However much we prepare to condense our 400 page book into a two-hour film and learn the art and technicalities of screenwriting, there are a few traps that our novel-writing brains will still lead us into.
As I mentioned above, we might be too emotionally close to the book to be able to tackle the adaptation. One of the reasons for this is that, not only will we have to leave out a lot of the book, we’ll also need to change what’s left to make the new narrative work. This will involve moving scenes around, adding new ones, merge multiple characters into one, maybe even changing characters’ personalities. So it might work that we look at the screenplay as a totally new story, one that’s based around the key events of our book.
A novel has a lot of inner-monologue, as the character thinks about what’s going on or wonders how they might solve a problem. Unfortunately, a movie audience can’t hear what a character is thinking. The temptation is to use that age-old story-telling device, THE VOICE-OVER. It allows the audience to hear the character’s thoughts and feelings. Voice-over is utilised well in movies like Goodfellas and A Clockwork Orange, demonstrating the character’s emotional journey as we watch the physical one.
Film is a visual medium. So the screenwriter’s job is to show the story, not tell it through narration. So, the advice is – Avoid voiceover. Instead, find a way to use dialogue and action (either tweak the existing or add new) to portray the character’s emotions.
If we must use voice-over – and there will be a story that needs it, then we must ensure that it’s fresh and interesting. We must show that it needs to be there. (In Goodfellas, for example, Henry Hill uses voice-over to tell the audience what he can’t say out loud in front of his Mafia friends.)
FLASHBACK is another popular screenwriting device, often employed to show backstory or to explicitly explain motivation. Of course, backstory and motive are important to help an audience care about the character. But, often, it is possible to portray enough of this history with just a few lines of dialogue or a simple action. Flashback should only be used if it’s impossible to portray backstory with dialogue or action within the main narrative. Even then, it should be used consistently through the film as part of the film’s style, not just as a one-off to get the writer out of a rut.
There are two strands at our disposal for telling a story – what the audience can see and what they can hear – and all aspects off the story need to be portrayed through one or both of these. And if we’re trying to avoid flashback to show backstory and voice-over for character-depth, we run the risk of exposition, over-explaining these elements in dialogue.
“Well, as you know, my daughter was killed in a plane crash ten years ago, so that’s why I’m afraid of flying.”
Although this does adeptly explain the character’s fear, it’s not how people talk. So we need to decide how much backstory we need to get the point across and then find a suitable way to show it though action and (realistic) dialogue.
The main risk with adaptation is CUTTING OUT THE HEART OF THE STORY. The 400+ plus pages of our novel has let us explore the nuances and minutiae of our story and its characters – thoughts, loves, hates, personality traits and fears. So when we start cutting it down, leaving ourselves with only what can be heard or seen, we might end up a purely linear narrative – actions, dialogue and setting just explaining the plot. Action A leads to action B to action C – we’ve stripped away the characters’ motivations, their urges, their fears – all plot, no heart.
The elements of the story that we are keeping need to aptly shows the heart of the story – who is the story happening to? How are they emotionally affected by it and how they are different at the end than they were at the beginning. This is how we get our audience to invest in the character, to care what happens to them. Achieving this might require changing scenes or maybe even adding new ones.
So to summarise, we should think of adaptation as creating a new story from the key points of the novel, picking out the story’s ‘tent-pole’ moments, then accept that the rest is expendable.
We need to learn the art and technicalities of screenplay writing – it’s very different from writing novels – and watch out for the adaptation pitfalls, such as flashback, voice-over and exposition. When trimming down the quantity, we need to make sure we’re not cutting out the heart.
When we’ve written the screenplay, we need to give it to an experienced script editor, not the same person who edited the novel.
(c) Paul FitzSimons
If you have any questions about novel adaptation, drop Paul an email.
Read Part 1 of Paul’s article 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.