Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Writing 101: Adapting Prose Story to Screenplay Format - Part One

Even though my writing career has taken many unexpected turns (such as my becoming a journalism student in high school and, more recently, becoming a regular online reviewer for such sites as Amazon, Epinions and Viewpoints), I’ve always dreamed about either writing a novel (doesn’t every writer?) or an original screenplay.

Over the past 30-plus years, the biggest literary projects that I’ve successfully completed (other than reviews and online musings) have been a trio of short stories which I’ve submitted to a website called Literotica.

Two of them, as you might have guessed from the website’s name, are about sex; I (rightly or wrongly) wanted to write a thinly-disguised account about my "first time" and share it with at least part of the world, plus I thought it would be a good “pushing the literary envelope” exercise.

The third major story which I submitted to Literotica was not about sex at all but rather my first major stab at serious fiction, a short story titled “Love Unspoken, Love Unbroken.” Originally titled “Reunion” when I originally wrote it in 1998, the story is about a 30-something college professor/historian who, upon learning that the young woman he adored from afar in high school has died in a car accident, returns to his home town and reminisces about the last time he saw her and reflects upon his inability to tell her how he felt about her when he had the chance.

In the years since I wrote (and rewrote) “Reunion/Love Unspoken, Love Unbroken,” the thought What do I do with this story and its characters next? has often crossed my mind. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written (at least I don’t think it is), but because it is partly based on my life experiences (it’s set in my real-life high school at the time of my graduation), it could be either expanded into a novel or adapted into a screenplay.

As I said earlier, one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer was so I could someday write a movie script. This particular ambition was inspired, partly, by the fact that I like movies a great deal and wanted to somehow be a part of the filmmaking process.

Even though I’ve never gone to film school. I have learned over the years how to read and write screenplays. I’ve read “for the general reader” editions of all six Star Wars screenplays, plus one of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve also read the more accurately presented screenplay for Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, as well as some how-to books, especially Syd Fields’ Screenplay.

Now, you’d figure that writing a screenplay on a computer with a word processing program such as Word Perfect or Microsoft Word would be easy-peasy, but it’s not. There are certain formatting requirements that can’t be replicated on either unless you are a whiz at code-tweaking and parameter-setting, and neither program has a “screenplay” template that meets industry requirements.

You see, even though screenplay format seems pretty simple since it’s essentially a combination of elements (Scene, Character, Dialogue, Action, Shot and Transitions being the main ones), it’s getting the physical document settings right that’s not too easy to do unless you have the right software, something along the lines of Write Brothers Movie Magic Screenwriter

So although I have always figured that adapting something I’ve written from prose to screenplay was something I could do intellectually, it wasn’t until I purchased a copy of Write Brothers Movie Magic Screenwriter a couple of years ago that I started making my long-held dream into a reality.

After installing, registering and learning how to use Screenwriter, I started re-reading “Love Unspoken, Love Unbroken,” looking for a particular section that lent itself to “easy” adaptation.

My first choice was to start with the story’s 1998 “Present Day” beginning, but even though I had a somewhat coherent vision in my head of what I wanted to “see” on screen for the opening sequence, I had a hard time choosing the right words to get the sequence’s cinematic tones to match the prose version’s elegaic and nostalgic moods correctly.

Frustrated but not wanting to give up, I then decided to adapt another scene from later on in the story. It doesn’t make too much sense out of context so I won’t reproduce that part of the screenplay here; suffice it to say that it’s based on this bit of the original story:

Two girls, walking backward and waving their hands in leave-taking, turned around and saw me standing there, leaning against the wall with my hands jammed tightly in my jeans’ pockets. They smiled at me; one of them, a tall, pretty redhead whose name I didn’t remember, walked up to me and hugged me.

“Well, fellow graduate, we’re finally outta here,” the redhead said when we were apart once again. “I haven’t had a chance to ask, but what are your
plans, Jim?”

I smiled sheepishly. “I’m going to college in the fall,” I said.

“Where are you going to school?” asked the redhead’s companion, a blonde from my fifth period art class. Her name was Maria Theresa.

“Ah, Harvard,” I said.

“Congratulations,” Maria Theresa said politely.

“Good luck,” said Redhead with more enthusiasm. She leaned close and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. I blushed, embarrassed because I couldn’t remember her name.

“Well,” Maria Theresa said presently, “see you at the graduation.” She led Redhead away like a woman leading her pet poodle. Redhead looked back at me over her shoulder and waved.

I stood there quietly, debating whether or not to go inside the chorus room. I glanced at my watch. It was now 2:22 p.m.; only eight minutes left. When that final bell rang, a school year – and a phase of my life – would end.