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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell


Aaron Sorkin on Adapting STEVE JOBS (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

Aaron Sorkin on Adapting the Film ‘Steve Jobs’

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Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, Seth Rogan


Director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, Walter Issacson, (writer of the authorized Jobs’ biography), along with actors  Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg took to the stage after the New York Film Festival press screening of Steve Jobs.  The conversation centered on creating the characters of this film based on the actual people and making them their own and not a caricature.  The cast spent time with their real-life counterparts to learn more about them.

Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet

Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet

Danny Boyle:  “It wasn’t about the actors being a look alike or imitating physical mannerisms of the real people. Jobs was a historical figure.  His life was really Shakespearean.”

Adapting a book into a screenplay can be challenging in and of itself, but it can be further challenging when the book is a biography. Examples of book to screen adaptations based on a real person include The Aviator, Schindler’s List, Ray,The King’s Speech, Lincoln, Raging Bull, 12 Years a Slave, American Sniper, Frida, Wild, and Straight Outa Compton.

Jeff Daniels and Walter Walter Issacson

Jeff Daniels and Walter Issacson

Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network (for which he received the Oscar® for Best Adapted Screenplay) shares similarities to the script for Steve Jobs; The Social Network is about the behind-the-scenes of the founding of Facebook and Steve Jobs is a behind the scenes look at the founder of Apple.

The structure of the Steve Jobs screenplay is literally set in three distinct acts — each taking place backstage at a major iconic product launch — the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the unveiling of the iMac in 1998.

Sorkin: “It started from Walter’s book. I know what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do and that was a biopic. That was a cradle-to-grave structure that audiences are so familiar with and I didn’t want to land on all the greatest hits.”

“I like claustrophobic spaces. I like compressed periods of time. I like the ticking clock.  I like things that are behind the scenes, in this case literally behind the scenes. I wondered if I could take all of the work Walter had done (in his biography) and if there was a way to dramatize the points of friction in Steve’s life and dramatize it in this way.  I identified five or six conflicts in Steve’s life and have those conflicts play themselves out in these scenes backstage—in places where they didn’t take place.”

When adapting a book into a screenplay, find the shape of the story and the story arc. One major plot element in this film that drives the engine of the narrative forward is Steve Jobs’ initial denial of paternity of his daughter, Lisa. The story arc is Steve finding his way to being a father to her by the end.

Unless you are writing a documentary, there are liberties to be taken.  Fictionalizing events, combining several characters into one, and reorganizing the time lines are just some of the elements that can be employed in the adapting process. Consider what makes the main character in the biography interesting to you and what elements of the story you find engaging. Use the answers to these questions as your jumping off point. Find the essence of the story you are adapting and bring your characters to their new lives in your screenplay.

From Steve Jobs:

Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.


Director Robert Zemeckis Talks ‘The Walk’ and Adaptation (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

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Director Robert Zemeckis Talks 'The Walk' and Adaptation by Susan Kouguell | Script MagazineDirector Robert Zemeckis at THE WALK New York Film Festival Press Screening

At the recent New York Film Festival press screening of The Walk, director Robert Zemeckis spoke about adapting his film for the screen.  Based on the book To Reach the Clouds by Philippe Petit (the tightrope walker), The Walk is written by Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne.

Zemeckis:  “I came upon the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers; it had eight pages of illustrations.”

Written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein in 2003, the book recounts Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the top of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Zemeckis: “I started developing this project and Philippe’s story, almost 10 years ago, way before the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ was made. It was a great documentary; it lets you in to see what all the real characters were thinking and how they did this, but the thing I always wanted to do was Philippe’s story. I wanted to present the walk itself, and of course it couldn’t be done in the documentary because there were no moving pictures of the walk ever recorded.”

In researching Petit’s true life story, Zemeckis found a passionate and driven character who performed the walk because he had to, purely for self-expression.

Zemeckis: “Petit is an anarchist who pulled off an artistic coup.”

Finding the dramatic elements of the story

There were all the elements in this real life story and in the children’s book already built-in for a compelling screenplay: a unique protagonist and his unlikely gang of international recruits to help make the actual walk a reality.  It’s a caper film, except there is no theft.  The adventurous goal that drives the narrative forward is for the protagonist and his gang, to plan, execute, and to survive the walk between the Twin Towers.

What to Keep and What to Cut

There were some elements from the actual coup that that were condensed, such as in real life, Petit made eight crossings, but in the film he does six.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

In the film, Petit’s character, speaking from a perch on the Statue of Liberty, talks directly to the screen, a choice Zemeckis says he made to keep the audience emotionally connected to Petit in order to convey how his character is feeling.

Zemeckis: “All artists are anarchists in some ways, some more extreme than others.”

Screenwriting is — and forgive the metaphor — like walking a tightrope. There are only so pages you have to convey your compelling story and characters, as you make every word count.  It is always a balancing act, deciding what to include and what to cut from the original source material, while conveying the strongest elements of the story onto the page in an engaging and unique way.

Go forth on the screenwriting tightrope and bring out your inner artistic anarchist!

More articles by Susan Kouguell



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Tips on Adaptation and Divisive Voice-over Devices (THE SCRIPT LAB)

Tips on Adaptation and Divisive

Voice-over Devices

 by Susan Kouguell



Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens with protagonist Greg’s line:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Greg Gaines is an awkward high school senior whose mother forces him to spend time with Rachel — his classmate with whom he hasn’t spoken to since kindergarten– who was just diagnosed with cancer.

The beginning of Greg and Rachel’s friendship finds Greg standing at the foot of the stairs in Rachel’s house, and Rachel at the top of the stairs.

RACHEL: Look, I don’t want you hanging out with me. I don’t need your stupid pity. It’s fine. You can just go.

GREG: No, no, hey. You got it all wrong. I’m not here ’cause I pity you. I’m actually here just ’cause my mom is making me.

RACHEL: That’s actually worse.

GREG: Yeah, I know.

RACHEL: Look, it’s OK. Honestly, I’m fine. Just go.

GREG: OK. Rachel, just listen to me for a second. My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don’t hang out with you. OK, I can’t overstate how annoying she’s being about this. She’s basically like the Lebron James of nagging. Lebron James plays basketball.

RACHEL: I know who Lebron James is.


Greg tries to blend in as anonymously as possible, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life.  He describes his constant companion Earl, with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, such as Sockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Butt, as more of a “co-worker” than a childhood best friend.

This coming-of-age film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, screenplay by Jesse Andrews was adapted by the book of the same title written by Andrew.

Adapting for the Screen

The book Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is just over 300 pages – the film just under two hours.  There are many challenges adapting novels to the screen, including what should stay and what should go.  Generally, one script page equals one minute of screen time, which means that you must focus on the basic plot points of the material, thus often resulting in cutting subplots and characters in order to keep the script less than 120 pages.


When writing a screenplay, you don’t have the luxury to get inside your characters’ minds with pages and pages of internal thoughts as you do when writing a novel.  Characters’ motivations, agendas, goals, and so on, must be conveyed in dialogue and through visually storytelling.  Always remember the screenwriting adage: Show Don’t Tell.


The film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl contains many storytelling devices, that for many film executives, are BIG RED FLAGS. These devices include voice-overs, flashbacks, superimposed titles, such as “Day 7 of Doomed Friendship” and Claymation sequences often featuring a moose.  For many Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s filmgoers and critics, these devices only enhance the film but for some they deter from it.  Let’s look at some of these devices and how they can and should work, and if they’re working (or not) in your screenplay.

In the following excerpts from my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I talk about devices found in screenplays:  

Many aspiring screenwriters share something in common with their screenplay characters—they have bad habits or rely on things that highlight their insecurities.  The word “vice” is defined as a bad habit; and many screenwriters’ bad habits—more specifically—their writing weaknesses and insecurities, are underscored when they overuse or mistakenly use screenplay devices.  So, when developing your characters, do not rely on vices to convey essential information, or misuse or overuse them.


Use voice-overs only to provide information and insight about the story and/or character(s) that you absolutely cannot express in dialogue or in action. Do not convey the same information in voice-over that will soon be revealed in dialogue, visuals, or action. If you choose to use the voice-over device, know that story analysts and film executives will regard this as a red flag—a lazy device—and they will examine each word.

In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg is a self-conscious and unreliable narrator.  He’s self-effacing and uses irony to his full advantage.  Here he talks about his relationship with Rachel.


So if this was a touching, romantic story, suddenly our eyes would meet and suddenly we would be making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.

Translating internal thoughts of a character without overusing voiceovers and other devices can be challenging. One way to see if you are overusing voiceovers is to remove the voiceovers from your script (temporarily) and place them on a separate page and in the order they appear in your script. By reading them on their own it is easier to see what must stay and what must go, and if you’re repeating information that is already stated in dialogue, or is too long, and not advancing the narrative.

The opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens continues:

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

At the end of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl  Greg concludes a montage with:


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was life.


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Adapting Novels, Memoirs and Short Stories: What to Keep and What to Cut (SCRIPT MAGAZINE)

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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:

adaptationWhat to keep and what to cut?

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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?
    4. Write an outline or beat sheet that follows the key plot points and your protagonist’s journey.
    5. Decide whose voice the plot will follow. Since most novels are written in the first person voice avoid using voice-overs unless absolutely necessary.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. Cut all extraneous subplots, characters’ inner thoughts, and lengthy set descriptions. Then cut some more. And then cut even more.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.