Recently a friend suggested I consider turning my 4-volume epic into a screenplay. “It’s a good story,” she said. “They’re looking for good stories.” So what the hell, let’s think about it. I’ve got time on my hands and nothing to lose.
My conclusions, in a nutshell: (1) Writing a screenplay is rather easy. (2) Writing a good screenplay is a lot harder, but entirely possible. (3) Adapting my existing story for the screen might require such extensive revision that it would turn into a different story. (4) Getting your foot in the door in Hollywood — as they say in New York, fahgeddaboudit.
I went to the library and brought home three nice books on screenplay writing. One makes the point that this is a visual form of storytelling. I suspect, though I would hesitate to advance this as a firm conclusion, that visual storytelling drastically reduces the scope of character development. Nuance is likely to be difficult, because you can only show character through action.
Yes, voice-over narration by your lead character is possible, but it’s a cliche. A character who is dithering rather than taking action can perhaps explain to some other character why she’s dithering, but film conversations tend to be terse, not nuanced.
This is why film, even more than prose fiction, leans toward good guys and bad guys with strong, simple, easily conveyed motivations. What if Frodo had said, “Well, you know, this isn’t really my problem. If you want the ring to be destroyed, here — you take it.” And then he and Gandalf and Sam sit around and discuss the pros and cons for ten or fifteen minutes. Bo-o-o-oring!
A screenplay needs a dramatic opener to catch the viewer’s attention. A novel needs a hook for the same reason, of course, but a written hook is quite different from a dramatized visual hook. Here’s a cheesy made-up example to illustrate this. A novel might begin with the sentence, “Life in the village had always been peaceful, until the ravening horde of demons rode down out of the north.” Once you’ve set this up, you can do a leisurely stroll through village life for many pages, introducing the main characters and so forth, before the wild hordes ever show up. A movie has to start with the wild hordes attacking; there’s no room for a long build-up.
And then we get to the question of the three-act structure. This is pretty much a requirement in film. But my story wouldn’t be a movie. It would be, at minimum, an eight-episode miniseries with 90-minute episodes. Anything less and it would choke. This would mean creating a series of eight three-act structures, all with dramatic setups, conflicts, and resolutions. Trying to force the story into this Procrustean bed could only do violence to it.
On top of which, a miniseries would require several million dollars in production costs. A novel that is already hugely popular (you know the series I’m talking about) has some chance of catching the eye of investors. An unknown story by a little-known author, not so much. And that consideration is quite apart from the process of navigating the labyrinth of Hollywood deal-makers, which I’m ill-equipped to do.
I think I’ve written a good story. And I do think it has cinematic breadth. Certain episodes in the story could be greatly condensed for film without materially damaging anything important. But even if I managed to produce a solid script, would it have exactly the right elements to attract backers? No, it wouldn’t.
Recognizing this is not negativity or self-defeating cynicism. It’s just an acknowledgment that the entertainment business is, after all, a business. If I were 30 years old and living in L.A., I could spend a few years shopping my screenplays and meeting people. If I scored a few successes, at some point years down the line I’d have a good chance of pitching this sort of exotic but colorful script to someone who might be interested. But I’m not 30, and I don’t schmooze. The End.