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Screen & Stage
Novel To Screenplay: Adaptation 101
By Lynne Pembroke
December, 2007, 12:59

Adapting your novel to a proper screenplay does not have to be an elephantine battle.
Brimming with confidence, you've just signed the check purchasing the rights to adapt John Doe's fabulous, but little known novel, Lawrence of Monrovia, to screenplay form. Suddenly, panic sets in. "What was I thinking? How the devil am I going to convert this 400-page novel to a 110-page screenplay?!"

The answer is: the same way you transport six elephants in a Hyundai - three in the front seat and three in the back!

Old and very bad jokes aside, how does one pour 10 gallons of story into a one-gallon jug?

Here, we'll take a look at this challenge and a few others that a writer may encounter when adapting a novel to screenplay form.

Screenplays rarely run longer than 120 pages. Figuring one page of a screenplay equals one minute of film, a 120-page screenplay translates into a two-hour motion picture. Much longer than that and exhibitors lose a showing, which translates to fewer six-cent boxes of popcorn sold for $5.99 at the refreshment stand.

It took the author of your source material 400 pages to tell the story. How can you possibly tell the same story in 110 pages, the ideal length for a screenplay by today's industry standards?

And the answer to this question is, no joke: You can't! Don't even try.

Instead, look to capture the essence and spirit of the story. Determine the through-line and major sub-plot of the story and viciously cut everything else.

By through-line I mean, who (protagonist) wants what (goal), and who (antagonist) or what (some other force) opposes him or her? It helps to pose the through-line as a question.

Will Dorothy find her way back to Kansas despite the evil Wicked Witch of the West's efforts to stop her?

The same needs to be done for the major sub-plot.

Will Dorothy's allies achieve their goals despite the danger they face as a result of their alliance?

One workable technique is to read the book, set it aside for a few weeks, and then see what you still remember of the story's through-line. After all, your goal is to excerpt the most memorable parts of the novel, and what you remember best certainly meets that criterion. In most cases, everything off the through-line or not essential to the major sub-plot has to go. Develop your outline, treatment or "beat sheet" accordingly.

Many novels are written in the first person. The temptation to adapt such, using tons of voiceovers, should be resisted. While limited voiceovers can be effective when properly done, remember that audiences pay the price of admission to watch a motion (things moving about) picture (stuff you can see).

If they wanted to hear a story they'd visit their Uncle Elmer who drones on for hour upon hour about the adventures of slogging through the snow, uphill, both ways, barefoot, to get to and from school when he was a kid, or perhaps they'd buy a book on tape.

The old screenwriting adage, "Show, don't tell!" applies more than ever when writing an adaptation.

Some tribes of American Indians had a word to describe those of their brethren who sat around thinking deep thoughts. Literally the word translated to, "the disease of long-thinking." Quite often, lead characters in novels suffer from this disease.

"Mike knew in his heart that Judith was no good. Yet she caused such a stirring in his loins, he could think of nothing else. He feared someday he would give in to this temptation named Judith, and his surrender would surely bring about the end of his marriage!"

If adapted directly, how on "earth" would a director film the above?  All we would see is Mike sitting there, long-thinking. That's not very exciting to say the least. And as mentioned previously, voiceovers are rarely the best solution.

When essential plot information is presented only in a character's thoughts or in the internal world, one solution is to give this character a sounding board, another character, to which his thoughts can be voiced aloud.

Either adapt an existing character from the novel or create a new one. As always, you should avoid overly obvious exposition by cloaking such dialogue in conflict, or through some other technique. Even better, figure out a way to express the character's dilemma or internal world through action in the external world.

Best of success!

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Lynne Pembroke is a writer, poet, screenwriter and owner of, with over 20 years of experience in screenwriting and screenplay analysis helping individual writers, screenwriting competitions, agents, studios, producers and script consulting companies.

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