Top Five Tips for Adaptation

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An adaptation is my favourite type of play to write. I love taking a work from one genre and figuring out how it will thrive as a piece of theatre. I’ve written theatrical adaptations of A Christmas Carol, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps poems and my most difficult challenge Edgar Allan Poe. It was worth every drop of blood, so to speak.

Want to turn a book, a short story, a poem, or a song into a play? Here are your Top Five Tips:

Round and Square do not Mix

Do not try to fit a round peg into a square hole. A book is not a play and vice e versa. The storytelling techniques that work in a novel are completely different than those in a theatrical setting. Books and scripts don’t play by the same rules, so don’t try to force the rules of one genre into the environment of another.

Is there theatre in these pages?

When you look at the original source material, ask yourself this most important question: is this a piece of theatre? You need to find the theatrical in the pages, be it an image, a moment, or a character. And if it’s not inherently theatrical ask yourself: what theatre can you make out of the work? Do you see Moby Dick as a plank and a couple of ladders? Can you illuminate the Headless Horseman using just shadows? It’s not enough to transfer the words from the page to the stage, what are you going to do with those words?

Character and Conflict

Character and conflict are the lifeblood of every great play. The reason we still study Shakespeare is not because of the archaic language but because of character and conflict: a boy and a girl who fell in love when they weren’t supposed to. A young man who has to deal with the murder of his father and killing his step-father. This is key in adaptation. Who is your main character and what is the conflict? What stands in the way of the main character? Define this in your source material and bring it to life in your play.

Ditch the Narrator

Narrators are death in theatre. They hardly exist in a play for their own merit with their own unique character. They’re used to  move tell us the plot, describe a location, or share the inner thoughts of a character. Playwriting Rule number one:  show your story, don’t tell your story. Show what’s happening inside a character, visualize and theatricalize that inner thought. Unless you can find a theatrical way to use the narrator and bring him to life beyond being a plot device, get rid of him.

 The Audience needs this because….

Lastly, you have to ask yourself why  – why does an audience need to experience this work in a new form? What’s in it for them to see a short story on the stage? Your audience must always be on your mind when you write. Include them in your process. If you can articulate exactly why an audience needs to see Moby Dick instead of read Moby Dick then get writing. You’re own your way to a great adaptation.