5 things to keep in mind when adapting a novel into a screenplay!

ADAPTING NOVEL TO SCREENPLAY Adaptation can be a daunting task, and as an author of a piece of work you’re very proud of, you might find it difficult to change it. We’ve all been to the cinema to see an adaptation and been miffed to discover it’s different from the book… “It wasn’t like that!”, we moan.

Unfortunately, most stories that originate in prose just won’t be suitable for the screen if transcribed without due thought given to how the story works in screen format. The reasons why adaptations have subtle (or sometimes big) differences from their paper counterparts are:

  • The story needs to fit into screenplay convention; structurally and content-wise. It may work better dramatically if told through a different style of narration or with a different structure.

  • The spine of the story – the most dramatic and appealing plot thread or view point – may be different to that which was intended in the original.

  • The protagonist may change – what was the mother’s story about the quest for justice may in fact be better told from the point of view of the murdered son’s brother.

  • Introducing the murderer as the antagonist could give another dimension to what may have originally been a novel solely from the mother’s point of view.

  • The setting may need to change for the screen – a story set in the past may better target today’s audience if made contemporary.

This doesn’t mean that you need to completely change your story – but it’s these sorts of things that you’ll need to keep in mind when choosing how to adapt it for the screen. Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • What’s the most dramatically appealing part of your story? Whose story/what character? What problem? What’s in their way? Whose point of view?

  • Can your story be told in a more dramatic way? Does it rely too much on inner thoughts? What physically happens that could play out well on screen, or could more happen to represent the problem?

  • Are there characters or things that happen that are inert; characters who have no real role or scenes which aren’t necessarily needed?

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment. Add a new character? If the story’s simple, complicate it. If it’s already complicated, can it be simplified?

  • What effect do you want to have on the viewer? How can you achieve this? Is there another film whose approach you really liked that might help you figure out yours?

Remember: when reading a story we are inhibiting the character (unless told in third person with multiple protagonists). When watching a screenplay we are observing.

Could your story reach a wider audience as a screenplay? Give it some thought. And above all, have fun!

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