When I did a book tour for my first novel, someone asked, “Have you sold the film rights?” And when I said yes, there was this gasp, like I’d been showered with pixie dust because Hollywood wanted my story. Some of the best works of fiction deserve never to be cast and photographed; to do so would weaken their effect, make them earthbound and common. But the truth is, I had always seen this story as a film, and from the outset, the hope was to sell it to the movies. I have optioned it every year since it was published (an option is when a film producer pays you a yearly fee for the opportunity to make your book into a film – and when the option expires, you keep the cash, and hopefully option it again.) For whatever reason, there has always been a lineup of suitors for this particular story, and as my agent tells me, “You’ve made more optioning it than you would have made selling it.”
FIVE TOOLS TO MAKE YOUR WORK MORE CINEMATIC
WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT?
In film, your movie is about ONE THING. This is not necessarily so with novels or memoirs, which is why some books are so challenging to adapt. When Martin Scorcese adapted Nikos Kazanzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, he said there were six different movies in the book and he had to choose one. It’s helpful if you can distill your story to a theme, and notice how that theme is alive through the whole story. Don’t feel like you have to nail it down, but remain curious. Because if the story is about justice, then you will discover that every single scene is exploring what justice means.
EVERY SCENE MOVES THE STORY FORWARD
In film, every scene must advance the plot. Every scene exists for that reason. As William Goldman says, “Screenplays are structure.” Some writers assume that this means if you have a wonderful scene that is not advancing the plot then it ought to be removed, no questions asked. But perhaps what it needs is to be contextualized. Why is it there? What is it trying to do? Go through your story, scene by scene, and ask yourself honestly if each scene is advancing the plot. If what you want is a propulsive narrative, then here are some things to explore:
1) What do the characters want in the scene?
2) What is at stake?
3) What are the obstacles?
4) Is it urgent?
5) Am I disguising or dramatizing exposition? (In other words, don’t tell us, show us – take us into the experience)
If you can identify what the characters want, make the stakes as high as possible, and locate the obstacles that stand in the way of the characters getting it, you are on your way to creating a compelling scene that will move the story forward through meaning.
At the end of every chapter (or sequence in film) you raise a question that demands to be answered. It can be really small or really big, but you put an itch in the reader’s brain that demands to be scratched. In other words, “What’s going to happen next?” And yes, I said, every single chapter. And once you understand this, it isn’t that difficult. Notice, when reading a book, the moment that you put it down. You probably put it down because the author gave permission to put it down.
EMPLOYING THE FIVE SENSES
Remember, you are writing prose, so you can convey through your words a sensory experience for your reader. Make it specific! Don’t write, “She smelled the flowers.” Gardenias smell different than roses or jasmine. Take us into the experience. What does asphalt smell like after a hard rain? What does milk taste like a day after its expiration? Describe the roughness of a sage leaf before you fry it in butter where it grows crispy and brittle and then melts hot on your tongue. Make it tactile. And what about sound? Does your story have a soundtrack? Right now I can hear the birds in my front yard, and my son is watching Magic School Bus on the other side of the house (he’s talking to the screen – according to him he’s sick and has to stay home from school and get caught up on Netflix). There’s also room tone, ambient noise. There is silence, which is completely different than the absence of sound. Walter Murch (Francis Coppola’s sound editor) when asked to provide his boss with total silence for a scene, gave him the sound of a buzzing mosquito turned up to ten. The silence was so complete that a mosquito sounded like a jet plane.
WHAT IS THE SCENE ABOUT?
One of the rules of screenwriting: Come into the scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. We don’t need to see the characters enter or exit the scene. Cut to the chase. What is the scene about? This doesn’t mean that the scene can’t go on for pages and pages, but we want to get to the urgency as soon as possible and stay in that place. And here’s how you do it: Action verbs. Don’t just ask yourself what your character wants, but what are they doing to get what they want? Are they begging, pleading, charming, attacking, seducing, bribing, convincing, requesting, demanding, threatening? This is what we do in real life when we want something. What are your characters doing to get what they want?