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


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, author/producer: 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, supporting characters, plot, etc. 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 Merl 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 in 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 Broudagan. 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). 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 you know 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.

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