Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories:
What to Keep and What to Cut
by Susan Kouguell
Many successful novels, memoirs, and short stories have been adapted for the screen and made into equally popular and often award-winning movies, including the most recent American Sniper, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Wild.
Over the years, I have been assigned, as a writer-for-hire, to adapt several novels into feature-length screenplays. It can be a daunting task particularly when the novel is long – very long — like 500 pages or more! This page-length challenge presents the inevitable next step and question:
As opposed to a novel, screenwriters just don’t have the page length to explore characters’ extensive backgrounds, elaborate settings — nor do they have the luxury to include a cast of thousands (or hundreds – or less) all of whom have a penchant for endless verbosity. There just isn’t the time in a two-hour film and it’s up to you, the screenwriter, to make the right choices. So, it’s time to let go.
TOP TIPS FOR ADAPTING A NOVEL INTO A SCREENPLAY
- What is the novel about? Write down the answer to this question and use this as your guidepost to determine the major storyline of your plot.
- Determine who your protagonist is, and his or her wants, needs and goals and determine who the antagonist is, and why he or she is in opposition to the protagonist.
- For your subplot ask yourself: How does the protagonist with the help of alliances (friends, family, and so on) achieve goals despite the antagonist’s opposition?
- Write an outline or beat sheet that follows the key plot points and your protagonist’s journey.
- Decide whose voice the plot will follow. Since most novels are written in the first person voice avoid using voice-overs unless absolutely necessary.