THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
One of my assignments a couple of years back was adapting a New York Times best selling novel
from a big name author for a producer at MGM. .. And I didn't even have a twin brother named
Donald to help me. Though I was well paid, I don't think the film is ever going to be
made... welcome to studio films! So that all of that work figuring out how to adapt the
novel doesn't go to waste, I thought I'd write a tip about it.
1) Find the central conflict. Story is conflict - so the first thing you have to do is figure
out exactly what that conflict is. I read this novel a few times until I figured out what the
main conflict was. This can be tricky, because books are filled with all kinds of conflicts
and subplots. What we are looking for is the MAIN conflict - the conflict that makes all
of the other conflicts possible. Novels can be scattershot in their plotting and you may
end up with more than one main plot - if so, it's time to make a choice. What is the story
you want to tell? What is the story that is most compelling?
The novel I was adapting dealt with a lawyer hired by a woman accused of murdering
her husband - and the big courtroom trial that follows. One main conflict... but lots of
subplots. And what actually was the main conflict? That required some analysis.
Though the DA seemed like the guy who was creating the conflict, he was really just
doing his job. The real conflict came from the woman - all of the evidence pointed to her
as guilty. The central conflict of the story was - Did she murder her husband or not?
That's the seed of conflict the entire story grows from. If she's not guilty - the lawyer hero
needs to make sure she isn't convicted... but what if she's guilty? Should the lawyer
hero fight to set her free? Often the central conflict will be a question that the story itself
will be answering, other times it's a major decision that the protagonist will have to
make in their life. Really dig into the book and figure out what that central conflict is -
the biggest mistake you can make in an adaptation is using a minor conflict as the
spine of your adaptation, or using a bundle of related conflicts instead of digging in to
find the central conflict at the source of their relationship. One story = one conflict, so
finding the central conflict of the novel is critical.
2) Emotional stakes. Adding to the central conflict of the novel is an emotional
component - the lawyer hero becomes romantically involved with the woman over the
course of the trial. Now it's the woman he's sleeping with who may or may not have
murdered her husband in cold blood. Will he be next? Should he trust her when she
says she's innocent... or be suspicious of everything she says? This gives the
protagonist EMOTIONAL STAKES in the outcome of the trial, which creates drama.
Once you've found the central conflict, the next thing to look for is how that conflict
emotionally involves the protagonist. What are the emotional stakes? This is the
element that will make the audience care about your protagonist and hope he resolves
the problem (but fear that it may all blow up in his face). It should grow right out of the
central conflict, rather than be something pasted on from the outside.
3) Focusing the story. Once you've found that central conflict - that's the focus of the
story. Everything else is trash. Like most big best selling novels, this one was filled with
subplots. There was a great subplot about the dead husband's first wife who contested
the will, but it had nothing to do with whether the current wife was guilty or not, so I
threw it away. All of the subplots ended up in the trash - except those which were
directly related to that central conflict. The central conflict is the spine of your
adaptation, and if a subplot isn't attached to that spine it's just going to get in the way. A
novel has hundreds of pages to tell the story - you have 110 pages. You have to cut
anything that has nothing to do with that central conflict!
4) Your menu of scenes. I went through the book and wrote down every scene that had
to do with that central conflict... and every place where characters THOUGHT about the
central conflict. Some of those thinking scenes had to be dramatized into physical
conflict scenes. On film we can't know what a character thinks or feels - we only know
what they DO and SAY. The book was filled with places where the lawyer hero
wondered if she was guilty... and I had to create scenes that ILLUSTRATED this -
scenes where the actions of the characters would make the AUDIENCE wonder if she
was guilty. A suspicion in the mind of the protagonist isn't dramatic - but a scene where
he confronts the woman he's sleeping with and asks her about a piece of evidence is
going to be a good, meaty scene. Because I wanted THE AUDIENCE to share the
protagonist's suspicions, I made sure her explanations made sense... but sounded a
little contrived. In the novel the reader never knew if she was guilty or not, and I wanted
to replicate that in the script. Suspicious thoughts had to be turned into actions.
Everything internal had to be externalized and dramatized. This created scenes that
were not in the novel, but seemed as if they were.
5) Your menu of characters. Characters were "repurposed" so that they focused on the
central conflict. In the book, the lawyer hero met an ex-cop who helped him in a scene -
but was mostly a sounding board for the lawyer's theories. I made this character the
chief investigator for the lawyer so that he would be more actively involved in the story
and created a backstory friendship between the two so that I could explore the theme I
discovered in that central conflict... and have our hero lawyer LIE to the investigator in
order to get important information. This created a cool dramatic scene between the two
where their conversation could echo what our hero COULDN'T say to his client about
trust and betrayal. A bunch of characters in the novel ended up "repurposed" to serve
that central conflict. Any characters who didn't have anything to do with the central
conflict ended up on the cutting room floor. I didn't have time for them. For a good
example of "repurposing" characters, read Elmore Leonard's GET SHORTY and OUT
OF SIGHT then see the adaptations by Scott Frank. Scott did an amazing job of taking
interesting characters on the fringes of the story and giving them a role to play in the
6) Creating characters and combining characters. You know how we had to dramatize
the thoughts of characters so that we could see them? Sometimes you have to do the
same thing with characters. In the novel OUT OF SIGHT the Albert Brooks character
was someone the protagonist remembered from prison... but on screen he couldn't just
be a memory, he had to be flesh and blood. So Scott "created" the character for the
script. In the novel I was adapting another lawyer from the protagonist's office did some
investigating and uncovered some witnesses. The protagonist never met those
witnesses in the novel, but he gets to track them down and question them in the script.
You may also end up combining characters who serve the same story purpose into a
single character - if the protagonist has two best friends in the novel, he may only end
up with one in the script. This sort of thing was done well in GET SHORTY in order to
better focus the story. In the best seller there were a dozen reporters who kept trying to
ambush the lawyer and his client, I combined them all into a couple of really aggressive
reporters - a Mike Wallace type TV reporter and a very friendly reporter for a major
newspaper who tries to gain the confidence of the accused wife. These two were
composites of the dozen reporters in the novel, taking the most interesting aspects of
each character and their most interesting scenes.
7) First hand scenes. In the book the lawyer could call on people to give him
information - in the script the lawyer had to go out and get that information himself. The
protagonist has to be ACTIVELY working to resolve the conflict. The protagonist has to
get his hands dirty. In the novel the lawyer had a guy in his office doing much of the leg
work, plus the ex-cop out there poking around. Those characters made the protagonist
passive. There were several scenes where the protagonist was briefed about the
investigation - just a big exposition dump! I ended up eliminating the guy in the office
and had the protagonist go out and uncover his own information. He became more
involved in the case, more active, and because these witnesses were often trying to
hide the truth - it created some big dramatic scenes. Any time you can change
exposition into action, you're improving the script. Any scene where someone TELLS
someone what happened needs to be changed into a scene where we SEE what
8) Visualize. Scenes that were not visual had to either be made visual... or dropped.
Either the character could be seen performing some action - or those scenes couldn't
work. Much of the courtroom drama from the book ended up being pre-trial
investigation... because that is more visual. Only the big trial moments ended up in the
script. Hey, we love that Perry Mason stuff... but all of the boring courtroom stuff had to
be re-created in a form that was more dramatic and active. The protagonist out there
uncovering clues is more interesting than people sitting in a court room talking about it.
9) Focus. One of the things that happened in adapting this book - the plot which was
scattershot in the novel ended up being very focused in the script. A weak plot twist
became much stronger because it was in a focused (and more dramatic) scene. Often
the order of scenes was changed from book to script to make it more dramatic... and it
ended up making more sense, too.
The main thing to do is focus on the story that central conflict where the physical
conflict and emotional conflict intersect. That's the spine of your story. Every character,
scene, line of dialogue, bit of action, and subplot will be attached to that spine. Anything
that isn't part of the central conflict should end up in the wastebasket. That's how you
turn a big fat New York Times Best selling thriller into a 110 page script... that never
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