What You See Is Who You Get: POV in Script-To-Book Adaptations
Our thanks to author Maria Alexander for the vital tips and tactics for a successful way to move from screenplay to novel. Her bio follows below.
You have a great screenplay with a story you’re dying to tell. You’ve used Save the Cat!, the feedback is strong, and you’re confident the script is solid. But despite perhaps even placing highly in screenplay competitions, your script can’t get traction in the industry. So, inspired by indie publishing successes, you decide to adapt your screenplay to novel and publish it on Amazon. Or perhaps you want to go the traditional route and find an agent.
First, however, you have many adaptation demons to slay. Defining point of view (POV) is one of the biggest.
A Media Tie-In Writer You Are Not
The folk who do this professionally are known as media tie-in writers. They adapt popular films to novel, also known as “novelizations.” While it might be helpful to look at novelizations such as Peter Lerangis’s The Sixth Sense or Christa Faust’s Snakes on a Plane, I’m not going to discuss that process. Media tie-in writers are locked into a predetermined story that has to be approved by both the studio and a publisher, and they often have to meet a particular word count.
You, on the other hand, have a lot more freedom because it’s your story. I’ll instead explain what I went through with POV to bring a script of mine successfully to traditional publication.
The Birth of Mr. Wicker
Back in 1999, I wrote a script called Mr. Wicker that was a quarterfinalist in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. That year there were over 4100 entries, and Mr. Wicker was one of the top 200. That placement got me many meetings at various production companies. But the story is urban fantasy and back then that wasn’t a well-known genre in film. Studio executives understood Tim Burton and horror. But this? No way.
The literary world knew what to do with this kind of tale. So, after I had written and published a number of well-received short stories, I decided to tackle adapting my script to novel. Herding wild weasels would’ve been easier, but I’m glad I did it. The book Mr. Wicker just came out September 16, 2014, from Raw Dog Screaming Press. Pre-sales were strong and it’s already gathering critical acclaim from major reviewers.
From Camera to Character
If your screenplay is strong, you already have the structure for your book. The bigger challenge for screenwriters writing fiction is to translate what the camera sees to what each character experiences. The camera sees everything, while characters are only aware of what they see and know as individuals. It’s through each character’s perspective that the story unfolds. Therefore, you have to decide who tells the reader what happens and when. It’s much harder than you’d think.
Who Tells the Story?
It might seem obvious, but first look at your script and identify who the protagonist is. I can’t tell you how many screenwriters don’t trust their stories. Because they were unable to sell their screenplay, they think they have to change the story dramatically in some way. If it’s working on some level, don’t change it. Especially not your characters.
Next, look at who your secondary characters are, including your antagonist. The protagonist and secondary characters are the characters whose POV we will most likely see in the book. You may or may not want to reveal your antagonist’s actions; I did because every reader of the script said they wanted to see more of Mr. Wicker. Clearly, the character was compelling. And since my story is more Miyazaki than Michael Bay, it made sense to give airtime to my sympathetic bad guy.
Choosing the POV
You can find online many great references (like this one from Ohio State University) that describe the different types of POVs. We’ll talk about the ones easiest to use in your adaptation.
When to Use First Person POV
If the main character appears in every scene of your script, the book might be written in what’s called the first person POV (e.g. “I did this. And then I went over there.”). One character tells the entire story. Look at Fight Club. Just as in the book, the unnamed protagonist appears in every scene of the film. It works especially well when you have an unreliable narrator.
It’s also possible to use the third person limited POV. See the next section.
When to Use Third Person POV
The third person limited POV is the one most commonly used in fiction (e.g. “He did this. She said that.”). If this is your first experience with writing prose, I recommend writing in this POV. If you’re writing from the POV of multiple characters, use the third person variable limited POV.
If you’re writing in the third person variable limited POV, alternate chapters between characters, making sure that you identify who is telling the story in the first sentence of that chapter. Avoid beginning a chapter with a line of dialogue unless you clearly identify that it’s something your POV character is saying. In the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been adapted to HBO’s Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin simply names each chapter after its POV character.
Don’t Use Third Person Omniscient POV
It’s just too difficult to do correctly if you’re not a seasoned fiction writer. It used to be really popular, but has fallen out of favor in the fiction market. Just skip it for now.
And Don’t Forget to Unpack
Some writers advocate not showing much of your character’s emotional and mental life. I strongly disagree. If you want your reader to empathize with your character, make sure you reveal your character’s internal processing. As screenwriters, you understand “show don’t tell.” What you need to learn is how to unpack what’s happening on the screen and flesh out the details, which include thoughts and emotions.
My Adaptation Solution
In Mr. Wicker, I chose to follow the protagonist (Alicia Baum) and two secondary characters (Dr. James Farron and Mr. Wicker himself) using the third person limited variable POV. You’ll find more chapters told from the POV of these three characters than anyone else. If I needed to show something that happened to a minor character, I included a chapter from the POV of that character at a critical juncture in the plot. I call these “cameo chapters.” I chose carefully which minor characters to tap, as certain ones knew things that might have given away too much in the book too early.
I Know I Said Don’t Change Your Story, But
After much beta reader feedback, I did change the script’s ending in the novel. Of course, this caused a series of other changes, such as the addition of a character in the psych ward. The spine of the story, however, remained relatively intact. I love my new, richer ending, and reader feedback has improved dramatically.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Make This Mistake
A common screenwriter problem when writing fiction is to narrate as if you are the camera, dipping into the head of every character in the room during a scene. For example, let’s say Peter is the POV character:
Peter wondered why Allison was smiling as she looked at her phone. “Good news?” he asked.
“Not really,” Allison replied, tucking her cell phone in her purse. Wanting to avoid an argument, she then quickly changed the subject. “Have you decided where you want to go to dinner?”
If Peter is the POV character, he cannot possibly know Allison wants to avoid an argument. That’s in her head, not his. We only know what’s in his head. To be fair, many beginning writers have this problem simply because they don’t yet know how to write. But screenwriters struggle with this distinction because they are used to including stage direction and character motivation in scripts.
Peter wondered why Allison was smiling as she looked at her phone. “Good news?” he asked.
“Not really,” Allison replied, tucking her cell phone in her purse. “Have you decided where you want to go to dinner?”
See how Peter only knows what he sees and hears? The next sentence might say something about how Peter has a nagging feeling that Allison isn’t telling him something. We stay in his head.
Hiring an Editor
I highly recommend using a service like the Odyssey critique service or hiring a professional editor for your book. Your editor can help identify POV problems and other issues, as well as suggest solutions. The end result is the most professionally written, polished manuscript possible, which will get you farther than you might think.
Writing a novel can require a greater time investment than writing a script, but your story has a better chance of reaching the world. Publishers Weekly — one of the three biggest book reviewers — gave Mr. Wicker a terrific review. Early readers have also rated it highly and one confessed that the last page made her cry. We also just got news that the book will appear in an article in the October issue of an important publication known as Library Journal. It was a long journey, but well worth it. And who knows? Maybe someone will option the movie rights to Mr. Wicker. Stranger things have happened.
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None of your uncomely attempts of taste dictatorship will ever be able to dissuade me from writing in intrusive omniscient manner, as it is my one true way to go, period!