How a failed contest entry turned into my first screenplay

by Todd Foley

I saw a call for a contest for short horror stories, the only caveat being that it includes “Whatever you do, don’t turn around.” So, I wrote what I thought was a compelling story and entered the contest.

I didn’t win.

Not the end of the world. Yet as I thought back to the story, I thought, I’m proud of this. Why limit it to just a short story contest?

Could it be expanded to a novel?

Naw, that didn’t appeal to me.

But I wondered — how would it look on screen?

So I decided to write it as a script instead. And in that process, I set out to learn a whole new complex, detailed and beautiful literary language.

Before I started writing, I wanted to learn from the greats. I love that you can find almost any screenplay online. Here are some of my favourites that I read for a cross-genre education: Tully by Diablo Cody, Hereditary by Ari Aster and Lost in Translation by Sofia Copolla.

I’ve published four books so the dialogue wasn’t what I paid attention to, but rather the action descriptions. I wore out a highlighter or two on descriptors that guided the actor and empowered the director to bring it all to life. (Note: Aster and Copolla directed their own scripts, so they wrote as directors.)

Being my first kick at the craft, I wanted to avoid common pitfalls of adapting a script. These five tips were huge for me:

  1. Find the narrative arc. “ At the end of the day, the narrative arc is the most important (and often most memorable) part of a book. It stands to reason that when working a book into a script, this should be your first and primary focus for beginning an adaption.”
  2. Resist the urge of voice over. “I think one reason that many adaptations rely on voice-over is that the filmmakers never found a way to externalize the essence of the novel they were adapting. Instead of making a movie that could stand on its own, they created the cinematic equivalent of a book-on-tape. To me, these movies always ‘feel’ written, a huge limitation.”
  3. Don’t be afraid to cut. “Cutting happens in layers. First identify the theme and the protagonist’s outer motivation. If the subplots don’t support them, cut them, along with any minor characters that are distracting. Then layer the outer motivation with the hero’s inner motivation. Again, if a plot point has nothing to do with either, cut it.”
  4. Avoid long thinking. “Challenges to screenwriters adapting books will continuously present themselves throughout the process. As we learn from Lynne Pembroke and Jim Kalergis from coverscript.com, you can cut novel characters’ tendency to ‘long-think’ internal problems and thoughts — or better attribute them to another character.”
  5. Show, don’t tell. “Screenplays are about showing everything on the sleeve. There is some very minor telling (in the form of montages), but ‘show, don’t tell’ is a must in this purely visual medium. Yet novels allow for far more telling than showing. This is naturally difficult for screenwriters, because the script development process rejects long exposition and non-visual storytelling. Learning how to utilize lengthier exposition requires a whole new mindset.”

Taking all those truths into consideration, I began the adaptation process. Here is the intro from the original short story:

The morning fog was unusually thick as Jared unlocked the front door at the bakery. With the display case in front of him and large windows surrounding him, he rotates the scones and croissants to show their best angle to the customers. He wants them to see the best things available today.

A mother, father and daughter walk in, causing the bell above the door to chime. Sounds of the busy street outside fade as the door closes.

“Good morning,” Jared says to the man, not looking at the others.

The girl’s eyes light up as she sees the cinnamon bun overflowing with buttercream icing. She taps the glass three times as she gazes up at her father, an eager smile on her face.

“We’ll take three of those, please,” the father says to Jared.

“Of what?” Jared asks, not having watched where the girl pointed.

“Cinnamon buns,” the father says.

Here is the same intro, but as a script:

EXT. SUBURBAN STRIP MALL. MORNING.

A thick morning fog envelopes a strip mall in a Seattle suburb. A four-lane street separates several businesses on the opposite side of the road. Four cars are parked in front of a bakery, waiting for it to open for the day.

INT. BAKERY. MORNING.

JARED, a 30-SOMETHING employee, turns on the lights that illuminate an unremarkable bakery and and places freshly baked scones, muffins and croissants in a glass display case. Dragging his feet, he turns on the stereo and puts on an oldies playlist. “Dancing In The Streets” plays over the speakers. Looking at the clock on the wall like an opponent in a war he doesn’t want to wage, he unlocks the front door and turns on the Open light.

A bell rings as the front door opens. A 30-SOMETHING WOMAN, MAN and YOUNG GIRL walk in toward the display case. JARED only looks at the parents.

JARED
(Begrudgingly) Good morning.

The YOUNG GIRL’s eyes light up as she a tray of cinnamon buns overflowing with buttercream icing. She taps the glass three times as she gazes up at the MAN, an eager smile on her face.

MAN
We’ll take three of those.

JARED
(Confused, not having seen the girl) Three of what?

MAN
(Points down, voice rude) Cinnamon buns.

I pitched the finished to my director friend, and now I’m getting my first short film into production in the fall.

Bottom line: stories have a lot more shelf life and purpose than we give them credit for, and we can always learn from them.