Far be it for me to instruct anyone on the process of turning a screenplay into a novel, but I had such a fun time adapting my own script, I wanted to share my journey with other screenwriters.
At the turn of the millennia, I decided to take a critical look at my long career as a theatrical designer for theater, TV and film and see if I really wanted to keep going. No, was my conclusion. I was frustrated with the kinds of projects I saw being made and certain I had more to offer, so I quit. I decided my new career would involve creating the sort of entertainment I wanted to watch.
Two years ago, I chose my favorite script, “Gabriel’s Flight” to turn into a novel. Though the script had won an award, it never proceeded into production. I love this story. It fully embodies my mission statement to make uplifting, and mind-bending entertainment. Researching the title, I found another book with the same name as my script, so I had to scramble and come up with an alternate – Gabriel Born. To my surprise, I like it more now.
A screenplay seemed to be the perfect outline for a novel. But first, I had to analyze it and decide what to do next. Movie scripts are extremely tight, controlled and succinctly written documents. They are a lean indication of where a project can go. As a screenwriter, you know you cannot tell; you must show all action and all emotion. Thoughts, unless narrated, must be indicated in some kind of action or interaction. Setting, action and character descriptions must be crisp and ideally leave room for the director, production team and cinematographer’s creative sparks to blossom. A film script is not a finished work; it’s an under-painting, an indication of where the writer would like to go. Scripts also move quickly from moment to moment. In addition, screenplays are written from an omniscient point of view in present time, which is not ideal for a novel.
I worked hard on my script, “Gabriel’s Flight,” and as a result, it has excellent structure. The plot moves at a logical, interesting pace. The character arcs are developed and change according to rules for script writing and storytelling. One deliberate choice I made was to honor the fact that the project started as a film script. I intentionally wanted it to feel, while read, as if you were watching a movie. These elements became the bones of the first step.
The main idea for my script was to give my audience the feeling of flying. The story grew out of that mission and is about a female geneticist who engineers her child to produce a cure for her own deadly, inherited disease. Something seems to go wrong, the cure is not apparent; the child is a prodigy that ultimately develops wings. After that, all he wants to do is fly. His mother tries unsuccessfully to contain him. As people watch him fly, they too feel the sensation of flying. The experience is transcendent and a battle ensues between the mother and Gabriel’s devotees and her fiancé, Philip, who represents the powerful institution hospital where the child was engineered.
Wanting people to have access to the story I love, I dove in.
I predicted my initial pass through would amount to about 55,000 words and become a good first draft for the novel. Surprisingly, that is exactly where I landed. My script has over 20,000 words, so the goal was not vast. I followed it closely, fleshing out the action, descriptions and conversations.
In a script you get into the scene late and out early. All my scriptwriting hours of editing and compressing scenes came undone as I expanded the information and action again. I felt a kind of enormous relief in giving the story the space that it clearly needed. At this point, I experimented with whether or not to stay in present tense or to shift into past. After writing a chapter or two in both tenses, and reading them aloud, I chose present. It seemed to be more in alignment with my intention for the reader to feel like they are watching a film.
The demons of self-doubt were stymied because I knew I had a solid script. I avoided moving sequences around, trusting my script had already proved the chosen structure. I quickly completed a marathon run through the first draft, sometimes writing a few thousand words a day. It went faster than I expected and gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment.
If I came up against a confused portion, I flagged it for later examination. Occasionally I added places or characters. I didn’t worry about their names. I didn’t stress the facts or timelines or reconcile events. I plowed through intending to go back later to sort stuff out. I promised myself I would write everyday from 9am to 1pm, at least. If I was on a roll, l I just kept going until dinner.
Once complete, I took that first draft and printed it out. I walked away from the computer and marked the draft with a red pen, making notes as I went. I found holes in the storyline where it seemed to skip irrationally. I saw my characters were more thinly drawn than I thought. Supporting characters were in dire need of beefing up, clarifying and getting more involved.
For my second pass, I delved inside exploring feelings, hopes and dreams. I had no idea how liberating and inspiring it would be to have the freedom to plow the inner sanctum of my character’s mind and to describe the space around her as she saw it. I loved this stage of the process. It was like painting with a finer brush and brightening the colors.
In the adaptation process, I learned a lot about my story. I addressed the gaps that became apparent in the script. I tidied up illogical transitions; sometimes a “CUT TO:” became an entire bridge sequence. I used some flashbacks to explain moments in the timeline in more depth and to flesh out the characters. Supporting players became more important to the story, so I found additional moments to involve them. If incorporating new information came easily, I went for it. If not, I again made a note and saved it for later. I was determined not to get stuck anywhere for any reason.
Years ago, I stopped drawing and painting because I became frustrated even after putting a single line on a page. I worried it was not perfect and would ruin the final work. When I finally returned to art, I realized that only by working through after laying down a foundation then readjusting, reworking and improving could the work be made perfect. I approach writing the same way. I just want something there that I can shape as needed. So, I forged through, analyzing every detail.
In reexamining my intention for how I wanted to present the science in the story, I briefly thought about going deeper into it with more technical information but decided not to. For me, it is more important that the story flow and the feelings of the characters take precedent. Incidentally, since my first draft of the screenplay in 2000, I have watched the science of genetics progress at breakneck speed. In 2003, we saw the completion of the map of the human genome. In 2007, we began to hear about the potential for CRISPR DNA use in the modification of genes. In 2014, we heard about genetically engineered pigs created so that transplanted hearts won’t be rejected. This year, 2017, we see the first known attempt to genetically edit a human embryo. I always worried my screenplay would be outdated before it could get produced, therefore elevating the reason to put the story in novel form now.
For my third pass, I finalized names of new characters and places and changed some original names. I checked my facts. Even though this is a fantasy, I wanted it to feel legitimate. I read all the dialogue aloud to see how it sounded. I reconciled things going backwards and forwards again to make sure certain characters, actions and information followed the timeline logically. When I got too confused, I took a break; a novel is a much bigger puzzle to manage than a screenplay.
At this point, the manuscript matched any other early stage novel with just over 80,000 words, completed in about three months. I had hit my mark, but still continued to rewrite and completed at least a dozen more passes, refining it to my own best possible version. Two editors and multiple beta readers later, I had a completed project that I was eager to share.
If you have that great script sitting on a shelf, take it out right away. Turning your screenplay into a novel is an exhilarating and very rewarding experience. It’s time to share your story with more than your hard drive.
Connect with Muriel Stockdale on her website. Gabriel Born is available at Amazon, Nook and the publisher Balboa.
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