More and more screenwriters are trying to make the move from screenplays to novels, and director/screenwriter Stephen David Brooks and author/screenwriter Jeff Lyons have embarked on just such an adaptation project to bring their TV pilot and supernatural/thriller series to prose readers in a new 3-book series entitled Jack Be Dead. They are here to share their experiences and insights into the process of transitioning from screenwriting to prose writing.
The first book in the series, Jack Be Dead: Revelation, will be published March 27th on Amazon (print and e-book), with two other novellas to follow later in 2016. Visit www.jackbedead.com to pre-order and get more information on the series, including a free excerpt.
Script: Adapting screenplays to novels is the new “big thing.” Why did you both decide to jump on the bandwagon?
Stephen David Brooks: As an artist it’s important to expand one’s horizons. Some writers write plays as well. Some poetry. Storytelling is storytelling and the medium isn’t important. The story is. Plus, unlike screenwriting, this medium gives us direct access to the audience. The equivalent of a self-published novel is a self-financed film. And that can get quite expensive and take a year to produce. Plus screenwriting/filmmaking is a collaborative process and requires numerous disciplines and creatives to get the story told. A novel is as simple as a writer (or two in this case) and one reader. It’s direct. Intimate. In a way a film cannot be. For the first time in—well, in forever—it’s possible for a writer to actually make a living as a writer. The beauty about what’s happened (thanks to technology) in publishing is that there is no barrier to entry and the acceptance factor has changed the game across the board, and this is great news for screenwriters. The tech is there, the services are there, the marketing tools are there, it’s all there if you have the drive to build a business and a brand as a writer. And screenwriters have an advantage over a lot of other people, because we are used to getting out there and selling our wares and getting kicked in the teeth with rejection. So, lots of great reasons to make this transition.
Jeff Lyons: Stephen’s point about the sea change in publishing can’t be overstated. Everything he’s just described about the opportunities opening up in publishing are just the opposite in screenwriting. It’s harder than ever to break into the movie and TV business. Gatekeepers, readers, producers, agents, the list goes on all have their fingers in your pie and you are servant to many masters, and the chances are you still won’t get your script sold. The reality is the movie and TV businesses are staked against you and there are no markets for selling your screenplay beyond the traditional channels of acquisition. Even streaming is now siloed and gatekeepered to death. I’m not saying don’t write screenplays, go for it. Stephen and I will always write them, we love the form. Just know your lottery ticket will have to get hit by lightening on your birthday in a leap year for you to get a career with longevity as a screenwriter—just ask the majority of writers in the Writers Guild of America. Not so in the new world of self-publishing. There are no gatekeepers, no producers, no editorial boards, nobody with a clipboard checking off some list making your worthy of acquisition. There’s a reason more and more screenwriters are moving into self-publishing. You don’t need anyone’s permission anymore to be successful as a writer. “All” you need is a will to write, a story to tell, and the willingness to learn the ropes of starting your own publishing brand. Like Stephen said, the tools are now here to help us all do this. It’s hard and there’s a ton of work, but what screenwriter doesn’t know how to work hard?
Script: Is the screenplay-to-novel phenom going to last? Or is it a flash in the pan?
Stephen: I think it’s going to last. It is so easy to self-publish nowadays. Just like the way musicians can write/record and upload a song to iTunes. Novels also give screenwriters direct access to an audience where as a script has to go through many levels of filmmaking bureaucracy before it is seen.
Jeff: It’s going to last, because the days are gone when you just said “I’m a screenwriter,” or “I’m a novelist.” Very few people can make it now writing in just one form. Historically, that has not always been the case. Now, you have to be in multiple platforms and in multiple creative arenas to make a career as a writer, that means novels, graphic novels, screenplays, short stories, novellas—the more the merrier. This isn’t going away anytime soon. The audience is out there, it’s global and voracious for content. Like I always say, no one is going to be buying the anthology of “Unproduced Screenplays 2016” anytime soon, because screenplays have no market outside the traditional channels of distribution (not really), so all those screenplays you have in your drawer are dead on arrival, unless you re-engineer them into what readers want.
Script: What is the biggest, single challenge moving from screenwriting to prose writing?
Stephen: Screenwriting is about economy of language. Simplicity. Novels are about fulling fleshing out the details and inner workings of the characters and their relationships. In film, scene description is meant to suggest a look and feel instead of detailing every nuance. Just cut to the chase for the Art Director and Director to get an idea of what you want as a writer on the screen. Less is more, but it has to be the “right” less, if you know what I mean. Not so in novel writing. For example, in our Jack Be Dead novella series we’d come to a scene that worked beautifully on the script page, but then discovered that we needed two chapters to say what we said in five pages of script. Jack Be Dead: Revelation, the first novella in the series, represents about fifty pages of script, but translates to more than double that in the book. And you can’t just add pages for the fun of it, i.e., to fill things out. They have to be real pages, relevant pages, story pages. Discovering why and how this happens (thanks to the help of novelist friends who asked us all the hard questions) has been part of our learning that prose sensibility. I don’t now that we’ve mastered it yet, but we’re getting a hard-knocks education, and it’s paying off. And it’s a blast.
Jeff: The prose sensibility is so different than the screenwriting sensibility. It’s hard to put your finger on, but there is a way of thinking about and seeing the writing process (not the story process—that is the same regardless of form or format) that novelists have that screenwriters don’t, and the same can be said the other way around. I know a ton of novelists who can’t write a screenplay to save themselves. Screenwriting is a very different animal from novel writing and you can’t just transplant one to the other. There are no tricks or writing slight-of-hand you can use to make it happen. It’s what I like to call “the adaptation problem.” People think its all about making it longer, more wordy, and novel-like. They think form, not function. The function of a novel is different than the function of a screenplay. Screenwriters have to think function, not form. This is the essence, and this is the esoteric part of the process that is sensibility and not tangible in that way. Sorry, but there are no quick fixes, no “secrets to adaptation,” no shortcuts. This is where all these annoying “how-to adapt your screenplay” books fall short. Stephen and I have learned this the hard way with Jack Be Dead. Writing this series of novellas based on our pilot screenplay was like getting washed out to sea by a tsunami and left for the sharks. We’re still washed out to sea, but there are a lot of other screenwriter-novelists floating around out here with us, so our odds of getting picked off by the sharks are pretty high, and we see land, so it’s all good.
Script: Is a screenplay “just” a great, detailed outline for a novel? Or is it more complicated than that?
Stephen: It’s much more complicated. A screenplay has to serve two distinct functions: It has to entertain and engross a reader so that someone will be excited enough to fund the film or accept a part. Then the screenplay needs to be shot, it is the blueprint for the film or TV show. A novel has one audience, the reader. There’s no duality about the intention of what’s on the page. So many just approach this process as if to say, “Hey, now you have a tight outline of your novel.” This is so off base. If you are writing a short story or novella, maybe you can use a script as an outline, because short stories and novellas typically have limited POV characters, subplots, and limited story worlds. You can get away with just one protagonist, one main location (or maybe a couple), and one “B” line. But in a novel you have hundreds of pages, sometimes many hundreds.
Jeff: Exactly. Great openings, great endings, and mushy middles; this is always the problem with amateur screenwriters. Well, it’s the same with novels, except the mushy middle isn’t sixty pages, it’s a couple or several hundred pages. What are you going to fill up the middle of your book with? One subplot isn’t going to cut it. A little background on the hero or heroine isn’t going to cut it. A couple of set pieces isn’t going to carry you through the middle of a novel. A screenplay can supply a great backbone, but you will always have to layer in tons of backstory, additional subplots, other significant central characters, and so on. In screenplay terms, writing a novel is more like writing a full 22 episode season of a TV series, than it is a movie, and potentially even more complicated than that. This is one of the reasons why J.R.R. Martin refused to let anyone touch Song of Ice and Fire. It wasn’t until Benioff and Weiss figured out how to pitch him a series idea that he agreed to allow it. Stephen and I are fortunate with Jack Be Dead, because we originally conceived this as a TV series, so we have all that depth to draw on in the adaptation. In some ways, episodic TV writers have a better chance of pulling off a solid adaptation than feature writers, because there is usually a more complex world and story involved in a TV series than a one-off feature film.
Script: What was the biggest surprise you had turning Jack Be Dead into a series of novellas?
Stephen: The discovery that there is so much more to the story. Jeff and I have discovered uncharted depths of plot and character that we didn’t even know existed. The process has been truly exciting.
Jeff: I agree with Stephen, the story just opened up. We had a lot figured out already because of the original work we’d done on the scripts, but the novellas just went places we didn’t expect. This is one of the joys of growing your writing talent into another arena. Every writing format has its own demands. For me the biggest surprise was the feeling we got that the structure of the story was literally demanding us to go deeper and add complexity. Doing so in any of the scripts would have been disastrous, but not in this other form (novellas). Story structure tells you what to do and what not to do, you have to listen to the story, not impose preconceived ideas about characters, or genre requirements, etc. This is a great example of how novelists have freedom to really let their stories grow naturally, and not have to listen to some third-party trying to make sure some set piece or scene will test well in Kansas City.
Script: Is being a screenwriter a help or hindrance in novel writing?
Stephen: Funny you should ask that. I still refer to chapters as scenes. I don’t think it has any real effect one way or the other. The techniques are different but eventually both forms boil down to telling a compelling story.
Jeff: Screenwriting skills have helped us get to the point faster, maintain a good pace for the genre, and write good dialogue. Many novelists have a problem with all three of these things—I know, I story consult for lots of novelists. Screenwriters really have a leg up with pace, dialogue and genre beats. But, those same skills can be a hindrance when you as screenwriter want to just set the scene, but the story wants you to go deeper into motivation, history, or emotional process. I think a writer needs to develop both skill sets: novel writing and screenwriting. This was never an issue for screenwriters in the past. Novelizations were almost always done by novelists, not screenwriters. Paddy Chayevsky wrote one novel (Altered States) and it read like the script to his movie, not like a novel. He was a great screenwriter and playwright, but a mediocre novelist. And then there’s someone like Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys), by any measure a successful screenwriter, but who also has a great handle on writing genre fiction (Blood Money, 99 Percent Kill). Screenwriters are at a disadvantage if they don’t learn a novelist’s skill set, and novelists are at a disadvantage if they don’t learn how to write screenplays (especially with dialogue). And they are different skill sets. As with any art there is a talent component you can’t learn, but there is also a craft component that you can learn. If you have a talent for story you are very fortunate and will make the transition more easily. But, most people are good at the writing function and have mediocre (or bad) story skills. Before you make the transition to novels, try to figure out which is your strength. Most people know instinctively, but if you don’t know, figure it out. Are you a writer or a storyteller? Or are you one of the lucky few that does both well? Figure that out and then shore up the part that is weak with craft skills you might be missing. This is key to making the transition to prose for screenwriters. Learn the craft of novel writing, because it is a separate craft, not just a horizontal promotion.
Script: Do you think it’s easier to go from screenplay to novel, or the other way around? Why?
Stephen: Both present challenges. I’ve done a lot of screen adaptations and depending on the style of the novel the adaptation requires different methods. Often times a novel has several main characters. The screenwriter must choose one main character and tell the story from that point of view. What we’ve found with Jack Be Dead is we had one main character, but now need to expand the story by telling certain aspects from other character’s perspectives. Adaptation is a challenge regardless of the direction. From novel to screenplay you have to decide what to keep and what to cut. How do you know what is cinematic, and what is not? And do you just keep the high concept, but scrap the whole book as a story because it doesn’t really work as a movie, but you like the basic idea? After all, adaptations to film or TV are derived works, therefore they are different stories and different creative projects—they are not the originals.
Jeff: And going from screenplay to novel means you have to figure out what’s missing. What backstory do you have to come up with, how many new central characters do you need to write, how many subplots do you need, and what point of view and narrative voice will you tell the story in? It should be getting clearer and clearer that adapting a screenplay to novel format is not some cookie cutter you can just plug into some template and make it work. It’s writing, so there are not rules, but there is story structure, and as you expand the form from a constricted space of 120 pages (screenplay) to an expansive space of unlimited pages (a novel), the story structure expands accordingly and you better be prepared to listen to it, or you’ll end up with a paint-by-numbers and angry readers.
Script: How do you do it? Is there a process you use to switch from screenwriting mode to prose mode?
Stephen: Well the first thing I have to do is constantly remind myself not to write in present tense. Everything in screenwriting is present tense. And the sentences tend to use active language. Short staccato beats. Novels are not only read for the story, but are also evaluated on the use of language to paint a mental picture.
Jeff: The same as Stephen. Tense is always a challenge. I keep slipping into third person present tense, and sometimes I don’t catch it for pages and then it’s a pain in the butt to go back and rewrite. Stephen’s point about language is also a biggie. Readers read novels because they like to read. They like language and the art of writing as an art. Our process has to take this into consideration, something as screenwriters we weren’t really too concerned about. Our scripts have to grab people and have some style, etc., but scripts are not the final product, the movie or TV show is. Language and writing take a back seat to the final product. Not so with a book. So, we are constantly scrutinizing words, phrases, sentences and trying to find a balance between our tendency to cut to the chase and engage people who like to read words. We’re constantly fighting the “kill your darlings” problem; when are you just writing to hear the sound of your own word processor, and when are you actually writing. It’s harder than it sounds.
Script: There are a ton of how-to adapt books and blogs appearing now in the marketplace to help screenwriters adapt their screenplays. Do you use any of them, or recommend any?
Stephen: I haven’t read any.
Jeff: I’ve read some, but don’t really care for any, so far. Like I said earlier, they are mostly how-to, quick-fix books that give you templates and prose tips/tricks, not real strategies. But, my motto is “Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one. You are your own guru.” So, try some books and see if anything sticks. You never know. Maybe Stephen and I will write one of these books when we finish Jack Be Dead. We’ll have a pretty good handle on the process by then.
Script: Is there anything we didn’t ask that we should have?
Stephen: Yes. Cat person or dog person. Cat.
Jeff: Dog. (Ugh—this collaboration will never work.)
Stephen David Brooks is a former Visual Effects Supervisor turned multi-award-winning screenwriter and director. Stephen’s first feature Heads N Tailz won the “Audience Award” at the 2005 Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles. Stephen’s latest feature Flytrap has played five festivals worldwide and one three “best of” awards: “The Remi” from Worldfest Houston, “Best Non-European Independent Feature” from ECU The European Independent Film Festival in Paris, France, the “Special Jury Prize” from the Chelsea Film Festival in New York City, the “Audience Award” at the Culver City Film Festival, and was nominated for 5 awards at the 8th International Filmmaker Festival of World Cinema, London, including “Best Feature Film” and “Best Screenplay.” Visit www.stephendavidbrooks.com.
Jeff Lyons is a published author with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and lectures through the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, and The Writer Magazine. His book Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success was published in 2015 by Focal Press. Visit www.jefflyonsbooks.com.
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