Check out the December 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum, for my Writing 4 Children interview with best-seller Peter Kerr. He talks about how he adapted his screenplay for children into his debut children’s novel, Goblin Hall.
Peter told me that he originally wrote the Goblin Hall story as a 90-minute screenplay before his first book was published, purely on spec as a self-imposed writing ‘exercise’, then he filed it away and forgot about it until transferring old files into a new computer a couple of years ago.
Goblin Hall really exists. It is a large, remarkably well-preserved subterranean chamber that lies hidden beneath the ruins of Yester Castle, near the village of Gifford, about five miles from where he lives in East Lothian. Legend has it that it was built in the 13th century – with the aid of ‘demonic forces’ – by Sir Hugo de Giffard, a Norman nobleman, who, because of his reputation as a practitioner of the ‘black arts’, was dubbed the Wizard of Yester. The legend is well known locally (Gifford’s village inn is even called The Goblin Ha’ Hotel), but has never been used as a basis for a novel until now, although Sir Walter Scott did mention it in his poem Marmion.
When Peter was twelve, he was taken on a visit to Yester Castle by a school chum who lived in Gifford. He told me what little of the ruins that still exist are well hidden by the surrounding woods, and it would have been difficult to find them without a local ‘guide’.
“I was immediately struck by the spooky atmosphere of the place, and I never forgot my immediate thought that it would make a great setting for a creepy movie. That’s probably why it became the inspiration for my experimental screenplay some forty years later.”Peter Kerr
His idea was that the script would feature two children, a ruined castle and a haunted underground chamber. And as there weren’t any historical ‘facts’ that had to be adhered to, he had a fairly blank canvas to work on. This was not the case when he came to adapt it for the novel. Peter revealed he prefers to go with the flow when he writes rather than have a pre-conceived plan to adhere to. As he had already completed the screenplay he found that for the first time ever, he had an existing storyline to stick to, and a detailed one at that.
“It took a bit of getting used to, but it was a worthwhile exercise and another step on the learning curve that’s always in front of us, no matter how experienced we think we’ve become.”Peter Kerr
Peter explained the main practical difficulty he discovered in converting the film script to purely narrative form was how to adjust the balance between action and dialogue. In the script, only an outline of the actual scene locations and the physical actions/reactions of the characters was required, with it being left to the film’s ultimate director to provide the visual detail.
To a certain extent the same applied to the dialogue, which was written with a view to it complementing, or being complemented by, what would be seen on screen. In other words, a sort of shorthand was employed in both regards. For example, a simple ‘Yes’ might be all that was needed to answer a question on screen, whereas a fuller response would inevitably be required in the book version.
The other major challenge was presented by the fact that the screenplay involved a lot of quick changes of fairly short scenes, which also meant changes of location and characters. Via sympathetic film editing, this could add to the tension/excitement of the movie. However, this feature could easily have become confusing and annoying to the reader of the book, so great effort had to be put into providing a more expansive narrative without losing the essential ‘pace’ of the story.
Peter’s tip on writing for childrenis to establish the characters of your main protagonists early, and then they’ll help you carry the story forward. But keep an eye on what they get up to. Stay in control, or they’ll lead you a merry dance. He says, the greatest aid to writing is reading. Read, read, read, and not just the type of books you want to write either. But above all, be original. Don’t try to squeeze yourself into other authors’ shoes, no matter how much you admire their style.