Writing for people who don't read
Or: How to adapt your novel into a script
AKA To The or Not to The
By Scott Nicholson
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There was a post-New Wave and pre-Grunge band called The
The's. I'm sure they read a lot of Bentley Little novels,
though I don't know where they got the apostrophe.
band's moniker is a nudge for writers who want to reduce
their work to the bare, and barely sensible, bones. To
the core. Where the meat stinks the most. I am, of
course, talking about trimming it down for Hollywood.
First, let me say I'm not a regular check-cashing
resident of that sandy, slightly arid, and
architecturally homogeneous section of Los Angeles. I
have a couple of scripts in the option process, been a
Chesterfield semifinalist a couple of times, and a small
handful of directors and actors have liked my work, but
nobody has yet said, "Let me give you lots of money
and let's get this bit of genius on screen."
So I admit I'm not a professional, but after five
screenplays and eight novels, I can make some primitive
comparisons between the two forms.
The simplest distinction I've discovered is in the
elimination of a specific, nonessential, but ubiquitous
article of speech. If you ever write a screenplay that
includes the phrase "specific, nonessential, but
ubiquitous," then you are either writing for PBS or
you are in an insane asylum scrawling with blunt crayons.
While adapting some of my work for cinema, I've
discovered everything moves faster and works better for
the eye if you rarely say "The." Most of the
time, "the" only works in dialogue, but that's
only when you can't get away with a mere grunt or F-word.
You can't afford description when the person reading your
script is making 10 times more than you are. Their time
is money, and they know you have none and want theirs. So
you have to trick them. You have to make them look smart.
The way to do that is to make your script look dumb. Act
like you don't know how to construct a sentence. This is
a craft unto itself. The art of fragment.
It's okay to admit you hate words. These days, the New
York industry barely reads the books it publishes, and
there's a direct correlation between the publicity budget
and the amount of time spent editing and proofreading.
The higher the advance, the more quickly a book races
through the pipeline toward paydirt. Aim for a
seventh-grade reading level. And throw in some sex. With
As goofy as that sounds, if you want to write for
Hollywood, then you need to aim lower. Target the work to
fifth graders. Keep in the present tense because movies
happen now, as opposed to fiction, which has already
happened and is probably already out of print before you
even read it. These are the people with one finger in a
nostril and the other nine fingers on an X-box control.
This is our future. These
are our purse handlers of the arts, our audience, the
ones weaned on the glass teat. This is the era of
"three thumbs up" and "instant
Do you really want to give them anything that doesn't
jump around, lest you risk an ADHD apoplexy? I'd never
give this advice to a novelist, but if you're writing a
screenplay, automatically cut your first draft by 10
percent. If it's 100 pages, make it 90, make it quicker,
make it yesterday with a postmodern twist, "Titanic
Caribbean." Less is more. Tell the story with as
much white space as possible, starting as close to the
end as possible, leaving as much unsaid as you can. There
should be nothing but a greasy popcorn stain between
"Fade in" and "Credits over."
Not to suggest cinema is in any way an inferior
storytelling medium; it just relies a little less on a
single person's vision. And the writer is fairly
expendable, if you think about it. You can make a bad
movie out of a good script, but you can make a movie
that's decent with any of a hundred or even thousand
different writers, as long as the other elements carry
their weight. It's so simple even I can do it:
Greatest Movie Ever Made
By Scott Nicholson
Dark and stormy night.
Strike match, candle flickers to life.
Angeline Jolie, nude, smiles at the camera.
Pull back to reveal Scott Nicholson, frumpy, creepy
writer, mercifully clothed.
Scott reaches over and blows out candle.
CUT TO BLACK
Note: Any producers who want to option this script can
agent. I'll throw in the acting for free.
If I were selling this as a short story, getting paid by
the word, I would have written, "It was a dark and
stormy night. A match struck, sulfur stench wending
across the room as it touched a candle wick and the flame
bobbed to life. Angeline Jolie, nude, smiled at Scott
Nicholson, who mercifully was clothed and only three
weeks late for deadline. Scott reached a creepy hand to
the light switch, flooding the room with a harsh yellow
glow. Angeline winced. `Excuse me,' he said to her.
`You're standing between me and my typewriter.' "
Yeah, ever since I started writing screenplays, I've
gotten a whole lot dumber.
Nicholson is the author of THEY HUNGER, THE FARM,THANK YOU FOR THE
FLOWERS, and four other novels. Hes a
professional freelance editor, an organic
gardener, a musician and journalist. His website www.hauntedcomputer.com serves up a blog
and more writing advice.
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