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.
- Avoid flashbacks. In screenplays they are often overused, unnecessary, slow down the pacing, and can take the reader out of the story. If you choose this device, then consider incorporating this device as an interesting structural choice.
- Show don’t tell. Critical plot information and back story should be revealed in dialogue or through visual storytelling. Convey characters’ feelings and conflicts through dialogue and actions. Remember — the viewing audience will not know what the character is thinking, as opposed to a novel where there are pages upon pages to describe the internal worlds of each character.
- Cut all extraneous subplots, characters’ inner thoughts, and lengthy set descriptions. Then cut some more. And then cut even more.
- Consider cutting down the number of characters in your novel by first briefly describing the purpose they are serving. This will enable you to decide if each character is necessary to include in the script and if several characters can be compiled into one character.
- Make every word of your screenplay count; this applies to both dialogue and action paragraphs.
Your mantra: Film is a visual medium. Unlike a novel, you don’t have the luxury to get inside your characters’ minds with pages and pages of internal thoughts. Your characters’ motivations, agendas, goals, and so on, must be revealed in dialogue and through visually storytelling.