Can*Con once again ran 2017, over the weekend of October 13-15. One panel of particular interest to Lost in Translation was “Adaptation: Turning Your Novel into a Script, and Vice-Versa”, presented by Canadian science fiction author, Robert J. Sawyer, whose work has been adapted, including the recent ABC TV series Flashforward. He has also contributed to Star Trek Continues, having written the tenth episode, “To Boldly Go, Part 1”.
Sawyer started with the differences between traditional publishing and scriptwriting. The big differences is pay rate. Traditional publishing pays roughly six cents per word. The pay rate for a forty-four minute teleplay, approx six thousand words, works out to about six dollars per word. However, an author who has been paid for a novel will see the book published and out to an audience. There is no guarantee that a script will be filmed; only one percent of scripts that have been paid for ever get produced. Likewise, if an novel has been optioned for an film adaptation, it still may not be made. The situation is worse outside Hollywood; Canadian studios acquire works instead of producing their own.
There’s also a difference between script and prose. The written word in a novel, novella, or short story allows for the inner life of a character. The reader has access to the character’s inner thoughts. With film and television, that approach seldom works. Blade Runner was saddled with a narration by studio execs to try to explain what was happening, but the narration fell flat with audiences. The problem lies in the language and grammar of the different media.
Novels tend to follow one viewpoint character in a scene. A scene takes as long as needed to show an emotion change. An author can paint the scene, taking as long as needed to give the reader. The example Sawyer gave was him getting up, looking out the window to see the weather, then going through his morning routine before arriving at Can*Con and the panel, then seeing his old friend in the front row! All one scene, with the emotional charge going from positive to extra-positive.
Film, though, cuts from character to character, with the viewpoint being that of the camera and, thus, the audience. The average scene, that is, the length of time allowed for an emotional change, is one minute. Film starts the scene as close as possible to the emotional change and ends as soon as possible after. There is no time spent building up. The example above would start with Sawyer entering the room where the panel is held and ending after he sees his friend.
The above is why Lost in Translation looks at adaptations as translating a work from one medium to another. Each medium has its own way of storytelling. With film, the screenwriter, despite creating the work, has little say in what happens with it. Directors and actors have far more influence. The script is sparse, terse and tells instead of shows. There is only the bare bones – setting, telling the general action, and dialogue.
Changes in storytelling in film and television have changed over the years. Today, most shows have an A- and a B-story, allowing for internal cliffhangers by switching between the two stories. This hasn’t always been the approach; TV shows of the past have only had just the A-storyline. Star Trek is a great example of the differences. The original series seldom had a B-story, with the exception of “The Guardian of Forever”. The Next Generation, though had both A- and B-stories, and sometimes included a C-story. Film isn’t quite as bad, mainly because the cast is smaller and tends to follow one main character, but it’s not unknown there, either.
The current three-act approach for film comes from Syd Fields’ paradigm, published in 1979. The approach is artificial, but has been in use since the book’s publication. With television, the act breaks are the commercial breaks, allowing for cliffhangers just before the ads. Some TV movies take advantage of the commercial breaks; Special Bulletin used the structure of news coverage of a terrorist group threatening to set off a nuclear weapon to slip in ads the same way a news department would, making the ad breaks feel natural while still upping the tension.
Film, also using the three-act structure, has a different timing from TV. In a 120 minute film, the first act and last act are each thirty minutes. The middle act is the longest at sixty minutes. The beginning is done quickly; get the characters, setting, and situation introduced to get the to good part as fast as possible. The ending is also quick, wrapping up fast once all the action is done. The second act is where the character has an epiphany, usually at the midpoint.
The paradigm, at least for television, may be changing, thanks to season arcs, Netflix, and binge watching. Shows like the Battlestar Galactica reboot and A Game of Thrones have shown that television does not need to be episodic. The individual episodes may still follow the three-act structure, but the season and the series are akin to novels for television. With that change, the structure of how an episode is made may evolve.
Of note for potential NaNoWriMo participants, pantsers don’t do well as scriptwriters. The process requires knowing where things are heading, with the treatment, or the beat-by-beat outline, taking forty percent of the time. The treatment is followed by two drafts followed by a polish, all done within fourteen days if for television. Every point in the story must be known.
Along with Fields’ paradigm, Sawyer suggested Robert McKee’s Story for additional reading. He also pointed out that many scripts are available online for legal download, in part so that members of Writer’s Guild of America and the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can vote on best screenplay without revealing who they are. These screenplays will let aspiring writers see how movies have been written and how works have been adapted.
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