Monday, May 23, 2011

Column: Screenwriting: Your Motivations For Turning Story Into Script by Karen Albright Lin

Converting your story into a screenplay is a complicated issue.  I’ll break it down into several blog postings.  First, I’ll address what goes into deciding whether or not to turn story to script.  Second, we’ll explore the upsides and downsides to methods commonly used in creating adaptations.  Next I’ll discuss three typical approaches to adaptation.  Finally, I’ll suggest a step-by-step approach you can use to write the adaptation. 
It is important to consider your motivations.  Besides learning skills you can bring into your other writing, why would you want to turn your story into a screenplay?  Fame and fortune? 
Many of us dream of fortune; most of us have learned the hard way that this one is elusive.  Fame?  How many people in the world know who Julia Roberts is?  Steven Spielberg?  How many remember Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty?  Maybe as creator of Six Feet Under, but for his original screenplay?  When his script won the Academy Award in 2000, the announcer didn’t even pronounce his name correctly.  If fame and fortune are at the top of your list, you may want to step back and study the industry. I suggest The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke A. Wharton, recommended to me by a young film director, and Hello, He Lied--and Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches by Lynda Obst.  Despite the brutal realities explored in these tell-all books, film is quickly becoming the central conveyor of storytelling in our culture.  If your story lends itself to the big screen, if you master the script-writing craft, if you do a good job at adapting your work, you may reach millions worldwide.  Fame and fortune may follow.
The learning curve will vary.  For most, it will not be a light decision made over coffee one morning.  The most important thing to consider—and probably least understood—is that adaptation is NOT being true to the original.  A book is a book; a screenplay is a screenplay.  Even when a book is wildly popular, there’s no guarantee a movie based on its story will be.  Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was a script that tried to stay too true to the book and failed.  It was not a visual enough story.
Do an honest assessment.  Do you have a visual story to tell?  Can it be distilled into a 1-2 sentence statement (its soul)?  Is it one that has scenes that stick in your mind and a few dynamic characters?  Can it be made less complex than your original storyline?  Does it have an ending that adds to the unity of the script and sympathy for the protagonist?  Are you willing to reorder events in proper time line, create scenes as needed, cut 200-400 pages down to 80-120 pages with less on each page?  Are you able to turn the mental into the physical?
            If you answered yes to the above questions, you may want to consider adapting your story into a screenplay.  Next time, I’ll discuss a few more things to consider before you do. Meanwhile, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief.  Don’t step on the director.  Avoid dusk and dawn.

Karen is an editor, ghost writer, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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