Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Adapt Your Own Novel Into a Screenplay (or how to hate yourself effectively)

Considering most of us in the KidLit community view Rowling as our Apostle, preceding us all into realms of amaze-balls, it’s safe to say that we shall all be working on screenplay adaptations of our own novels in the next decade or so. (Suzanne Collins sort of beat us to the punch, I suppose. But she was a screenwriter beforehand, so she had an unfair head start.)

Good thing for me, I’ve already got you all beat. Good thing for you, I’m going to tell you how to do it.

First some background: I’ve been pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing and had a bit of a conundrum regarding my final thesis project. I’m in a different place professionally than the other students in my program (having a book on its way down the publishing pipeline does that for you), so my choice was a bit more complicated. Then my professor suggested that, if I had retained the film rights to the book (which my amazing agent made sure we did), I could write a screenplay adaptation of my book as my thesis.

Could my life be any more perfect? I mean, I’ve already written the darn thing. How hard could adapting it to a screenplay be?

Turns out, very very very hard. Very hard.

See, writing a novel is a daunting task. Writing a screenplay is a very-different-but-equally-daunting task. Adapting a novel into a screenplay is yet another very-different-but-very-daunting task. Adapting your own novel? Not a challenge I would wish on anybody.

But you’re here because you wish it upon yourself, right?

Ok, then here’s what we’ll do. First let’s examine what exactly the challenges are. Then, in the next blog post, we’ll examine how you go about conquering those challenges and the pre-writing tasks you have to accomplish first. Finally, we’ll cover some basic rules of screenwriting, point you in the direction of some helpful software to take care of the formatting oddities, and hopefully get you on the road to adapting your novel into the next Oscar winning screenplay.

First, what are the challenges of adapting the novel into a screenplay?

  1. Going from a literary medium to a visual medium. A novel is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional exploration of a story and of the language in which it’s written.  A movie (or television program) is a visual representation of the story in a single dimension, and only that which can be seen can be conveyed.  All that great inner monologue, those really fun turn of phrases and symbolic selection of words inside the narrative? Forget all of it. You won’t be able to use it at all. Which, in my case, meant over half of my novel was unusable.
  2. Eliminating subplots, sideplots, and rabbit trails. Your book, which might seem rather short when you look at it now that you’ve cut out so much and revised so much, is way too long for a movie. My book is 250 pages inside a word document. My screenplay (which runs a little long at the moment) is 110. Yep, that’s over half of my book sliced away. And, considering one page of screenplay is probably only worth about a half a page of prose, you need to kill two-thirds – three-quarters of the darn thing. Which means you’re going to be throwing out just about every single thing that isn’t your main plot. Those really cool character arcs you made for your supporting cast? Kill them. The scenes that function mainly as character development but don’t necessarily propel the plot? Kill them. Kill it all. Which brings us to
  3. Killing everyone’s darlings. If you thought it was hard to kill your little darlings when you were writing the book, imagine the difficulty once the book has been read and enjoyed by others and now you have to kill parts that everybody really likes. And, of course, be prepared for all those people to complain about it. And hate you for it. And throw things at you. And the person that will be the most angry with you? Yeah, you you guessed it, and that's the biggest challenge of all.
  4. Preparing to hate yourself. Seriously, you’ve been in that group of people who watch a movie and complain that something was changed from the book, right? And you’re like, “that’s not how it happened! What the crap, did they even read the book?” Yeah, you’re going to have to make those exact same sacrifices yourself. Because what works amazingly in a book probably won’t work all that well on screen. And when you start weighing the benefits of being true to your manuscript versus actually being able to sell the screenplay? Yeah, if you were going to choose your integrity, you wouldn’t have started adapting the book in the first place. Make the change, give yourself a moment of self-loathing, and then move on.

All right, that’s the first of it all. I’ll follow up with post number two in which we’ll examine how you plan and pre-write your adaptation to save yourself headaches later on. Link will probably be here.

(Image Credit: Daniel Ogren [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

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