The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

After That ...

Being in LA and writing original screenplay after original screenplay above a two car garage behind an aging and utterly forgotten TV star was never going to end well. I know that now. But what I did learn while inhaling gas fumes all those years was the structure of story. And I’m happy to still be around to say that the novel and the screenplay both have the same underlying story structure. The same principles apply to both. In this way, a great screenplay can be considered a first draft for a novel. Or, so I thought.

When I began this project, I thought I could transform my award-winning screenplay into a novel simply by changing the verb tense from present to past, add description of everything else that was contributed by the cinematographer, actors, costume and set designers, and be done. Great idea, right? As it turns out, it is a great idea, but a deceptively complex one.

Here’s why: Ever heard of the “auteur theory” in film? Filmmakers love to think a film can be the creation of a singular vision – their own. But – unless the filmmaker did everything from writing the screenplay, building and lighting the sets, making the costumes, playing all the roles, shooting the damn thing and editing it together a film is the product of many artistic visions working in harmony. That’s exactly what I found I had to do if I stood a chance of writing that first draft of the novel. I had to create a “mind” movie from my screenplay and adapt that movie into the novel.

A screenplay is only one facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative effort governed by someone else. A screenplay contains descriptions of the action (divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, camera angles, costumes, etc. It also contains lots of dialogue. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result will be the visual experience of a film or theatrical motion picture.

Screenwriters don’t necessarily need to know how the action in their scenes will be blocked on location. Nor will they ever be asked to make decisions on a character’s behavior, beyond one line of parenthetical direction. Yet now as a novelist, you the auteur of your mind movie must create and in turn describe everything that appears in your story: the characters, their thoughts, emotions and actions down to the tiniest detail; the plot, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. Each screenplay page equals one page of film time. I found that I quickly filled up many pages with words (250 per page) to describe one minute of my mind movie. I’m building a constantly expanding world where the journey of my protagonist’s arc unfolds over time and space. That’s why novels run on average 65,000 to 85,000 words and can be 250 pages to 400 pages in length.

Scared yet? I was. Then I remembered my crummy Hollywood apartment. There amidst the noxious fumes, left-over fast food and quiet desperation that hung on me like a cheap suit, I had made the commitment to be a storyteller, no matter what. The “what” turned out to be the reality that screenwriting, in general – is a fucking crapshoot.

As a screenwriter, you give birth to your creation and if you’re lucky, otherwise your babies are stolen and you never see it again. In fact, the only visitation rights you get will be years later, when you have to pay to see it along with every other Tom, Dick and Harry sitting and waiting in a dark room. Then, when that magical light shoots forth and you finally see your baby, it’s all grown up and changed so much you don’t even recognize it. What’s worse, it doesn’t know you, its biological parent – because your name’s not up there. You’ve been replaced a long time ago by a director. You go back to that crummy old apartment, lie in your twin bed alone and cry yourself to sleep wondering where your life went wrong.
Writing a novel doesn’t sound so bad after all, does it? Especially when you consider a novelist doesn’t have these problems. It’s your baby, from start to finish. And you’re much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea, because your baby doesn’t have to please some studio exec who says you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 24 or females between the ages 12 and 23.

Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you will be at the center of the process, not jettisoned the moment you sign a contract. And the size of that contract (i.e. money) is also usually more for a novelist than a screenwriter.

Now here’s the best part of all. When you write a novel and it gets published, you stand a better chance of having a film adapted and produced from your novel than you ever would have as a screenwriter. And with your screenwriting experience, you could have the first crack at writing the screenplay! The screenplay you wrote before the novel. But this time will be so much better because you imagined the characters and world of your story so much better than when the story was just a screenplay.

Now, how interested are you in finding out more about Adapting Sideways?


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