Category Archives: Nathan Barra

Based on Your Best Selling Novel

As a young bibliophile, I was often disappointed by movie adaptations of my favorite books.  Like many, I waited in dread and anticipation for movies I just had to see, hoping that they would live up to the works I loved.  I know of several authors who have gone on record as being reluctant to sell their other media rights lest “Hollywood mess it up.”  Then, I learned better.  I received some theatrical training in college and learned that movies and books are different by necessity.  After my experience in theater (both live and recorded performance ), I try to judge the movie on its merits as an adaptation rather than a carbon copy of the book.  Using this training, I try my best to keep my major projects adaptation friendly.

#5. Time Frame

Though the average length of movies seems to have been increasing in recent memory, a movie is considered to be long if it runs more than 120 minutes.  Conventional screenwriting wisdom states that one page of script translates into one minute of screen time.  This means that long scripts are only 120 pages long.  In the world of novels, this is about 30,000 words of equivalent space.  In a way, this is the primary motivating factor for cutting material from a book.  It is also the primary advantage of using a miniseries.

I read an article years ago that proposed that movies were limited to 2 hours in run time due to biology and human attention span.  Sure, at home, you can pause a movie for a visit to the restroom, but this cannot be done in a theater.  So, not only do books have more space for content, but they also have the flexibility to be put down and picked back up with greater ease.

The Take Home: When writing an adaptation friendly book, it is essential to have at least one single, continuous, strong, independent throughline.  Keep the complexity, subplots and backstory in your work, but be sure that your main plotline and characters are strong enough to carry the day even if you drop all the subplots and side characters.

#4.Special Effects

The limit of a book’s special effects budget is the limit of the reader’s imagination.  Epic magic battles with thousands of wizards, spells flying in all directions, dragons and huge armies clashing are really cost effective in the written word, but very difficult to arrange in the real world.  If you need to repeat the scene, such as in live performance venues, it becomes even more difficult to do this without breaking the budget.  Early on in my theatrical experience, we had to pump water up into a trash can in the black box theater we were using for an effect to be used in the play.  I thought it would be as simple as running a hose from a water spigot, but to my surprise, it was much more difficult.  It gave me an appreciation for the sheer logistical and practical challenges that come with even simple special effects.

Also, successful special effects artists are frequently very, very good at their jobs.  Hand in hand with such specialized talents comes high price points.  Granted, the price is often well deserved as the results, but it’s another factor to consider.  High quality special effects aren’t easy to pull off and require specialized software and training.  Another point to consider is that through the years, audiences have come to expect what magic and other special effects should look like.  This is a huge advantage for writers, because we have access to the same media that our audience is exposed to.

Say you want to write a space battle.  Pick a few really popular movies and TV shows that feature that aspect and watch the scenes with an eye to the creative style.  Then apply that filter to your own writing.  Not only does this make your novel adaptation friendly, but it also plays on audience expectation and takes some of the burden off your prose.

The Take Home:  Despite the ease of special effects in books, real world wonders require a great deal of time, talent and effort.  Consider using the common visual forms that have already been developed by the special effects community to keep your work adaptation and audience friendly.

#3. Spatial and Temporal Limitations

A skilled writer can tell a story with numerous exotic locations, spanning multiple generations or cover huge amounts of time.  Movies must pick a limited number of locations and a shorter time frame.  I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in high school and having to stop to create massive family trees and pages of timeline to make sense of how everything related to everything else.  It was interesting and frustrating to try to dissect, but because of the necessity of all that effort, that book would be ineffective as a movie without significant work by a talented screenwriter.

Again, it comes down to cost and effort.  Finding good filming locations is only a start, the next step is to transport a variety of personnel and equipment to those locations.  You must be able to do this cost effectively.  If the locations are accessible by the public, controlling the space becomes a huge obstacle.  I participated in and lead a handful of film projects where we reserved public space, roped them off and put up signs that read “filming in progress, please do not enter.”  Whenever we did this, we had to have at least one dedicated member of the production staff enforcing the barricade.  I was shocked by the number of times people would walk up to the caution tape, stop, read the sign and then duck under the tape to keep walking straight through a scene being filmed.  Somehow, they were always shocked that they were actually interrupting something.  This is why there is usually a core of scenic locations used in most film.  Once you build the various parts of a spaceship in a soundstage, they can be used over and over again.

The Take Home: To be adaptation friendly, it is a good idea to have a limited number of core scenic locations that are easy for production staff to create and control.

#2. Dialog Only Writing

In books, we have the liberty of description, both in scenes and actions of the protagonists.  This is not the case for scripts.  One of the best ways to insult and alienate actors is to tell them exactly what to do, especially if you are the writer and not the director.  In all kinds of theater, there is as much art in how a line is performed as how the line was written, and often actors and directors will take great liberties with the script to make their vision come to life.  This means, that if you want your story told a certain way, you must write the dialogue in such a way that your intent is not only clear, but also the reasonable interpretation for your words.

Many writers neglect their skills with dialogue when developing their writer’s toolbox.  It isn’t intentional, but with all the skills involved in quality writing, it is difficult to cover everything.  To write adaptation friendly books, it is necessary to practice dialogue as frequently that is all that will survive the process of being transformed into a script.  The rest of the book will be handed to the production staff as inspiration for the costumers, set designers and directors.  Your audience, however, will be focused on the actors and what they are doing and saying.

The Take Home: Movie scripts must have strong enough dialog and direction for actors to properly interpret what they need to do to accomplish the intent of the scene.

#1. Show, Don’t Tell

Movies can’t tell.  They can only show.  Well, at least not effectively.  The closest analogue for a movie is the voice over, but that technique has to be used sparingly and skillfully as excessively visible narrators become grating quickly.  Again, it comes down to actors as they will be doing most of the showing.  Yes, the scenery and costuming will be showing as well, but the focus of most movies is on the what the people are doing and saying.

The ability to show a great deal of information quickly is one of the great advantages of movies over the written word.  As a writer, I often struggle with which details to include in my descriptions to keep effective pacing.  In movies, this isn’t that much of an issue.  Writers can spend pages and pages describing in exacting detail what everyone is wearing and all the foods being served at the feast.  All this information can be conveyed in a five second pan over of the room before focusing on the characters participating in the action.

The Take Home:  When writing books, be able to supplement the descriptions in  the book for production staff who are looking for inspiration and guidance.

From the Ground Up: Milieu Shaping Myths

The need for a set of mythology is part of the human condition.  Much about our world frightens us or makes us feel very, very small and insignificant.  You can see this tendency when we look at a mother comforting her children, who are often the most honest with their fears.  Thunder and lightening?  That isn’t frightening little one.  It’s just Thor using Mjölnir to protect us from the Ice Giants.  Something mysterious and frightening is now an ally, a protector.  If only I can blame Loki for all the socks that go missing in the wash.  As always, I ask the question: as writers, how can we use mythology to make our works better?  Let’s take a simple origin story for a city-state and work through the implications together, shall we?


“The city of Jesquat has not always been the mightiest principality of the Tabbet Empire.  No, young ones, before the bustling market squares and efficient ports, noble halls of learning and mighty walls came to be, the land we now stand upon was wild and untamed.  Barbarians roamed our lands and though the thousand eyes of the One God gazed down each night, though there was no one to worship.

Then, there came the First peoples.  They were mighty and experienced seamen, long from home and succor, brave and strong.  When the demons of storm and sea sought to destroy them, they fought back valiantly, but inevitably, few survived and their vessel was lost.  For three nights, the One God’s thousand eyes watched the Firsts as many of their number struggled to hold off the final dawn.  By the third day, the former crew had fractured, deprived of unity and direction as the dawn claimed their captain.  Lacking the tools and skills to repair the wreckage of their craft, plagued with memories and longing for home, many risked the trek through the wild frontier.  Of those that remained, only three names have survived to be whispered today.

Bae’ren lead.  Captain’s seneschal and daughter of the Primaka of her homeland, she had been trained from birth to be a leader to her people.  Though she had the authority and right to demand the service of departed-lost, she let them to their wanderings.  Bae’ren knew that those who left the sea were doomed to death and despair, but she was wise and benevolent and with heavy conscience let the departed-lost chart their own trek.  Bae’ren became the first Primaka of our people.

Aben’rah made.  Ship’s carpenter and quartermaster, his hands were nearly as clever as his tongue.  Through hard work and ingenuity, he made a life for the Firsts in the wild and unforgiving land.  Aben’rah knew that if the Firsts were to survive, it would be by their sweat and blood, so with dedication and fervor he taught his crafts.  Aben’rah became the first Lord Builder of our people.

Oman’tak defended.  Ship’s guardian and first spear, he fought for the Firsts in the name of the One God.  Though injured in the destruction of his charge, the sharpness of his will and the trueness spirit remained, and he safeguarded the Firsts from dangers of the wild and wildmen.  He knew that his spear alone was insufficient to maintain the lives of the Firsts, so he trained any who would learn.  He became the first Guardian-General of our people.

And so, under the guidance and succor of the First Three, our people thrived and grew, built and prospered, were safe guarded and established an empire.”


So, let’s start thinking aloud.  I like to start with history and politics as it allows me to put up the skeleton of the culture.  In this case, I would say that the people of Jesquat likely claim origins from a group of seafarers who were stranded where the city stands.  As myth, especially origin myth, usually only resembles history, it is unlikely that the series of events were exactly as plotted in the story.  For example, it is unlikely that the actual names have remained intact over the centuries since the founding of Jesquat.  Instead, I’d establish that Jesquat is ruled by a triumvirate, the Primaka, the Lord Builder and the Guardian-General, with prestige in that order.  Together, they would be called the “First Three,” like they were in the legend.  The myth also mentions that Jesquat is a principality in an empire, that it was the first town in the area and that the empire expanded from Jesquat.  This would mean that Primaka would be effectively equivalent to a renaissance Italian prince, so I could draw inspiration from those courts in regard to future world building.  Also, the Primaka is woman in the legend, so is this position traditionally female?  Likewise, are the Lord Builder and Guardian-General both traditionally masculine roles?

Next, I like to look to religion.  The myth mentions a “One God” whose eyes are the stars.  If the people of Jesquat maintained a sea faring lifestyle, then this would make sense as navigation could be easiest at night.  I could then tie in religious significance to economics and travel.  There is already established significance tying death to the dawn, so is birth tied to dusk?  What is the mythological significance to daylight?  Topics I will have to examine in greater detail.  The “Firsts” are held in high regard according to the myth, so is there some aspect of ancestor worship amongst the Jesquati?  If so, do spirits of significant people become one of the stars?  Does the religion have a centralized leadership or is it family by family?

Now, looking at economics and immigration, as the myth’s introduction mentions “bustling market squares and efficient ports,” and Jesquat is mentioned to be a principality, so I would make Jesquat to be a trade city.  Local food would be grown outside the walls by small farming communities and then traded at market for necessities they cannot make.  Jesquat is a walled city according to the myth, so either there is no expansion beyond the walls, in which case, immigration is relatively low and real-estate is at a premium, or there has been expansion beyond the walls and the upper class and very wealthy live inside the walls.  I personally favor the second as it allows for more cultural variation within the city itself which will make it easier to make the milieu rounder.

Finally, I would mine this myth for linguistic and other miscellaneous cultural trends.  When I structured the myth, I was imagining a grandfather passing down the knowledge to a brood of grandchildren.  It made sense, then, for the myth to take the structure of an oral tradition with the repetition of paired descriptors and the structuring of paragraphs three, four and five from a common template.  For a trade city to be successful on an empire-scale, there must be some form of written language or accounting, but universal literacy isn’t necessarily a requirement.  So then, are performance arts such as public theater or professional bards a form of cultural entertainment and dissemination of knowledge?  How common are books, and what are the literacy rates amongst different levels of the populace?

Also, I’d take a look at the names in the myth.  All three names are compound names.  This could be a cultural trend, but I like the idea of using suffixes to distinguish prestige, so common names would be one or two syllables with no suffix.  The Primaka would take the suffix “ren, the Lord Builder “rah and the Guardian-General “tak.  I could then structure hierarchies of suffixes that are subordinate to “ren, “rah and “tak but linguistically similar amongst their own population.  I would then have to create additional hierarchies as honorifics amongst the various social classes (such as merchants or within families).  Also, the masculine names mentioned in the myth have a vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant pairing structure, allowing me to develop a grouping of “traditional” Jesquati names.  The feminine names would likely start with consonants but have fewer restrictions than the masculine names based on the sample from the myth.

The origin myth I developed for Jesquat resulted in more questions than answers, but it gave me places to start asking those questions in the development of my milieu.  By creating several other myths or histories that tie into the origin myth of the Firsts, I would be able to start pinning down more and more details from which the milieu could be built.  I do not start all milieus this way, but it is often an entertaining way to begin and has helped me overcome writer’s block.  Turning back myth and legend is a way to begin, whether it be by the tales of a culture long gone and remembered mostly for their mythology, or a mythology created by an author to enhance milieu.