Writing the screenplay for #PROVECTUS, Take Four

scene boardSo . . . a few months ago I decided to adapt my own novel, PROVECTUS: Survival of the Fittest, for the big screen.

It has been a lot harder to do than I expected.

My first approach was the wrong one. Up until now, the screenplays I have written have been from scratch. Stories straight out of the ol’ noggin.

This was the first time (and perhaps the last!) that I’ve tried to adapt a book. So I looked in the mirror and asked myself if I could option the rights to the story. I thought about it for a few minutes, then said yes. Ha ha!

Take 1: I’d spent years writing the novel and wanted to save as much of the dialogue (over which I’d spilled much blood, sweat and tears) as possible. Not only that, but my oh my! The scenery! The drama! The love story! Yep. Let’s cram it all in there.

So I took a PDF of the book, copied the text into Final Draft and proceeded to add scene headings, remove any internal thoughts and other “novel-y” things, and voila! I had a screenplay . . .

. . .that was approximately 250 pages long.

As I am no Aaron Sorkin (yet), I knew this wasn’t going to work.

Take 2: My next attempt was to write the story out from memory. That started out well, but  I would get to a spot in the story where I’d think, Hmm… I did this pretty well in the novel. If I just copy this little, tiny bit of dialogue and description, and, and, and . . . Nope. No go.

Take 3: So I went back to the 250 page version and tried to delete big chunks of stuff I thought I could do without. Talk about killing your darlings! I spent days doing this and ended up with a gutted story that was still a whopping 170 pages. And after I read it through, I found it was missing too many sequences that are important to the main story and theme.

Take Four.

I finally thought, this is harder than I thought it would be. After all, who knows my story better than I do? Who better to write the screenplay? And that, in the end, was the problem I think. I was essentially trying to write the book all over again, but in screenplay format.

Finally I realized that I needed to learn the right way to adapt a novel. No matter who wrote the novel (whether it be me or someone else), there is a right way to go about it. I finally found that way by reading The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film.

This is the book that finally gave me the know-how I needed to do this right. You’ll have to read Seger’s book to get all the juicy details (and great examples from some classic adaptations), but it boils down to the following:

  • Pick out the main story line(s),
  • Choose your characters. You may need to remove or merge some. You may even need to create entirely new characters!
  • Figure out what the theme is (if it’s not obvious, or if there are too many, pick one),
  • Know that you might have to move scenes around, or delete/add scenes or entire story lines.

Crazy stuff, that.

And so I made a list of key plot points that tied into the “A” story and theme. I merged a few sequences. I merged two supporting characters into one. Whenever I came to a scene where I asked myself if I should include it, the main story and theme were my guides. Does the main story (or theme) still work without that scene/character/dialogue? Then cut it. You’ll end up with a lean, mean screenplay.

Now we’re cooking with gas, my friends!

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The Journey of Writing a Screenplay

My novel, PROVECTUS, Survival of the Fittest, was “born” on October 4, 2016.

As someone who has always loved movies and TV, it was only natural that the next step in my author’s journey would be writing a screenplay. Those who have read my novel tell me, “This would make a great movie!” And you know what? I agree! It’s certainly a movie that I myself would like to see, if that’s any indication.

So as fitting with my personality, I immediately bought a bunch of books on writing screenplays (including How NOT to Write a Screenplay, by Denny Martin Flinn and The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trotter). I spent weeks re-watching my favorite movies, this time with a copy of the screenplay on my lap. What a blast!

Then I set about transcribing my novel to screenplay format. Whew! What a chore. It took me longer than I thought it would. Longer than it probably should have. And now I have to edit it with ruthless abandon. Still, I consider it a good sign that I enjoyed reading it once again (I can’t even guess how many times I’ve had to read my manuscript over the years).

When you write a novel, you include all kinds of stuff that you don’t generally want in a screenplay.

For example, internal thoughts (unless you’re doing a narrated type of thing). You also don’t want a lot of description of the scenery, or what people are wearing, or what they’re doing when they’re talking (much of that is left to the director and/or the actors) unless it’s relevant to the story.

So keeping that in mind, I’ll tell you that my novel is approximately 80,000 words. The paperback version of the book is 372 pages.

My screenplay (admittedly just a draft) is 240 pages. Screenplays should be 100-120 pages long. Especially debuts. If you’re Aaron Sorkin, you can write a 300 page screenplay and the director will work with you on cutting it down (“The American President” screenplay’s extras turned into West Wing material). Needless to say, I am not Aaron Sorkin.

So the questions I’m asking myself are:

  • How do I convey so many important internal thoughts without the stereotypical info dump dialogue (e.g., “Well Joe, as you know, Mary can’t have children since that horrible accident at the clown rodeo last summer.”) or having a guy talk to his cat all the time?
  • Which scenes can I cut? Are there scenes which may have filled out a novel nicely, but are not really necessary to convey the story in movie format?
  • Is there any content that can’t be SEEN by a camera that should be re-written or removed? (E.g., “Joe was an avid reader.” How do we know this? Is he surrounded by dogeared books and sits reading one as we watch? Are there days’ worth of fast food containers strewn about the room?)

I loved writing my novel, but I really think I’ve found my passion in screenwriting. I’m not a verbose person. I’m not one of those writers that spew out 300,000 words and have to “kill my darlings.” No. For me, it was an effort to come up with a full-length novel (I don’t know what he’s wearing! Who cares what he’s doing while he’s talking? Do we really need to know what the restaurant they’re eating in looks like?)

It is down-right liberating to write a screenplay and let the director and actors worry about things that were a struggle for me to describe. With screenplays I get to focus on the MEAT of the story.

Yes, I have to give context, but with a screenplay it’s what happened, when, and to whom.

BAM. Done.

Love it.