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How To Adapt Stories Into Screenplays

By Marilyn Horowitz

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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.

The Guidelines:
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!

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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