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Key tips to convert a short story to a screenplay

Whether you are adapting your own story or you're a new screenwriter adapting someone else's work, it can be a challenge to bring all the things you love in short story to the screen.

With prose, you can spend paragraphs describing something that needs to happen in seconds on film.

Characters in stories can convey their thoughts through the narrator or with interior monologue, which movie characters can only do sparingly. If you were to film many short stories exactly as they are written, you'd have a film that lacks structure and detail.

If you were to read many screenplays exactly as written, they would seem stilted and formulaic. Converting a short story to a screenplay requires translating the sensations and emotions conveyed by words to their cinematic equivalents.

Giving shape to the story as a whole

Stories can have a lull in the action while a character thinks or engages in dialogue that does not advance the plot. Films usually cannot do this.

Stories can have minor characters that don't advance the plot much. Films often have a much tighter focus on a few characters.

Be the HR werewolf of your story: cut, cut, cut. If you have a minor character with only one or two tasks to advance the plot, cut them and give those roles to characters who have more to do. Cut almost all narration, trim dialogue, characters or even action to focus on the essence of the story.

The story arc should be clear, even if some elements are slightly ambiguous. You should be able to describe the general shape of the story in two sentences, even if it takes 100 pages to show it in all the detail you want.

Make the bold move: from narrative to visual

A character's emotions don't need to be confined to their facial expression or body language. Use the setting to highlight what's going on emotionally with your characters.

With film, everything from the character's clothes to the table settings to the weather can indicate what's going on under the surface.

As you read the short story, if you can see it, then your audience should see it too.

Illustration - Notre Dame
  • Does it matter if the brick road was yellow?
  • Is the scene so visually strong that both the book illustrator and the filmmaker will feel compelled to show it? (Such as Esmeralda bringing water to Quasimodo as shown in this page.)
  • If the budget is tight, can we pull the old "invisible dragon" stunt?

And now spice it up with sound

Just as with creating visual interest, the sound of the film extends far beyond dialogue.

Show a character's skill in the kitchen with a glimpse of a rapidly moving knife, followed by chopping as the character talks.

The sounds of traffic through an open window tell you whether the characters are in an urban or rural environment, and that it's warm enough to have a window open.

Short stories can become long screenplayes

Just ask Peter Jackson, The Hobbit has grown from a short sized novel to a three chapters saga with a total running time that will probably exceed eight hours.

Creating a screenplay, like most writing processes, means that you will have to revisit and revise the material several times before you have something ready to be filmed. Read your original story to guide your approach, but don't feel bound to every detail.

At the end of this process your screenplay may look more like a work inspired by the original than a faithful adaptation, but this is what will make it work on screen.