A few years back, I used my time during NaNoWriMo composing a rough draft of an old story idea. At the time, the story was severely underdeveloped. The characters had no personalities, the plot was practically non-existent. It was an idea that refused to become more.
So I set it aside until last year when it felt right to try giving the story a chance in a visual medium.
I worked on the screenplay for a class, and later finished it during Script Frenzy. But as I opened the file for revisions, I felt compelled to refer to notes made for the story’s novel version. It has an opening sequence that I adore, full of vivid description. It’s a hook that can’t be translated from page to screen because much of it is internal.
That left me thinking that I should perhaps give this WIP a chance as a novel again, and yet… I can’t let go of the idea of writing it for screen.
My solution: try both versions. At the very least, it’s providing me with an excellent tool in learning the differences between novels and films/television, while also allowing me to improve on my weaknesses in both media.
That’s one goal of writing anyhoot, right? To practice new approaches and use those to make yourself a stronger writer.
First thing I’ve noticed is that each version wants to start in a different place in the story. Each is set up to hook the audience through its own methods. In the novel, the lead character wakes up in a strange forest, incapacitated. What follows is a rich description of everything he experiences through his five senses.
The setup is the most satisfying thing I’ve written for this story. It hooks readers immediately into the action, but also poses questions: where is this character? Why is he incapacitated like this? It also introduces the main character, and hints the relationship he has with the other character beside him.
Visuals vs Prose
However, due to the heavy internal monologue that dominates the hook, I don’t find this to be a suitable opening for the screen.
Visual media is, at times, more complicated than prose. Because it relies on the ability to show through image rather than with words, you have different tools at your disposal. And since you can show the audience your world, lengthy descriptions of setting are irrelevant.
How should this story adapt for screen, then?
My hook for the script begins (at least for now) by introducing the atmosphere that will become part of the main structure and plot. The fade-in reveals the fantastic realm that the main characters will travel to over the course of the show. This establishes two things that I’ve learnt are essential to writing hooks for screen:
- genre – an important thing to reveal from the start; it tells readers what sort of journey they’re about to embark on
- plot – audiences are exposed to a hint of what the story will contain, as it introduces the situation the main characters will soon find themselves part of
Leisurely or Action-Packed?
During my brainstorms, I realized that most of the books I read typically open in the middle of action. They pose a situation or question to readers that invites us to continue, to learn more.
Many films I favor, on the other hand, seem to open at a more leisurely pace. They’ll show our lead character, alone, contemplative. Or they’ll introduce a theme/idea that will span throughout the story.
Star Wars opens with a wide-shot of space, bordered by moons and planets. It establishes genre, then slowly brings in a low-action battle sequence.
Pirates of the Caribbean immediately establishes the concept of pirates when a shipwrecked boy washes up while Elizabeth chants “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.”
Titanic begins with a ghostly image of the ship’s farewell shifting to the approach of submersibles on a treasure hunt.
Making Sense of Differences
Is it because of teasers and ads that the need to hook an audience isn’t necessarily action-packed for films, as it’s prone to be for books? Perhaps by the time people are sitting in the cinema, they’re already attached to watching a film, so it’s okay to introduce them through a relaxed opening sequence.