One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining, The Godfather – some of our most celebrated films started their lives as novels. And most novelists want to see their story there up on the Big Screen.
Up to not-too-long-ago, we had to hold out for the big movie studio to come knocking but most novelists know that that might just be a long wait for a train that never comes. So one step in the right direction to write the screenplay ourselves.
But it’s not a simple matter of taking the contents of your book, chapter and verse, and reformat it into a script. That will be over a thousand pages and most of that will be impossible to capture on screen. A novel is around 400 pages, a feature-film screenplay around 120. So how do we turn it from one into the other without stripping it of its goodness?
The answer is, we must rebuild our story from the ground up.
It doesn’t have to be scary.
One could argue that the novelist is the best person to write the adaptation. We’ve lived, ate and drank this story for a long time so we know the plot, characters, backstories and nuances better than anyone. We know the story’s strengths and, if we’re honest, we know its weaknesses. But there’s also the danger that, because we’ve lived and loved this story for so long, we might be ‘too close’ to it and not be emotionally able to pillage it, to strip it down enough to produce a screenplay.
To practise the art of adaptation, we could try writing a script from a book we’ve read, better yet a book we’ve loved. We will have the passion to write the script without having the emotional attachment that might prevent us cutting out the ‘fat’.
One of the first jobs will be to pick out your story’s ‘tent-pole’ moments. These are events that the story is built on, without which it can’t stand up. For example, in Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’ (adapted by David Fincher), the tent-pole moments include: (Spoiler Alert)
- Nick discovering that Amy is missing (the inciting incident)
- Nick realising that he is a suspect
- Nick having a girlfriend
- Amy revealing she is setting Nick up, that her diary is fake
- Nick realising that Amy is alive and is setting him up
- Amy returning to Nick
- Nick telling Amy that he knows what she did
- Nick deciding to stay with Amy anyway.
Without keeping all of these key moments in the adaptation, the film wouldn’t work. As the writer of the novel, establishing your story’s tentpoles shouldn’t be too much of a challenge – you’ve probably already done it, in fact.
Once you know your tentpoles, the next step is the hard one. We have to accept that the rest of the book – nuances, characters, subplots, all that wonderfully poetic prose and dialogue – will either be altered or (deep intake of breath) deleted. If you’ve okay with this expendable nature of a good portion of your novel, then you’re ready to proceed with the next step.
But before you go any further, it’s time to pause.
And learn how to write screenplays.
This might seem like an obvious step. But many the novelist assumes that, because they know writing, they know how to write a script.
One of the key things to remember about a screenplay is that, not only is a piece of writing and therefore ‘art’, it is also a technical document. It is a blue-print for building a movie. Therefore, there’s a set of rules to be followed. And many of those rules are strict. They relate to structure, formatting, scene length, overall length, dialogue and pacing. Any decent screenwriting course (including mine) or how-to book will cover these in detail.
We also need to realise that we’ll need to hire a script editor.
As a novelist, you’ve probably already worked with an editor, either assigned by your publishing house or hired by yourself, took your manuscript and helped you make it better. So it’ll be no surprise that you’ll need to work with an editor again on your film script.
Crucially though, it should not be the same editor who worked on the book.
Your new editor should have specific experience working on feature film screenplays. It might even be better that they didn’t even know that your script is an adaptation, so that they will look at it purely as a film script, judge solely on its merits. That way, they can decide if the story works as a film without having to second-guess themselves or compare it to a published (possibly extremely successful) novel.
(c) Paul Fitzsimons
Read Part 2 of From Author to Screenwriter here.
About Burning Matches:
Detective Kieran Temple is woken by a 4am phone call. Not unusual, except that this call is from his ex-partner, Mia Burrows. And she’s just killed her boyfriend.
As Temple is compelled to investigate the death, he must do so behind the backs of his superiors and his wife. All evidence supports Mia’s claims, that she was defending herself against a maniac. But as he delves deeper, Temple learns of a complex and dysfunctional relationship, one that’s been manipulated from the start.
While carrying out this unsanctioned and disturbing investigation, Temple’s renewed contact with Mia also forces old feelings to resurface, feelings that once nearly cost him his marriage and his career. And with his gut telling him that Mia’s boyfriend was not the brute he’s being made out to be, Temple is determined to get answers while everyone – including Mia herself – just want it left alone.
Order your copy online here.