SPS 191: Turning Your Book Into A Movie (From Book To Script) with Sara McDermott Jain

Posted on Jan 4, 2023

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Chandler Bolt [00:00:02] Hey, Chandler Bolt here. And joining me today is Sara McDermott. Jane, Sara is an award winning producer, screenwriter and the international best selling author of the book called Wolves at Night. She’s also creator of the book two script course and which shows authors how to adapt their books into screenplays. And she teaches both screenwriting and operating at a college level. That’s what we would be talking about here. How do you turn your book into a screenplay? Maybe even how you turn your screenplay in a book. We’ll see if we can if we get to that. Which which should you do first? Is there even any hope that this book is going to be turned into a movie? We’ll try to unpack all that stuff. My goal is this will be a go to resource if you’re looking to turn your book into a movie. So if that’s you buckle up or if you know someone who this is their goal, then share this episode with them and I hope you’re both in for a treat. Sarah, welcome. 

Sara McDermott [00:00:58] Fantastic. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to talk about this. And I really do believe that for most authors, this is a dream of having their book turned into a movie. So definitely a topic to cover. 

Chandler Bolt [00:01:10] Yeah, who wouldn’t want that? Right. So the age old question, which came first, the chicken or the egg for you? Which came first? Being a screen writing screenplays or being an author. 

Sara McDermott [00:01:20] So my background is sort of this interesting mix of publishing and screenwriting. So I initially started out thinking, you know, my whole life is going to be books. Like, I went to grad school to get a master’s degree in publishing. And while I was there, I actually wound up taking a screenwriting course. And like, long story short, I wound up selling the screenplay I wrote in the course, which set me off on this screenwriting journey. So now I’ve been a working screenwriter for about 15 years. I did have my book Wolves at Night come out last spring, which became an international bestseller. So that was amazing. But yes, because I have kind of this blend of publishing and screenwriting in my background, I’ve always been really, really interested in adaptations and helping authors to do their adaptations. And in terms of which one comes first, I really do think so. I am a firm believer that any story can be adapted into a film, even if it’s nonfiction. It’s just a matter of how you choose to do it, how you choose to translate that into characters and and all that stuff. But I really do think that when we first get ideas, there’s kind of a feeling in us of, you know, do I feel like I’m being called to kind of make this a book first or make this a movie first and that you kind of you want to go with that with whatever that initial feeling is to get it started. But yes, I very much believe that then after that initial, whatever it’s first supposed to be is out, you can look at it and and figure out, you know, how to go from there. And what I will say for myself personally, just because I had such a thorough background with screenwriting before I did my novel, all those screenwriting skills really, really will help you as a novelist. So, you know, in terms of screenwriting, there’s lots of like particular rules. You learn just about how to structure it, how to design your characters so that they interact the way you want them to, to interact how to do your dialog. All that stuff then carries over into writing a novel and I believe made my novel anyway much, much stronger. 

Chandler Bolt [00:03:17] Hmm. Do you feel like it’s kind of a it’s based on which direction you’re called. Is ah, is this do I feel like this is this is. I’m kind of getting tugged more towards the screenplay or I’m kind of getting tugged more towards the book. Yes. Which do you think is easiest? 

Sara McDermott [00:03:32] Oh, my goodness. So that’s such a hard question because I think. 

Chandler Bolt [00:03:36] Easiest for the first time. So assuming you haven’t written screenplays before, you haven’t read the book before. I’m going to do one of these, too. 

Sara McDermott [00:03:44] I would say maybe the book. So again, I think that you’ll be called, you know, either way. And I think, you know, it’s you kind of you want to go with that. I think certain stories also lend themselves more to being a book than a screenplay, because certain stories, if they’re more internal, you’re going to want to do the book. But I’ll say I think the book first is easier. So there’s there’s certain things that are easier or harder about both of them, because, of course, the book is longer and and all this stuff. But with the book, you’re more open to kind of just delve more into the psyche of those characters. And really what’s challenging with screenwriting is that you have to be very economical. So screenplays cannot be they used to say they cannot be more than 120 pages long, but nowadays the trend is really downward. So like I would say 100 to 110 pages, you really don’t want to go over that. And a lot of that’s dialog. So like the word count of a screenplay isn’t going to be anywhere near like, say, if you had a 110 page book, the word count is going to be way higher than it would be for 100 hundred and ten page screenplay. So for that reason, what I think people really struggle with is knowing like what to keep, what to include. That’s going to really move that forward and and keep it interesting. Whereas in a novel you kind of indulge yourself to like to dig in and it’s for the reader too. It’s easier to follow in a novel if you’re going to include a whole lot and bunch of different characters and a bunch of different storylines. Screenwriting, it just has to get really, really streamlined. 

Chandler Bolt [00:05:11] MM That’s really interesting. What, what is the average word count of the screenplay. 

Sara McDermott [00:05:18] Oh my goodness. 

Chandler Bolt [00:05:19] That that’s maybe not average but with just like the general ballpark. 

Sara McDermott [00:05:22] So I’m trying to think so I’ve never actually checked like word count, but I’m going to, I’m going to think I’m trying to think about, like, the word count of my novel. All I’m going to say, it’s probably like 20,000 or something because again, it’s just about 100 pages and a lot of it is dialog. So a screenplay is formatted when you have your dialog, there’s a ton of white space on either side. So reading through those pages, it’s, it’s very fast read because it’s just like lines. 

Chandler Bolt [00:05:50] Yeah. 

Sara McDermott [00:05:50] A lot of white space so. Yeah. 

Chandler Bolt [00:05:53] That makes sense. 

Sara McDermott [00:05:54] Yeah. Yeah, you do. 

Chandler Bolt [00:05:55] Because I feel like your words for Page is probably going to be 100 to 200 words per page. I think I’m forgetting the exact number of books. I used to know this, but I feel like it’s like three 5400 words per page in a book or are not. Well, because we’re talking about like word doc where a doctor Google doc pages versus actual book. Obviously that’s going to vary and be different, but that makes sense because then that would land you about about ten, 20, 30,000 words, right? Yeah. I’ve got kind of this. You talked about the length of your novel. I’ve got this little chart. It’s in my book published. So for anyone who’s watching on the YouTube channel, you’ll be able to see this little chart. Gosh, I can find it for anyone who’s watching on or who’s listening on the podcast. Check it out in the book. Sorry once again. All right, check it out. Page 57. So I kind of talk about like the average length. Sorry, I know this is hard to see, but the average length depending on genre. And so this speaks to what you’re talking about. So you’ve got, you know, a novella is 10 to 40000 words. I think probably a novella would more closely resemble a screenplay. You’ve got a novel which is 50 to 150000 words plus plus like that could be really, really long for prolific nonfiction, which is like 30 to 70000 words. And then you’ve got shorter than that if you’re doing abbreviated nonfiction and then all the way down to like 700, 200 to 750 words of the children’s book of or that sort of thing. So it’s really interesting the different the different word counts. So it sounds like one of the key skills of writing a great screenplay is you’ve got to get really good with dialog and you’ve got to be very good at moving a story forward with as few words as possible. 

Sara McDermott [00:07:39] Yes. And it really is an art form. Like a lot of times I get hired, so sometimes I sell original screenplays, but a lot of times I get hired by production companies just to clean stuff up. Like, they’re like, we love the idea of this, but it’s it’s too long or, you know, we have to go into production and it’s just not quite there yet. And really something I’ve gotten very good at is just how can I say the same thing in fewer words so that it has more impact and it’s almost like a game. Like it really is kind of fun because I can look at a huge paragraph and I just keep condensing, condensing, condensing, and it might wind up being just like one sentence by the end, but the one sentence is just as powerful. And you want to keep in mind too, that people are reading screenplays. So like when you’re sending screenplays out, marketing them, trying to get them made, you know, producers and all, like they’re not necessarily big readers. Like maybe some of them are, but some of them aren’t like they’re visual people because that’s why they’re working in film. So it’s something if it’s something that’s real heavy with description or like overwritten a lot of extra words, which is authors have a tendency to do that, like especially doing an adaptation to a screenplay because that’s what they’re used to. They’re used to being able to have all those words. They’re going to look at it and be like, No, but like, I can do this. So the quicker it is that you can pack a punch in as few words as possible, like if you get good at that, that’s really going to help set you up for success. 

Chandler Bolt [00:08:56] That’s really great. And it reminds me of like I heard one time, it was. Gosh, Jerry Seinfeld. I wanted to see Jerry Springer on the news that. Jerry Springer. Jerry Seinfeld. I think I heard him say one time, it’s like he would spend an hour or 2 hours figuring out how to cut one word out of a joke. 

Sara McDermott [00:09:18] Yes. 

Chandler Bolt [00:09:18] Yes, you can get to the punchline it more people are going to get it and the jokes are going to land better. It sounds like that’s a craft that you’ve been saying. 

Sara McDermott [00:09:26] And there’s there’s this great quote from like Mark Twain as well to a friend when you probably know which one I’m going to say, like, where is he says, I would have written you a shorter letter if I had more time. Yeah, but I didn’t have enough time. So you got, like, the whole the whole long thing, you know, just came. Yeah. 

Chandler Bolt [00:09:43] So let’s talk about big picture differences between writing books and writing screenplays. We’ve touched on a few of them, but I’d love to hear other big differences that you see and that people should be aware of. 

Sara McDermott [00:09:55] Yes, well, this is definitely a big one. The other one, I think, to really be aware of. So for writers and again, if you’ve started as an author and then you’re adapting into a screenplay, it’s almost like learning a new language because you have to learn to convey everything you want to convey just with visuals, action and dialog. So in a screenplay, there’s none of this. Like you’re in description and you can describe like what they’re feeling internally. Like, don’t that’s like a big no. Like, so you can’t say like he’s so upset, like, you know, that he leaves the room and you just say he leaves the room. Like you can’t explain. Like he is outrageous. You just can’t believe she would do this to him, especially after all they’ve been through. Because your audience has no way of seeing that. Right? So it’s logical. So if you’re sitting in a theater watching a movie, you can’t see what was written in the description. So if you’re going to be describing like these internal states, it does nothing like for your audience down the line, they can’t see it. So it’s I say it’s really like learning a new language that you have to communicate just with the visuals, just with the actions, just with the dialog. So what visuals can you use that’s going to convey the same kind of stuff? Like what actions can they take? Like actions speak louder than words, so put it in their action. Like, what are they actually doing? So like one, one example I sometimes use is like, say you had a scene with a boyfriend or girlfriend and she’s asking him, you know, she’s real busy, she’s asking him to go mail her college application like so she gives it to him. I guess nowadays this is mostly done virtual, but pretend she gives it to him to actually mail on a physical mailbox. He says he’ll do it. And then in a scene we see him go to do it and instead he throws it in the trash can that’s next to the mailbox instead. So you’re getting it in action that he doesn’t want her to go away to school. You know, that he’s got insecurities, but you don’t. But there’s been no need to actually explain that, like in your description and say, oh, he’s in insecure. So you got to show. And again, this is kind of like a game, like you got to ask yourself and play with it. Like, how can I show it with what they’re doing? As opposed to just telling. 

Chandler Bolt [00:11:53] Oh, don’t tell me when. My most popular blog post on our on the blog is Show Don’t Tell. And I think it’s through the lens of writing a better book. 

Sara McDermott [00:12:03] Again, something. 

Chandler Bolt [00:12:04] In the context of a movie. 

Sara McDermott [00:12:05] Yeah, the skills definitely translate. Like when I went to do my book, I really felt that it it gave me a leg up, just that I was familiar with all the different things with screenwriting so that you don’t just resort to like exposition or too much, too much telling. 

Chandler Bolt [00:12:21] And because what does exposition mean? 

Sara McDermott [00:12:23] So it’s when you’re, you’re explaining like point blank what’s going on, like what I’m feeling. And this this guy’s into as well. So another great tip, things for people to keep in mind. The dialog, like you said before, is super, super important. So you wouldn’t want to have dialog where someone is explaining like, Hey, man, I’ve known you since we were ten, since we were first like on the bed, the peewee basketball team together. And you had my back all through high school, you know, it just doesn’t sound real. So, like, that’s. 

Chandler Bolt [00:12:54] When. 

Sara McDermott [00:12:54] I, like, explain our relationship, like, step by step, but people don’t actually talk that way. So if you have a friend, there’s no need for you to explain to your friend the history of your relationship. It would be weird. So same thing applies in a movie or in a book. Like if you have somebody doing that, like it just doesn’t it’s just not going to ring true. It’s going to turn people off. 

Chandler Bolt [00:13:15] That’s great. Really, really helpful. So tell me about. Gosh, there was one or two things that you keyed in on there. You talked about the three elements of a compelling screenplay, and you also talked about not needing to write in the actions. Do you like are you directive in how you’re writing that in the script? Like, are you putting storms out the the room? Like, are you are you kind of giving direction to the visuals that are going to happen that aren’t in the actual written text or. 

Sara McDermott [00:13:47] And it’s always kind of a fine balance because you want to give your actors a little bit of freedom. And of course, the director the director is God when it comes to film. So, you know, with books, you definitely have more control over. This is exactly how I want to do it. Whereas with film directors is going to come in, it’s going to get a little collaborative. But yes, like when you’re in the screenplay process, again, I’d say try to be as descriptive as you can, but again with as few words as you can. So if you can put like storms out, then they very clearly get that action. You know, they understand. I would say avoid. This is another mistake people sometimes make, avoid putting in too much camera direction because that’s really going to be the domain of the director. So don’t put in a whole lot of I mean, if it’s important to the story, you can do it like once or twice. But I would say definitely don’t put in a whole lot of like what kind of shot you want or Oh, this is supposed to be an extreme close up because like they’re going to figure that out themselves. So like, you just focus on the story you can focus on if they do leave the room, you can say storms out, that’s fine. Yeah. So all that stuff is going to help give the overall vibe of the story. And again, descriptive, good, powerful words, letting you do it in a short, short amount of words. 

Chandler Bolt [00:14:56] Cool. And you talked about kind of those the three elements of a powerful screenplay. You said visuals. You said dialog is something else. 

Sara McDermott [00:15:04] Action and dialog. Yeah. So visual the visual thing that you see, the action that the person’s actually taking and the dialog. So again, it’s, it’s everything that you’re thinking of in terms of your book. How are you going to translate it into those? So again, this is this is it’s I think it’s a fun process, but it’s something that you have to think about and be a little bit creative like. So if you have had a lot of things happen internally in your book, it’s something that you have to think about like, so how can I show the same thing externally? So another example I’ll use another boyfriend girlfriend example. Maybe in the book you could explain that they knew each other since high school. They were high school sweethearts, but then they broke up and years later they’re getting back together. In the film, you don’t want to have the exposition explaining that. So instead maybe one character just pulls out an old picture and it’s them in high school, or it’s them going to the prom and then boom, your audience gets it just with the visual. They’re going to know, Oh hey, they have a whole history. Like, so there’s this whole background here, but you’ve done it in like 1/2 with one visual. And the action of them taking it out and looking at it, of course, probably means they still have feelings as well. So you’re using those visuals and actions to get that across. 

Chandler Bolt [00:16:16] That’s a totally different process. That’s so interesting. Are you are you writing that into your screenplay? 

Sara McDermott [00:16:22] I am. So I’m in the process of adapting my book into a screenplay. And there’s definitely things that that I have to think about because having done it as a book this time around, like there’s there’s a lot it’s to the story itself. She’s very isolated in this cabin for the first half before like these other guys show up. And so a lot of it is her like remembering things that have happened or thinking about, you know, the different struggles and and things. So I’ve had to give a lot of thought to, well, how am I going to show this, you know, now that I can’t just have it in her in her mind? 

Chandler Bolt [00:16:53] Yeah. And is that what you recommend for people who are turning their book into a screenplay? Is is kind of think of those visuals that will more easily tell the story and maybe pencil them in. So you just know this is progressing the story. 

Sara McDermott [00:17:06] Yeah. And just start to brainstorm, like start to think to yourself again, have fun with it always, but start to think to yourself, okay, here’s something. It was just internal, so how could I show it? And maybe it’s not the first idea that comes to your mind, but brainstorm a couple ideas and something could come across. You know, that works really well. What I’ll say too. So a lot with writing the screenplay, of course, because it’s so much shorter than the book. You might have to cut a whole lot out. So we can we can talk about that a little bit. Like things to cut or combine. Sometimes characters get combined, but occasionally you might have to create like you might have to create a new character just for the purpose of giving your character someone to talk to so that we get to see, you know, what’s going on in their head or we get some kind of background. So that’s something that you always have to think about too. So be open to if I have to create or add something just for the sake of the story so people understand. So like if you’ve ever read a book and then you see the movie and you’re like, why did they give them a best friend? That’s why. Like they needed they needed some other person there so that there could be interaction instead of just just the person. 

Chandler Bolt [00:18:09] Yeah. Wow, that’s fascinating. I never even thought about that at all. So I’m going to take a guess at these three elements and who owns what. And I want you to correct me. If I’m wrong and then, you know, maybe fill in the gaps. So when I think about visuals, action and dialog, I would think the dialog is predominantly on the writer. The action is predominantly on the the actor, although we haven’t really explain what that is yet. And then the visuals, it’s kind of owned by the director. Is that wrong or right? And then as a writer, do you kind of own all of those? Some of those? What does that look like? 

Sara McDermott [00:18:45] Extent you do. So I actually I like your breakdown because I never quite thought of it that way. I like your breakdown though. So like, I think there’s definitely something to that to an extent. The writer owns the most of the writer with the screenplay really is giving the blueprint that the others are going to work off of. So I think when it comes to like action so mean meaning, I think in the sense more like the emotion that they’re going to be delivering. The actor can definitely, you know, definitely has a huge influence on that. The director also will be directing the actor and might say, Hey, play it this way, play it more sad, you know, whatever the case may be, but it’s all going to come back to the script. So like whatever that blueprint, the bones that you gave them in the script is going to inform, you know, what they choose to do and, and even the director. So with the visuals, you might give some visuals in their script, they’re probably going to have their own particular vision. So again, it’s a very collaborative medium. So I kind of I let authors know that too, because if you’re used to just doing your book and I have it exactly this way and this is how I pictured it when you go into film, it is collaborative. So, you know, I always caution people because they’re so eager to get the film deal. Don’t just be eager to get the film deal. Make sure that you really talk with that person and don’t just like say yes and agree to everything. Make sure that you agree with like the vision that they’re going to to have as well for this. 

Chandler Bolt [00:20:00] Get it? Okay. And we’ll circle back to because I love to talk about the elements of selling your screenplay and actually turning it into a movie and that sort of thing. But let’s circle back to that and I’ve got a few more questions on the actual writing process itself. So we’ve talked about visuals, action, dialog and how important dialog is. This is actually another one of our most popular blog posts on our blog is how to write dialog and. So my question for you would be, how do you write grades? I know this is like a massive question probably, but like how do you write great dialog in the context of a screenplay or movie? And is there any tips that you have? 

Sara McDermott [00:20:44] Yes, I have lots of different little tips and techniques, so I’ll make sure to cover at least a few. So one thing I will say is you’re going to want to get very familiar with the concept of subtext and really use subtext. So anyone who’s kind of like, I don’t really know what that is, it’s sort of the art of saying something without saying something, and it doesn’t just show up in dialog, it also shows up in the actions, like the example I gave with the guy throwing the college application away instead of mailing it. It’s like the subtext of that is what’s getting delivered, that he doesn’t want her to go to college. So your dialog will be much more interesting and it’s also going to be a lot more realistic if you don’t point blank say, you know what people are thinking. So and this is true for us in life. So like we don’t talk that way, like we don’t come straight out and we’re like, I’m thinking exactly this and this is exactly why. So instead, you know, people say things that kind of hints at how they’re feeling. And if the audience gets a little bit of context from the story, they can understand, you know, what the person is feeling. So I’m trying to think of like a couple examples. So I know there’s like the Social Network, that movie, you know, about Mark Zuckerberg and it’s the first scene and it’s supposed to be him like when he’s in college and he’s arguing with his girlfriend and she kind of makes an offhand comment about liking guys who row crew. And instead of coming back and saying like, he’s jealous or anything like that, he just keeps throughout the conversation, he makes the occasional joke like, Well, I don’t have a rowboat. You know, I don’t I don’t, you know, I don’t row crew or how have you seen the guys who, you know like so he keeps kind of like needling at it without actually saying he’s jealous. So I would say definitely working on subtext, you know, and there’s different exercises and things I’m sure that that you can do to kind of build up your subtext. Another thing that works really, really well. So this is a trick that I think I initially heard from. There’s a school called Screenwriting You for screenwriters and they introduced this technique, this swinging between hope and fear, between lines. And this works really, really well, too. So whenever you’re in dialog, you want to keep obviously you want to keep people engaged and interested and not quite sure how things are going to resolve. So it doesn’t have to be like life or death extreme. But this swinging between hope and fear just means that there’s this little bit of a back and forth that you’re kind of unsure of the outcome. So like if someone comes in and it’s like, Oh my goodness, I overslept, I’m going to miss my midterm. Then the other person’s like, Well, I can drive you. And then someone else says, Aren’t you forgetting? Like, Your car is in the shop, you know, then I can borrow so-and-so car. Oh, wait, now I’m too, you know. So it just it kind of goes back and forth. So that’s another thing that you can think about. Another this is just another like little technique is if someone is confronted or asks certain questions to answer questions or evade, you know, whatever the person’s trying to ask them just by asking another question. So like there’s lots of these little again, that can be subtext, like when they don’t answer, but instead they deflect like they, they come up with something else to distract that person. So there’s, there’s different ways to do that. So these are just like a couple ways to get you thinking. But again, the big thing to avoid is just having anything be too on the nose. So thinking about things, people can say we’re we can understand, you know, what the feeling is without having them come right out and tell us. 

Chandler Bolt [00:24:11] Got it. And what does that what does that phrase mean on the nose? And how do you how do you avoid that as a screenplay writer? 

Sara McDermott [00:24:17] So on the nose, it’s just it ties in with exposition. So it’s just when it’s too exact, like you’re saying to exactly exactly what they’re thinking and feeling instead of bringing us in to like a realistic dialog. So one thing I recommend for screenwriters, you know, the first draft you do, the first draft is never the last draft. And I’m sure that’s true. That’s true of all people with their books as well. So when you’re in the process of revising, like I always recommend, so that you’re not overwhelmed with your revisions, do different passes of your revision for different things and one of your revision passes should definitely be for the dialog and I would say even take it character by character. So because for each character you want them to have certain traits, you want every single line of dialog that they speak to reflect on those traits in some way so that they’re very unique, they’re very distinct, like end of the day goal. You would want someone to pick up that script and like put their finger down and if the name was blacked out, you want them to still know who it is. Like that’s how clearly you want the dialog to align with their traits. But in terms of this, like on the nose dialog, when you’re doing that revision pass, just flag anything. Like if you’re reading through and you’re like. Oh, and trying to take your emotions out of it and not get swept up in the story. But just looking at the dialog flag, anything that seems too on the nose like they are saying exactly what is in their head at this point. You know, if you’re going to do that at all, maybe you do it once at like a climactic moment where they’re finally like, it’s built up and they’re finally saying exactly how they feel, but you definitely can’t have it all throughout. So if you flag that anywhere, then your job is really go back, brainstorm, you know, how can you adjust it? So instead you’re using the subtext and they’re not saying exactly, exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. 

Chandler Bolt [00:26:06] That’s great. Really, really cool to hear that. I want to add one more question maybe on the writing piece, and I want to move into the selling the screenplay, turning it into a movie, all that stuff. So I’m thinking of. So character development. You know, I come from a kind of, you know, seven books, traditional nonfiction. And I always say real, real authors write fiction. It’s so much harder. And real authors probably write screenplays because it sounds like it’s even harder in some ways. But. And so another one of our most popular blog posts of all time is on character development. Now, these are not written by me, so that that information is is good and solid. But as someone who’s traditional nonfiction, I’ve always been like, I don’t really get it because I don’t have as much character and development in nonfiction. And then I’ll be what we would be watching movies or something. And my girlfriend, who’s really into acting and and movies and stuff is like and it’s character development. She’s not good. Yeah. So can you talk to us about that? What is character development and how do you do it? Well. 

Sara McDermott [00:27:11] I think that audiences always want to see the character go through some kind of transformation. So there’s different sorts of character arcs. And I will say among the character arcs, the no arc does count as an arc. So there’s certain stories where it’s like they stay static, usually to prove some kind of greater point that people can’t change or something like that. But most of the time, like 90 plus percent of the time, there’s some kind of character arc happening. And again, I think people really want that. So I think they want to see stories where they can resonate and where they can see someone else having some sort of breakthrough so that they feel like they have some sort of a breakthrough, you know, along with that person or they feel like they can then go on to have a breakthrough. So I think it’s important for any story to like when you’re in that planning stage. So I am a big like planning person with my stories. And again, I think this is probably to do with screenwriting because it’s very structured and it has to be like three act structure and all that. There’s different types of structure, but I usually always work with three act structure, but you plan ahead of time like, okay, here’s where they’re starting and here’s where I actually want them to end up. So again, how can I show it using our like actions, dialogs, all that? How do I actually show that change? And if you have that in mind, like start to finish, you can actually plant like little, you know, little milestones along the way. Like we see them sort of change in this way or sort of change in that way so that you can achieve that by the end. And another big thing, I touched on it a minute ago, but another big thing I’ll say for character development, whenever I’m starting out, I pick like 3 to 5 core traits for each character. And it’s like those are their traits. So like real life human beings can be super complex. So we have, I don’t even know how many traits like limitless traits, but that’s going to get confusing in a screenplay if you have someone who’s doing stuff that’s like just all over the map. So you really want to hone in on like what are those core character traits? And for a book to you can probably have more character traits, you know, like because you can be in the character’s head. So you can understand the rationale a little bit. Again, with the script, when it’s the film, you’re just watching that film for like 2 hours. It needs to be clear. So you want to boil it in, what are their core traits? And then, like I said, you really want everything they do to reflect on those traits in some way. So if they do have a character arc, maybe there’s like one trait that’s really dominant at the beginning, but by the end you want another trait to come out. So maybe it’s like bravery, but the bravery is not really there in the beginning. Maybe you get like a little bit of a hint of it because maybe they do something that plants a little bit of a hint. The movie I’m thinking of is like Legally Blond, but there’s this little scene in the beginning where she goes shopping and they try to trick her into buying something that was like last season for full price because they’re trying to trick her to think it’s brand new and she busts out her, like, logical thinking skills and tricks them and says, Well, you couldn’t. So this way if it was this fabric. And, you know, so we get that little bit of a hint that she’s actually pretty quick and that she actually has, like, this rational mind where she can figure things out and where she can argue, which is going to develop more and more as she goes to law school. But you get that little bit of a plan in the beginning. So. Yes, so definitely think about that. Think about what you want the traits to be. And again, some might be smaller in the beginning, but they’re there, they’re just hidden. But they can come out more and more as that character grows. 

Chandler Bolt [00:30:41] That’s great. I want to transition to selling your screenplay and all that stuff. I kind of want. It’s been a little bit more of our conversation. Talk about that. But this the writing piece is just so fascinating. Yes. So how do you sell a screenplay? Are you selling it before you write it? After you write it? What does that process look like? Is there hope for for me as a first time screenwriter that I can actually get this thing? So. 

Sara McDermott [00:31:06] Yes. Oh, there absolutely is. So like when people think about writing their screenplay, they tend just to think about the major studios. And, you know, what you hear is like you can’t send unsolicited stuff and and that’s true. So like, if you send unsolicited stuff to like one of those top five studios, don’t expect a response. Like, if you’re a first time and you don’t, you know, you don’t have representation. However, what people forget is that there’s literally like thousands of independent production companies. They’re all over and they’re totally open to looking at unsolicited materials and they’re really actively searching for like gems. So if you have like a great screenplay. So I know you also asked and they’re like, Do you write it first? Do you not? So there’s different schools of thought. So if you’ve had a book that was a very successful book, like maybe you can go make some kind of deal before the script is written. But I’ll say for the most part, like if you’ve if you want to write it yourself and if you’ve never written a screenplay before and if the book’s not like New York Times, like maybe it did well, but it’s not like New York Times or something like that where they’re going to be looking to snap it up. Chances are you’re going to want to have that screenplay done first, because otherwise they’re just going to they’re not going to know exactly what they’re getting or like is this person going to be able to write and all this other stuff. So, you know, once you have that together, these independent production companies, you can definitely find them online. So like everything’s online, I recommend LinkedIn where you can search for producers, you can connect for free or the best tool really is IMDB Pro. So a lot of people know IMDB, it’s the international movie database. IMDB Pro is the paid version, but when you upgrade to that, you can get contact info for literally just about everyone. You know, some people are better about keeping it up to date than others, but for the most part, like anyone you wanted to look up like you might not get like Brad Pitt’s home number, but like you will see like here’s his representatives contact information and then that’s like an A-lister. But if you’re looking more independent, like if you do a search for smaller, independent production companies working in your genre, you can, for a lot of the time, get like the direct phone numbers, the direct emails for a lot of those people. And then you start sending, you know, your query letters or you start cold calling, which I know is scary, but it’s good in a way, because at least you get like a response right away. So yeah, there’s a whole art to that as well, like how to do your query letter and like how to present yourself. But that’s really like where you want to start. If your first time. 

Chandler Bolt [00:33:35] That’s really good. That’s really good. You’re reminding me of. So for for people who are go to Chapter 24, my new book, we’ve got a lot of overlap and what we’re teaching. Sarah kind of talk about this A-list B-list C-list type. Now this is the context of author what I call author appearances, so like getting on a podcast, local TV, etc. But it’s funny how this applies for exactly what you’re talking about, which is A less B, less C-list Actors Studios. But then also then I have kind of the 3 hours of booking your first ones, research referrals and reach outs. And I love how you’re talking about, okay, reach out, but then maybe also call, which is scary, but it’s something different that not really people are doing. 

Sara McDermott [00:34:16] A lot of people are so scared of doing that. But I mean, I get scared doing it too. 

Chandler Bolt [00:34:20] But yeah. 

Sara McDermott [00:34:21] At least you get that immediate connection and you know, you get some kind of response. Whereas if you’re just sending the emails, some people will get back to you, but some you’ll never hear from again. 

Chandler Bolt [00:34:31] Absolutely. Yeah. Talk to me about how did you get your first screenplay deal? Was it was it free or was it paid? And what’s your recommendation for people who are trying to get their first sell or get their first screenplay actually created into a movie? 

Sara McDermott [00:34:47] Nice. So it was paid. I was very fortunate. So my first like selling an original screenplay, I think my very first screenwriting job, I had already written the screenplay that would later sell, but I was hired again. A lot of times I’m hired just to clean stuff up. So I think I was hired on to to clean up a screenplay and it was really just someone that I found. I think it was like through Craigslist even. This was like way back in the day when I don’t know, like how much people are still on Craigslist, but it was back in the day and I just connected that way because someone had advertised they needed somebody. The one that sold this was really, really fortunate. So I was actually on a site. I’m still on this site. It’s called network Isay dot org. It’s the International Screenwriter Association and. And they have they will both post writing jobs like if people are looking for a particular writer in a particular genre. Usually they ask for scripts that are already done like I want a horror script or I want a romance or whatever they want. But they also let writers post scripts that are done. So I think I had listed my done script on that, and a producer actually got in touch with me. And again, it was like an indie production company looking to do like their first feature. I think they’d done a lot of short stuff. It was paid. I think it was like 20 $500. So, you know, don’t expect like the huge amounts when you’re just starting. But definitely some people have the budget to give something. So yeah, so it was, the rest was history. So it was kind of like I met and talked with them and we moved forward. So it was really, really fantastic. So with people starting, I will say like a quick note on the money, if you are starting, you want to weigh like how important is upfront money versus just getting something done? So definitely, especially for first time writers, I would say just the getting it done and having the credit is so important because it’s going to move you forward into future deals on other projects. Just if you can say like, I got this done, it’s going to give you a lot of credibility. So in recent years, it’s become popular for people to even do these. What are called dollar options were kind of silly. Like they might give you a dollar upfront, but you have it in your contract that when it goes into production you’re going to get a certain amount. Like once they raise the funds and when it’s actually released, you’re going to get a certain percentage, you know, of any profits. So way that too. So if you’re getting an offer and it might not be anything upfront, I think that the initial reaction or people who aren’t really like in that industry, the initial reaction is like, well, no, don’t do that, definitely don’t do that. But there’s some instances where you want to do that. So again, I think it comes down to do some research. If you feel good about this company, like definitely don’t sign away your work if you don’t have faith in this company. But if you feel good about them, if you really feel like they’re going to actually get it done and they’re going to give you money down the line, of course. So you should definitely have a contract where you’re getting money somewhere, even if you’re not getting it upfront. Weigh the pros and cons of that of that, too. And I should mention real quick, there’s different types of deals, so you can just sell a screenplay outright, but that’s pretty rare. So usually it’s actually optioned and when you option it, it’s for a certain amount of time. So usually like 18 months. And if they don’t get it made in that time, the rights revert back to you. So keep that in mind too, like what kind of deal you want. So I actually think the option is a great thing because it’s like they get a shot to do it. If they get it done, you’re all very, very happy. But if they don’t, it’s not like you’ve lost that work forever. You can get those and try again. 

Chandler Bolt [00:38:16] Really important. Yeah. Gosh, yeah. That’s that seems like a thing. That’s like you definitely want to write that into anything because I mean, you don’t want someone just owning a screenplay that they’re never going to do anything with. 

Sara McDermott [00:38:27] Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And you don’t I mean, yeah. You don’t want it to wind up in someone’s drawer or they realize like, hey, we have a film that competes with this, so we’re just going to buy this so that no one else makes it. But we really like you don’t want that to happen. So again, you can kind of find those things out. I think by having those conversations, getting to know those people. But just, just something to keep in mind. I like the option and the option is much more common than someone just offering to buy it outright. 

Chandler Bolt [00:38:54] Got it. That’s good to know. And then I guess last two questions to know. We’re running out of time here, but you it sounds like you got some of your start in editing and cleaning up scripts. Is that a path that you recommend? Like is that easier to get your first credit her say is it or your your first yes doing that than just writing one yourself outright or is that you recommend or no? 

Sara McDermott [00:39:18] I think that it’s easier to get those jobs, but you will still need some kind of original screenplay to show as like a sample. So like, they’ll they’ll want to see something that you did before they even kind of bring you on for that. But, but definitely like those jobs, you know, I feel like there’s an abundance of them. So once you really get like good and you know what you’re doing, you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot of opportunity there for sure. 

Chandler Bolt [00:39:43] Yeah, that’s cool. It’s so fascinating to me. I feel like I just the more I learn, the more I see commonalities between movies, books and albums. My brother plays in a Grammy nominated rock and roll band called Need to Breathe. So I know, like the music industry really, really well through him. I know the publishing industry really well, really well through myself. And then now learning even more about the movie industry through you, it’s like, Oh, there’s writers, there’s producers or publishers, you know, big movie houses equals big publishers equals record labels. 

Sara McDermott [00:40:15] Yeah. 

Chandler Bolt [00:40:16] And so it’s kind of like the structure is actually pretty similar and you can learn from one and apply it to the other, which is cool. So thanks for connecting some of those dots. This really interesting final question for you. Sarah would be. Knowing what you know now. I think you earlier you said 15 years in as a as a screenplay writer. What would be your parting piece of advice for the first time screenplay writer? 

Sara McDermott [00:40:41] Oh, my goodness. Okay. Oh, it’s tough. I would say so. Really. Learn your basics. So don’t just try to start writing a screenplay just because you want to write one. Like, I think when I was in college, I kind of had tried to write one like for fun and my friends and I filmed it and it’s, I can’t even bring myself to watch it. Like, I think it’s probably just like such a mess. But really, like when I was in grad school and I did that course and I really like got the basics. It will make things easier. It’ll save you so much time. Do your outline because again, like screenplays tend to get rewritten a lot and like especially because like the first stage is kind of you by yourself and then later you’re going to be working with a director or someone else. So because it’s so collaborative, it’s going to get rewritten. You know, they’re going to ask like, can you add this in or do this? If you have that outline, it is so much easier to rewrite from an outline than it is from like a 100 page script. So like the hundred pages, you have to like go in the weeds, figure it out. If you just have the outline with like your key bits in front of you and you get a note like I need this added or I need this changed, you can just look at the outline and be like, where would it make sense? You know, like and it just helps clear everything up. So focus on that and again like have fun with it. So don’t, don’t feel like everything like lives and dies, you know, on this first draft or this one script being perfect, like give yourself just the space in the mental space. Like you’re going to practice with it, you’re going to get better with it over time, like you learn by doing. So just keep putting yourself in there and practicing the different skills and yeah, it’s going to come with time. 

Chandler Bolt [00:42:11] So yeah. Sarah This has been amazing, very fascinating. And I’m going to point a lot of people to this interview because I think it’s just a crash course on all things screenplay writing and turning your book and movie and all that stuff. Where can people go to find out more about you? Your book, your course or whatever would be most helpful? 

Sara McDermott [00:42:30] Oh, my goodness. Well, me, I have a website, so it’s just https://www.saramcdermottjain.com/. That’s hopefully my name is written here somewhere so people can see how that spelled for the course. It’s just book to script course wsj.com. So if you are an author who has had dreams or hoped to get your book, you know, up on the screen, this is the most comprehensive course that you will find. So I created it because really when I looked, you know, when I was looking at like what exists for authors, like I found that there were tons of courses on screenwriting, just screenwriting in general and almost nothing on adaptation. Like I think I could find like one small resource. So that’s really why I set out to build it. I was like, I’m going to create something very thorough. It’s going to give them everything they need to know, not just about the screen, the art of screenwriting, but also specifically adaptation, because it is different adapting from a book than it is if you’re just starting a screenplay from scratch. So that again, it’s just book to script course wsj.com to is to not the number to and just check that out. If you feel like that’s something you’re interested in, you can also find me. I’m on Facebook. I’m actually on Facebook as one scary woman because I write in horror thriller when I write. So that’s a whole different conversation. But yes, it’s Facebook.com, I think slash one scary woman and I’m just on Instagram is Sarah McDermott Jen so definitely find me connect ask me your questions. I’m always thrilled to meet writers and to help you guys out. However, I can call Sarah. 

Chandler Bolt [00:43:59] This is awesome. Thank you so much. 

Sara McDermott [00:44:01] Ah, thank you. This is a lot of fun. 

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