first computer. I read several biographies about Lovelace’s life, and though I went to film school to write broad, female-centric comedies, I decided I would try my hand at a biopic.

My screenplay about Ada Lovelace was called Enchantress of Numbers. I loved writing it, and I was so excited when it won several big awards. The screenplay also got me an agent and led to my first professional screenwriting job, writing a biopic about Charles Darwin. Enchantress was optioned, and an Oscar-nominated director was attached. It was a thrilling time in my life and I thought to myself, ‘This writing-thing is going to work out!’”

Well, all that happened over a decade ago. The Charles Darwin script was cast aside due to a competing project. And though I tried, Enchantress remains unproduced because the financing never materialized.

I was filled with self-doubt and completely disenchanted (pun intended) with the film industry. I felt like my take on Ada Lovelace’s story was unique and unexpected and I really wanted to share it. I was so frustrated by seeing so many underwhelming movies get made, I became negative and cynical. I knew I was a good writer, so I needed to find a way to get out of this emotional and professional funk, but how? A good friend suggested a “pivot.” She said to try writing the same story in a different medium. Turned out, it was great advice.

I decided to turn my screenplay into a novel. If you can relate to my story, I’m here to tell you that you can also turn your screenplay into a novel, by following these simple steps.

No. 1. Use your screenplay as an outline

As screenwriters, we know we have to come into a scene late and exit as early as possible. With a novel, you have the luxury to indulge in writing the entire scene from beginning to end. Do you have scenes you cut from your screenplay? Bring them back and stick them in the novel. Let them live and breathe. For me, this was a very rewarding process, almost like a visit with old friends. Fill in any “cut to” story gaps with connective tissue scenes.

No. 2. Make a timeline

This is especially important if you’re telling a historical story or one about a real person. Go through each scene in the script and decide the month and year. You will need this information for filling out details about weather, clothing and holidays later. If it’s Christmas in a cold climate, you can add the details of preparing a Christmas ham or mending a thick wool coat.

No. 3. Tell the story in the first person

While screenplays are always told in the third person with an active voice (not including narration), you also have to decide if you’re going to write your novel in first or third person. I had no idea how to choose, so I wrote my first draft of the novel in third person. It was terrible.

The more I thought about it, the thing that seemed to work best about the screenplay was my protagonist, Ada. Then it hit me that I should rewrite the novel from her perspective, in the first person. Once I made that decision, the story became much more urgent, the character relationships more powerful and I think it was easier for the reader to connect emotionally to my protagonist because now they were put inside her head, listening to her most private thoughts. This was a powerful lesson for me in terms of writing characters in any format. Emotion is king in storytelling and saying “I” or “my” is just more immediate.

No. 4. Indulge in visual details

In a novel, there are no images to help tell the story so everything needs to be described in painstaking detail. At first I hated doing this. I was used to relying on a  costume designer to make all the decisions about what a character is wearing, but now I had to become an expert in Victorian clothing. Buying a book on Victorian fashion helped me tremendously. It’s easy to Google paintings and drawings from the time period but I needed to know the names of everything from a “high bodice with a front closure” to a “skirt with five flounces, trimmed with ruching.”

Adding details about the food were probably the most fun for me since people ate crazy things in 19thCentury England like “jellied eel” and “stargazy pie” – a savory seafood pie where fish heads stick out of the top of the pie as if gazing at the stars. A screenplay has no room for details like these.

I recommend writing a draft of the novel with placeholder descriptions, then going back through the scenes and adding the details.

No. 5. Perfect your “active voice”

For any type of writing to get and keep our attention, it must be active and urgent. All journalists know that a headline written in a passive voice will fail to capture a reader’s eye. Whenever possible, let the subject of your sentence make the action. Here are a few good examples of both passive and active voice.

The opening line of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë could have been, “Well, I certainly didn’t want to walk in the garden, but the rain prevented it anyway.” Instead, she used an active voice and the novel starts like this, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” The fact that she doesn’t tell you WHY there’s no possibility is the hook that takes you to the end of the paragraph where she finally mentions, “…clouds so somber, rain so penetrating” as the reason.

No. 6. The first paragraph of your novel should tease the experience of your story

In a screenplay, the opening image sets the tone for your movie and teases what is to come. The opening paragraph in a novel should do the same and hint at what kind of experience your reader is going to have without giving too much away. Here is mine:

All my life, I’ve been terrified my talents would be wasted.

Not only do I have an aptitude for numbers, machines

and scientific discovery, but they are my life’s passion. Curious

to a fault, independent – no, downright stubborn, I have a

mind that constantly questions the world around me. Though

it may seem as if these skills would have created a wealth of

opportunities for me to build, create and invent exciting new

mechanical wonders, there was one simple thing standing in

my way: I was a girl.

No. 7. The second paragraph should put the reader into a moment of excitement

This was difficult for me to figure out. Originally, I started the story with Ada waking up in bed with her cat before skipping breakfast and taking a back staircase up to the roof to test her flying machine. Then I realized there was a stronger hook. I decided to start with Ada on the roof, strapped into her flying machine about to jump. Here’s my second paragraph:

Standing on the roof of the home where I had lived for nearly

all my seventeen years, looking over the edge, feeling the breeze

whip through my tangled, auburn hair, I couldn’t help but

think what an exciting time it was to be alive. It was 1832 and

everyone in England was looking for new ways to harness the

power of steam. Steamboats stormed the seas and steam trains

rolled over earth, but I knew steam power offered so many

more possibilities. The world was changing fast and I wanted

to be a leader of that change. Numbers were exciting on their

own, but I wanted to apply them to something meaningful,

something extraordinary. More than anything, I wanted to

harness their power into the science of flying machines in a

new field I called Flyology.

No. 8. Chapter breaks

If you’ve written a TV spec or pilot, you know that the end of each act sets up a question or hook that will only be answered if you wait through the commercial break. Use your chapter breaks in the same way. Pose a question or problem at the end of a chapter to keep your reader turning the pages.

No. 9. Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing

If you can get a publishing deal, definitely take it. It will save you learning how to do everything yourself. After about 20 rejections, my book was picked up by a small British publisher, saving me a lot of work. But the book industry has changed so much, self-publishing is now a fantastic option, especially if you are a person who wants to retain all creative control. The royalties are also much higher. If you self-publish, I do recommend you hire a professional copy editor, however.

Courtesy of Shanee Edwards

No. 10. You may need to change your title

Go to Amazon and search the current title you have. For me, there was another book with the same title as my screenplay, so I came up with a new title. I love what I ended up with.

Overall, I feel proud to be an “author.” It’s something I never thought I could do. I’m excited that I’m able to tell this story and know that people are reading it. If you’re a screenwriter and you really want to get your story out there, I know it’s something you can do, too.

Ada Lovelace: the Countess who Dreamed in Numbers is available on Amazon as a Kindle and print book. If you would like a signed copy, you can order one from my website: ShaneeEdwards.com at the discounted rate of $13 for the ScreenwritingU community.

 

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

12 Replies to "How I turned my screenplay into a novel (and how you can too!)"

  • comment-avatar
    York Davis May 13, 2019 (6:25 am)

    Heh Shanee, your posting above is very good timing in my case. Over 3 years, I’ve researched and accumulated a period biblical story of Joseph of Arimathea enough for a TV series. However, as a screenwriter with several well-reviewed period scripts, but no breakthrough yet, my biblical story hasn’t a hope in hell. What to do? I’m told prospective managers, agents and producers will much more likely consider a project if it’s backed by an I.P. ie. a novel. I ‘ve been thinking of writing my first biblical novel, hopefully in a series of 3 or 4. So thanks for your (inadvertent?) shove in that direction and valuable hints at how to do it. From your pic, you look like a happy, positive person, who concentrates on positive aspects. But how about a list of pitfalls in going from script to novel? I’ll order your novel as am sure it will be good. Cheers… York Davis.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee May 13, 2019 (1:23 pm)

      Thanks York, I wish you the best of luck. You’ll be so happy when it’s done! In terms of pitfalls – for me it was punctuation. I’m terrible at grammar and tenses (which never seemed to matter in a screenplay) so all of that was a big headache. Then, right before it went to press, I had to change the American spellings of words to British spellings – I was so stressed out trying to figure out what words they spell differently! I think it was okay in the end but it was an adjustment transferring to the new medium.

      • comment-avatar
        York Davis May 15, 2019 (9:40 am)

        Thanks again, Shanee, I grew up in New Zealand and spelt words the English way, so that won’t be a prob. pitching in the UK. However putting commas in the right places was never a strong trait for me. Grammar…. meh!?! All the best in the sale of your new novel. Do you have a blog post I can follow?

        • comment-avatar
          Fay Devlin May 27, 2019 (12:25 pm)

          Hey York. See Shanee’s point 9: hire a professional copy editor! You won’t have to worry about punctuation, grammar and spelling in the end.

  • comment-avatar
    Chris Cornelius May 13, 2019 (7:43 am)

    Thank you for this Shanee!
    It has me thinking about the plans I had to combine my screenplay and memoirs.
    I was all gung-ho about getting my script and the attached projects out there 4+ years ago… to use ‘what was uniquely mine to better the world’.
    Alas, immediately after posting the project I found myself dealing with burdensome health issues.
    The times have changed immensely since then. The mission/movement’s relevance and acceptance is something I am currently pondering.
    Thank you.. again.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee May 13, 2019 (1:25 pm)

      Thanks for reading, Chris! I really hope you’re feeling better and I totally encourage you to keep at it!

  • comment-avatar
    Robin & Dave Brantley May 13, 2019 (7:49 am)

    You go, Shanee! What an inspiration you are… awesome job! Really want to read your book 🙂 (AND see the movie, someday!)

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee May 13, 2019 (1:26 pm)

      From your fingertips to God’s ears! Thanks for reading!

  • comment-avatar
    Robert M. Brunelle May 13, 2019 (10:26 am)

    Thanks for sharing. I did the same thing with my first novel, Miracle at Del Norte.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee May 13, 2019 (1:27 pm)

      Where can we get Miracle at Del Norte? Amazon?

  • comment-avatar
    Joshua May 13, 2019 (12:20 pm)

    It doesn’t always have to be written in first person. Might be an easier transition of mediums.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee May 13, 2019 (1:28 pm)

      True Joshua, but for me first person felt closer to writing a screenplay. Thanks for reading!

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