#5onFri: Five Steps for Turning Your Story into a Film

by A.H. Plotts
published in Writing

I posted previously about how a writing friend and I made a script from a short story for a Halloween film contest. Today’s post is a little more in-depth on the process of taking a short story and turning it into a film. Our short film ultimately took second place in the contest. You can watch it here: (Sculling – YouTube). In a nutshell, here are the five major steps that worked for us and can work for you, too: 

1. Choose the right story

Determining which story to use for the film was the most important step. Written stories include characters’ inner thoughts, descriptions of places real and imagined, and narratives that can be near impossible to capture on film without a Hollywood-sized budget and access to the most advanced computerized effects. 

Since we wanted to use a story I’d already written for our film, I looked through my completed stories for one that had interesting characters and enough action and dialogue to keep the story moving visually. I also considered the setting for the story, and if we could find or create a similar backdrop for the scenes that would be filmed. 

2. Make a List of Filmable Scenes

My filming partner, who was also the director and cameraperson, looked over the short story and made a list of the scenes and dialogue that she thought would make the most pleasing visual pictures. 

We were making a ghost story, so “pleasing” for the purpose of our film really meant: “creepy, haunting, and eerie.” We also had to consider what was feasible to film, like how much lighting would be required at specific times of day. Would we need a lot of special effects, lights, sounds, microphones, props, or people to make a scene look believable? Did we have easy access to actors, and settings that would not be financially or otherwise prohibitive?

A lot of the story we wanted to film takes place on a sailboat. Neither of us is a boat owner or knows anyone with a boat we could use. We considered the possibility that we might need to rent or charter a boat to film on, which would cost hundreds of dollars. Or we could come up with alternative scenes that didn’t need a sailboat in case filming on a sailboat was impossible. 

3. Add Stage Directions and Snappy Dialogue

Even before drafting a script or screenplay, we added actions, dialogue, and motivations for our characters to the scene list we’d developed. We got creative about ways to show the characters’ inner thoughts, feelings, and complex relationships through dialogue and body language. We also added some details about what actions the characters were taking and their physical locations in each scene. 

All of this was closely tied to the individual character arcs, the overall arc of the story, and written clearly enough for the actors and director to follow along. To do this, we had to hash it out until we agreed on what our characters wanted most and the obstacles that stood in their way of getting it.

When we felt we both had a good understanding of where the characters had been and where they were going, we were ready to write the script.  

4. Put Everything into a Script/Screenplay for the Director and Actors to Follow 

There are software, app, and Internet resources galore about writing scripts and screenplays. When it was time to write the screenplay, I was familiar enough with a basic format that I decided to do a simple internet search for a template I could use as a guide. 

The real challenge was fitting everything on our scene list into the screenplay template without going over the page/time limit for the film, and not adding in too many stage directions for the actors to follow (that’s the purview of the director, after all). One page of a screenplay is roughly equal to one minute of filming. Our time limit for our film was 15 minutes. 

Me and my filming partner still had a few disagreements about the direction for some scenes and bits of dialogue we wanted to change. We both found ways we could compromise, and the screenplay ended up exactly 15 pages long!

5. Film it!

When the screenplay was complete, we were ready to start filming. We’d done a lot of preparatory work before and while we were working on the screenplay. We’d lined up our actors, knew our locations, and had collected props and equipment. We’d even found a sailboat that we could film on for free! 

We weren’t filming at night, so we didn’t need any lights. We needed a camera (we used the camera on a smartphone) and microphones we hooked up to a laptop for one day of shooting. We also had a filming schedule and a full copy of the screenplay on hand during shooting days. I brought snacks and water for the actors and ourselves. This may seem like a lot of extra work upfront, but it was extremely beneficial. It kept us on schedule and respectful of everyone’s time. 

That’s basically it, from short story to film! There’s more that can be done in postproduction, which is after filming has been completed. That’s traditionally when scenes are edited and moved around. Music, sound effects, titles, and credits are usually added during postproduction. That’s a whole post of its own for another day!   

After 20+ years with the U.S. government, A.H. Plotts (she/her) is finally settled (mostly) in California. When not at her desk writing horror and dark sci-fi, she enjoys delicious coastal cuisine, fun in the sun, and blogging about it at www.ahplottsthecoast.com. Find A.H. on Twitter (@ahplotts) and Instagram (@ahplottsthecoast) posting about her favorite authors, books, movies, cities, and restaurants.

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