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Adaptation, Pt 5: 22 Steps To Adapting For Screen

Now for the last of my posts from The Art And Business of Adaptation: here’s Adrian Mead’s thoughts on how to approach writing an adaptation. Obviously everyone’s different and when you approach your own, you may find your working method/thoughts on this is entirely the opposite, but I still think it’s an interesting insight on how to go about it. I’d be interested to hear from any screenwriters who have adapted stuff what they think of this too – did you do something similar? Not at all? Let us know and enjoy!


STAGE ONE: The Book As A Whole

1) First off: what is the central theme of the book? Can you isolate it?

2) How does the plot work as an investigation of that theme?

3) Who are the characters? Does the protagonist make the decisions, drive the story forwards? (Though they nearly always do in films, they don’t always in novels). The story is usually as good as the antagonist: what obstacles do they present for the protagonist/theme?

4) What is the narrative flow? How does the plot move forward? Where are the turning points? What are the main plot lines of the book (remember not to get bogged down in those incidental moments that novels invariably have).

5) Where are the settings (time and place)? What visual riches do they display? What do they tell us about the world of that story?

6) What is the formal structure of the story (time-wise)?

7) Where is the authorial voice of this narrative and how does it function?

STAGE TWO: The Breakdown

8) Look at the book PAGE BY PAGE to create a plot summary of the novel.

9) Now look at the novel again and create a scene summary (one sentence per scene) for the entire work.

10) Now, with reference to the protagonist list all the scenes that do not specifically advance their story. Get rid of all incidental or tangental stuff.

11) Now list all the scenes that do not involve the protagonist directly.

12) Make a third list of all the scenes that do not advance the main plot directly (sub plot stuff, etc).

13) List which of the scenes to keep and WHY.

14) Repeat all the above steps with regard to the antagonist.

15) Now create a character list: who is not needed? Who will you keep? Which characters advance or inform the protagonist’s journey? What is their function?

16) What scenes will you now need to create to “plug the gaps” of what you have? (much of this will be instinctive at this point).

17) Go back to the original material, re-read the book; put it away again. Do NOT look at it again.

STAGE THREE: The Writing

18) Write a rough script of the scenes you remember best now in the order they come to you (n.b. not an actual draft; don’t look at your notes or the source material in order to do this either).

19) Looking at those rough scenes, think about what attracted you to them – are you driven to write any new scenes now?

20) Use writing exercises to help you “break free” of the source material, like automatic writing. Don’t be chained to it, even if you are writing a reconstruction.

21) Write your in-depth scene breakdown of your draft.

22) Write the draft. Adrian pointed out your first draft will undubitably be a disappointment to you; it will feel flat or hollow or perhaps chaotic – but don’t forget that’s the case with all first drafts. Just because you’re adapting doesn’t make it “easier”, it doesn’t just fall into place.

So… 22 potential steps between us and adapting! And the small case of finding rights to something. Otherwise, we should all be raring to go… Anyone up for it? Or does adapting sound like your worst nightmare? Why? Over to you!

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3 thoughts on “Adaptation, Pt 5: 22 Steps To Adapting For Screen”

  1. Argh. Adapting. I’ve barely got my head round the WTF? draft! Think I need some serious practice before I even go near adapting, but def interesting stuff Luce, cheers!

  2. After the class I am well up for taking on an adaptation.

    its just hard to find something I’m really passionate about and that I could realistically get the rights to.

  3. Essential reading Luce, thanks for doing this.
    Still keen on adapting a book by my subject entitled A Hard man Is Good To Find.
    Now there’s a title.

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