By Dr. Ken Atchity, the Story Merchant
Unless you’re making a documentary film of your instructional nonfiction book (in which case this article isn’t for you and you can contact me separately about what to do!), whether your book is fiction or nonfiction it needs to be shaped as a STORY if it’s going to make it to the big or little screen.
Most of what follows is based on my work with novelists, but when a nonfiction author—of, say, an inspirational book based on his or her own life—wants a movie to be made, they need to follow more or less the same rules as a novelist would. Their film treatment, the map they make that turns their book into a dramatic story, must consist of scenes and acts, twists and turning points, a compelling beginning and a satisfying ending—or it has little chance of succeeding in the wide world of commercial storytelling. So if you’re a nonfiction author, read what follows with the necessary adjustments in your mind; but also know that if you structure your nonfiction book dramatically even before you write the book, it’ll no doubt be a better, reader-friendlier book too.
Novelists seeking representation complain that none of their books have been made into films. At any given moment, we have literally stacks of novels on our desks in Los Angeles--from New York agents and publishers, and novelists around the world. Going through them to find the ones that might make motion pictures or television movies, we—and other producers, managers, and agents--are constantly running into the same problems:
· “There’s no third act…it just trickles out.”
· “There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”
· “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”
· “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”
· “The characters all sound the same.”
· “The protagonist is unrelatable.”
· “There’s not enough action.”
· “There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”
· “We don’t know who to root for.”
· “The whole thing is overly contrived.”
· “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.”
· “There’s no high concept here. How do we pitch this?”
· “There’s no real pacing.”
· “The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”
· “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is about.”
· “The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”
· “It’s set in Papago…in the 1960s, and is filled with long passages in Uto-Aztecan.”
· “There are no set pieces that make it a movie.”
“There’s no third act…it just trickles out.”
Make sure a dramatist looking at your book will clearly see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax leading to conclusive ending). Acquisition editors for the traditional publishing houses aren’t as set on the three-act structure as they should be. A novel can be so engrossing, in the world it creates, that they figure readers won’t care so much about the traditional beginning, middle, and end. When it comes to films, though, the proven formula is just the opposite. Inconclusive third acts lead to box office and ratings disappointment. And if you follow that dramatic formula, which is as old as Aristotle’s Poetics, you’ll end up creating a better novel too.
Of course anyone with the mind of a researcher can list a film or two that got made despite one of these objections. But for novelists who are frustrated at not getting their books made into films that should be small consolation and is, practically speaking, a useless observation when it comes to breaking into Hollywood. Yes, you might get lucky and find a famous Bulgarian director, who’s fascinated with the angst of octogenarians, studied pacing with John Sales or Jim Jarmusch, and loves ambiguous endings. But if you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, you should be planning your novel from the outset to make it appealing to filmmakers. That means start your film planning at the drawing board, not after the fact.
“There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”
How many characters do you really need to tell your story effectively? Do the pruning yourself. Cut the characters that aren’t recurring and/or absolutely necessary to tell the story powerfully. Unless you’re writing War and Peace, you don’t need dozens and dozens of characters.
And make sure you introduce your protagonist at the beginning. When a star’s management or agency are reading for him or her, if they don’t see him introduced in the first few pages, they don’t have the patience to go searching for the character the producers want that star to play. Believe me, good producers make sure the screenplay introduces Brad or Angelina on page one! It’s common sense.
“I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”
When studio execs say that, it usually means the lead isn’t a strong male character. To maximize your chances for success in Hollywood, give us a strong (preferably male) lead in your novel who, good or bad, is eminently relatable—and who’s in the “star age range” of 35-50 (where at any given moment 20 male stars reside; a star being a name that can set up the film by his attachment to it). The reason for the male lead is simple: women determine not only box office success but also television success. They are the primary force behind ticket sales and Nielsen ratings. They want, for the most part, to see strong male leads. That’s what provably draws them to the box office, and to a new series or film on television. Of course female leads make good films that attract women too. But for major success, go with a male lead because that’s what the market demands.
“At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”
Make sure you don’t neatly “wrap up” your plot with explanation instead of action. Telling us what happened that got us to this particular ending is essentially un-dramatic and is sure way to weaken your chances for the screen.
“There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.” AND: “The characters all sound the same.”
Express your novel character’s personality in dialogue that distinguishes him, and makes him a role a star would die to play. One of the sure reasons for a “pass” is the observation, “The characters all sound the same.” If a character is well-constructed, he will express himself characteristically, meaning that no one else in the book will sound the same way. Actors decide which roles attract them primarily based on the dialogue given to the character. Of course you can trust your screenwriter to do the dialogue for you, but the shelves are filled with screenplays that never get made into films because the screenwriter wasn’t able to bring the dialogue alive—any more than the novelist did. Don’t leave that possibility. Write powerful, active dialogue that moves the story forward.
Though I’ve observed the phenomena for several decades now, it still surprises me that even bestselling novelists, even the ones who complain that no one has made a film from their books yet, don’t write novels dramatic enough to lend themselves easily to mainstream film. It’s a well-known phenomenon in publishing that, with very few exceptions, the more books a novelist sells the less critical his publisher’s editors are of his work. So time and again we read novels that start out well, roar along to the halfway point, and then peter off into the bogs of formless character development or action resolution.
In today’s world, a traditional publisher invests between $25,000 and $100,000 or more in publishing your novel. A low-budget feature film from a major Hollywood studio today costs at least $60 million; even in the independent world decent films can cost $2 to $5 million. There is, from a business point of view, no comparison between the book business and the film business in that regard. Risking $60 million means the critical factor is raised as high as can be imagined when your book hits the “story department”—much higher than the critical factor of even the finest publishers. Hollywood studies what audiences want by logging, in box office dollars, cents, and surveys, what they respond best to.
Have someone in the film industry read your synopsis before you commit to writing the novel. That way you already know it has film potential and your confidence will show through as you construct your chapters.
Most novels that don’t make it to the screen fail because they lack dramatic action. They’re overly filled with internal monologue, thinking, reflection, description, contemplation—whereas a film must have action from start to finish. Action consists of two elements: actual action (“He rang the doorbell. She greeted him a shotgun blast.”) and dialogue. Good dialogue moves the story forward, like these lines from “Chinatown”:
She’s my daughter.
Gittes slaps her.
I said I want the truth.
She’s my sister.
He slaps her again.
She’s my daughter.
He slaps her again.
My sister, my daughter.
He slaps her again.
I said I want the truth.
She’s my sister and my daughter.
So make sure your novel is structured as much around action and forceful dialogue as it is around ambience and reflection.
“There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”
OR: “There’s no high concept here. How do we pitch this?”
What is this story about? Is the giant-killer question that usually stops consideration of a novel close in the acquisitions meeting if no one can answer it clearly and immediately. Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was made into a film because the question is easily answered: It’s about an inmate in an asylum who’s saner than his keepers. William Wharton’s Birdy is about a boy who believes he is a bird.
“We don’t know who to root for.”
What they mean when you hear them say that is they don’t think a star will play the lead role in this story. Whether the main character is sympathetic or not, he must be intriguing and relatable so much so that you can’t stop watching what happens to him. When Shakespeare’s Richard III comes out at the beginning of the movie or play and tells you what evil he plans to inflict upon the royal court, you can’t stop watching. You find yourself rooting for him because he’s just so unabashedly bad. It must be clear in your novel why we care what happens to the protagonist.
“The whole thing is overly contrived.”
Contrivance means that you simply don’t believe the action because it’s too far-fetched, not grounded in reality. The good storyteller’s job is to make even incredible actions credible. The moment they lose credibility with the audience, you’ve lost the audience. Make sure every event in your novel is constructed to avoid that accusation.
“There’s no real pacing.”
The good candidate novel for movies is one that offers a rollercoaster ride of unpredictable and gripping twists and turns. You can help insure this by structuring each of your three acts into three acts, and each scene into three acts: compelling beginning, unpredictable middle, and conclusive, satisfying ending.
“The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”
Make sure your protagonist takes charge of the action that shapes his or her destiny in your story, instead of being the passive victim of events. Just as no one likes eternal victims in real life, no one has sympathy for them in fiction. They are simply boring. We want characters that actively get into and out of trouble. The old film formula is true: Act 1: Get your hero into a tree. Act 2: Shake the tree. Act 3: Get him out of the tree. This works for comedy OR tragedy. He either gets down safely, or falls on his head. But he doesn’t fall from the wind, but from how own misjudgment.
“The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”
“It’s set in Papago…in the 1960s, and is filled with long passages in Uto-Aztecan.”
Suffice it to say that successful American movies are almost always set in America. That’s even why the rest of the world buys them—they like to see what happens here, whether it’s the weirdly non-mainstream world of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or the mainstream zaniness of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Stories set in other countries may be made in other countries, but they’re all too rarely made in America. By the same token, though not as religiously, period movies (set before the 1990s) are much more challenging to get made than contemporary ones. So when you’re planning your novel in Regency England, unless it’s a Regency Romance, ask yourself, Can I set this story TODAY? That will give you a better shot at the screen.
“There are no big set pieces that make it a movie.”
Producers call it “opening the story up.” Stories that are mostly interior are more challenging than stories, like Avatar, The Perfect Storm or Captain Phillips, that take the audience to a setting that screams to be a movie—moving pictures in a world we want to experience with our eyes. If you must have a conversation occupying the larger part of a chapter, take it outside to someplace interesting. Create an atmosphere that directors itch to capture on camera.
Finally, if you aim to add film to your profit centers as a novelist, it would behoove you to study what makes films work. Disdaining Hollywood may be a fashionable defense for writers who haven’t gotten either rich or famous from it, but it’s not productive in furthering your cinematic career. All of this free advice is one thing, but there’s no substitute for success. If you aspire to entertainment success, look at successful models and govern yourself accordingly. I’ll never forget a comment made by one of my students years ago.
She whispered to me during a break, because she thought her comment was embarrassingly naïve, “I don’t know anything about the rules, so I just took my favorite novel, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and outlined it. Then I based my book’s outline on that. Is that crazy?”
“Crazy?” I said. “Just the opposite. It’s the perfectly craftsmanlike thing to do. If you want to build an engine that works, take an engine apart to see how it works, how the parts fit together. You’ve got the exact right approach.”