What better way to spend an evening than in conversation about craft? In a spirited, far-ranging exchange hosted by the Write Group, a supportive community for writers, three authors talked about the perils and pleasures of taking novels from the page to the screen.
Nancy Burke is adapting her novel Only the Women are Burning; Robert Blake Whitehill is an author/screenwriter who’s adapting his Ben Blackshaw novel series; and Scott Butterfield, author of the novel prelude, currently is in the film development stage. Highlights of their lively exchange:
A mindset shift—Making the transition from novel to screenplay is like entering another country and learning a new language. Along with plot, character, and pacing, screenwriters must master beats and beat sheets, treatments, table readings, shooting scripts and other elements of film. Crafting a screenplay requires a very different mindset from writing a novel, different tools, and different rules.
“Action is eloquence”—Shakespeare said it and screenwriters agree! All three panelists noted that action is the name of the game in screenwriting. Novels often depend on interior monologue, character descriptions, and lengthy scene settings. Screenplays rely on visual energy and action to convey a story: Action reveals character, signals scene shifts, dominates dialogue, and controls pacing.
Reading scripts rules—While Nancy and Robert have both taken screenwriting courses, all three panelists agreed that the single most efficient way to learn about scriptwriting is by reading scripts. Scripts for films are readily available and analyzing them can be the key to absorbing the film-script format, scene design, and pacing. Reading a novel and then the script for its adaptation to a movie can be especially helpful in seeing how one medium translates into the other.
“Table reads” are invaluable—Once you have a script in hand, the best way to see its flaws and strengths is through a reading by skilled professionals. Hearing your dialogue and directions read aloud is a critical step in revision. Hearing stilted speeches, seeing where scenes lag or pacing falters—this kind of feedback is essential to crafting a strong, commercially viable screenplay.
Helpful resources: Screenwriting is a risky business: Millions of dollars, vast resources, and professional careers are all on the line. That’s why learning the ropes is vital. Courses by Robert McKee and the Montclair Film Festival, the film Adaptation, and This Changes Everything, a documentary about women in Hollywood, were all cited.
Screenwriting is challenging but also tremendously exciting. Let’s give ourselves the skills to make the move from page to screen as we all write on!
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