Breaking the Back of the Story: The Art and Science of Adaptation.

“You create a dance by sitting down like a writer and thinking about the scene – a beginning, middle and an end. Then you get up and put it on its feet.
No choreographer just gets up and starts to wiggle
and then a dance appears, like a genie out of a lamp when you rub it.”

GENE KELLY, Director,

The challenge of adapting a short story, novella or novel into cinematic language has been described in two ways. One argument has it that only the very experienced screenwriter should ever attempt to take the work of someone else and then adapt that work into a screenplay. The other argument is that the very act of attempting to adapt a novel into a screenplay can be one of the most valuable exercises that a writer can undertake while moving down the very long road to learning how to write a screenplay. Let us take a look at both.

The practice of writing a screenplay requires strict adherence to cinematic structure; three acts, with plot points, enter the scene late, and leave the scene early, exit the scene with a question and then enter the next scene with an answer, whenever possible. These fundamentals may only be learned through repetition and hard work. However, all of these fundamentals assume that the writer has a story which is fully functional, has a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying payoff for each of the main conflicts and subplots, characters who are sympathetic, interesting and compelling. The story must be authentic, timely and must appeal to the broadest possible audience base.

So, the contradiction lies in the question of whether or not novice screenwriters can learn the fundamentals of story at the same time that they are learning the fundamentals of cinematic structure and storytelling. Would it not be beneficial for the screenwriter to have a firm grasp of story before attempting to learn to tackle the fundamentals of cinematic form?

It would indeed be beneficial. Through the years, I have had many novelists attend my workshops, as well as those who have never written as much as a short story. It is interesting to observe how each group has a different struggle. The novelists, on one hand, usually have a greater struggle with the cinematic form. Scene headings, stage directions and the art of rendering descriptions are the areas where the novelist will struggle the most.

When writing descriptions, the novelist will, upon their first attempt at writing a screenplay write descriptions which are, well, literary in nature, as opposed to cinematic in nature. The description needs to simply describe that which is being photographed. ™Tell the story, and then get out of the way,∫ is the old adage. But upon first coming into contact with the new form, the novelist, on their first attempts at the screenplay form, will write descriptions that read like entries in a novel.
The novice screenwriter storyteller, on the other hand, the one who has no experience with writing any form of story, will usually pick up the science of writing concise descriptions with greater ease. It is indeed peculiar to watch this phenomenon unfold in the classroom. But over time, the reason for this becomes clear.

From the time we are very young, we are taught, indeed told, to write stories in a certain way, a literary way. Beginning in kindergarten, we learn to tell stories in a literary context. There is of course, a beginning, middle and end, but the story is told with words, not in pictures. We, as writers, are taught to create the universe of the story in the mind’s eye of the reader with words, and to join one event to another with words, not pictures.

In learning these skills, we develop a set of literary musculature, in much the same way that a long distance runner develops their own set of muscles, on which they depend during competition. Think for a moment about the long distance runner. Think of his experiences in competing in marathons. His muscles are sinewy, and his heart is trained to endure the twenty six miles before him. He is a super athlete and can handle almost any terrain or set of conditions. Then, one day, he receives an opportunity to compete in a long distance bicycle race. ™No doubt, I can handle this,∫ he thinks. Surely, all of the years of training and competing, have brought him to such a state where he can hop on a bike and, at the very least, is competitive with the other racers after, at most, one or two competitions. So, the runner changes disciplines and enters the big bike race. But a funny thing happens. After the first hour or so, he is near the rear of the pack, and struggling badly. ™How can this be?∫ he wonders. The reason is simple. While he is indeed in shape, he now must employ his muscles in a way that he has never used them before. Many of the muscles that he must use have never been through this new experience, and are now filled with lactic acid. Exhausted, he drops out.

In much the same manner, the novelist comes to the world of screenwriting with the requirement that he must now employ a completely different set of literary muscles. The act of telling a story by juxtaposing descriptions of images, which are rendered with minimal prose, in a sequential order that tells a story, is completely new to the novelist trying his or her hand at writing a screenplay for the first time. In much the same manner that the marathon runner hits a wall when riding in a long distance bicycle race for the first time, the novelist hits a literary wall. It is here where the inexperienced writer enjoys a slight, if not short lived, advantage over the novelist in learning how to write a screenplay. For the uninitiated, there are fewer age old habits to unlearn.

However, those aspiring writers with limited experience in storytelling hit their proverbial wall when it comes down to creating a story that works. They simply don’t have the experience with story, structure, character and craft that the novelist brings to the table. For this reason, adapting a short story or novella is a great way for writers of each group to become familiar with cinematic story telling.

When attempting to adapt a novel or short story, the most important elements of adaptation should be kept in mind:

1. The material cannot be literally transposed from the novel. The principal of entering late and leaving early is of paramount importance. Identify the key elements of each sequence, and include only that which is essential to move the story forward.

2. Be faithful to the message of the story as well as the theme, but not faithful, word for word.

3. Never ignore the intention of the message of the source material. If you change the message of the material, you are not really writing an adaptation, but are using the source material as inspiration for a different kind of story. Stay true to the message of the source material.

Peter J. Fox holds a M.F.A in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. He has worked as a reader and story analyst at Paramount, Universal, Sony TriStar and MGM Pictures. He founded The Inside Track Workshops for Cinematic Structure in 2001, and writes for numerous publications.