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Part 2: What a Studio Executive Wants You to Know About Your Novel

A guest post from Art Holcomb

And so, back to our story . . .

When we had last left our hero (that’s me), I had just had lunch at the Paramount Studios commissary with a studio executive named David, who was kind enough to ask me back to his office bungalow to continue our conversation.

We had just settled in when David said, “Adapting novels into film is the lifeblood of what we do, and therein lies the problem.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Not every novel – including some best sellers – adapts well to the screen. Many fantastic stories, some with powerful depth and import, can never make it to this wider audience simply because of the way the story was told.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So what kind of story does make for a great adaptation?”

David leaned back and looked out the window and frowned. “Well, I guess the first group of adaptable stories could be called THE CLASSICS.”

I grabbed my notebook and started writing.

“For example, one type of classic is the stories from the Bible. You know – Ben-Hur, David and Goliath, Noah and the Flood. Think Cain and Abel and you can see the universal appeal. They are all well-known, powerful tales; all have a tried-and-true structure and have that all-important built-in audience. In that way, fables and fairy tales fit into this category as well.”

“Right,” I said, writing furiously.

“And there’s always Shakespeare and all of its re-imaginings. Remember, West Side Story is really just a fabulous take on Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was a turning point in the stories of our Western culture.  He gave us elemental stories with universally relatable emotions – forbidden love, envy, greed, longing, anguish. They’re the types of story that every member of every culture across the globe can relate to. The whole of human experience can be found in his work.  And universal appeal means at least the possibility of a world-wide audience.”

And, of course, you have to include here the Other Classic – that is, anything that you read – or avoided reading – in high school.  Gatsby, Huck Finn, Animal Farm, and the Scarlet Letter – like that. They’re well known, millions are at least familiar with the story, and so have that built-in audience. Attach a bankable star and you’re half way there.”

I was beginning to see where he was going.

“What nearly all these stories have in common,” David said, “is that they are in the public domain. These older stories mean that we don’t have to worry about acquiring their rights so we’re free to adapt them immediately, and that’s always attractive.”

“But the most valuable thing about these stories is that the writer and director can take the bones of these classic stories and put their individual twist on them. I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s Richard III, which was originally set in 15th Century England, re-imagined into a modern day Nazi Germany-like society.  Very much the original story, but set in a completely different time and place. And it was fantastic! The same thing might be done with any public domain film.”

“That’s a lot of possibilities,” I said.

“Now – the second group: There are some novels that are so popular that they simply cannot be ignored. Books with such Gone Girl, Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey. They all have built-in audiences and massive followings. And there are so many readers who can actually see the book already playing out in their head that they can’t help wanting to see it on the big screen. They are a slam dunk for adaptation.”

I really needed him to slow down a bit.  My hand was beginning to cramp.

“In this group, there are also what I call The Beauties – books that immediately spark the imagination. They have breathtaking images, historically powerful moments-in-time, sweeping space battles – they’re stories that immediately thrust us into their world. Movie stars are particularly are drawn to these projects because they can immediately see themselves as these heroes. And certain directors will see in the story a chance to really put their personal vision to work and make it their own.  They can become the kind of films that can really make a career. These are the films with great story universes and locations that really come alive in the telling – where the world itself almost becomes one of the characters. Adaptations for these can be an easier sell.”

David paused and sat back in his chair and stared at me, waiting for me to draw the obvious connection.

“But. I said, “Should novelist even consider the possibility of an adaptation when they write? Aren’t novels about bringing the author’s unique vision to life? Shouldn’t they just tell their story THEIR way?”

David smiled. “Sure, and we need that, but we’re talking here about the WAY the story is presented more than the author’s vision for the story itself. Remember, a great story is a great story! Movies, books, TV – from our standpoint, these are all the FORMS in which you choose to tell that story. But you can choose to execute the novel is such a way that it naturally invites adaptation for the screen. Screenwriters do it all the time, as do studios. Do you believe that Disney only wanted a movie out of the Pirates of the Caribbean?  That was inspired by a ride. And look where that has gone!  And don’t you think that Michael Crichton had more than a film in mind when he wrote Jurassic Park – it’s now an entire land at Universal Studios.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“What each of these things has in common is that they were all great STORIES first.  Nothing can happen unless that happens first, and the novelist must first learn to be a great storyteller – anyone who doesn’t work hard to learn their craft will never really succeed. But the power of a great story is in how it captures the imagination, how it inspires others with its vision.  If you can write a great story and present it in a way that arouses the creative talents in others, you have the possibility for your novel to do more than sell a couple of thousand books.”

I suddenly got what he was saying. This is the way that screenwriters think but novelists don’t.  Every writer dreams of having their book made into a movie but so few have any idea how to make more likely. There are so many things you can do to make your story more attractive to filmmakers and improve your storytelling skills in the bargain.  But no one teaches that.

David looked directly at me. “You can have the possibility to tell a story that could reach millions more people around the world than your novel alone ever could – just by the way you present it.”

“So,” I said, “How does a novelist do it?”

David leaned in.  “Well, let’s start with the obvious,” and he ticked off a list on his fingertips.

  • “You need a novelist who understands not just writing but storytelling. A novelist can make a compelling read but it takes a great storyteller to make you feel and live the story enough to be start seeing the possibilities in the world they’ve created. Just think Star Trek and Star Wars. People are drawn to the world these writers have created – Hell, people want to LIVE in these worlds.”
  • “Second, many novelists write a story that, in the end, ONLY THEY are interested in. You have to write universally, with universally relatable issues.”
  • “Next, you need a very simple plotline with an easily understandable goal. In this type of story, someone wants just one thing.  Or someone wants to get to some certain place to escape some specific fate.  Most novels glance right over that, and write convoluted plots because they think that’s what good stories are made of.  They’re not!”
  • “Then, you require a compelling, human hero. He or she has good points and flaws, strength and weaknesses.  The audience has to be able to recognize something of themselves in the hero in order to make a real connection.”
  • “You need a powerful, clear and understandable obstacle, villain or antagonistic force. And the more your villain believes that they are the hero of your story, the better your story will be.”
  • “And you need life-and-death stakes. Understandable, palpable stakes.”

“You see,” David said, “Movies aren’t complex and so much of the problems in adapting most novels is that movies are all visual and so many novels aren’t.

David and I talked well past sunset.  I had completely forgotten about my pitch session (luckily I was later forgiven) and, over the years, I had used what David and Bob taught me to teach a new group of screenwriters and novelists.

And now, it’s available to you.

I’ve gone on to use this information to create a new seminar we’re offering this year called Writing the Cinematic Novel.  

In it, we cover:

  • How to find and exploit stories in the public domain (we include a great list of stories!)
  • How to think like a screenwriter and paint your story with a filmmaker’s brush
  • How to bring out the most evocative and cinematic images in your story
  • How to create characters who can thrive on the screen
  • And how to write great and powerful scenes

The on-line class starts later this summer and we have a special discount price for all of Larry’s loyal StoryFix readers who act right away.

If you’d like more information about this seminar or to find out more about our other classes and services, drop us a line at aholcomb07@gmail.com with the subject line ADAPTATION and we’ll send it out.

Remember, seats are limited and this special pricing in only good through June 15th.

Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry’s coming up shortly with his return post – it’s a great one.

So, until next time – Just Keep Writing.

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What an Actor Wants You to Know About Your Novel — a guest post from Art Holcomb

Hi… it’s Art here. It’s my honor to be filling in for Larry here as he finishes up working on new training videos and other materials for you, his StoryFix family of writers. He’ll be back very soon.

In the meantime, I want to tell you a story about the unexpected power of your characters.

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Studio from Art

Years ago, I was on the lot at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood for a story pitch session.  And, as I was early, I decided to grab lunch at the commissary.

Now, the commissary was one of my favorite places in the world because I never knew whom I might see – actors and actresses, directors and studio execs.

For a young writer like me, this was like having all of Hollywood in one place.

I got my lunch and found a place at a table with a veteran actor (we’ll call him Bob) and a studio executive named David, both of whom I knew from my time pitching to Star Trek.  As we ate, we talked about the business and politics and the world. Being a bit bold, I asked a question that had bothered me for some time.

“Bob,” I said, “I train writers – both screenwriters and novelists – and I’ve always wanted to know something. If you don’t mind my asking, what are your absolute favorite roles to play? The ones that absolutely draw you doing a particular script?”

It seemed to me to be the obvious question. Almost every novelist and certainly every screenwriter I had ever met had a burning desire to see their story turned into a movie and to hear their words spoken on the big screen – I know it had been a turning point in my own career. So, if I knew this, I could improve both my own work and the work of my students.

But the real question here was – how does one write a role that an actor really wants to play?

Bob thought about it a bit and said, “I guess I have three types of roles that make me want to do a picture.” He smiled and said, “And so, in the tradition of building suspense, I’ll give them to you in reverse order.”

And what he said next really surprised me.

“My Number Three choice would always be to play – The Hero.”

“Really”, I said. “Number Three?”

“Absolutely!” he said through a mouth full of salad. “In a well-written piece, the hero is the most powerful role. He or she should get all the great lines and the powerful scenes and gets most of the publicity. A movie is made up of perhaps sixty separate two- minute scenes, and it was Jack Nicholson who once said that he would consider playing any role that had for him three good scenes and one great one. Plus, when you’re playing the hero, the story is all about your journey, the focus is on you, so what’s not to like?  If it’s good enough for Jack . . .”

Made sense, I thought.

“So, yeah, absolutely,” Bob said. “But, really, the Hero’s not even the best role.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s Number Two?”

“The second best role to play is always – The Villain.  The villain is where so much of the power and personality comes through. The range for most heroes is limited because of what they must stand for, but a villain can run the gamut. If for no other reason than the way the audience comes to hate a great villain, most great movies succeed or fail based on the power of the villain and, besides, they are always such a gas to play.”

By this time, I was a bit lost. Besides the hero and the villains, what other great roles were left?

Bob leaned back in his chair and smile wistfully. “But the absolute best role is the one that we are all trained to play, they one that gives us all a chance to show the audience exactly what we can do as actors . . .”

He paused for effect.

“I will always be attracted – first and foremost – to play any character who really suffers in the story.”

“Why?”

“Most people would say that we come to the movies or read a story or watch a play to enjoy the plot of the story. And we have always believed that plot is what draws us to the film. But the plot, from an actor’s standpoint, is only there to show the world the nature and range of human emotion through the actor’s art. Great stories, whether in films, television, or novels, are first and foremost about the truth of the human struggle.”

“I agree,” David the studio executive said. “Consider any film that you’ve really loved.  If you think about it, you were really drawn to the emotions that the characters portrayed – the pain, sorrow, anguish, elation and sheer love and happiness that you were able to connect with. It’s through that emotion that the audience bonds with that actor. Well-written pieces which always show that kind of human drama – the length and breadth of human emotion – and, it’s what makes the story a hit or a flop. From a pure craft standpoint, I would much rather play a powerful role is smaller film than the lead in a blockbuster. Fame, as wonderful as it can be, is not why most of us became actors. Humans, playing roles where the human heart stands in real conflict with itself, where pain and suffering can be shown honestly, makes that role – and that actor – unforgettable.”

I was beginning to see Bob’s craft – and my own work – in a new light.

Bob stood and gathered his belonging. And the worst part,” he said as he got ready to leave, “is that there are VERY FEW of those roles that come an actor’s way in his or her lifetime. And since the majority of movies are adaptation of novels and other materials these days, the problem lies as much with the sort of characters in novels today as they are in screenplays.

And, with that, Bob was gone, disappearing into the rush of people hurrying to get their lunch before the commissary closed for the day.

David said, “I love that guy,” and we sat silent for a while as I considered it all.

Writing for emotional impact was something I taught but had never considered from Bob’s position. Stories are, in the end, emotion delivery systems. We all come to the movies and to novels to be taken out of ourselves, to be made to feel things that we might not feel in our own lives. So the vehicle for these feelings had to be based in universally relatable emotions. We watch films and read novels for the same reason that our ancestors sat around the fire and talked about that day’s hunt. Stories were created by the elders of the village to teach the young people of the village about what their lives would be like and how to cope with the challenges ahead. All good stories invoke real emotions in the audience, and it’s that emotion that binds the stories to us and us to the stories.

Novelist or screenwriter, if a writer cannot write with emotional impact, s/he will never really reach the audience.

It was something I’d never forget.

I turned back to David as he was finishing his lunch.

“So when’s your pitch?” he asked.

“In about an hour.”

“I’ve got some time,” he said as he got up to leave.  “Walk with me back to my office. Bob really only gave you part of the story.”

And so, fascinated (and not believing my luck), I followed him out.

NEXT TIME ON STORYFIX: What Hollywood wants you to know about your next novel.

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A special offer to STORYFIX readers: We have a new slate of seminars in 2017.  We’ll be teaching you about How to Write for Emotional Impact as well as How to build your Writer’s Platform and Brand for ZERO DOLLARS . . . . PLUS news about our Summer Boot Camp that can get you up, writing, and possibly published within the next three months.

If you’re interested in these and any other of our courses and seminars, just drop me an email at aholcomb07@gmail.com, tell me you’re a StoryFix fan, and we’ll let you know about exclusive discounts we’ve created just for Larry’s loyal readers.

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Thanks for spending this time with me. Larry will be back soon.

So, until next time – Keep Writing!

Art

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