Recall from a previous lesson that you
should brainstorm many more
plot points than you will need. From
this, use only the best in writing the script.
The same holds true for an
adaptation with one big difference-- the author has already provided you
with a wealth of plot points. The typical novel has many more than you will
The next step, then, is to list the
best plot points associated each story line in the book. You can
do this from memory, but rereading will invariably unearth
Only The Best
What constitutes the best plot
points? Use the rule previously discussed-- each plot point must be
unique and more powerful than the last. This is the key to their
effectiveness, and it will maintain a tight, fast moving script.
The plot points you pick
should be appealing to you. This will distinguish your adaptation
from how another writer might have approached it.
The protagonist's outer motivation is
generally the most important story line since it forms the spine of the script (a.k.a. though-line). Choose as many plot points as it takes to
this story in the standard
120 pages. You
can better judge this by creating a three act structure and grouping the
plot points into their respective acts.
Secondary story lines should also
have a beginning, middle, and end, so make sure there are enough plot
points to propel these stories to a satisfying resolution. Creating a
three act outline for each secondary story is helpful, as well.
Most novels contain a large amount of
thoughts and internal dialogue. This is what makes a novel a novel-- the
ability to delve into the inner world of characters. Unfortunately, this
tool of the novelist is what dogs most screenwriters.
Screenwriting is about what you can
see and hear, so how do you handle this internal world? There are three
Action and Dialogue
The obvious solution is to have the
protagonist either perform an act or say something that reflects his
inner world. As always, it should be done in a way that is not obvious
the story forward.
The primary reason scripts have a
love interest or best friend is to draw out the inner world
of the protagonist. In other words, it allows the protagonist to
articulate or act on his desires, doubts, fears, etc. This technique
should be used in adaptation as well.
Most novels will have secondary
characters for this purpose. If not, it will be necessary to create such
a character within the spirit of the story. If you find this
objectionable or it violates the story for some reason, use one of the
other two options.
Screenwriting gurus say avoid
voice-over. Considering that it has been used successfully in the past,
it is a viable option when used
properly. I would certainly
consider the alternatives first, but if nothing else works, then voice-over
may be the way to go.
Externalizing the internal lives
of characters brings us to another sticky issue-- how faithful must the
adaptation be? There are two schools of thought on this. Some writers feel
that an adaptation should be faithful, while others feel that they are free
to change things around in an effort to create the best script possible.
The truth is, a successful adaptation is a
balancing act. You should tell the story faithfully, but within the
principles of good screenwriting. If a screen rule is broken (like
putting the audience to sleep), a change must be made. After all,
you are "adapting" the novel to the screen, not rewriting it to script format.
Your job is to shape the existing
material for the screen. This is a big task in and of itself.
Do not make it more complicated by introducing new characters and situations.
To do so creates a different story, not an adaptation of the original.
Also, do not "tweak" or add to the story
simply because you think it is a good idea. And never change names-- it is
the fastest way to alienate people familiar with the story.
Ultimately, you should not make changes
unless absolutely necessary to convey the characters and events in the
source material. If you must make changes, stay within the spirit of the original story. This is the golden rule
within the spirit of the original story.
An example of breaking the golden rule is
found in the boxing movie
directed by Ron Howard. The opponent, Max Baer, is portrayed as being a
sadistic killer, however, in real life he was the exact opposite. Much
beloved, he became a movie star after retiring from boxing. While it is true
that he killed Frankie Campbell in the ring with his powerful punches, Baer
was tormented with guilt and eventually put Campbell's children through
is highly acclaimed, but Ron Howard has been criticized for making this
unnecessary change and distorting Baer's character.
The essence of
subtext should stay the same. Your job is to compress
that it has the economy and directness of screen dialogue. At this
point you will have to carefully reread the novel, adapting the dialogue as you go along.
In news and historic stories the actual dialogue is
unknown. It may be possible to personally contact the principals and ask
them what transpired. This is when research comes into play, and it can be
In cases where the principals are not
approachable or deceased, you must literally invent the dialogue. These
exchanges will be acceptable the audience if they are consistent
with the real life people, action, and events. If the dialogue is
inconsistent with the truth, as in the case of Max Baer, it will alienate
some or all of the audience.