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Books to Film: Lessons in Dramatic Structure

When working on a draft of a novel, I always find some sections that feel mushy, ones in which there needs to be more forward movement, a tighter structure. That’s when I ask myself WWHD? Or, What Would Hollywood Do? Well, not Hollywood exactly; I’m not a car-chase kinda writer. But I ask myself, What would a screenwriter do? I imagine some no-nonsense screenwriter taking his or her red pen to my novel: Cut this. Combine these 2 characters. Build in some urgency. Condense the time. What are the stakes? Make them higher! Is the protagonist active? Does he/she change? Is the climax in the hands of the protagonist?

Of course, in the early drafts, before I'm working with an actual editor, I’m the one who has to come up with the specific ideas of how to rewrite. But in some perverse way it’s easier for me to do if I make an appeal to this ruthless, fictional screenwriter who's schooled in dramatic structure.

One fun exercise is to read a book, then watch the film made from the book and analyze the differences. What did the screenplay change? Recently, I saw the film of War Horse. Though the film adheres closely to the book, I was interested to note some changes. Here are two I found instructive:

• In the book, there are some vague allusions to the fact that the father needs to make more money to support his family. The film, however, heightens the threat by making it much more immediate – the family may lose their house! The film added a new character, the landlord, who personifies the threat. He visits the house and tells the family he’s going to throw them out if they can’t pay the rent by a specific day. Thus, the screenplay ups the stakes so that what's at stake is now specific and concrete – the house. It also introduces urgency by confining the time. Pay the rent by this specific day – or else!

• The film also heightens the very moving scene near the end of the long, grueling war in which two soldiers from opposite trenches climb out to free Joey, the horse. The scene in the book is already quite cinematic, with Joey running wildly through the no-man’s land between the trenches. But the movie takes the scene a step further: Joey is now tangled in barbed wire, so the soldiers have to work together to cut him out. This gives the soldiers a specific task to accomplish, and illustrates another writing principle: give your characters something active to do, always a much better strategy than having them stand around discussing an abstract goal. The scene was made that much more poignant, and the result? I was profoundly moved; the tears flowed freely.