When I was asked to write a screenplay adaptation for my novel, We Hear the Dead, I tried to get out of it. I’d never written a screenplay, knew nothing about them, and frankly doubted I could do it. However, I did want to please the producer who’d just made an offer on a film option for my book, and she did have a point: I was the expert on Maggie Fox and Elisha Kane and Spiritualism. Anybody else would have to start researching from scratch. So, I finally agreed to write one draft, after which she’d find someone more competent to fix it up.
One draft became two; two became three. By that point, I was having fun – and learning a lot. The producer, Amy Green, acted as my crit partner, helping me hammer out revisions over the phone. Eight drafts later, I produced a screenplay which is now on the equivalent of “submission” in Hollywood.
It’s nothing like the novel.
That was the first lesson, and one I learned writing the opening scene. When you tell your story in a different medium, it’s going to be a different story. The novel and movie are based on historical events, so I had to work within certain parameters. But there was no way I could take the novel scene by scene and translate it into a script. If I wanted to retell this story as a graphic novel (assuming I had any artistic talent) or set it to music (an even farther stretch), it would come out different yet again. Maggie in the screenplay is different from Maggie in the book, even though her overall story arc is the same.
I also learned to be more concise, and – heaven knows – I needed it! One page of a screenplay written with the default settings of Final Draft translates into one minute of screen time. The script had to come in under 120 pages; closer to 90 would be better. I pared down lines to their essential elements. I slashed clever, witty dialogue and never looked back. Yet, it still had to be good writing. The screenplay will be read before it’s ever filmed – in fact, it won’t ever be filmed unless I can make a reader visualize it on the screen. I can’t just say: Elisha jumps on stage and rescues Maggie. They escape. I have to vividly portray the scene – her fear, his gallantry, their attraction – and do it in a single paragraph.
When I was finished, I realized I liked some scenes in the screenplay better than their equivalent parts in my novel. Lesson learned again. There’s always an alternate way to tell any story; consider all options when revising your manuscript. In fact, when facing revisions in any manuscript now, I consider how I might do it differently in a screenplay. Any scene that wouldn’t make the cut for a script might not belong in a novel, either.