Here’s Why Writing A Screenplay Is Harder Than Writing A Novel by Dr. Ken Atchity

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Why does a book fail to become a movie? If someone wants to adapt a book, they buy the rights, whatever it is, and it some how doesn’t translate, it doesn’t work out.

Dr. Ken Atchity, Producer/Author: Well, there are hundreds of reasons why that can happen. But they come back in categories that you get used to. Every book that is submitted to Hollywood is what’s called covered. And in my various webinars I talk about coverage. And coverage is an industry term for a story report where a reader in the story department of an agency or production company, a studio or any part of the business where stories go to be covered. And they’re covered because the executives who make the decisions can’t read all the stories that come in (too many things are submitted). In the coverage it covers every part of the story from a one-line pitch of the story to the genre, to the length and category, the quality of the writing, the dialogue, the characters, the supporting characters, the main characters, plot, etc.

 


“Drama is about scenes and a scene is a place and time in which there is conflict, two forces come together in conflict and the conflict is resolved.”


 

So you get a full report in four or five pages that analyzes the story and it ends with a recommendation – pass, consider with development or accept with development or just accept.

Accepts are extremely rare. Probably one to two percent are in that category. And the reason that most books are turned down, I’ve already mentioned some of them has to do with not clear who the protagonist is, not strong enough antagonist, too many characters, you can’t figure out what’s important, what’s not important, too much repetition, the dialogue, the characters don’t sound different from each other, they all sound the same, and we all know from literature graduate school that one of the common questions that you ask is you’re just given lines of dialogue from plays and asked to identify the character from one line of dialogue.

The great playwrights make their dialogue characteristic to each character and Lady MacBeth would not be sounding like Juliet. It will always be clear who is talking and that is another reason for frequent turn downs (the story isn’t big enough). A story about Latvian Americans in a small neighborhood in Detroit may get made as an indie movie if somebody like Meryl Streep wants to be in it because she is Latvian. But other than that the chances are that Fox is not going to develop it because they are looking at audience appeal, they are looking at demographics.

So any of those reasons and all those reasons are why a book gets turned down. Sometimes a book is too internal and screenwriters struggle with it because they can’t figure out how to externalize the constant thinking and philosophizing of the character.

Examples of books that have done that well like The World According To Garp is an example but they are usually internal stories are very hard to turn into films. What happens if half-way through your attempt to do that you realize you’re inventing all the dialogue and therefore how true is this movie to the book at all? Is it even the same book because if the book did everything internally and you’re inventing all of the dialogue, you know what I mean? So there are a lot of reasons but they all have to do with drama. Drama is about scenes and a scene is a place and time in which there is conflict, two forces come together in conflict and the conflict is resolved. And that scene is the unit of drama and if the scenes in a book are not clear enough, scenes are very distinguished in books. Vonnegut for example, his scenes can be two sentences long. In Faulkner his scenes can be 20 pages long but still they will be clear scenes. My favorite example I think the shortest story in American literature goes like this “Have you lived next door to a man who is trying to play the viola? She asked the police when she handed them the empty revolver?” It’s a short story by Richard Brautigan. But there’s a whole scene, a whole story told in a couple of lines just as tour-de-force to show you don’t need a lot of words to make a scene (we get it right away). And drama is a scene like that and two components of drama as I talk about in my various books, I mean one of them is action (she hands them the empty revolver) and the other is dialogue (have you lived next door to a person learning to play the viola?). Those are the two components of action and drama (dialogue and action) and dialogue like “Good morning, how are you doing today?” is not dramatic and yet many novels are filled with it (with that kind of dialogue).

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

So the great novels that have been made into great movies have vital dialogue that is really action dialogue. A line from Hemingway that I love to quote in creative writing classes these two people sitting near a train station and at one point she says to him “Would you please, please, please, please, please, PLEASE stop taking?” And that’s a great example of a piece of dialogue that is pure action. You know that there is no hope for their relationship after she says that. And it goes on to say “The man did not say anything for a moment and then asked would you like a beer?” And we know it’s all over between them.

But there’s an example of how great dialogue is from CHINATOWN “My mother, my sister. My mother, my sister. My mother, my sister.” Remember that? “Tell the truth.” And she keeps saying the same thing over and over again until he finally realizes that she is telling the truth. That’s when you know the writer knows what he is doing.

That’s why screenplay writing is so much more difficult than novels because there are the harshest rules in writing screenplays and a harsh rule is really only one harsh rule, every single word in the screenplay is connected to every other word and in a novel that’s not true. I mean you can’t…in a 600-page novel it can’t be true and it isn’t true. But it is true in a screenplay because if you say a word and the audiences leaves the theater and they loved it otherwise, you know they are going to say? But why did he say that one thing to him? It made no sense? “Take care of yourself.” Why did he say that at the end of that scene?  And they won’t let go of that until they have figured it out and if they can’t figure it out they go “There is something wrong with that story.” You can’t focus the camera on a red hat in a movie without making it pay off later. And that’s just not true in novels. One thing novels kind of float in the air of the reader as you read the book you paint pictures in your head and movies are much more demanding than that because they have to make decisions What does she look like? And you have to cast her with the right color hair. And one of the most famous lines in history is in The Iliad when everyone knows Helen of Troy is supposed to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived, right? But Homer is not going to deal with that because that’s just impossible. So what happens is when she appeared he says The Elders of Troy were standing on the walls of Troy chattering like locust with each other until a hush fell among them as Helen appeared. And one of them says “Terrible indeed is her likeness to that of an immortal goddess.” And that is the entire description of Helen of Troy which can’t be beat because it leaves completely to your imagination what she looked like. He wasn’t about to say she was 5’2, red hair, blue eyes, etc. which immediately will kill her beauty in some people’s minds. And so that’s why drama is so much more challenging. It’s the ultimate expression of storytelling. That’s why movies are hugely powerful instruments around the world.

 

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

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