From page to big screen: 'A novel is an expansive beach, and a screenplay is a thimble full of sand'
Megan Abbott on the unprecedented differences between writing novels and screenplays following the Netflix adaptation of her enthralling novel, Dare Me.
Ever wondered how your favourite books are translated onto the big screen? This month we caught up with award-winning author Megan Abbott, who spilled the beans on the differences between writing novels and screenplays. Megan's second novel, Dare Me, was shortlisted for the CWA Steel Dagger 2012 and was a 2013 Specsavers Crime Thriller Bookclub selection, and it is soon to be a major motion picture.
When I finish a novel, I'm very, very done with it. Between revisions for my agent and my editor, and compacted by my own compulsive edits, I generally have so tortured myself through so many drafts by the time final page proofs leave my nervous hands that I can’t bear even to open one of my own books again. And yet, in 2012, when I had the opportunity to tackle adapting my novel Dare Me for the big screen, what did I say?
Because I love movies desperately, spent my growing-up years planted in front of the TV watching Golden-Age Hollywood movies and reading endless books about my favourite screenwriters, like Joseph Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder.
But after my initial, foolhardy bravado abated and I sat down at the computer to begin, all I felt was panic.
The panic was quite basic—I have no idea how to do this—and ultimately quite complex, as I faced the realization that writing a novel and writing a feature script have about as much in common as enduring a cattle ride across the country during pioneer days and steering a rocket to the moon in under six seconds.
Moreover, for someone who likes to be done with their novels when they’re done with them, I realized that first morning that, for the first time ever, I was going to have to re-read (well, skim) one of my own published books. And not just re-read it but tear it down into component parts and toss most of them into the trash can.
So, until I began the actual writing, every morning it was a painful revisiting of past choices and making new ones. I tell people it’s like a surprise visit from an ex-boyfriend. He arrives and refuses to leave until you “work through” your relationship. Each morning he’s there and he won’t leave until you've, more deeply, left him—left the book behind for something new. The script, in this case.
What I learned, though, is that a novel is an expansive beach, and a screenplay is a thimble full of sand. I had written this short but dense tale of a cheerleading squad falling under the sway of a charismatic new coach who disrupts the hierarchy among the girls and whose personal recklessness leads to dark places. The novel is filled with betrayals and reversals, a crime, a cover-up—but also about the intricacies of female friendships, a vexed mentor-student relationship. I knew I’d have to take a hacksaw to it. I thought of all the sleek, sly screenplays I loved most—Double Indemnity, All About Eve— and how they jammed so much into each moment on screen but still feel fizzy as champagne. It seemed impossible.
'Screen-writing is easy,' my friend, the graphic novelist and screenwriter Ed Brubaker told me. 'Read Michael Clayton.' So I did, picking up a copy of Tony Gilroy’s expert, Academy Award-nominated script about a fixer at a law firm caught in a tangled conspiracy. And it was incredibly useful, a primer on screen-writing, but foremost because of one bit of advice I found in the interview with Gilroy reprinted in the back of the book.
What was the advice? It’s going to sound simple, and it is, but he said that, with each scene, you should 'Come in late, get out early.' It does sound so easy, but it was incredible useful. In novels, you build scenes, you set moves, you have to get from A to B, but in a movie, there are so many other elements (setting, actors, editing) that make all that happen, and it was a kind of freedom to let those go and focus only on story, motion, propulsion.
Moreover, because you have so little space with a script, everything has to be doing many things at once. As I wrote, I told myself: every line of dialogue, every action has to fill at least three functions: advance story, deepen character and contribute to the mood or emotional tenor. If it doesn't, it doesn't belong.
'You learn how little you need,' Gilroy adds. 'You start writing less and thinking more.'
And I did. And I did it. The result is a script that has the novel’s DNA but runs on a new engine, and one that runs fast. I’m not sure, but I expect my novel-writing since has benefited from the excursion—a heightened rigor, perhaps; more planning. But I don’t think I could ever follow the siren song so many writers have, abandoning novels for Hollywood. As soon as I began writing a novel again, I was so glad to be back on that endless beach. All I wanted to do was stretch my arms wide, dig my feet into the sand and savour the expanse.