Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

Showrunner Soo Hugh Explains How to Adapt a Book to a TV Show

We wanted to know: how does a showrunner adapt a book for a TV show? So, we sat down with showrunner Soo Hugh, who's having a spotlight moment with big-time successes including "The Terror," "The Whispers," and most recently, the Apple TV+ series, "Pachinko."

All three of these series are book adaptations, and, according to critics, they're all adaptations that have been written exceptionally well.

The four fundamental things to do to adapt a book to a TV show include:

  1. Determine the story's essence

  2. Crack the story structure

  3. Choose your storytellers

  4. Allow the novel to be your inspiration, not your rulebook

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Lucky for you, Soo spilled more in-depth information about her book adaptation secrets with us in a recent interview. If you've found a book that you can't stop thinking about and think it'd make an incredible TV series, keep reading.

Because below, you'll learn how to adapt a book to a TV show in four key steps.

How to Adapt a Book to a TV Show

"I think every book is different in terms of how you need to approach it," Soo began.

Soo's work has spanned three different television shows in the last several years, all of which had varying paths to the screen. She advises writers to take a good hard look at the story's content and determine whether the story can be told visually before proceeding.

It's a factor she had to think deeply about before leaning into "The Terror."

"The book is amazing, but it did carry so many different tones that it would have been hard to translate faithfully," she said.

But that didn't necessarily mean that the job couldn't be done.

"When we went straight to series and went to the room, we had a lot of discussions on how to adapt that book because that book is told in non-chronological order. It mixes so many different genres. So, the challenge of "The Terror" was, what is it? Because if you did a flat adaptation of that book, it would be a 20, 30-hour adaption. But also, I think in terms of how to represent it on a filmic medium."

So, how do you go from words on a page to people on the screen? There are four key steps to take, according to Soo, and based on her most recent book adaption for television, "Pachinko":

1. Determine the Story's Essence

"So, once you've figured out what is the tone of the show and what are the guardrails of the show, what part of the book do you feel like is a thing that you need to protect the essence of it?"

Begin by establishing the tone of the story you want to tell, and know that it might not necessarily be the same tone of the book that you're adapting. Some books have many tones, which can confuse an audience watching a television show.

Tone can include dread, playfulness, anticipation, warmth, or lighthearted, for example.

Guardrails, meanwhile, give the writers a framework and boundaries to work within. What will the characters never do? What kind of dialogue will you never find in this show? This makes it easier to make critical writing decisions.

Last, determine the essence of your show. What crucial thing stands out in the book that you don't want to lose in the television series? Is it a big idea, an emotion, a world, or something else? Make sure your storytelling centers on this essence.

2. Crack the Story Structure

"When I first read "Pachinko," it's this amazing book. Even though I read it on a plane and I couldn't put it down, I didn't think I could do it right away. And even though I loved the book, my one reticence about whether or not I could see the adaptation was something about the structure of the book for me didn't feel compelling enough to do a direct translation, and that's because it's told chronologically. And I was worried that it was going to be – because it's period and it spans 100 years – that it was going to have this feel of like a Korean masterpiece theater kind of production. And I love masterpiece theater; I'm just not the person to do those productions.

So, I had been toying with it initially and talking to my agent. And then, at one point, I realized I think the thing I am really interested in about the book is the way one generation's sacrifice pays off or curses the next generation. I'm really interested in the conversations between one generation to another. And if I told that book chronologically, I don't get to the thesis statement until season four, until the end of the series. And I really felt like it robbed the book and the potential of that adaptation to be pretty amazing."

The way a novel unfolds is not necessarily the most compelling way to tell the story, but it makes sense for the medium. In the same way, a television show has to keep viewers engaged week to week, episode to episode.

Suppose you wrote a televisions series in the same order as a book. In that case, you'd end up with very few cliffhangers, lots of unanswered questions, and characters who seem to appear out of thin air with little to no connection to the characters the viewers have already met.

Consider the story as a whole, rather than by chapters to avoid this.

What is the essence that you want to carry through each episode? How can you rearrange essential scenes so the audience has all the information to understand the sequence of events? Who does the audience need to meet early on for the story to make sense in later episodes?

Cracking the order of the story is one of the most important steps you'll take when adapting a book to a TV show. Keep in mind that it may involve removing entire book sections to make the filmic version more compelling.

"Once I cracked the structure of the show, all of the sudden, it just felt like this explosion of ideas, and it was really exciting to dive into all that research. First of all, so much of the story is unknown, not just to me but to the world, and really cracking into the research was really fulfilling."

3. Choose Your Storytellers

"So then I decided to actually not tell it chronologically like the book. So, we cross-cut one character – Sunja, our main character's storyline – chronologically, and that's cross-cut with her grandson's story in our so-called present day, which is 1989. And the four seasons of our show are a conversation between his grandmother's coming-of-age story and our own Solomon's rise and fall."

When adapting a book to a TV script, not every character will make the cut. Some characters may even meld into a single character who accomplishes multiple goals in the story.

Visual storytelling is best when it is simple, which is even more important in television. Viewers want to understand who they're going to be watching for the remainder of the season, and to do that, sometimes you need to simplify the list of people they need to meet. Otherwise, you'll end up with a pilot with a lot of character and only a little plot.

In addition, you aren't required to write the TV script from the same perspective as the book or novel. Choosing a different storyteller will open up the book to new ideas and, perhaps, a more powerful message.

4. Allow the Book to be Your Inspiration

"It's a long way of saying that I think every book is going to have a different process. But the one commonality for all adaptations, for me at least, and it's true from a lot of people I speak to, is that the book has to be the inspiration, but it can't be the step-by-step manual … I really do think you have to crack open the spine of the book. And what I mean by that is at some point, you just have to let the original source material go and make sure you give the story a life that feels like it can be filmed, right? The filmic medium is so different."

You can pull a lot of inspiration from a book, including its characters, arcs and relationships, key scenes and moments, and even a great ending. But remember that television shows are like miniature movies; each episode needs its own plot, with a cliffhanger at the end that makes you want to come back next week.

A book doesn't automatically accomplish that task.

Use the book as your story inspiration, but never as your complete TV show outline.

Summary

Adapting a book to a television show may be an even steeper challenge than an adaptation for a movie; TV shows don't follow a traditional three-act structure, and you'll have even less time to make your point. However, when used as inspiration, writers can find magic in a book translated to the television medium by allowing the essence, key characters, and perspective to shine through the television season.

Consider a great book your inspiration, and allow it to exist in the background as you determine a new, visual way to tell the story.

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