From Screenplay to Novel: The Evolution of The Lies That Bind
I originally wrote The Lies That Bind not as a novel, but as a screenplay for feature film. At that time, I was writing spec scripts for Hollywood, everything from science fiction, to futuristic, to historical, as well as writing development treatments for film projects. I still believe the story, named DarkHorse in that incarnation, is the best script I ever wrote.
Fortunately, the late Bob Friedman, president of the Missouri Association of Performing Playwrights at the time, quite a writer of plays and operas for the stage himself, read the script and was wowed. Bob was kind enough to organize a filmed reading of the script to introduce me to the St. Louis playwright community, with professional actors and award-winning writers reading many of the parts and others in attendance, including George Hickenlooper, Jr., the father of the late writer/film director, George Hickenlooper III.
Later, Murray Silverman, president of 20th Century-Fox MTI, gave the script to Sherry Lansing, who called it a “great script.” We both thought my future in Hollywood was made. However, just at that time, Fox was bought by Ruppert Murdock, and Sherry Lansing left Fox to take over Paramount. Being a newer screenwriter, naturally, my career fell through the cracks. Another producer offered an option on the script. His idea was to submit the script to Oprah to produce, but we never agreed to contract terms. Life happens.
The Incubation Period
DarkHorse the script sat for some years, but the power of this unique story ate at me. Once I decided to turn to writing novels, I knew exactly where to start. Suddenly, it was like Alice in Wonderland when she ate the mushroom or drank from the bottle: the story and characters outgrew the restraints of the two-hour script medium and bloomed into a deep, multi-layered work of fiction.
Screenplays for feature film are a very limited medium. Scripts are typically 120-minute pages of dialogue and action, and the director and actors must bring the characters to life as their talent allow. But in the novel format, which can be hundreds of pages, the writer can reveal what the characters are thinking and feeling, which allows the writer to go into great depth and to take the story over great stretches of time and space. For example, when a character’s thoughts are at odds with his/her actions, that can lead to irony and reveal internal conflict. You can do a lot more with a novel than a screenplay.
In The Lies That Bind, the main character is Durksen (Durk) Hurst, whom I describe as a “visionary charlatan.” That in itself is almost contradictory, and only by exploring Durk’s thoughts and perceptions can the reader fully grasp how complex the man really is. How and why does he invent such a foolhardy scheme as a partnership with slaves to build their own egalitarian plantation? Along the way, why does he take the risks he does, which jeopardize all their lives? What is it in his past that drives him to take such risks? In attempting the seemingly impossible, is Durk terrified, doubtful? How do he and his partners really feel about each other? How does their relationship change?
Each of the main characters becomes a three-dimensional, flesh and blood human being, with fears, hopes, dreams, resentments, and secrets from the past—oh, their pasts! That’s the beauty of writing a novel: the writer can reveal a character’s secrets at a time when they’ll have the most dramatic and thematic effect.
The first version of The Lies That Bind was well over 650 pages, but I knew I had to trim it down to make it tighter. Then I rewrote it and it got longer again, so I cut it back again. I endured this process several times before being satisfied with the result.
Also, as I rewrote the novel, my writing got better and sharper, leaner and meaner. Sometimes, for example, I cut standard descriptions and replaced them with impressionistic ones, which made for a faster read, sure, but also made for a more emotional, more aesthetic experience for the reader.
I hope you will agree.