From Screenplay to Novel – How One Short Scene Became A Whole Chapter

rocket summer novel

Here’s the story behind what turned a simple cutaway scene in the screenplay’s third act into a whole *new* chapter in the novel – and why I think it works.

Going from script to novel has its challenges.

I’ve only done it once, but I think that one of the biggest lessons was cutting loose of the stylistic brevity and cinematic shorthand that screenplays demand, and embracing the lengthy narrative again.

I was originally a prose fiction writer, before screenplays obsessed me for a decade. I had unlearned a lot of the Literary prose stylistics, since screenplays largely have no use for such things. I’d honed my flowery descriptive passages to spare bullet points of visual outline for nearly ten years.

Rediscovering my Literary voice, and letting go of the screenplay mantra of “less is more”, was tough for me.

Thankfully, I had some great feedback from my readers that helped me find my way.

I’ve written before on how to handle feedback on your screenplay… the process for novelizing a screenplay wasn’t much different.

Seek opinions you respect. Listen to everything. But only adopt what you’re certain is right for the story you want to tell.

Here’s the story behind what turned a simple cutaway scene in the screenplay’s third act into what is possibly my favorite *new* scene in the novel — actually, it turned into a full chapter — and why I think it works.

What Was In The Screeplay

In the screenplay, our heroes are preparing to do something incredibly dangerous and foolish. The whole movie leads up to this moment, and now they’re about to “pull the trigger”.

I needed to cut away at the right moment, and in a quick series of shots, show that their plans have been revealed to the Sheriff by a pair of punk kids. We didn’t need any dialogue, the motivations of these punks has already been established elsewhere… we just needed to know that the Sheriff had found out what was going on, we needed to know *how* he found out, and we needed to know that now he was on his way.

We’ll enter at the end of the previous scene.


Last chance to back out.


After all this? Are you nuts?


All or nothing.


Besides, what else can go wrong?


The Sheriff’s truck is parked behind Maggie’s Jeep. He has a ticket book in his hand, a baseball bat under his arm. Maggie and Dwayne are frantically chattering away to him.

He runs back to his car, turns on the lights, ROARS away.


Lacey lifts the broken lid off the crate, folds back the blanket. She looks in at the two rockets.

How I Originally Novelized It

Now, in the context of the whole screenplay, that simple cutaway scene did exactly what it needed to do. It worked with the pacing, with the story reveal, and with the characters.

As I was bringing this cutaway sequence into the novel, I stuck pretty close to the screenplay. Maybe I was a little tired, maybe I just wanted to get the novel done, maybe I didn’t realize how poorly it would translate to prose.

But whatever the reason, here’s what I ended up with.

“Last chance to back out.”

“After all this?” Charlie shook his head. “Are you nuts?”

“All or nothing,” Darlene concurred.

“Besides,” Kenny said, spreading his arms wide, “what else can go wrong?”

Somewhere across the county, Sheriff Baker was standing alongside his truck on the side of the road, with a ticket book in his hand and a baseball bat tucked under his arm, looking very much like something had gone wrong. He was parked behind Maggie and Dwayne in the Jeep, who were sitting with hangdog expressions and slumped shoulders. The sheriff had the radio in his hand, and was talking urgently to someone on the other end.

He jumped in his cruiser, flicked on the flashing lights, and roared away down the road in a cloud of dust.

Maggie flashed her silver smile, and her and Dwayne bumped fists.


Darlene lifted the broken lid off the crate and folded back the blanket revealing the two good rockets.

What The Reader Thought

Such a feeble and lazy attempt at translating this scene (rightly) did not cut the mustard with one of my early readers, who gave me notes that nailed the weakness on the head.

“Oops. Starting to sound like a movie treatment again. More specifics would make me feel the tension that has been building oh-so-well. This scene sounds like a silent movie, and it breaks the continuity of the previous scenes. Flushing out an entire scene with M&D being pulled over would not, in my mind, slow the pacing down at all. It would racket up the tension, however. If a flushed out scene would break the pacing in your opinion, try breaking the scene up between the rocket car preparations. This would give the impression of ‘real time’ and that the fates are bringing these two storylines together.”

Sigh. Seriously, didn’t this guy know that I’d already written and rewritten this sequence a dozen times in the screenplay, to arrive at the perfect minimalist transition?

Didn’t he know I just wanted to be done with this project?

What he knew was that I’d shirked my responsibility to make the novel — or at least this small piece of it — more than a transcription of the screenplay. What he knew was that he, as a reader, was feeling shortchanged in ways that a viewer of that scene in the context of a movie wouldn’t have felt.

And I had to begrudgingly admit he was right.

What I Did To Fix It

rocket summer novelSo I buckled down, and tried my best to do better.

I decided that I’d like to show more of what these punk kids had done to get themselves pulled over.

We knew that the kids were well-known for smashing mailboxes. In fact, we’d seen them do it once already.

We’d also met a sweet elderly couple early in the story; they were background players, we didn’t know much about them other than they frequent the diner and still hold hands like young lovers.

Maybe if I made this latest shattered mailbox belong to this sweet elderly couple, it would fold them back into the story and add a little organic resonance… and since we know how sweet they are, it would make the smashing of the mailbox — and the punks that did it — that much more offensive.

And I thought it would be interesting to know what the Sheriff was doing when he’d got the call. We already knew from other business that the Sheriff is a fisherman, and something of a zen philosopher, so dedicated to the art of his sport that he ties his own flies. But we’d never seen him actually fishing. I thought maybe it would be fun, and provide some extra insight to his character, to see him fishing… and to see how he reacts to having that interrupted by these kids.

Of course, I know nothing about fly fishing, so I had to do some research to pull that off. After an hour or two of looking up details on equipment and technique, and watching a few YouTube videos, I threw out most of what I’d learned and integrated just enough to make it feel authentic (I hoped.)

The Whole New Chapter

Here’s what I came up with.

We’ll enter at the end of the previous chapter.

… Lacey looked at the others. Her face got a little serious. “Last chance to back out.”

“After all this?” Charlie shook his head. “Are you nuts?”

“All or nothing,” Darlene concurred.

“Besides,” Kenny said, spreading his arms wide, “what else can go wrong?”


Ball’s Ferry was an oasis in the middle of the Nevada desert, a sheltered bend where the river had dug itself a deep pool up against the shoulder of the bank.

They called it Ball’s Ferry because once there had been a rancher’s crossing here, a flat barge that moved back and forth across the quiet water on thick ropes, shuttling wagons and horses and cattle from one side of the river to the other. Like Alice had been bypassed by I-80 so many years ago, the ferry had been replaced by a steel bridge a mile downstream and the sole proof the crossing had ever been here were old men’s stories and a pair of weathered pilings still standing tall on the far bank.

Fish gathered in the shady bowl beneath the cottonwood trees, and stiff-legged insects skittered in zig-zags, their pinpoint feet dimpling the glassy surface. The only sound was the slow movement of the current, the cicadas trilling like castanets, and the peal of a circling hawk.

Sheriff Baker was standing in the shallows in a pair of hip waders, casting overhand in a gentle pattern, his fly line making loops on the water, and he watched it drift slowly past before he snapped it back up again. There were few better ways to spend an afternoon, he was sure, than standing in this very spot listening to the world go about its business.

The stillness was broken by the crackle of his radio. “Tom, you there? Come in, Tom.” His dispatcher, Rebecca, had a rare urgency in her voice. “Tom, we got somethin’ of an emergency, come in.”

He sighed. Something of an emergency in Alice generally meant a tourist was lost, a cow was loose, or a rattler had got under someone’s porch. All of which he’d wrangled more than a few times. He’d taken to keeping a length of rope, a rake, and a burlap sack in the trunk for relocating whichever one it turned out to be.

He reeled in his line and worked his way to the bank and up to the truck, stowed his gear and grabbed the mike. “This is Tom. What’s goin’ on, Becky?”

“They’ve done it again, Maggie and Dwayne, out whackin’ mailboxes. An’ it was the Turkelson’s place again, only this time Edna was there with a shotgun when they come back by to gloat. Nobody’s hurt, mind you, but she’s got ‘em out front, says she won’t let ‘em go till you do something about it.”

Edna Mae Turkelson knew her way around a shotgun all right, probably had the safety on, but her hands weren’t as steady as they used to be, and in spite of her gentle nature she’d long since run out of any patience for Maggie and Dwayne. The Sheriff sighed. “Roger that, Becky. On my way.”

Pretty much any one place in Alice wasn’t more than twenty minutes from any other place. Fifteen minutes later the Sheriff could see Edna standing in the road, the shotgun cradled in her arms as she paced in front of Maggie’s Jeep, the remains of the mailbox scattered like leaves. He rolled up front of the tidy little white house with the purple wind socks and parked in the road, left the lights flashing just for show, and climbed out.

Edna Mae shifted the gun in her grip, thin transparent fingers with perfectly manicured nails. Most folks figured her to be about eighty, and clearly it was weighing heavy on her old arms, holding these kids in place for twenty minutes like that. But her eyes sparkled nonetheless, locked sharp on Maggie from under the wide brim of a straw hat.

Maggie and Dwayne were still sitting in the Jeep, with hangdog expressions and slumped shoulders, but a trace of smug on their faces betrayed that they were finding more humor than humility in their situation. They flicked an eye at the Sheriff, then back to Edna Mae, with a Now you’re in for it look.

Sheriff Baker stopped a few feet from the old woman.

“Afternoon, Edna Mae.”

“Sheriff.” Her bony fingers shifted again.

He put on his smoothest voice. “Now I’m here, you think maybe you can put that old gun away?”

“Just replaced that mailbox. Martin made it himself, like a doll house, with a front porch and everything.”

“I even put a weather vane on the roof.” That was Martin, Edna Mae’s husband, and he was sitting in a rocker on the porch, narrow and creased like worn leather and swimming in clothes that once fit a more robust, younger man. He raised a glass of lemonade and hollered out in greeting. “Morning, Tom.”

Sheriff Baker nodded in return. “Martin. Sorry about your mailbox.”

“Oh, I’ll build her another one.” The old man sipped off his glass, bent his chicken neck at the kids. “Probably shouldn’t have to, though.”

“That’s true enough,” the Sheriff replied. He’d worked his way close to Edna Mae now, put a hand on her elbow. “Why don’t you go join Martin and let me take over, hon?”

She pursed her thin lips and exhaled through her nose. “Don’t need no more of this. That’s all.” Then she lowered the gun, and marched on stiff legs to the porch. Martin had a glass waiting for her.

The Sheriff turned to Maggie. “What am I going to do with you two?”

Maggie’s smug grin turned sour. Now she had his attention. “You should be worried about your own kid.”

The Sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. His handcuffs jingled. “Excuse me?”

It didn’t take Maggie long to spew what she knew about the Firebird and the rockets. Another couple of minutes to recount enough details to get to where Sheriff Baker was starting to take her seriously. It was Dwayne’s story about the daisy chain of jumper cables that really seemed to convince him, though, and his eyes went round.

He jumped in his truck and roared down the road with red lights flashing, Edna Mae and Martin standing on the porch wondering why he’d gone and left those lousy kids behind.

Maggie watched him go through slit eyes, flashed her silver-capped smile. Then she started the Jeep, waved at the bewildered Turkelson’s, and pulled away in a cloud of dust and mailbox parts.

What I Got Out Of It

From four simple lines in the screenplay, to over a thousand words.

A simple cutaway story beat  had become what was, for me, one of the most satisfying writing stretches in a long time.

The new creative momentum that I got from writing this scene found its way back into a lot of my following rewrite. Many other scenes and passages became much more artistically satisfying for me. And hopefully, for readers too.

So thanks, Stuart (and all my awesome readers), for recognizing lazy writing, calling ’em like you see ’em, and giving me the straight dope.

Rocket Summer is a better novel because of it.

Leave a Reply