Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dianne: Adventures in Adaptation

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.


  1. Great post, Dianne. I'm so hoping this works out for you. I know we've spoke many times about revisions and editing. Seeing the manuscript while editing with a different eye can capture a new 'feel'. Sometimes it's the spark that brings life to a scene that otherwise was just a scene.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Very interesting! I can see why you hesitated to do this, but in the end you really learned a lot. Congratulations!

  3. Hi there Dianne! Wowee, I can't even imagine (as I'm sure you never could either-ha!)

    I mean, go you! Hope it all works out. Curious how this has applied to what you're writing now.

    Talk soon!

  4. Dianne, what an exciting prospect. You have my admiration--I wouldn't know the first thing about adapting a novel into a different medium. I think it's too cool that you learned more about the heart of your story in the process!

  5. Great post! I'm sure there are plenty of differences, but this reminds me of the process of pairing down my prose novels into graphic novel formats.

  6. What an experience. It sounds like you're ready to add 'script writer' to your list of accomplishments now. Any inclination to try writing an original script with what you've learned?

  7. Really interesting to read this as I'm trying to adapt one of my novel's into a screenplay. Trying to portray those moments of internal dialogue into visual scenes is proving to be an interesting experience.

  8. Thanks, everyone! It certainly was an adventure, and I do think I learned a lot about my story and myself as a writer while doing it!

    @Phil -- It has crossed my mind to try an original script, but I haven't found the time to tackle one yet.

  9. So cool to hear what you learned, Dianne. Makes me want to do it.

  10. Diane, I loved the piece. I've had my own adventures in the adaptation trade too. I wrote about mine yesterday too coincidentally enough!


  11. Great post Diane! I can't imagine how exciting it is to see your first draft become a book and then become a movie. Congratulations!

  12. You found out that thinking in a different medium opened up new ways to view the story. It's also good to note that some people think better in one medium than another, just as some learn better by reading than hearing, etc.

    I have a writer friend who wrote her first graphic novel as a workshop experiment and who found to her surprise that her brain "worked" so much better in that medium. So she is thinking that instead of writing a novel and then adapting it to a graphic novel, she may write the other way around--use the graphic novel format to plot and develop characters, then decide whether to leave it a graphic novel or adapt it to a regular novel.

    And congratulations on the movie option!

  13. Interesting to learn about the differences. I was intrigued to learn you like some of your screenplay better than the original. Good luck with it.

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