How adapting poetry into prose and other forms (and vice versa) can extend the shelf-life of your work and win you new audiences
When The Blue Nib published my poem, ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’, in September 2019 (Issue 39) I was delighted. Not only had I found a home for a poem I’d penned over ten years previously, but I’d achieved a rare hat-trick: ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’ was now available as a published poem (81 words), a published short story (591 words, in Gasmask Anthem, the July–August 2019 Issue 165 of the American Down in the Dirt magazine) and as an eight-minute short film that screened at the Desert Flower Film Festival in Dubai and on COR TV in Mexico. To explain the three versions of effectively the same story, I have to go back to my origin story as a writer, so bear with me while this man tries to explain…
In 2009 I moved to Edinburgh and signed up to the short writing courses Edinburgh University had to offer, including fiction, poetry and screenwriting. As I started to write my poems, short stories and short films (screenplays), I began to wonder what sort of writer I really was. Was I a poet or a writer of fiction, an aspiring novelist, perhaps? Was I a budding screenwriter? Was I a playwright at heart, as I seemed to like writing dialogue (although not much appears in ‘A Man…’)? I began experimenting, and ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’ was one of my first guinea pigs.
I wrote the poem first and then turned it into a short story. The short story version of ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’ was an exercise in fleshing out the poem; adding detail, a touch of colour, some backstory to the ‘man’ of the title. So, for example, whereas the poem opens with, ‘The man fumbled with his keys…’, the short story version tells us more: ‘The man’s crumpled face wore a haunted look, like he hadn’t slept for days. His black eyes, set in red rims, scanned the long corridor for signs of life. He swallowed hard, his grizzled jaw chewing at the dryness in his throat.’ You can tell why one’s a poem and one isn’t, right?
Attending my classes in screenwriting and writing poetry and fiction, I began to see certain similarities between the different writing forms. Poetry and screenwriting, for example, are both pared down styles of writing. You don’t waffle in poetry or screenwriting. You trim the excess. You find the precise word. And both are about imagery. The turn of phrase you might use in a poem will conjure up a powerful image in your reader’s mind, and a screenplay, as a blueprint for a film, is all about visualising the film in the mind of the reader – the intended readers of screenplays being producers, actors and directors. The message of a film and a poem is important, yes, but film and poetry are all about memorable images; and sure, you might remember some killer dialogue from a film, but it’s the cinematography and the images that take centre stage and make a film memorable.This is, of course, a bit of a simplification. Trimming excess words is just as important in writing fiction too, and we follow a film through the character of the hero or anti-hero, intrigued by how they resolve the conflicts thrown at them and how they change by the end of the film, but I hope you accept my point about the primacy of image in poetry and film.
Back in Edinburgh in 2009, on my ‘From Short Story to Short Film’ course, I learned that you can also use screenplays to rework a story. How? Your short story – anything above micro fiction to several thousand words – may contain lots of description or ‘purple prose’ or sections describing what’s going on inside your character’s head. Put that into screenplay format and you’ll discover the value of that pared down style of writing that is essential for screenwriting and poetry. In screenwriting, you’re only writing what can be seen and heard, so you’re focused on what’s going to happen in the story – the action – and what your characters say. You’re still concerned with character and conflict, but your focus is more tightly concentrated.Quite often the process, the discipline, of adapting a short story into a screenplay shows you a different perspective. It forces you to think about structure (the three acts, the turning points, the character arc etc.), the power of the opening and closing scenes and how they combine to deliver a unity to your film. By translating your short story prose into screenwriting you’ll strip away a lot of what you’ve written, which will in turn help you get to the guts of your story. And during this process you’ll find elements, often unexpected, to add to the story, which is what happened with the screenplay – and possible film version – of ‘A Man…’.
Just as the opening image of a film is very important – it sets the tone, the mood, lets the viewer know what sort of film to expect – images can also be an important starting point for a poem. When you’re sat with your notebook in a café, pub or on a park bench, you might jot down a set of words that sound promising, a phrase that you think may be the start of something, or you may have an image in mind from your observations that kickstarts your idea for a poem. That image might be a photograph from a magazine or a scene you’ve viewed while walking down the street – a couple arguing, a dead bird, a piece of litter fluttering in the breeze, or a child’s cuddly toy, dropped and abandoned. The key is the visualisation involved in unlocking the creativity and potential from that image in terms of storytelling, knowing that there’s a path of discovery to walk down and at the end of that path there will be a story to tell. And that ‘story’ might be a poem, an actual story or a screenplay. Or there could be scope for all three!
If, like me, you find that when you write fiction there is a strong visual element going on so you’re almost playing a movie in your mind when your write, then you should view it as an almost natural process to consider how your piece of fiction might translate into a poem, a screenplay or, even, a stage or radio play. I’m not saying that you should always turn your fiction or poem into another form, but that you should be open to the possibility: coming at the same subject from a different angle may open up more opportunities to get your ‘story’ published or, even, produced or performed. And it’s always nice to find a new audience for your work.
I posted the screenplay of ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’ on a now defunct screenwriting website called Circalit and received an offer from a filmmaker in Abu Dhabi who said they loved the script and would like to make it. Months later ‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’ became a short film, slightly different from the poem and short story but essentially the same.
Which one is better? That’s not for me to judge. They’re all pleasing in their different ways, especially as each version has found an audience, even if it has taken me ten years to get the story and poem versions published. The short film version? That was made in 2011. Not that I’m saying it’s easier to make a film! The path to production and publication can be a long and winding one, but don’t let that put you off. Persistence pays.
If there’s scope for poems to become short stories and short stories to become short films and vice versa, what other scope is there? There’s been plenty on screenwriting blogs on why you should dust off your unproduced feature scripts and turn those into novels. Why? Well, a completed feature-length screenplay comes in at approximately 20,000 words: a quarter of what you’ll typically need for a novel. Screenwriting, as mentioned, involves a condensed style of writing, and you can use your feature-length screenplay as a staging post to writing your novel. The structure’s there, the dialogue too. What’s left is to colour in the gaps with your hopefully not-too-purple prose as you novelise your script. Whether this ‘colouring in the gaps’ takes the form of more description, or a more complex plot, adding a C, D, E or F story line to the A and B lines of a screenplay, or a more in-depth analysis of character or exploration of the theme or active dramatic question, a longer work of fiction obviously affords you greater latitude to examine your subject than the length of a film, via a screenplay, will (we’re all aware that film adaptations of novels are different and not always faithful to the subject, right?). I’m over-simplifying, perhaps, but it’s not my purpose here to expound on how to write a novel, merely to suggest that you can adapt a screenplay into a novel by using the screenplay, with all its structural points – it’s story architecture – as a starting point. As you expand your screenplay, hopefully luxuriating in all that freedom to explore your subject in more slow-burn depth,you’ll find that your characters will surprise you and lead you in different directions to where you were going in the previous form. I’m in the process of doing this myself now. My screenplay is the skeleton of the novel and the 60,000 words or so I’m looking to add are all aimed at putting the flesh on that skeleton and making it into a whole body, with the novel’s subtext acting as its mind, if that’s not stretching the sinews of the metaphor too far.
So, poetry and cinema or film are similar and have more in common than you might think. If imagery powers your poetry, try turning your poem into a short screenplay. Got a short story that hasn’t been published? Imagine it as a short film and write it up as a screenplay, or a stage or radio play if it’s more dialogue-driven. Or write it down as a poem, stripping it back to its essence.
A story idea can work in different ways. Just because you originally conceive of and write it in one form doesn’t mean it can’t take another. Coming at the same idea from the different angles can give your story idea alternative dimensions as each form has its own parameters and demands, conventions and expectations. It also means that any piece of work that isn’t published to date doesn’t have to stay that way, forgotten and unloved in a dark drawer or buried beyond the desktop. It might yet find a home in a different guise.
If you have unpublished work, rewrite it in a different form and you may find success with this other version, finding a different audience. If nothing else, it encourages you to branch out into other formats that you may not have considered, and your writing will probably become better for it.
As for me, what have I decided I am? I’m still discovering what I’m best at, but for now I’m a published poet, a writer of short fiction, a screenwriter, a playwright and still – for now – an aspiring novelist, but I intend to get there. And yes, I’m still experimenting, translating my work from one form into another, so I have another poem (unpublished, but shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Poetry Prize) that’s been published as a short story, and I have short stories that are also screen-, stage- and radio plays. So give it a go. You never know where it might lead you. I never thought something that I started as a poem in Scotland would, thanks to Egyptian film director Dhalia Hafez, find a TV audience in Mexico!
‘A Man Tries to Get Back In’
Short story version (scroll down to my name and click on the link): http://scars.tv/dirt-new-issue.htm?fbclid=IwAR2axdR_hepQrlQbi10YrJcSwDArceeyLmZBoN_KvmjptRuWwe3NXGjgCuY
Short film version: https://www.starnow.com.au/media/747311-A+Man+Tries+To+Get+Back+In