05/31/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

The Art of Adaptation

Over the past couple of months, I have begun to tackle the arduous process of adapting my novel, Queer Greer, into a screenplay. Along with simply taking a nearly 300-page book and getting it down to, at most, 120-pages, there is a lot more that needs to be done in order to get the same message across in a much more visual platform.

First, the page count. I learned quickly that simply cutting pages does not work in this endeavor. In my case, I have had to add aspects to the script that were not in the book in order to make it "screen-worthy," including more dialogue. This meant actually cutting more content from the book than I originally thought I would. Ever wonder why you've been disappointed by some book-to-film adaptations? This might have something to do with it. Very few novels translate readily to the screen.

If you want to change it up a bit and cut yourself some slack on the page count, you might think about turning a lengthier manuscript into a miniseries for television, or even two movie scripts. This will give you a lot more leeway and, though you might have to change some of the plot points per episode/film, in the long run you will not have to cut as much of your original product. You can actually add to it to make it an even richer end-result than the novel version might have allowed.

Then there is the issue of perspective. In my case, much of Queer Greer is an internal conflict happening within the protagonist's mind. This does not translate well to the screen, unless you overuse the "voice over" trick, which is a big no-no. Right now I am trying to determine whether I want to add more conflict to Greer's plot arc, or to those of several secondary characters, in order to add action where there wasn't any in the novel. Even contemplating such changes to my original work has made me rethink the criticism I've had for adaptations in the past when I felt the writers left out very important parts of the plot; I have a new respect for why those cuts were made -- they have to be, at times, in order to create a two-hour movie instead of a four or five hour epic. Sacrifices and changes are necessary simply due to the nature of one medium over another.

For some stories, the arc of your narrative could pose an issue when attempting to truncate the entire manuscript. In novels, you have all the time in the world to develop your characters and build up your plot points. In a film, specifically, you must stick to a fairly rigid model that generally works as follows:

  • Act I (Setup)~ pages 1-30
  • Turning Point ~ page 30
  • Act II (Confrontation) ~ pages 30-90
  • Mid-point ~ page 60
  • Second Turning Point ~ page 90
  • Act III (Resolution) ~pages 90-120
  • Climax ~ page 115

Obviously, not all film scripts fit perfectly into such a structure, but starting out, these are valid rules to write by. As a novelist, I am really struggling to set my script up in a mere 30 pages before the first turning point. Even more difficult is trying to fit the meat of the story into the 60-page allotment of Act II. It's a fantastic exercise in brevity, though, that's for sure.

Finally, there is the formatting. For anyone trying to write a screenplay, regardless of the medium, reading screenplays is the first place to start. While some might advise you to invest in a program like Final Draft, which essentially formats your work for you as you go, if you don't have knowledge of the basic formatting of a script, you're doomed to failure from the start. There are plenty of screenplays that are easily accessible online, for both film and television.

When I was an agent-in-training at a Beverly Hills talent agency for a year, I devoured every script I could get my hands on in order to get a feel for not only the format, but also the pacing of a script. The importance of reading as many scripts as possible before you try to tackle your own cannot be emphasized enough.

I am by no means an expert at novel-to-script adaptation; to be sure, this is my first attempt! For me, researching other scripts and practicing screenplay writing are both helpful ways to start out on the path to adaptation. Practice always makes perfect and writing a script from scratch, while difficult, can be much easier than adapting a work of prose right off the bat.

Have you tried to adapt your work before? What has your experience been like?