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Writing a Novelization

A Question-and-Answer session with some of the top authors writing novelizations today. For their bios, please visit the About the Authors page.

QUESTION: The script arrives from the studio. Obviously, you read it first. But
what comes next? What is your process? Do you go through and circle
the dialogue you intend to keep or expand? Highlight the scenes that
need more details, background or context? Earmark pages where
additional scenes can be added? Or do you just sit down, open the
script on your desk, and use it as a detailed outline…and simply
start writing your novel?

Keith R.A. DeCandido – I don’t generally take notes, but that’s because I’m not a note-taking guy. My life in college got much better when I stopped taking notes because those notes were interfering with my ability to pay attention to what was being said (weird, I know, but it’s how my brain works). I generally read the script once just to read it, and then read it again with thoughts as to how to reorder scenes and where to add things and stuff like that, and then start writing, using the script as an outline.

I keep =all= the dialogue. As far as I’m concerned, it’s sacrosanct. Dialogue will get added, of course, which I try to keep in the same tone as the dialogue in the script.

Max Allan Collins: I read the script once or twice, to get the general lay of the land, trying not to think too much like a novelist. In fact, because I’ve directed three indie films, I would say I read it like a director…which is I think the secret of whatever success I’ve had in the form: that I can read it from a filmmaker’s perspective AND as a novelist.

Then I break it down into chapters. This is to serve two functions: a., to start putting the material into novelistic form; and b., give me a work schedule — I usually write one chapter a day, so this will tell me how many days I’ll be working on the project. On IN THE LINE OF FIRE, though, due to the incredibly tight deadline, I did two chapters a day.

What’s tricky is to organize the material within those chapters — and on occasion, sparingly, to reorganize, change the order in which material appears. What I’m chiefly referring to is the cinematic technique of crosscutting between simultaneous-action scenes, which works well on screen but is incredibly choppy in a novel. So I may put all the pieces of a scene together into one chapter, or maybe half-chapter; and the same with the pieces of the other scene, with which it was crosscut.

Another decision I make is point of view. I hate head-hopping, though I do a little of it in novelizations because of the nature of moviemaking –standard movie narrative technique is omniscient, going anywhere, anytime it feels like. But ideally in a section I’ve marked off as a chapter, or a major section of a chapter, I can find a character whose POV makes sense. Strong, focused POV further gives the proper interior feel to adapation of material specifically prepared for the exterior medium of film.

The most audacious thing I ever did with a novelization, and probably my best novelization at that, was with the mediocre “tunnel disaster” script, DAYLIGHT. I treated it like a documentarian interviewing the survivors, and did multiple first-person accounts…with occasional italicized omniscent intros at the top of chapters. I didn’t give the Stallone character a POV chapter in the novel, which (if you haven’t seen the movie) makes the reader wonder if he survived to be interviewed. A multi-cast audio book was done from this, and it rocked. I’ve had more than one reader tell me DAYLIGHT was my best novel, including all my originals. Does one smile, laugh or weep?

I do the same thing with a novelization script that I do with a script I’m shooting as a director: I put a big X through material “shot.”

I work with the script next to me, and just glance at the dialogue as I write, using what feels right, rewriting and expanding otherwise. I realize this is controversial and few on this list seem to agree with me, but I view dialogue (unless otherwise intructed by the client) as anything but sacred.

In my opinion, prose writers need to understand that movie dialogue is NOT novel dialogue. Screenplay dialogue is compressed, and depends on the gifts of actors to make it believeable and to bring it to life.

The opposite is also true: when I adapt my own fiction to screenplay, I toss that dialogue out, too. Different animals. And I rarely have a client complain about this approach.

If the dialogue is just sort of functional, I replace it. If it’s good, I leave it in, but still expand and enhance.

What is sacrosanct is the story. I try to “follow the script out the door.” If Moe comes in after Curly in the script and he’s carrying a salami, by God he will be in the novel.

But these are different mediums. I was once hired to write a script from one of my own novels. I re-read the book, highlighted a few snippets of dialogue that I liked, but otherwise started from scratch. I needed a different kind of dialogue in the script.

Not the same animal.

And keep in mind that even if we have the final script, it’s not really the final draft — another “draft” happens on the set, where actors and
directors improve dialogue as they see fit; then another “draft” happens in the editing suite, where dialogue is cut and replaced (and scenes are left out and re-ordered). Treating the dialogue in the script like the Bible risks starting an offshoot religion.

It varies from project to project, obviously — and the ground rules…and the ground…can shift beneath you. But my goal has always been to create a book that seems to be the book the movie was based on.

Robert Vaughan – When I did ANDERSONVILLE…I got a script that was still in the process of being developed, but they were quite lenient with how I treated it. The biggest physical difference, of course, is in the number of pages. There are many more pages in a novel, and I found that the easiest way to handle that was to show the motivation, through backstory, of some of the major characters. Also…whereas the screenplay will suggest certain “off-screen” events, in a novel, you have the time and opportunity to show those as well. One other big advantage to novelization, is the fact that you can be in the POV of your characters.

Kevin J. Anderson – I have never ever worked with a studio who would send me the script on disk. Even though I sign every nondisclosure form they want to mail me, they are still paranoid about the possibility that if I have an electronic form I might upload it to the internet. Of course, this really hits hard when I have an extremely tight deadline, and just typing the original words in takes me days.

I cheat, in that I have my assistant key it in from the start and, because she has a brain, I also have her put the script words into narrative (i.e., proper format, past tense, “he said,” etc.) When she’s done, I have a badly written but properly formatted 20,000-word story that I have to turn into a 60,000 word novel.

I break into chapters, reorganize a little bit (for timing, to smooth out the intercutting of scenes as has been previously described), then start expanding. I’ve got to basically triple the amount I have to start with.

I agree with Max philosophically on movie dialog vs prose dialog…however, I’ve dealt with enough crazy movie people who scream if you change so much as an adjective. Since my goal is to get the manuscript approved as smoothly as possible, I do not change any dialog, though I try to pad and expand it. I also add scenes and explanations to rationalize all the silly irrational stuff that movie people never seem to care about.

Writing a novelization is, to me, hard and often dull work. Tie ins are fun.

Greg Cox – I’ll read the script a couple times just to get the Big Picture. Then I go through the ms. with a stack of post-its and start assigning a designated POV to each scene. As others have already mentioned, cinematic cross-cutting makes this tricky, so sometimes you have to smoosh the scenes together to keep them in one POV long enough to make for a decent scene or chapter.

Having dealt with some fundamentalist licensing people in my time, I’m always uneasy about adding new scenes and dialogue, but, yeah, sometimes you have to flesh things out a bit. If I’ve had a chance to see multiple stages of the script, I’ll sometimes hang onto scenes and dialogue that have been cut out of the latest script for some reason . . . as long as they don’t contradict anything that’s been added. This makes me nervous, too, but, if the script is on the short side, I figure it’s safer to include discarded scenes than make up new ones on my own.

Jeff Mariotte – I’ve only done one movie novelization (BOOGEYMAN), and one TV novelization (three eps of BUFFY). They were extremely different, for reasons discussed much earlier in our gathering. The Buffy episodes had aired, and my job was to translate the viewing experience directly to the page.

The movie novelization was more challenging and more fun. I read the
script a couple of times, started writing, found out that I was
working from the wrong script, then got the right one and started
again. But as Greg said, because I had multiple versions of the
script, I was able to salvage scenes that had been cut from the movie
but that improved the book. I was also better able to guess at some
character motivations that were pretty vague in the final script.

Once I’d read the correct script two or three times, I did some
research. I needed to know what the characters looked like, and didn’t
have many stills, but I knew who was who. I found actor pics online
and put them in the book folder so I could refer to them. I also found
some production stills online that the studio hadn’t provided me,
though not many. Part of the main character’s arc is that he’s been
afraid of the dark and afraid of shadows since childhood, and he’s
spent a lot of time in analysis and in a children’s psychiatric
hospital. So I did some research on those things, so I would know how
his doctor would really talk about his problems, and what he’d think
about them with his adult’s perspective.

By then I felt ready to dig in, so I opened the script next to the
computer and started to write. There were still the same issues of POV
and structure others have described, which I’d already mentally begun
addressing during my script readings.

Two of the three credited screenwriters let me know they were
extremely happy with the book, and pleased in particular that I’d kept
some of their deleted scenes (not all of which I knew were deleted,
because the final cut was substantially different than the script I
had). So the stuff I added and the stuff I kept was in keeping with
their intent.

Bobbi Weiss – I’ve done quite a number of middle grade and young adult novelizations (SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH, ALLEN STRANGE and others). I tend to read the script first for pure info. The second reading is to pinpoint the “tone” of the narration I will use. Some novelizations, in my opinion, miss that vital tone of the original material. The narration doesn’t quite “feel” like the show/movie. Translating tone is a very hard thing to do-more of an instinct, I think, or perhaps an “ear” as one has for a certain type of music. When I write a novelization, I don’t want to just translate the story as well as I can. I want the reader to feel all the emotional undertones of the show/movie they love. When I read a novelization, that’s what I enjoy the most.

I then go through the script to label POVs for certain sections and to eliminate scenes I can’t fit into the novel (again, doing kids’ novels means I have much less room to work with). Sometimes just fitting the darn thing into the space allotted is a chore.

I do not change dialogue, unless I really need to for flow. Dialogue is, again,like music to me. Good script dialogue has its own melody. My job is to compose a new dialogue-narrative melody on the page that suggests the original but, by necessity, must be a new work. Besides, I do not freely change dialogue because, if the script were mine, I simply wouldn’t want some writer to change my words without a darned good reason. So I am very careful here. Call it respectful. (Then again, if the script dialog is poor, you betcha I try to improve it!)

I got into the novelization business because, as a kid, I read tons
of novelizations: STAR TREK, PARTRIDGE FAMILY (God, can you believe it?) and lots of movies. I’m still thrilled to be writing them for kids who, like me, love to read them!

James Swallow – I see a lot of similarities in other people’s process to how I approached my novelisation of THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT…

I went through the script a couple of times so I could hold the whole story in my head and test it for points where it wasn’t holding water – a 90 minute movie that zips along might be able to get away with some plot holes through sheer momentum, but a novel generally occupies a reader’s mind for a lot longer, so I wanted to make sure I patched whatever cracks I could.

After making notes on some ideas for additional detail and a couple of extra scenes, I wrote a chapter outline that the movie people signed off on. I looked for natural scene breaks in the script that would translate well to chapter beginnings/endings.

One problem I had with BUTTERFLY was that the narrative took place in three distinct time periods spread out chronologically, and I didn’t want to break up the book with headers reading “ten years later…” Luckily for me, the script had a plot gimmick based around the lead character’s journals, so I took that idea and used a first- person narrative interlude to give the transitions, as well as creating ‘book-ends’ for the novel.

When it came to the actual writing, I largely kept to the hero’s viewpoint (it was his story, after all) but as to the actual construction of scenes, I approached it as if I was directing the movie. I wrote the novel like the film I imagined I would have made.
As for dialogue, I didn’t cut anything. I wanted to – there was some very gratuitous swearing I wanted to lose – but I was forbidden.

Ironically, that scene wasn’t in the finished movie for that very reason, but there you go… Generally, the rule in scripts is “enter a scene late, leave a scene early”, so I reversed that for creating the novelisation to add more colour and depth.

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT had already been finished by the time I started work on the book, so I knew who the cast were and I gathered up pictures of them so I could “see” the characters. I had three actual stills from the movie itself. The fact that the movie was largely done made my experience pretty smooth.

When I finally got to see a preview of the film a month or two after I’d handed in the MS, the ending was different, huge chunks of the early script were gone and the director had made choices that were very different from the ones that I had – but I was pleased by that, because it means that folks who saw the film and read the book would get two distinct takes on the same story. After the fact, I got a fair bit of mail asking me if the movie had been based on my novel, and how I felt about the “adaptation.”

QUESTION: A lot of you have talked about the importance of POV in tackling a novelization…particularly in a movie that shifts among various characters. But how do you approach the issue of narrative “voice?” I know this goes hand-in-hand with POV…but I think there’s a distinction.

Most novelizations are told in third person…so do you use your own “voice,” or do you attempt, somehow, to embody the tone of the screenplay in the voice you choose to use? Obviously, the voice changes when you are in the POV of a certain character… but even then, isn’t there an “over-all” voice for the book regardless of the character you are with in a particular chapter? Is choosing that voice a conscious decision for you… or not?”

Greg Cox – Even in third-person, you want to strike a tone that fits the genre and setting. For example, if it’s a medieval fantasy or Gothic horror thing, I’d want to maintain a fairly classical tone. “Madness gnawed at his reason.” But if it’s something lighter and more contemporary, I’ll let the narrative voice get looser and more slangy. “Jim freaked out.” The same would apply, I imagine, to westerns, hard-boiled detective yarns, etc. “Jim had gone plain loco,” “Jim was crazier than an Apache on the warpath,” or whatever.

Steve Perry – I tend to pick out a character in each scene of a script and have him or her be the VP character for that scene. Even though the camera looks at everybody, (unless you are doing POV angles,) you can pretty much tell who the director thought the main player in a scene was by the shots s/he uses to present it. Try it some time — watch a movie and count the shots in a scene. The person who gets the most camera time is usually the focus. You can almost always suss this out without actually timing it.

Any interiors in the novelization, I limit to the VP character I think is the axle around which the rest of the scene revolves. If I need to be inside somebody else’s head, I’ll put a # and jump there, much as you would do in using a new camera angle in a director’s script. (Those of you who might not know, when you write a live action script, you usually don’t put in camera angles, the director likes to reserve that
right. If s/he writes ’em down for the shooting script, stuff like MEDIUM ANGLE – TWO SHOT or HIGH ANGLE or STEADICAM, then you know where the camera is looking. Animation scripts are directors’ script, because, in theory, there isn’t a director for what you see, there are storyboard artists and animators. There are voice directors … but I blather. Back to the point.)

This has worked pretty well for me on the few of these with which I’ve been involved. This is a personal preference. I don’t like omnipotent VP, and while I have written stuff in first person, (and even in second person, try that one sometimes), limited third-person viewpoint seems to be the easiest for readers to digest.

The tone of the writing comes from the script’s tone. If it is funny, tongue-in-cheek, that’s how you play it in the book.

An adjunct for me to this is, that when doing a novel set in the same universe as a movie but not the novelization of the script itself — Star Wars, for example — I try to write the book in such a way that it will play like a movie in the reader’s mind as s/he reads it.

I love it when a reader says, of one of my books in a shared universe, “This was just like a movie — it ought to have been one.”

Raymond Benson – With “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell,” I use both first person and third person. The series is based on videogames in which the player controls the main character, Sam Fisher, so in a sense the player is “inside” Fisher’s mind. The game also includes “cut scenes” which are like movie scenes that advance the plot. Thus, I decided to make all of Sam Fisher’s chapters in the novelization first person– that way the reader is “inside” Fisher’s mind. Other chapters that take place without Fisher being present are in third person, and are thus “cut scenes.” It seemed to work well and Clancy’s people and the publisher liked it, even though Clancy had never done first person in any of his own books. Just another way of trying to match the style of the book with the style of the medium upon which it was based.

Max Allan Collins – Point of view is a real problem in novelizations. I’ve always been a strict POV man — one POV at a time; it’s a strategy that gives focus to the material. I often organize my own (non-licensing) work around a POV scheme, for instance alternating the protagonist with another (different each time) character in the chapter pattern.

I’ve taught this technique at writer’s conferences for over twenty years, and cured lots and lots of writers of head-hopping. But I find movie scripts I’m given to novelize rarely lend themselves to my style of POV — they jump around. And I have to break my own, well, not rule…but preferred technique. It’s the shortness of movie scenes (even when we expand ’em) that makes that necessary.

MAVERICK was a joy not only because I loved the TV show, but because the lead character was in virtually every scene, and I was able to do the rare first-person novelization (on the old show, there was frequently a Maverick V.O.). My most outrageous use of POV in a novelization was in DAYLIGHT, where I used multiple (about half a dozen I think) first-person POVs. I also alternated first-person chapters in I LOVE TROUBLE, using two untrustworthy narrators, which was a lot of fun.

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