The word success for most screenwriters implies selling a screenplay for a feature film or getting staffed on a TV show. But what if we rewired our brains to feel successful simply by being storytellers of any medium? After all, compelling stories transcend the screen and live in books, short stories, poems, video games, and web series. As discussed in past Take Two articles, casting many nets increases your odds of Hollywood discovering your talents.
Let’s take that strategy further.
How Do You Adapt Your Script Into Different Mediums?
Certain story elements are universal. Whether it’s a short story or film, novel or web series, the dramatic question, or central conflict for your main character, always exists. Will Romeo and Juliet be together? Will Michael Corleone save his family in The Godfather?
If you’re writing a drama, tensions must remain high. If you’re writing a comedy, humor flows throughout. Regardless of story length, connecting with your audience on an emotional level is paramount.
Examine each medium and choose one that fits your overall goal: Short films create proof of concept and can be used for crowdfunding or obtaining grants to create the feature version; a short story offers the opportunity for publication in magazines; TV shows or limited series allow for deeper exploration of characters; a novel gives the opportunity to reach a new audience or even create a book series Hollywood would be eager to adapt.
Screenwriter Valerie Woods shared with me three questions that her friend, Shari, revealed to her that she asks whenever she has a story idea, which apply to all mediums.
- WHAT IS YOUR STORY ABOUT? When writers define the dramatic question of their story, they uncover the theme, not the plot. Narrowing down the main conflict of your story also provides a foundation for every adaptation.
- WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT IT? Your unique point of view creates the story’s emotion and purpose, leaving the audience with a perspective only you could provide.
- WHY SHOULD ANYONE ELSE CARE? Moving people with our words to create a lasting impact drives a writer to put pen to paper. This last question speaks to the story’s relevance, the audience, and the timing of the topic.
Creating the Short
Condensing a story presents a challenge. If you don’t think it’s possible to move someone with fewer words, I present a simple six-word sentence, allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Chokes me up, every time. I read those six words, and I want to follow that character through their journey of loss. The best told stories make us fall in love with the characters and ache to not only understand them, but also the moment in their life when the story takes place.
Begin the adaptation with character choice. Stories often have extremely flawed yet relatable characters, but most feature-length scripts have too many characters for a short film or story.
Go back to the question “What is your story about?” Which characters are essential to that conflict? Which supporting characters could be merged into composite characters? Which subplot exemplifies the dramatic question or theme? Slice and dice whatever, or whomever, does not support the main story.
The sweet spot for short films is 10 pages, which translates to 10 minutes of screen time. For short stories, the average word count is between 5,000 and 10,000. When you’re seeking publication in a magazine, always check their submission guidelines.
If you enjoy the short-story adaptation process and have written multiple screenplays, invest in writing a short story for each script and publish a compilation book. What a great marketing tool for your work!
Longer Might Be Better
Your two-hour movie might work better as a novel, where you can crawl into the heads of your characters, describing what they’re thinking and feeling, not just what an audience sees on the screen. I can hear Braveheart’s William Wallace yelling, “Freeeedom!” Not so fast. Novels require choosing a point of view (POV) and verb tense, unlike scripts, which are always written in third person and present tense. Choosing who will tell the story requires testing out a few characters to see who fits organically with both your writing style and the story.
Be open to change. Perhaps a novel would be better served with a different main character than your screenplay. If so, choose the most compelling character with the best potential for a book series.
Perhaps writing a 75,000-word novel intimidates you. Instead, try expanding your story into a limited series. That experience of diving deeper to investigate characters’ backstories and subplots may even lead to a television series, or future book series. Traditionally, a solid TV series would need to have the potential of 100 episodes before getting green lit, but in today’s streaming world, six could do the job.
The Power of the Stage
The Color Purple, The Producers, The Lion King, Little Shop of Horrors, and even a comedy spoof of Silence of the Lambs, called Silence!, were all different mediums before they became stage plays. Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple began as a play, then a movie, and finally a TV show.
Plays tend to dive closer into internal struggles, while movies often lean into the external goals of the main character. Cinematic action and tension must be converted into theatrical dialogue. However, don’t get lazy. Create subtext in your words, resisting the urge to write on-the-nose dialogue. Trust your audience’s intelligence and trust your actors.
You have one stage. Use it wisely. Your script with 20 locations needs adjusting. Read every scene and decide which settings could change. Decreasing the number of locations also could help in a later rewrite of your feature-film screenplay. Fewer locations means less money to film, which appeals to producers.
Plays are an intimate experience for the audience. “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Storytelling doesn’t get much more intimate than that.
The World-Wide Web
Writers need to take control of their content. Use your TV pilot as a foundation and break up the acts into two-minute clips. Film them as the first season of a web series and post it on YouTube. If a network had green lit your pilot, you’d be inundated with executives’ notes, and making major adjustments. But by shooting it yourself, you produce proof of concept, gain a following, and have clips to show networks and producers in your pitches. They’re more likely to watch a two-minute clip than to read a 60-page pilot.
Writing is Rewriting
Adapting your screenplay into other mediums demands you choose every word, plot point, and dialogue all over again. Every scene. Every character. In that process, every single dollar your film would cost to shoot gets re-examined, too.
That’s a good thing. As you expand your story into a longer form, you’ll discover holes in your original screenplay. Creating a shorter version will reveal scenes and characters you might not need. Perhaps your new ideas will turn that script into the next winner of the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Win or not, adaptations will make you a better writer.
Still not convinced adapting might improve your odds of success? Then I have a little story for you: “For sale: Feature screenplay. Never read.” Humans need to adapt to survive. So do writers.
For more information on screenwriting, browse our sister site, ScriptMag.com.