I was a panelist at Author101 University earlier this month, and met with many writers who were interested in converting their fiction and non-fiction works into screenplays. After talking to over fifty writers during the three-day conference, I came up with a series of guidelines and an exercise that I thought would also be helpful to you. Bear in mind that these were all writers who owned their own material, so if you are thinking about adapting something that is not your own work, make sure that you take the legal steps to secure the rights before you begin writing.
1. The story must have at least one main character that goes on an emotional journey that causes him or her to learn an important lesson, and to change as a result, not always for the better. For example, in the film, The Godfather, Michael Corleone learns a lesson, but it turns him into a criminal.
2. There must be a clear villain or obstacle preventing the hero or heroine attaining success. It doesn’t always have to be a person, as in the case of the film, The Perfect Storm.
3. The story must come to a series of crises that force the character to make harder and harder choices, until the only choice is survival.
4. The arena of the story should be something we haven’t seen before, or a familiar situation presented in a new way. The film, The Lovely Bones, takes us to familiar ground, but through the perception of a young girl.
5. Identify a clear audience for your story. For example, The Godfather, is a crime drama that will attract a wide audience.
Once your project has met the above guidelines, do the following exercise to see if the story is big enough to be a successful movie. Since the hero or heroine is busy being good, it makes sense to start by getting to know the villain or obstacle first, because they are often the catalyst that sets the story in motion.
1. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
2. Prepare to interview the villain or obstacle in your story. If the obstacle is an event, like a storm, you will pretend that is a character that can speak. Being able to use your imagination is always critical when you’re writing dramatic literature.
3. You must now use your imagination to take on an additional role: that of an interviewer.
4. You are now going ask to the following questions as the interviewer, and then answer them in the past tense as if you were the obstacle or villain:
A. Why did you want what you want?
B. Why did you have to stop the hero or heroine?
C. What steps were you willing to take to succeed?
D. Did you succeed or fail, and why?
For example, if you were adapting Shakespeare’s play, Othello, you would interview Iago, the villain of this piece. He might answer that he wanted to be Othello’s right hand man; that he had to get revenge because he’d been slighted, and that he would stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Finally he would say, that yes, he did succeed.
To recap, when considering whether a story should be adapted, consult the guidelines and do the exercise.
Good luck, and happy adapting!