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Some of the greatest films of all time have been adapted from short stories. As we look back to some of the best adaptations audiences have ever seen on the big screen, there are certain elements that stand out, separating short story adaptations from novel adaptations.
First, though, we have to decipher: What the defining differences are between a short story and a novel?
Short Stories are Shorter
Obvious, but let’s delve more into it. Generally speaking, short stories range from 1,000 words to 20,000. Anything less than 1,000 is flash fiction, and anything more than 20,000 words—usually starting at 30,000—is considered to be a novella.
Short Stories Have a Different Structure
A majority of the time, short stories don’t follow a full three-act structure and they are often void of any major subplots.
Novels have the freedom to explore a full three-act structure. They also have the freedom to flesh out characters more with backstories and can put slightly more focus—e.g. a chapter or more—on secondary characters that factor into the novel’s story.
Short stories don’t have that luxury. They often focus on what would be a single act or plot line of a novel. They are much like short films in that manner. Disney Animation producer Kristina Reed said it best when she said that short films are different because of the lack of “real estate.” Nothing could be truer for short stories.
Short Stories Have Fewer Characters
Many focus just on a single character, while others may have a couple more. Usually the focus is on a single character with secondary characters that support the lead character’s storyline, but with little to no of the development you would normally see in a novel.
But what about novellas?
Novellas are short fiction, but don’t necessarily fall under the short stories category. The main difference between the two is usually the fact that many novellas can be released as single volumes. Novellas are easier to adapt than novels as well, for many of the same reasons above.
Before we delve into the reasons why short stories—and novellas, in many cases—are so much easier to adapt to the big screen than novels, let’s take a brief look at some of the best and most acclaimed films that have been adapted from short fiction.
So why are short stories easier to adapt?
1. Short stories are short; novels can be very long
A novel’s structure is long. The list of characters is often long. The lists of backstory and subplots are long. It’s very difficult to capture every character and every subplot in a film adaptation.
That’s why you see film adaptations often infuriating the literary following that the novel has. Characters are cut or melded into one. Subplots are dropped. Backstories for the main characters are dropped.
It becomes a difficult task to stay true to the novel as much as readers and audiences want.
With short stories, screenwriters have less to take on and more room to expand. There is more freedom in adapting short stories.
2. Short stories embrace the “short, sweet and to-the-point” mantra of screenplays.
It goes back to real estate. Short stories don’t have the space to elaborate and go into depth. There is no room for tangent, backstory or secondary character chapters. Short stories are often straight to the point, straight to the emotion, straight to the conflict at hand, etc. That’s exactly how screenplays should be.
In a short story, like a screenplay, a character is often thrown into the conflict right away with little to no setup.
In a short story, like a screenplay, there are limited amounts of characters because there’s just not enough space to create an overlaying world as there is with a novel. Even an epic film like Star Wars with a large galaxy to cover has only a handful of major characters in Luke, Han and Leia, and then a supporting cast to accompany them.
In a short story, like a screenplay, description is kept to more of a minimum compared to most novels.
In a short story, like a screenplay, the focus is on a particular event in a character’s life and often doesn’t reach back or beyond. Look at a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark. We literally open in the middle of a storyline. We never learn why Indiana Jones is seeking out that opening artifact. We never learn the history between Indy and Belloq. A novel would have delved into those elements. A short story, like a screenplay, would throw the character into the conflict right away.
3. Short stories can be utilized for concepts alone.
It’s one thing to take only a short story’s core concept and use it as a launching pad for a film. It’s a whole different thing to do so with a novel. When adapting short stories, there is much more room to expand on the concept, characters, and story. Screenwriting is primarily concept-driven, especially within the Hollywood studio system, so short stories are prime places for Hollywood to go to find proven concepts.
4. Short stories are easier to acquire.
Short stories are not under the same spotlight as most bestselling novels in the literary market, thus they are much easier to acquire the rights to.
Case in point? Stephen King. He famously offered the rights to his many short stories for a single dollar option to allow film students—and Hollywood producers—to adapt. Now, you wouldn’t expect him or his publisher to allow a novel like The Shining to be released for a single dollar.
Outside of mega-famous authors like King, you can imagine the amount of great short stories out there waiting to be adapted for the big screen for little to no money. Stories that don’t get on the bestseller lists like novels do. In essence, short stories are often the forgotten stepchildren in the literary world.
This isn’t always the case, mind you, as we’ve seen some of the greatest films of all genres being adapted from short stories, but they still aren’t held in as high regard as novels.
In short (pun intended) the adaptation rights of short stories are more accessible to screenwriters and production companies.
5. Short stories come with less pressure.
Novels that are adapted into films are often bestsellers. With that success comes a lot of pressure, for many of the reasons given above.
Because short stories are usually not as high-profile, with millions of readers watching with judging eyes, there’s less pressure when having to make the changes that are necessary for a cinematic interpretation.
Some of the greatest films adapted from short stories simply utilized the various concepts within them and then went into a different direction with the characters and story.
Audiences seem to have an understanding that short story adaptations don’t have to be as true to the source material. So changes are more forgivable in the eyes of readers and audiences. But if you change a novel that came with a plethora of material to work from? The pressure is on.
Short stories are often more cinematic than most novels, thus they afford the screenwriter certain freedoms while adapting. MM
This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
ScreenCraft is running the official ScreenCraft Short Story Contest. The grand prize winner will receive $1,000 and personal introductions to literary agents, managers, producers, and publishers. The top 10 finalists will be read by their network of over 40 literary and entertainment industry professionals. All rights and ownership to stories submitted to this contest remain with the author, until and unless other agreements are made.