In the weeks building up to publication of my latest novel, Edith and Kim, having started and stopped three new ideas, I became convinced I’d never write a book again. Genuinely resigned to this sad but inevitable fate, I applied for a part time job in my local shop, only for – the day that job came through – a production company to get in touch wanting to adapt Edith and Kim for film, with me on board as the screenwriter. It was nothing short of a dream come true. Because dream assignments are like buses, with no indication whether they’re headed to Hollywood or Hull, a month later, having merrily agreed to a task for which I was wholly unqualified, I was contacted by a different production company who had previously optioned my first three books, now wanting me to come on board to write the script for that, too.

Within a matter of weeks I went from I WILL NEVER WORK AGAIN! to OH MY GOD.

A decade ago, whilst working as a newspaper journalist, I interviewed novelists including Fay Weldon, Robert Harris and Lionel Shriver about the process of having their books adapted for screen, in this piece for The Independent’s late Saturday magazine. Weldon was particularly concise in her reflections: ‘One doesn’t have the faintest idea what will happen, so one simply says “thank you”, takes the money and runs.’ The problem was in my case that even if there had been enough money changing hands to afford me the ticket to board the bus, I couldn’t have run – because I was the one doing the adapting.

If there is one thing I can legitimately claim on my CV it’s that I watch a lot of television – more than is healthy, almost certainly. But this is where my screen-writing credentials begin and end. Telling a story is telling a story, yet the language and process of writing for screen compared to for novels is completely different. Over the past few months I’ve worked closely with two sets of brilliant producers whilst coming round to Harris’ assertion that ‘a movie can only remain true to the spirit of the book’.

The process of adapting one’s own stories for a new medium is truly wild. Facing a story you’ve already previously imagined as a perfect entity and then inevitably butchered in the writing of it, now with a chance to make new and right and perfect, again – and trying to work through the many endless ways in which this might be done – can be petrifying, in the most literal sense.

Throw in funding applications and writers’ statements, the need for scene-by-scene outlines in place of unplanned flights of fancy, and… it’s a trip. A trip that may not ever lead anywhere at all because if one thing is for sure it’s that the film industry is a fickle master. So while I’m very aware of the fact that my bible might never become a whole script, and that whole script might never get a pilot, etc and on, I’m genuinely relishing each of the steps in this brilliantly exciting and maddeningly protracted process as I walk deeper into the unknown.

As Shriver so plainly put it in her reflections on the process of having We Need to Talk About Kevin transferred to screen, never knowing how it would turn out: ‘Something happening is generally more interesting than something not happening, so it’s a risk worth taking.’ And while, as a would-be-screenwriter there is arguably no substitute for jumping in and learning from the professionals, I have acquired some great tips from some free resources, which I’ve gathered below, to start you off – should you be so inclined:

Script to Screen is a new online learning series designed to help industry newcomers learn the fundamentals of creating scripted content by completing 12 easily digestible modules that can be completed in your own time on mobile or desktop. Created by and for the industry – and endorsed by the likes of Netflix, Channel 4, Acorn TV and ITV – in its own words it aims to teach production best practices and help newcomers get the best possible start within the sector.

Netflix and Stage 32 have – as they say – partnered on an exclusive global education series in an effort to democratise the worldwide entertainment industry. Together, over the course of 5 webcasts Stage 32’s world class educators will bring their knowledge of what it takes to write, develop and produce today’s television for the Stage 32 and Netflix creator community.  To kick things off, we are going to talking about television pilot story structure.

BBC Writers Room offers numerous useful resources, among them their script room where you can read TV, film and radio scripts for free – from The Night Manager to The Tourist.


More in Features


By , 4th July 2024
‘A standout literary thriller.’ THE FT ‘Ingenious, intriguing, colourful and very entertaining, this is the ideal summer holiday novel.’ LITERARY REVIEW

Observer New Review Q&A

By , 22nd March 2022
An interview with Stephanie Merritt about Edith and Kim, the perils of writing about family, and why female spies often get overlooked

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel