ADAPTING STORIES INTO SCREENPLAYS
The State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival – in partnership with the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture – is a creative platform of education, entertainment and empowerment through discussions related to film and television, and the production of both.
Our focus is to celebrate independent Black cinema; to promote Atlanta, Georgia as the Mecca of Speculative Fiction in film and literature by writers, film directors and film producers of African descent; and to showcase films and provide networking opportunities that will develop the next generation of Black filmmakers in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
One of my passions is educating Black people – especially our youth – on why we should read and write speculative fiction. You can read more on this passion of mine at https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/why-black-children-need-to-read-write-science-fiction/, https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/when-i-was-a-child-speculative-fiction-taught-me-what-writing-is/ and https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-we-can-learn-from-the-chinese/.
Another passion of mine is, of course, writing – fiction, blogging and screenwriting. While I enjoy all three equally, I believe the most influential – with people of African descent in particular – is screenwriting and, even more influential…film.
While many Black people do not read speculative fiction, most enjoy speculative fiction movies. Most people of African descent I know have seen the Matrix and Inception; love Blade I and II; and have enjoyed Conan the Barbarian, Blacula and the Dark Knight.
Film is, indeed, a powerful medium.
Hell, in Burma the people were reported to have “gone crazy” over bootleg copies of the film, Rambo. In fact, a line from the film – “Live for nothing; Die for something” – was used as a rallying cry by dissidents.
And the FBI and CIA worked ceaselessly – and, ultimately, futilely – to halt the production of The Spook Who Sat by the Door – a movie based on Sam Greenlee’s novel of the same name – for fear the movie would incite a revolution and infiltration by revolutionaries into government law enforcement agencies.
A shortcoming of the Civil Rights Movement is the fact that the right to represent ourselves on screen through films that we have produced, distributed, and exhibited was neglected as an essential component of the civil rights struggle.
And while I am on the subject, let me say that in the world of cinema the words ‘film’ and ‘movies’ are not synonymous.
A movie usually refers to a motion picture designed for the masses, whereas a film is something with more artistic and / or educational appeal.
The primary purpose of a movie (or feature film) is entertainment and – for the studios that make them, profit.
The purpose of a film (typically documentaries) is to build awareness. However, the two are not mutually exclusive.
A film should also provide entertainment. Social awareness, consciousness, commentary and change are all by-products that a film may invoke.
At present, I am directing, co-producing and doing the fight / stunt choreography for the movie Rite of Passage: Initiation – the world’s first Steamfunk movie…or is it a film? Hmm…
Rite of Passage: Initiation is my adaptation of a short story written by the inimitable author, Milton Davis. It – along with another film that I wrote, produced, directed and fight / stunt choreographed, A Single Link – will world premiere at the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival.
Many of you may be curious about how you can go about adapting your story or novel – or someone else’s – into a screenplay. Well, I would like to share what I have learned over the years and how I adapt short stories and novels into short films and features:
Some of the best films started as short stories. The list includes 2001: A Space Odyssey which was based on The Sentinel by Arthur C Clarke. High Noon was based on The Tin Star by John Cunningham and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window was adapted to the screen from a Philip Dick story called We Can Remember it for You Wholesale.
- Read the short story you are going to adapt and answer these questions: What is the setting? What happens? Who – and what – are the characters? What is the protagonists’ agenda?
- Make the story yours. Claim it. Own it. Make any necessary changes that will enhance how the story translates onto the big – or small – screen.
- Decrease the story to a series of events, and then arrange those events in an order that suits the needs of your screenplay.
- Edit out events in the short story that cannot be visualized in the screenplay.
- Never forget that, in film – unlike in a short story – there is sound. Make sure that you pay attention to the rhythm of the dialogue and make adjustments as needed. Also, be cognizant of background sounds described in the story or that you feel will enhance the story’s mood.
Adapting a novel into a screenplay is a different animal altogether; one that requires an understanding of – and skill in writing – both forms.
The Difference Between A Screenplay and A Novel
Before you can successfully adapt a novel into a screenplay, you must understand the differences between the two, which are as follows:
The screenplay is a visual and an auditory medium. Unlike novels, a screenplay cannot convey a character’s thoughts, except when there is a narrative in the form of a voice-over, as in the movies Bladerunner, Sin City, Goodfellas and Devil in a Blue Dress. Such a tactic, however, must be used with caution, as it can be often be overused and – in film, at least – lead to lazy storytelling.
Just remember that audiences pay the price of admission to watch a motion (things moving about) picture (things you can see). If they wanted to hear a story they would have visited their talkative, old Aunt Fredonia, who loves chatting for hours about her exploits as the inventor of the Chee-uh Pet – not to be confused with the inferior Chia-Pet, of course.
If you absolutely must convey essential plot information that – in the novel – is only presented in a character’s thoughts or in his or her internal world, there are a couple of solutions:
- Give the character a sounding board – another character, to which his or her thoughts can be voiced aloud – by adapting an existing character from the novel or by creating a new one. Avoid overly obvious exposition, however, by cloaking such dialogue in conflict, or through some other technique.
- Figure out a way to express the character’s dilemma or internal world through action in the external world.
There is no literary prose in a screenplay. You only have 90 – 120 minutes to tell your story; there is little room for you to describe the hero’s back story and biographical details, unless you are adapting a biography.
A novel’s length ranges between approximately 65,000 to 500,000 words, which translate to roughly 260 – 2000 pages. One page of a screenplay equals approximately one minute of screen time, thus it is quite obvious you must edit quite a bit, lest you end up with a thirty-hour long film, which had better be really interesting…as in the most interesting thing ever.
On average, a screenplay is between 85 and 125 pages long.
Because of the differences between novels and screenplays, most of the novel you adapt will be cut out. Read the novel just before you write the screenplay, taking note of:
- The pivotal scenes
- The most important characters
- The dialogue that fuels the plot.
Guide to Screenwriting
Dispense with descriptions, minor characters and lengthy build ups.
Capture the essence and spirit of the story. Determine the through-line and major sub-plot of the story and cut everything else.
FYI, the “through-line” is WHO (protagonist) wants WHAT (goal), and WHO (antagonist) or WHAT (some other force) opposes him or her. Pose the through-line as a question for clearer understanding of it:
“Will Dorothy pass her initiation and become a conductor on the Underground Railroad, or will Harriet Tubman leave her a cripple or a corpse?”
The same is done for the major sub-plot.
“Will Harriet defeat the lich that has taken control of the Suttler Plantation?”
Everything off the through-line or not essential to the major sub-plot should probably be cut.
Strip the novel to its bare bones, which will give you a clear picture of how to best adapt the story.
Plotting the Screenplay
With the bare essentials of the story, the writer can plot out the main scenes of the screenplay and decide which will form the opening of the film, the main conflicts, the climax and the resolution.
The Structure of a Screenplay
The ideal screenplay should consist of short sentences, succint paragraphs of action, and essential dialogue.
If you seek to sell your screenplay to Hollywood or acquire an agent, then the first ten pages are the most important part of it, as those ten pages are what a potential agents and / or producer will view.
The beginning of the novel need not form the opening of the screenplay. To find the opening that will allow you to write a well-crafted and exciting first ten pages that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat and inspires that agent or producer to pick up the phone and call you, you can:
- Look for the most dramatic scene in the novel and begin there.
- Combine scenes in the novel to create a new one in the screenplay
- Invent a new scene if one does not present itself within the novel.
Is adapting a story – short or long – a lot of work? Of course, it is. It is also a lot of fun, so pick up that book…dust off that old manuscript…and get to work on the next summer blockbuster!
I hope you found some of this blog helpful. If so, send me a comment and let me know. I would really appreciate that.
And please, if you are in the Atlanta-area on August 4, 2012, or if you have the ability and passion to travel to Atlanta on the aforementioned date, please join us for the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival. It is going to be absolutely Blacknificent!
Here is the current schedule. I will post regular updates:
12:00pm – 12:15pm: Welcome
12:15pm – 1:00pm: First film screening and Q & A
1:00pm – 1:45pm: Second film screening and Q & A
1:45pm – 3:15pm: Panel Discussion – Art At War: Countering Negative Images of Blacks in the Media
3:15pm – 3:45pm: Screening of Rite of Passage: Initiation and Q & A
3:45pm – 5:15pm: Screening of A Single Link and Q & A
5:15pm – 6:15pm: Meet & Greet / Book, Poster and DVD Signing