Writing Question #6: What’s It Like to Write a Movie Novelization?

Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries was my first movie novelization, and a refreshing experience. First off, it gave me a welcome breather from working on the long-delayed Sunborn, coming as it did just as I finished the first draft of that book. Secondly, I enjoyed the miniseries and loved the acting (Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell were terrific, and so were the others). It was just plain fun to work in that world and sort through the details of the story. (Sidelight to that: my daughter Julia is homeschooling, and we made it an assignment for her to watch the DVD with me, and compare the action onscreen with the written script. Many differences.) Third, it forced me to work at a fast and furious pace, which was good. I didn’t have to make up the story—it was already there. Many of you have probably already seen it. If not, I recommend it, from the SciFi Channel.

But that doesn’t mean it was all easy-sailing, either. I found some unique (to me) challenges in writing this book. Turning a story on screen into a novel is not a simple matter of transcription, even though I was working from the actual show on DVD—and even though I tried hard to be faithful to the story as it appeared, including the dialogue.

When you’re writing the novel, you have to flesh out things that go by quickly onscreen, or get left out altogether, perhaps due to time constraints. This was a 4-hour miniseries—3 hours, without commercials. They had to work very hard to squeeze the story into 3 hours, and a lot wound up on the cutting room floor (either literally, or figuratively—in scenes not shot or perhaps not even written). This meant writing new material to bridge gaps or abrupt transitions, and there were many. Or to fill in background.

What surprised me more was the amount of… how shall I put it?… re-imagining needed to tell on the page a story that’s already been told on the screen. Things happen fast onscreen, and as a viewer, you don’t always have time to think about what you’ve just seen, and whether or not it makes sense. I’m not talking about large plot elements, so much as details and pieces of dialogue and motivation. The show’s writers are trying to compress the action, and sometimes the results—which might be perfectly acceptable to a viewer—are less persuasive when you see them laid out on the page. (This is not a criticism; it’s a fact of life.) Things have to be explained. Motivations for even small actions have to withstand a reader squinting at the page and going, Hmmm.

The challenge, then, is to tell the story without changing it (much), reproduce the dialogue without changing it (much), and tweak it or bolster it in just the right ways to make it work on the page as well as it worked onscreen (or better, if possible). It’s not always easy. But it’s generally pretty interesting.

Oh—and it gave me an excuse to write about flying. I always love writing about flying.

0 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    | Reply

    When will the novel be out? And will it be available worldwide?

    I’ll be really interested to see how you write the more emotional scenes between Lee and his Dad and also how you approach the Kara/Lee relationship.

    Erika

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Erika — I’ll post publication details when they’re firm. Tentatively early next year.

    The relationships that you refer to, and also the character of Laura Roslin, were among the more interesting aspects of the story to me.

    Jeff

  3. Anonymous
    | Reply

    Thanks Jeff I’ll look forward to reading the novel. I’d imagine this wsrt of writing is actually quite difficult as you can’t really reference anything that isn’t canon on the show eg backstory backstory. Backstory which would explain a lot about why the chracters behave as they do.

    Erika

  4. Ted
    | Reply

    As a fan of the show, I’m wondering why they waited two years to publish the novelization. These things usually come a couple weeks before the TV show or movie.

    I watched the mini and even read a copy of the script, and neither made it clear why in the opening scene Number Six came aboard the space station if the Cylons were going to blow it up a minute later. As a writer, do you just have to make up that part the original writers didn’t bother explaining or is it better just to ignore the whole issue?

  5. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Ted — Good questions. I don’t know why they waited so long for the novelization. I do know that there was an earlier novel that they rejected, but I don’t know the circumstances. And Tor only acquired the rights last spring, when I was asked to do this one.

    As for Six on the space station, no, it’s never explained, but only hinted at. I couldn’t really provide an explanation, because it’s clearly part of the Cylon “big picture,” which is emerging in bits and pieces. But if you think about the fact that the Cylons somehow upload everything they know at the time of death (so that Six’s memories are, presumably, preserved), and add the fact that the Cylons clearly have an interest in learning about human passions–I’m guessing that the emotion of love is something that they know they’re lacking, and want from us–then you might be able to tease out some understanding of that scene.

Post your comment before you lose your train of thought. (Mine already left the station.)