On Novels and Film Scripts


Black Orchestra

I have written 4 novels and I’m working on no. 5. I’m also attempting to turn my best selling book, The Black Orchestra, into a film script.

When I start a novel I build an outline of 60 chapters, and when I start writing I aim for 1,500 words in each chapter. 60 x 1,500 = 90,000 words. As I write the book, of course, some chapters turn out longer, some shorter than the target and I often end up with more (or less) than 60 chapters. The Black Orchestra has 93,000 words in 62 chapters.

When I outline my novels, I use “the 3-act structure” favoured by film makers. In a 2-hour film the 3-acts are (roughly) 30 mins, 60 mins, and 30 mins long. The 60 chapters of my novel outlines are divided into 4 more or less equal parts of about 15 chapters each. The end of Part 1 (i.e. Act 1) reaches a climax, a serious crisis perhaps, or a major turning point in the story. The end of Part 2 is the mid-point of the book, by which time the theme of the book should be clear to the reader. The end of Part 3 corresponds to the film’s end of Act 2, where the major crisis or turning point of the story happens. Part 4 of my novel corresponds to Act 3 of the film, the ending.

Novel                                      Film                              Both

Chapter 1                             Key opening scene    The Inciting Incident

Chapter 15 = End Part1       End of Act 1               The first big climax

Chapter 30 = End Part2      Mid point                    Theme is set

Chapter 45 = End Part3       End of Act 2               Major climax

Chapter 60 = End Part4      End of Act 3               The end

The script for a 2-hour film consists of (around) 120 pages, one page per screen minute (on average) so this is how the film “step outline” and novel outline for this novel would compare:


Novel                                      Film

Part 1                                      Pages 1 – 30 (running time 30 mins)

Part 2                                     Pages 31 – 60 (running time 30 mins)

Part 3                                     Pages 61 – 90 (running time 30 mins)

Part 4                                     Pages 91 – 120 (running time 30 mins)

In terms of scenes, a 2-hour film will consist of (very roughly) 80 scenes each of 1.5 minutes duration. Of course there may be more or less than 80 scenes, and the duration of each scene may vary from 5 seconds (say) up 10 minutes. The number and duration of the scenes are critically important, as these will determine the pacing of the movie.

So, in converting The Black Orchestra into a film script, the first thing I had to do was to put the “step outline” together by identifying and numbering each scene. First, I counted the scenes. The novel has 187 scenes. This is easily enough for two 2-hour movies, when you consider that a scene in a novel is not constrained to a single time or location, the way a film scene is, and many of the scenes in my book are too long for the screen and would have to be split into two or more movie scenes.

This was a major eye-opener. Novels – at least the ones I write – are too densely packed to convert easily into film scripts. To put this another way, I suppose I need to rethink the amount of material (i.e. action) that I put into my books. Maybe I need to tone down the pace a bit, leave more time for internalisation, descriptions of locations, etc.

Anyway, I went back to the drawing board and started cutting the book down to a manageable size for a movie. I conflated 5 characters into 2 and removed whole sections of the story, until I had 80 scenes. I then estimated the duration of each scene, playing around with these figures until the total added up to 120 minutes.

I now have a step outline for my first movie.

Now to write the script and the treatment.

Wish me luck!




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