Screenplay Lessons Learned Adapting My Own Fiction
The day this article goes live should be the day my first feature-length horror film is released by IFC Midnight in limited theaters and on video-on-demand. It’s called We Need to Do Something and I wrote and executive produced it. I did not direct it. I offered many times to direct it but nobody responded to those emails. I also offered—well, demanded—to play “the toilet” (the movie takes place almost entirely in a bathroom). Oddly enough, those emails were ignored as well.
It’s okay. Just because one movie refuses to cast me in the role I was destined to play, that doesn’t mean some other movie won’t give me a chance sometime in the future. I’ve played the waiting game this long. Another couple of months or years won’t make that much of a difference. Unless I die before then. If that happens, carve my bones into a toilet, and stick me in a movie. I should also note that going against my final wishes will legally result in a haunting on your set that you simply can’t afford to exorcise. Trust me. I’m a doctor. [Editorial—To the best of our knowledge, Max does not actually have a medical degree.]
We Need to Do Something is based on my novella of the same name, which I released through my small press, Perpetual Motion Machine, back in early 2020. Not long afterward, my film & TV manager Ryan Lewis encouraged me to adapt the book into a screenplay. I followed his advice, because the last time I disobeyed one of his orders I spent nearly three weeks living in an abandoned well.
Fortunately, this turned out to be Ryan’s best idea yet, because after the screenplay was finished he sent it off to a few connections and sold it to Atlas Industries within a couple months. I Zoomed with Sean King O’Grady in July 2020 about potentially making it with him as the director, and by the end of October we were wrapping filming. In June 2021 we premiered it at Tribeca and now, on September 3rd, a little less than a year after we started shooting the movie, it will be released to the public.
I don’t think movies are supposed to happen this quickly. I am not entirely sure this isn’t all some kind of weird prank. I admit, it would be very hilarious if it was. Everybody knows the best pranks completely ruin someone’s life. Oh god please don’t let this be a prank.
Anyway, while working on the screenplay, I learned a bit about the craft, which I thought would be cool to share here. I’ve often heard from other author friends of mine that they are interested in trying to adapt their own work into scripts, but aren’t quite sure how to tackle such a project. If you are in a similar position, I hope this article will help in some way. If it doesn’t, please reach out to LitReactor and demand a full refund. I am positive they will accommodate you to the best of their abilities. [Editorial—This column is free to the public.]
Study Other Screenplays
We Need to Do Something was my second attempt at adapting my fiction into a screenplay, and by far my most successful. Before I started working on WNTDS, I sought out the screenplays of my favorite movies. Try googling “[movie title] screenplay” and there’s a good chance you’ll track down what you’re after. Obviously you’re going to have better luck with older movies, but sometimes newer releases are made available to the public for awards consideration. I’m not going to link any here since a good majority of the time these screenplays will be uploaded illegally, and LitReactor has already forbade me from using their website to commit crimes (I asked), but c’mon. It’s the year 2021. You should know how to find things online by now.
Reading screenplays of successfully-produced movies will teach you more about screenwriting than any Internet guide or how-to book. When attempting to write my own screenplay, one of the biggest early challenges was the fact that I had zero idea how to actually, you know, write it. Screenplay formatting is often mystifying for those without any experience (and, to be honest, also for those with experience). If you read enough scripts, you will learn the general guidelines for how to properly lay out the text. You will also start realizing every screenplay is slightly inconsistent, and perhaps there aren’t any concrete “rules” for how to format them, after all. My best advice here is to start off trying to emulate the formatting from other screenplays, but also don’t be afraid to let some of your personal style seep into the margins (do screenplays have margins? I forget what “margin” means).
Outline, Outline, Outline
I’m going to be honest. I have no idea how anybody could ever write a screenplay without outlining. I’m sure people have done it and continue to do it, but my brain simply can’t comprehend it. With prose, I’ve certainly written short stories and even novels without doing any strenuous pre-planning. Sometimes it’s easy, in the heat of the moment, to let each sentence naturally carry you where the story needs to go. This intuity that I often depend on when writing, however, did not want to translate when I started working on a screenplay. It’s such a different way to craft a narrative, and I immediately felt out of my element, like I was starting all over again as a writer—which, in a way, I guess was true.
Embracing outlines was the perfect remedy. Especially for a story like We Need to Do Something, which was already written in book form. If you’re trying to adapt your own work—or anyone’s work, for that matter—piecing together an outline is essential. How I approached WNTDS was like this: I created a bullet point listing of every important scene or plot point in chronological order (not necessarily the order things occurred in the source material). I studied this list, ascertaining that each bullet point was crucial for the story to work. Asking myself questions like “if I delete this scene, does the rest of the plot still make sense?”
Once I was satisfied with the bullet point list, I broke it up into three smaller lists: Act I, Act II, and Act III. I worked hard to make sure each act had its own beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes this required me to invent new scenes or conversations to make everything transition smoothly. More than once I had to restructure the order of certain events, just because the narrative made more sense a certain way when presented under a cinematic lens.
Track Characters & Important Details
My film & TV manager, Ryan Lewis, is a guardian angel. Without him, this movie would have never gotten made, and I’d probably be passed out in a ditch somewhere covered in Dorito dust. The process of writing the WNTDS screenplay involved me finishing a draft, sending it to Ryan, then going over his many constructive notes and revising as we thought was necessary.
One of the most common notes he sent me in the early drafts of the screenplay had to do with keeping track of every character at all times. Because the novella is written in a first-person point-of-view, the narrative doesn’t always provide a spotlight on every other member of the family trapped in the bathroom. It makes sense to zero in on the narrator and only spotlight what she’s personally seeing and hearing. But, of course, it’s not that simple with cinema. The audience is not experiencing only what the protagonist is experiencing. They are witnessing everything on screen.
So, in the case of We Need to Do Something, where the majority of the story takes place in a small residential bathroom, following four people, I didn’t have the luxury of temporarily forgetting about what one of the cast members might’ve been doing. I needed to know exactly what they were all up to at any point in time. Even if one character was the center of attention in a scene, the chances of other characters appearing on camera in the background were very high. They couldn’t just be doing nothing. The key to strong writing is to treat characters as people with motives and desires, even if their presence isn’t always required for specific moments. They’re still there. And this was something I kept fucking up in the screenplay. Luckily, I had Ryan to add helpful notes asking me what other characters were doing. I suddenly feel like a giant baby now that I’ve typed this paragraph out. Oh well. Moving on!
He also helped me track not just characters, but details. In this movie, the cast often beats the hell out of the bathroom door as they attempt to escape. Gradually the door gets bloodier and more destroyed. I didn’t realize how important it was to track the door’s status throughout the script until he pointed it out. It’s necessary not only for the producers and director and cast but also for the people in charge of building the set. And, if characters are going through any physical changes, such as bruising on the knuckles, or facial cuts, it’s just as important to make note of those details to make the makeup department’s job easier.
When it comes to tracking details like these, it’s good to be concise. You don’t need to take up a paragraph of text trying to describe things. For one thing, you’re wasting page space, and the goal should always be to cut any unnecessary text to hit that 90(ish) page mark. In my experience it’s far easier to overwrite a screenplay than to underwrite one.
Embrace the External
There’s a very simple mantra I learned to repeat to myself while working on this screenplay—and, indeed, other screenplays since completing WNTDS.
Here it is:
Books are internal. Movies are external.
With a book, you can explore the inner thoughts of characters. You can lay out backstories and motivations and everything else in just a couple sentences. But in a movie? The audience doesn’t read those sentences. They only see what’s on the screen. And, unless you’re relying on voiceover narration (gross), you have to get creative with how you present your characters.
In a screenplay, there’s no use writing something like, “She curls up in bed, sobbing, thinking about the family she recently lost.” You can’t just tell us why she’s sobbing. You have to show it. Maybe she’s hugging a photo of her family. Maybe the family has returned as ghosts and are performing impossible hula hoop tricks around her bed. Who knows? There’s a thousand ways to figure out workarounds to this stuff, and that’s when things get really fun, I think. Embracing the visual medium.
Telling stories in new and exciting ways.
Which, as writers, is something we’re always hoping to do, right?
Hope you aspiring screenwriters found some of this information helpful. For even more practical examples of adapting one's fiction into the screenplay format, why not buy my book and then watch the film adaptation?
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