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Adapting novels - Introduction

Turning a novel into a screenplay isn't a process that can be done to a simple formula. It is possible, however, to look at the underlying process in a series of steps. This article explains how to approach this task without dwelling too much on the detail of the process.

The source material

The very first thing to do is to read the source novel or story. In this case I don't simply mean 'glance over it', I mean really read it. Study it, make notes, think about the story, the characters and also how they would appear on screen. Then start to think about structure. A novel is essentially structured any way the author likes, it can be fairly rigid or very wild, to make a satisfying screenplay the structure has to be asserted properly, something that doesn't happen automatically.

The end-product material

Quickly write out the plot and characters in terms of the screenplay structure, as if you were inventing the tale from first principles and offering it as a screenplay first of all. The structure is the absolutely critical thing that must be preserved throughout the rest of the process.

Now we need to look back at the source material for our next steps.

Characters

In the novel the characters are explored using a variety of approaches. We may have access to the internal thoughts of a character, or the thoughts of one character about another, these are essentially impossible in a screenplay. So, to build our characters we follow a plan:

  • Decide on the character traits we want to demonstrate.
  • Identify actions undertaken by the character in the novel that demonstrate those characteristics.
  • Create new actions where there aren't the required actions already present.
  • Place the actions as plot elements into the appropriate part of the screenplay, even if that means moving them from the location they happened in the novel.

It sounds easy enough but in practice it's something that demands the writer make decisions about the way a character is portrayed, decisions that may differ enormously from the source material. This is a tentative process and is likely to be modified later as the screenplay develops.

Plot

Begin taking plot elements from the novel and map all of the events onto a rough scene structure. Ensure the scenes fit with the act structure you've already got in mind. Accept that you may have to delete, insert, merge or split scenes in the novel to make them work in the screenplay. Don't spend too much time on this phase before moving on to the next step. Ensure the scene descriptions are reasonably close to the ones from the novel.

Dialogue

This one's going to seem entirely backwards. We've barely got a sketch of the plot in place and we're jumping in with dialogue already?

Yes we are. The reason for this is very simple but is one of the most common mistakes made when adapting a story. The dialogue is the last time you'll be referring back to the source material. Your objective here is to choose words from the novel that demonstrate the plot from the perspective of the characters. You're also looking for words that are simply too imaginative or distinctive to be dropped when the adaptation is complete.

Remember the first rule of dialogue: Your character may be lying. What they say and what they do may be very different and when that's true their real motivation is exposed through their actions, not their words.

So, once you get to this point you have the structure, scenes, characters, plot, motivation, actions and dialogue. You've only just begun to actually write the screenplay but at this point you have one task that is essential:

Throw away the source novel!

Yes, from this moment on the source is not your friend. Now you have to work on the screenplay and forget about where it all began. Any decision you make now by looking back at the original source can only be a bad decision.

Working on the screenplay

Now you're in a position where the screenplay is in an early development stage but it is your entire focus.

So here, barely having begun, this introduction ends. As you're now looking at an unfinished screenplay the process is covered in other articles that deal with developing the screenplay itself. Those articles cover the character, plot and dialogue changes that will need to be made and the way they are done.


"We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?"

Jean Cocteau