short stories

Adapting Short Stories for Film: Screenplay Do’s And Don’ts

Short stories, by their very nature, can be excellent sources of concise and punchy narratives and as a result lend themselves very well for the big screen treatment. There’s a strong precedent for short story adaption so far, with the following feature movies having had their origins in short literature:

Total Recall (Started out as the Philip K. Dick short We Can Remember it For You Wholesale)

A Scanner Darkly (Also Philip K. Dick)

Minority Report (Ditto)

The Shawshank Redemption (Based on a Stephen King novella)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (From the Truman Capote novella of the same name)

Memento (Adapted by Christopher Nolan from his brother Johnathan’s short story Memento Mori)

Eyes Wide Shut (Loosely adapted by Kubrick from the 1926 novella Traumnovelle)

2001: A Space Odyssey (Another Kubrick feature adapted from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinal)

Apocalypse Now (Based on the 1899 Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness)

And the list goes on, with more genre defining titles that we could realistically list here which got their start as a short story or novella. The question is, how do you get yourself on the list of greats and adapt a shorty story into a great film?

Adapting Short Stories for Film: The Do’s and Don’ts

adapting short stories into screenplays

Playing it Loose

One of the major banes of a filmmaker adapting a novel—or series of novels—into a screenplay is striking the right balance between squeezing it all into the run time but not falling foul of charges from the book’s fans of being ‘unfaithful to the source material.’

You’re a little luckier when it comes to adapting short stories as for whatever reason, the need to be a literalist doesn’t seem to apply so feel free to rework things at your leisure to find the best fit for the screen. If all else fails, substitute the phrase “adapted from…” to “inspired by…” and you’ll be golden!

Honing in on What Matters

This is more common with longer works, but even short stories it’s important to trim the fat and focus on what really matters. And as with any screenplay, it all boils down to three main ingredients: character motive, conflict and resolution.

How you distill these ingredients from the short story and repackage it for film is up to you as a screenwriter, but you should strive to put these key features at the forefront of your screenplay. And speaking of packaging:

Translating Pace

Pacing, of course, plays a big role in the enjoyability of both books and film. Preserving and translating the pacing of a short story in particular requires a little extra attention to get it right as you expand it into a 180 minute feature film.

Occasionally, you’ll have to revamp things entirely as you may sometimes find a short story that is exceptional in every way except the pacing, but you’ll have the opportunity to do your job as a screenwriter and rectify this during the adaption process.

Usage Rights

Clearing the rights for a production and optioning the source material for adaption is usually down to the producer rather than the screenwriter, but if you’re one in the same person, it really pays to make sure you’ve not shirked your responsibilities in this regard (and can cause serious issues later on if you neglect this duty.)

How to go about optioning book rights is deserving of its own dedicated post altogether but if this is something you’d really rather skip, consider adapting works that are already in the public domain.

Of course, it doesn’t particularly matter if the screenplay isn’t intended to leave your hard drive or go any further than a workshop at screenwriting school, and this brings us onto:

Even If The Film Never Surfaces…

…use it as practice.

Without any hesitation whatsoever, you can grab a short story and instantly start playing around. It’s a great way of not only putting your skills to the test but also pushing them to new heights—especially if you intentionally set yourself a challenge by picking a short story that’s really not suitable for silver screen adaptation!

short story adaptation

Got any tips of your own for adapting short stories to screenplays? Any particular favorite examples of the process being done well? You know where to head—we’ll see you in the comments below!