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.

Fight the Fear

fight the fear

I am angry at an airline. It’s not an airline I usually fly. Their booking process makes me feel all angsty. They charged for check bags.

When an airline charges for checked bags it only makes sense that people who have already shelled out for a ticket don’t want to pay extra just to bring their things along. It makes further sense that people who want to bring things will cram as much as humanly possible (babies, kitchen sinks, sandwiches) into their carry on.

Now comes the math. If people don’t want to pay extra just to bring their things along, and everyone is cramming kitchen sinks into their carry on, and no one is enforcing the “your-carry-on-bags-must-be-this-big” rule, planes are going to run out of bin space. It only makes sense.

So what happens? Tense negative announcements via Cruella DeAirline:

This is going to be a full flight. Stuffed to the gills. Do you hear me? Every seat will be taken. Every single sitting surface is occupied. That means we’re going to run out of bin space you naughty children for bringing all that big luggage. If we don’t get twenty people to gate check their bags, you’re going to be very very sorry. You better do it. Or else.

That’s what the announcements feel like. And this announcement isn’t made once. It’s made three, four, sometimes five times. When I hear this, and I know I’m later in the boarding process, I  get anxious. I get flight anxiety before we even leave the ground. Heart racing. Breathing heavy. Unattractive sweat.

Is there going to be room for my bag? What’ll I do if there isn’t room? For the love of all things holy what will I do with my bag?

I won’t lie. The announcements freak me out. The airline is trying to scare me into gate checking a bag before they know they’ll run out of room. It’s working.

And it’s unnecessary.

On my most recent three trips with this airline I get on the plane and there’s plenty of space. I put my knapsack in the bin right above my seat. Everything is calm and right with the world.

That pisses me off.

The fear is unnecessary. The lecture is unnecessary. The you better do this preemptive scolding is unnecessary.

Unnecessary Fear in Our Writing

What unnecessary fear do you have in your life? What preemptive negative thoughts hover over your writing? Who is scolding you?

Why don’t you get a real job? Why aren’t you cleaning the house? You’re just wasting your time.

Is that voice telling you to give up?

You’ll never be a writer, why bother? What are you fooling around for? Do you know how many writers get rejected on a daily basis? How many fail?

Maybe the voice you hear is yours.

I don’t have time. I’ll never finish. No one will like this, it’s no good.

You need to fight the fear. That is what those negative voices are: fear.

  • Fear of the unknown.
  • Fear of something that hasn’t happened yet.
  • Fear of bin space that hasn’t run out.

You have no idea what the real story will be till you finish your work. It may be rejected, but it may not. You have no idea if the plane will run out of bin space until it actually does.

Don’t be afraid of something that hasn’t happened yet with your writing. Don’t let fear stop you from picking up a pen or finishing a draft. Take a deep breath when the scolding starts and do the only proactive thing possible.

Write something.

Ritual or Habit

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Is writing a ritual or a habit? To which ideology do you subscribe?

Writing as Ritual

Those who believe in ritual worship words. They respect the power of words and the ceremony of writing. The writing ritual has certain and specific steps that must be followed.  There is a specific atmosphere that must be invoked in order for words to flow and prosper. Writing only happens in a special place or at a explicit time. The ritual must be authentic or else the writing will be disingenuous. This writer has far too much devotion to the word to ever let their work falter or become base. The ritual is everything and the ritual is what makes words come to life. That is what makes this writer thrive.

Writing as Habit

Those who believe in habit are practical. Writing is a job. A wonderful awesome job, but a job nonetheless. Writing is work – sit down, roll up your sleeves and get it done. Writing doesn’t happen at a special time or place or with a special pen. It happens when this writer puts words on the page. And this writer is dedicated to words on the page; good, bad or ugly. Writing on a consistent basis is what defines a habit. Words on the page makes this writer fulfilled. And then once the words are on the page, the habit becomes to craft the words, make the words better.

What do you believe? Do you savor the ritual? Are you a roll up your sleeves type? Which ideology is right?

Which ideology is right?

That is what the beginning writer wants to know. What path do I follow to become a writer? I need to know the exact steps that will take me from A to Z. Am I on the right or wrong path? If I’m on the wrong path, I’ll never become a writer.

The right path is the one that gets writing done. If a belief in ritual works for you, it is your path. If you squirm at the thought, don’t subscribe. If you find yourself following a completely different path altogether, don’t look back.

There is no formula, no doctrine, no one way to write.


Finish this sentence starter: I believe writing is…..  What? What do you believe about writing and being a writer? Get it on paper, keep it close by. See if it changes year after year. Define your own path.

The 3 Day Rule

three You’ve received some feedback on your manuscript. More than you could ever ask for: notes, questions, graphs, venn diagrams. Everything congeals together into a sucking mud puddle as you sift through comments you agree with, comments you’re not sure about, and comment’s your dead set against. Where do you start? What do you do?

First off, do nothing. Close your notebook and walk away. For now.

The worst action is dive into a draft the same day you receive feedback. 

Your head is swimming with what has been said, perhaps you hate every last note and question. Perhaps the feedback makes you hate your draft. It’s a vulnerable time.

Create some distance. Set a three day rule

All feedback no matter how big or small goes away for three days. Lock it in a drawer. Distance allows you to approach the notes and the draft with fresh eyes.  Feedback makes all writers defensive. We want our work to be unconditionally loved.

So instead of making a snap judgement, take a breath. Take three days worth. Then go back to the script.

A note or a question that feels wrong in the moment, now has value.

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TheThree Day Rule

Write. Now. Bonus.

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That’s right, you get a bonus day! This exercise is more about looking at who you are as a writer. That’s is valuable information – the more you know about what’s going on inside of you, the more specifically you’ll be able to write for your characters.

Get the exercise and don’t forget to sign up for my FREE newsletter on my home page. More tips and exercises to keep you moving forward as a writer.

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Write. Now. Day Nine.

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I believe in you. That’s right – you. I believe you can sit down, pick up a pen, open a laptop, use whatever device suits you and write.  We’re not talking about winning an award. We’re not talking about changing your life.  We’re talking about the very small act that is writing.  It’s so small, just you and the page. Don’t make it a mountain. Write. Now.

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 Day Nine