THE INFINITE TELESCOPE – ADAPTING A STORY FOR AUDIO (PART 2)
Between any two scenes in a work of fiction lie an infinite number of possibilities, or maybe I should say this is true between any intention and outcome expressed in a story.
Scott McLoud used to (perhaps even still does) engage in a thought experiment called “Virtual Carl”. His character Carl grabs his keys with the intention of driving to the bottle shop for some beers and in the next scene we see his gravestone (an intention and an outcome). Between those two moments, an infinite number of other moments can be inserted without destroying the integrity of the story itself.
For example, Carl grabs his keys with the intention of driving to the bottle shop for some beers, walks to his car and finds the tire is flat. He then decides to walk to the bottle shop but takes a short cut through the park and is mugged. Jump to gravestone.
Alternatively, Carl grabs his keys with the intention of driving to the bottle shop for some beers, walks to his car and finds the tire flat, changes it, and drives to the bottle shop. He gets talking with the proprietor and decides to have one for the road before drunkenly driving into a lamp post on his way home. Jump to gravestone.
Alternatively, Carl grabs his keys with the intention of driving to the bottle shop for some beers, walks to his car and finds the tire flat, decides it’s not worth the bother, and goes back inside. He lives a long and uneventful life. Jump to gravestone.
Between any intention and outcome in the source material for a story being adapted there lies an infinite number of creative storytelling possibilities. We can add a lifetime of adventures, vignettes, and episodes to a story being adapted without doing violence to the story as originally told. Okay, that’s not really true; if, between the party scene and Frodo’s departure for Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings, we were to add a series of scenes where Frodo is kidnapped by aliens and becomes a galactic hero saving the multiverse before returning to continue the story… well, we’ve probably left the path of wisdom. But my point is this; an author really “could” (not “should” but “could”) do this and leave the story that is being adapted intact. It can be helpful to recognize we have the freedom to expand the moments between intention and outcome in order to adapt a story if we need to.
Likewise we can truncate stories (almost) infinitely and still be telling the story. All we need do is identify an intention and an outcome (from the story we are adapting) and remove everything in between. Using The Lord of the Rings as an example once more, we could tell the story in two scenes; Gandalf tells Frodo the ring must be destroyed in scene 1 and in scene 2, Frodo covered in grime after his long journey tosses it into the crack of doom. This is an extreme example of course, but the “story” survives (just).
Beyond taking dialog and recreating it in a form that works in audio drama, this telescoping of the plot (contracting and extending it using the story markers of intention and outcome as landmarks) forms another of the chief tools of adaptation.
Of course, it is possible to apply the principle of telescoping to adapting a story and utterly ruin it. Both examples provided here (with regard to the Lord of the Rings) fail to do justice to the material being adapted, ultimately ruining, in my view, the story… and this is the reason for so much dissatisfaction with film adaptations of much loved works of fiction. We’ve all heard it said that “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit while wisdom is NOT putting it in a fruit salad.” There is a great difference between knowing what we can do and knowing what we should do. With regard to deciding what is enough and what is too much… well, each writer has to decide this for themselves, but there does come a point where the changes made during adaptatiion make the work unrecognizable and it would be fairer (and more honest) to go back to the beginning, change the characters’ names and tell an original story instead. Perhaps a useful check on this process is the following pair of questions…
1. “Does the change advance the plot?”
2. “Does the change develop/reveal character?”
Answering yes to either or both these questions isn’t a guarantee that we won’t go too far in our adaptation, but it might help us to place some upper limits on the worst excesses we are tempted to try.
For those who are interested, some time ago I prepared a series of scripts adapting the Brothers Grimm story, Rapunzel, as an audio drama for the kids in my English class. It includes writer’s notes on how the plot was developed, planned, and implemented. The scripts are available for free as well. Sadly, my attempt at recording the plays ended in disaster (the recording quality was heartbreakingly awful despite the quality of the performances by the local actors who volunteered to help me out), but I’m still really happy with the scripts themselves.
If you’ve got any other thoughts on adapting original material for audio, then please, add them here. I’d love to hear them.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.