From crime novel to script—and back

Gerry here, talking about how a reviewer recently described my last book, PORT CITY BLACK AND WHITE, as drawing “an almost cinematic view of Portland.” It would have been better if he had left out the “almost.” Or if he were a reviewer/movie producer. Named Steven Spielberg.

But still, that phrase has stuck with me as I find myself considering what was supposed to be cinematic about the book. The pacing? (fast) The reliance on dialogue? (Lots of it). The spare descriptions of landscape and backdrop? (my other books have much more of these) The short chapters? (Very short and many of them). The cast of characters? (Let’s just say they won’t be selling this book at  L.L. Bean).

Social worker ROXANNE MASTERS, a striking, fit, intense woman in her 30s, drives her pick up through the seediest section of the city. Rain pours down, people hunch in idling cars spewing foggy exhaust. Roxanne slows and peers up at the lighted third-floor windows of a dingy tenement.


Roxanne pulls the truck onto the sidewalk. She sits for a moment, hands on the wheel. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. She glances up again at the apartment windows. Her expression hardens.


(with finality)

Sorry, Tash. That’s three strikes.

Roxanne shuts off the truck, swings out into the pissing rain.

I’d like to think all of my books (and those of my respected compadres on this blog) are cinematic, in that they tell interesting stories about interesting people, with writing that conjures up vivid images of these people and places. But I think that I know what the reviewer meant: that PC B&W is more stripped down than my previous books, and therefore moving closer to script form. But it is a long way from a script. I can tell you that from experience.

I’ve been involved in two movie projects based on my books POTSHOT and HOMEBODY. It was interesting and pretty fun, aside from the fact that neither resulted in an actual movie. Par for the course, I’ve learned. The yacht will have to wait.

But the writing was interesting and, as you might expect, challenging. Consider taking your 300-page novel and turning it into 110 pages. And the pages only have text in a narrow strip down the center. And each page is a minute of movie. And you’re told that in a movie “a minute is an eternity.” And you still have to tell your story in an interesting, suspenseful, and, you hope, nuanced way. And almost all of the writing is dialogue. Action is described briefly and succinctly.

Tell me again what this has to do with writing a novel?

It was very tough at first, like somebody ordering you to clean out a room full of your most precious stuff, and throw away three-quarters of it. What do you keep? What do you toss? But wait, you love that character. She can’t be cut. And that scene. It was one of your favorites.

I like to think I got better at it. By the time I was writing the HOME BODY script last year, I’d moved from turning a book into a movie to turning an idea from a book into a movie. That script bore little or no resemblance to the novel, including the fact that it was based on a Jack McMorrow novel but he was the first character to go. His partner, Roxanne, carried the day.


Things don’t add up, that’s all.


Maybe he’s got a mental illness.


Maybe. But I think he’s running.


Hard on the street in the cold.


During the day, he’s okay. Go to the library. Ride the bus. Go to the mall. At night. Everything closes. He won’t go to the shelter. So it’s a doorway, a dumpster, some alley. He isn’t cut out for it. Not even close.

So here’s the point. I own the scripts and the options have expired on those books, so if you’re a producer, give me a call.

No, wait a minute. That’s not the point. The point is that this exercise, even if it doesn’t lead you to fancy parties in L.A., paparazzi, and a stroll down the red carpet, is a valuable one for a writer. For me, one big takeaway is that the story can be told in different ways, from different perspectives, with different outcomes. Most of our discussions ( the cool thing about the movie business is you get to have frequent discussions. The not-so-cool thing about the movie business is that each of those discussions ends with an assignment for the writer.) began with “What if …” and then someone would toss out a new plot idea, usually a pretty good one. And then another. And another. It was writing by committee, and that is very different from sitting in your study and writing your book.



I’m gonna take a chance on you ‘cause Rocky likes you. And I’m worried he’s gonna get himself hurt.


The guys who beat him up?


Pussies compared to these guys.


What guys?


The Treehouse. Seriously screwed up. Meth. Any alcohol they can find. Crazy mean drunks.


What’s Rocky doing there?


Oh, they’ll be real nice to him. At first.


Until what?


Until they don’t wanna be anymore.

But what this exercise does is force you to consider exactly it is that makes up the core of your characters. If they are relatively minor, and get a brief time on the stage, what should they say? What is their purpose? Why are they there? When your hero or heroine enters a scene, how do you define them in just a few spoken words? Does that line of dialogue really work? Because in this scene, you only get that one.

It’s worth trying, if you haven’t already. Take a chapter and turn it into a scene. It may result in a better understanding of your characters. A new respect for good dialogue. A feel for what readers actually picture as they read a book. And it may even have a residual effect, with reviewers saying, this novel sure paints “an almost cinematic view of Portland.”

For good reason.


Roxanne jumps the water to reach the iron rungs on the side of the abutment. She climbs. Below her is river. A chunk of rushed metal comes off one of the rungs and falls with A SPLASH into the black water.





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1 Response to From crime novel to script—and back

  1. Vicki Doudera says:

    Very interesting, Gerry. As I watch endless sappy Christmas movies and think, “I could write a better one,” it’s fascinating to know just how this is done.

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