July 27th, 2009


From story to screenplay

I've sold an option for screenplay rights to the short story "Normalized Death."

Don't get excited. It's not coming to a theater near you soon — in fact, it probably never will. I sold the rights to an advanced practicum student producer at a Chicago college. The odds of it actually getting produced are slim, and student films rarely if ever hit it big.

I'm only getting a token payment for the rights. I agreed to the sale in part to be kind to students: the "paying forward" that they talk about in science fiction circles. You can never pay back the people who helped you when you were starting out, so you can only help others who are starting out.

But my main motive was pure curiosity.

You can read "Normalized Death" at Flash Fiction Online: http://www.flashfictiononline.com/f20081202-normalized-death-sue-burke.html It's a simple story:

A woman, Rebecca, arrives at the hospice where her mother is dying, goes to her room, and finds her sleeping. Rebecca has a pill in her pocket that she's supposed to take to "normalize" her emotions in this difficult time. She stands and thinks, then decides not to take it. Her mother wakes up, and they start to talk. The end.

There's hardly any action. Not much dialogue, except as the daughter remembers events in the past. I think the story works in print, especially since at 900 words, it's so short that it ends before the unrelenting introspection becomes annoying to the reader (at least, I hope so). But it obviously wouldn't work on a screen.

I wanted to learn how the student producer planned to adapt the story.

She proposed starting with a scene between Rebecca and her sister when they learn their mother has just been hospitalized, which doesn't seem to bother the sister much. They arrive at the hospital, and Rebecca is puzzled about why so many people seem as unreactive as her sister. That's when Rebecca learns about the pills, and is pressured to take one, but she only pretends to, and when everyone else is gone, she and her mother share a final, heart-felt conversation.

There's more details, of course, and I rushed through the climax, but I'm very pleased with the changes. I was excited to see that the adaptation, especially in some of the details the student invented, nailed the original story.

The big difference, besides having people actually do things and say things, is that the screenplay will be significantly longer — no surprise. Showing usually takes longer than telling. Written fiction and screenplays are different storytelling media, and each has its economies and requirements.

Having my work transmogrified has been fun, educational, and flattering. Good luck, students! And thanks.

— Sue Burke
Also posted at http://www.sue.burke.name