Turning a play into a novel is certainly a great way to expand upon a story and truly get inside the minds and motivations of the characters. Or in the case of pondering whether or not to turn blogged material into a book, many of us have grappled with the intricacies of such transformation. What works well in one written context typically does not readily translate seamlessly to another written context.
While I have not read the play Larry based his new book Missing Girls on, I had previously copy edited his collection Baghdad on the Wabash and Other Plays and Stories. Being familiar with his work as a playwright enabled me to cultivate a more thorough sense of his style and gift in writing snappy dialog and concise description as a novelist. For Missing Girls, I first produced a reader report on an earlier draft. After revisions, I then did a full manuscript critique followed by a copy edit.
During the copy edit, the challenge of incorporating police transcripts and footnote source citations was no small task. Missing Girls is an intricate story, and I tracked time flubs on the style sheet for Larry to address in final revisions. Above all, the big-picture feedback once again drifted back to the need to let the readers in on more of the thoughts of the married couple. Larry rose to the task. It’s a wicked good story.
You can download MISSING GIRLS for free all week long!
Turning a Play into a Novel: Is There a Richer Story Hiding Out in Your Play?
Take It from Stage to Page
I’ve completed a novel that started out as a play—Missing Girls, it’s called. It started out as a play originally called The Whole Truth when it was staged in New Jersey. Then after much revision, it became Transit of Venus when it was presented as staged readings in Hudson, New York and Portland, Maine. The publication of the story as a novel last month completed a thirty-year gestation period. But the process started out because the play lacked something.
The Forms Are Definitely Different
A play is every bit a story as a novel is, but its effectiveness is more heavily dependent on collaborators—the director, the cast, the set, lighting, sound designer, and stage manager. It goes nowhere without a collaborative process that allows it to emerge. A novelist on the other hand is on his/her own.
Okay, a novelist will undoubtedly call on beta readers, critics, and editors to contribute to their efforts in the realm of story structure, word choice, grammar, character development, and plot to mention a few. They are collaborators too, are they not?
Some will say that the reader of a novel interprets as much or more than a director or an actor does. But, the minute-to-minute performance of a play on a stage—the way the actor speaks his lines, the way he interacts with another actor for instance, affects the story that an audience takes home with them in ways that no reading of a novel can.
Maybe the problem lies in the form you originally chose to tell your story in. Maybe a novelization of it would work better.
Kick-Start the Project with 30,000 Words Already in the Hopper
You have your play written. Maybe it isn’t all that you want it to be, but you’ve already conceptualized a story and tackled many of the hard parts. You’ve developed a manuscript of 80 pages or more. Now, you’ve decided to venture into uncharted territory. You’re thinking it’s all about fleshing it out, tweaking it, “opening it up”—and maybe most important of all— taking characterization and motivation to a new level.
You’ve done a lot of cogitating. Your story’s structure is probably in place. You know what’s at stake in the story. You’ve already created narrative and character arcs. You know what the climax is. It may change as the novelization progresses but you have a start on it.
Your primary characters already have their voice. Probably more than anything else, you labored over a distinctive voice for each. Lots of the dialog can be lifted right out of the play, as is.
Don’t Think for a Minute It’s Going to Be Piece of Cake
Some of the problems that may be weakening your play are not going to go away so easily. For instance, in my play Transit of Venus, the first scene dramatizes the lead character Marcella’s determination to go into action that is highly risky and dangerous. It certainly got the audience’s attention, but they could never completely buy into Marcella’s motivation for such a drastic act. That single shortcoming pretty much scuttled the play.
You Might Discover Some Things
I decided to start the novel by directly confronting this motivational problem. And that’s how I found the basis for Marcella’s fundamental impulses. Deep down, I didn’t originally want to get involved with what I knew had to be very messy marital issues. This had been a big problem all the way along with the writing of the play. I didn’t know the details, but as the novel evolved I had to face up to intractable human kinks.
I discovered that in writing a novel, the more difficult it is to provide credible character motivation, the more opportunity there is for creating richer and truer heroes and heroines, never mind antagonists, and the better the story becomes. How can that be? You’re forced to dig deeper and deeper into their spirit until you get it right. Strangely enough, the place in the story where I had launched the play turned into one of the major turning points in the novel halfway through it.
You Might Have to Grow as a Writer
In working through the first half of the novel that culminates with Marcella’s big decision— the point at which I had originally started the play— the story lacked an element that the dialog I lifted from the play couldn’t address: what she was thinking all the while. Once I started dealing with that, I found that her thoughts vis-a-vis her words fueled much of the most engaging scenes.
Are you tempted to test the waters of turning a play into a novel? On a related note, have you considered transforming your blog posts into a book? Larry and I would love to have your thoughts on the subject.
Official Bio: Transplanted Midwesterner Larry Crane brings a Heartland sensibility to his writing. Larry graduated from West Point and served nearly seven years in the Army. He commuted to Wall Street for nearly 20 years from his home in New Jersey, and did much of his early writing on the train. His writing includes articles for outdoor magazines, plays, short fiction, and his thriller novel, A Bridge to Treachery. In his spare time, Crane is a hobbyist videographer for his local Public Access Television Station and is a volunteer at his local historical society. Larry and wife Jan live in splendid isolation on the coast of Maine.
You can connect with Larry and his social media sites via his website and blog. Please consider reading the author interview I conducted with Larry, his guest post How to Publish on Kindle: Revising an eBook, or the review I wrote on his thriller A Bridge to Treachery.
Don’ forget… You can download MISSING GIRLS for free all week long.
The images used in this post fall under fair use guidelines.
You know a work kind finds its form and when you change the original you run the risk of the ‘book was better than the film’ syndrome.
Sometimes the best form is the original. They made formats for a reason. You can run a risk with expansion or translation-itis that affects the artistic quality of the work which is a big audience consideration.
Consider carefully before making format changes. They are for a reason.
This story originated with the Edgar Smith case being something of a fixation with me. That came first. Then, at the time, I was trying to write plays and it was natural that I would try to make it work as a play. It turned out to be interesting, but the audiences commented a lot on the motivation that Marcella, the lead, had in meeting Edgar Smith in the prison. I could see that without going heavily into back story, it was never going to really shine. So, it went in the drawer for a good long time.
I’ve never written a play and therefore haven’t even considered making a play into a book, but I found this look at the process and challenges very interesting. I am working on turning a series of blog posts into a book and find I need to go deeper doing that as well. I need to bring in more backstory and character. I think it would also be interesting to hear about someone doing the reverse process – making a book into a play.
I would think turning blog posts into a novel would be much more challenging than the play to novel process unless the blog posts were little stories or a bunch of parts of a big story.
Larry, thanks again for the guest post. Blogging books is becoming more popular, though it’s a given it would be hard to equal the success of some blogged books such as The Martian. I would not be drawn to blogging a work of fiction, but if I were to start another blog focuses around travel or another of my passions, I would certainly plan my posts with the bigger goal in mind of repurposing the content somehow.
I have not written a play before, but collaborated on a teleplay for my first book. It was an interesting project, but completely different from writing a novel. But I loved doing it because I was working with 2 very talented writers on the adaptation.
Hi Jacqueline – I do believe that stories are stories, no matter what form they take. So, the basics of telling a good story are always bed rock.
Wow! He spent 30 years telling that story. It occurred to me that one of the biggest differences between play and novel is the role of the narrator.It seems like converiting a play to a novel would be like imagining a viewer of the play who would describe it in detail and embellish it.
Hello Ken — For me, the job of creating the novel mostly involved working with a concept that was already there in the play. The characters in the play (story) were creatures of a fundamental conflict situation with stakes that were very high and dangerous. So, my job was to create believable motivation for them to do the things they were compelled to do.
I’ve never thought of creating a play from one of my books although I did write a satirical musical while waiting to be laid off! I called it “The Codeslingers” and set it in the wild, wild west of Berkeley California during the dot.com bust. It had songs like “Will I get an offer or shown the door to join the ever-growing ranks of the poor” It was either write or lose my mind. I look forward to reading Missing Girls! Thanks, Jan
Jeri your case studies always make me wish I had a knack for fiction story telling writing. Thanks for the heads up on the free download this week – I went over to get it.
Larry WOW – 30 years before your dream manifested. Maybe it’s because you were supposed to meet up with Jeri who undoubtedly is the best.
Hello Patricia – Looking forward thirty years makes the time seem very long. Not so the opposite– looking back thirty years. It went by very quickly. Part of the novel has to do with the actual time Edgar Smith spent in jail. For him, fourteen years in an eight by eight cell was a long ordeal. For the victim, and her family and friends, fourteen years was like a snap of your fingers. Hardly justice at all.
Jeri…. This is such an excellent post… as you have highlighted above there are fundamental differences between a novel and a play… I guess imagination is more extensive when it comes to the development of the plot in the first case…
A play should be written to be performed… dialogues occupy a prominent role in plays…
As to novels, descriptions are not just curved brackets inserted as an explanation or afterthought into or before a passage…
The stage is a a recreation in plays while one it seems to be a total creation in novels…
Last but not least, you are right as to the differences concerning the psychology of characters … the approach is much more minimalistic when it comes to novels… I agree with you.
I am sure the process of rewriting Larry´s book was an insightful challenge to you…
I will definitely download `Missing Girls´… Can not do otherwise, of course ?
Thanks so much for sharing… Sending best wishes from the argentine beach. Aquileana 🙂
Aqui, as I worked with Larry on various drafts of the play it was fascinating to see how he deepened his characters. His dialogue was always great and worked on multiple levels, but then when he went more into the mindsets of the characters he was able to capture more nuances of human psychology. What characters say to each other is often at odds with what they are thinking. He captures that well in rendering the relationship between Marcella and Gavin in their crumbling marriage.
What an interesting story! I’ve got the book now on my kindle and look forward to that read! I can’t imagine adapting a play to a novel. It sounds very difficult. You really were able to nail down what was missing in the play, Larry and try to improve that in the novel. It’s amazing how different the genres are and what it takes to make each one a success. Nice to meet you Larry and as I said, I look forward to reading your book.
Hi Lisa — I think writing a novel based on a play is much much easier than starting out with an absolutely blank page. If you have a play already, the characters are there, on their feet, saying things, doing things. It’s the motivation they have for doing and saying what they do that is the fuel for developing the story in novel form.
I can’t imagine writing a book or a play. It requires the kind of organization and focus I could not apply. I think you have to feel very passionate about a story to write in the long form. I like to write and have enjoyed blogging since it started as a hobby for me before it turned into a business. As Jeri mentioned, Andy Weir is the most prominent example of a blogger who turned his blogs into a best-selling book and then a very successful movie, The Martian. But I think he’s the exception. Sometimes you have to be good AND lucky.
I have written several short plays. In my eyes, changing a play script to a book may prove challenging for an amateur writer like me. It would probably be a doddle for someone of your calibre.
I really need to get back to to writing my book. Took a break for a few months.
I would think that turning a play into a novel would be extremely difficult. In a play the characters make the story come alive but in a novel the book makes the characters come alive, at least that’s my thinking. But then again, you had another chance to improve Marcella’s reasons for doing and that must have been exciting. Good luck with the book.
Really interesting process. I’m an avid reader and not one to go off the deep end when I encounter a few grammatical errors as long as the story and characters are engaging. But I am cursed with a pretty good memory and it makes me crazy when I trip over an obvious time or behavior flub. One Indie author I follow has a habit of mixing the names of the characters up in the story and each time I come across one it’s a bit like stubbing my toe. But then since I’ve read every one of his 47 books guess in the end it’s not a deal breaker.
I personally never wrote a play before. I do, however, think the process is fascinating. Good luck on the book.
In my world, I actually know quite a few playwrights. My husband has a Masters in playwrighting. He wrote an action hero screenplay (I believe while in school), that would have been way too expensive to shoot as an indie. So he converted it into a comic book and the first issue will be released this month.
I’ve downloaded Larry’s book and am excited to read it. I think transforming a play into a novel must take a lot of work, just due to a play’s heavy reliance on dialogue so I’m interested to see how he achieved it.
What an intriguing idea.
I could only imagine how difficult it could be turning a play into a novel. It must be very similar to writing non-fiction. You have a topic, and a set time, and words to follow. Unlike a fiction novel, you must be constrained to what was presented earlier.
Thanks for sharing this with us.
This is such an interesting post. I’ve never considered turning a play into a book. I usually think of it in reverse, that is, turning a book, into a play or film. Great insight into the process and challenges involved! Thank you.
Good for you, Larry! I actually saw your book for free on Freebooksy and downloaded it.
I give you credit for changing a play into a novel. I’ve actually considered changing my first novel into a screenplay, but I have no idea how to do it. It would be time consuming just to learn the setup of a screenplay. Congrats on both achievements!
Hi Denise – Do you think just diving into it has some merit? There’s something to be said for having a story at the outset, albeit in a different form— then studying the form you’d like to try, such as a screenplay, before you tackle your first effort. Instead of a full length screenplay, you might try a shorter form, like a ten minute play. Take your completed story and look for a really good scene, and use it as the basis for you ten minute play. So, you’re not inventing something completely new plus trying to do something with a new and different form–a difficult process.
Thanks for your thoughts on this and your courage to turn a play into a book. I have never done that I am sure it was a daunting task. That would be interesting to turn blog posts into a book. Although I wouldn’t know where you would start. Good luck on your success and many blessings!
Hi Crystal – I look at some of the non-fiction books that are on Amazon, and seem to see that the author has used content of theirs such as blog posts, repurposed for a single subject. These often seem to be shorter works. They’re less ambitious and highly focused, like a less than 100 page how-to on some subject.
Hi Jeri and Larry, very interesting post. It would seem, never having done it, that writing a play from a novel would be so much easier in some ways. As you said you’ve already got all those words written in the play format. I would believe most people would think “How hard can it be?” You’ve given great insight into the process and a dose of reality in covering some of the more difficult parts of this process. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems.