Novel to Stage: Research in Scriptwriting

Chikwendu PK Anyanwu


Experienced writers, irrespective of the rhetoric about raw intuition and inspiration, have advocated the use of research to enhance creative writing. For beginners, Milton E. Polsky agrees with Paddy Chayesfsky that they should “draw on the experiences of others through research and observation” when their own experiences are “drained” (Polsky, 2002: 42). Robert McKee attributes writers block to lack of research and defines research as “taking the time and effort to acquire knowledge” and he suggests three methods:

  • Research of Memory – from personal experience
  • Research of Imagination – stepping into your character’s shoes
  • Research of Fact – take a trip to the library (McKee, 1999: 72)

Robert Mshengu Kavanagh in Making People’s Theatre also lists three methods of research in ‘script-making’, namely

  • Academic Research – fact finding
  • Playwright’s Research – observing people
  • Actor’s Research – actors to take part in academic and playwright’s research to enhance their performances. (Kavanagh, 1997: 20)

Many other writers have in one way or another agreed that research of some sort is very important and can only produce a positive effect on creative writing. Linda Anderson talks about reading (Anderson, 2006: p39); Brighde Mullins advises playwrights to witness as many theatre productions as possible (Mullins in Earnshaw S, 2007: 263) and Ann Hoffman states that “There is no substitute for a personal visit to every place in which your story, or scene of a story, is to be set”(Hoffman, 2003: 100). In line with the view that creative writing is no longer a matter of intuition alone, both Mary Swander et al and Jenny Newman show through their various papers in The Handbook of Creative Writing that creative writing practice can be fostered through the universities that offer degree courses in Creative Writing (Cf Earnshaw, 2007). These articles argue against certain claims that writing cannot be taught.

Perhaps, yes, creative writing cannot be taught; perhaps, no, creative writing can be taught. Yes, because, I have written and directed a number of plays without formal creative writing training yet people enjoyed my plays. I think I was doing something right but didn’t know what it was. So, perhaps, no, writing can be taught, because I still needed to know what I was doing – to understand how form, content and style relate to each other. To know how language relates to character; how suspense works with exposition; what they mean by plot, structure and character development; what makes a drama comic, tragic or epic. The desire to know about these elements propelled me to seek a university degree in creative writing. But since engaging in this formal study, sometimes, I feel that I would have been freer to write more plays, poems, and perhaps, a novel or novels if not for the demands of my course. It is a mixed feeling which I would like to discuss here using the experience of my current research programme at the Middlesex University, which is the stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People. I am not discussing all the research methods I was engaged with in writing the script but rather would explore the effects of the university, reading and interviews on my adaptation.

University and Scriptwriting

My scriptwriting took place under the close supervision of Maggie Butt (Programme Supervisor) and James Charlton (Script Supervisor). There is a whole world of difference between reading books on how to go about your writing and having people in the field showing you that ‘how’. It is a confidence booster and I think this is an important aspect of writing: confidence draws the line between successful writers and the rest. Amateur or first time writers may be freer to work on their own, without time constraints unlike those studying for degrees in the university, who are pressured by time to complete and submit their works or dissertations. This, no doubt, could impede creativity because time is needed to leave your work alone for a while, not think about it and take the opportunity to do more research (Legat, 1990: 27). One could have the time to produce a piece of greater quality but the fact remains that there are many unknown writers with good scripts who lack the confidence to bring them to the public domain. By going through the rigours of summarizing the story, breaking it down into acts and scenes, and offering a synopsis of each act and each scene before starting to write the dialogue – the supervisor’s demand – I had gone through an important training which built my confidence as a writer. I had done something new in script writing. This may not be the only or the best approach since everyone does what best works for them; it is, however, in my opinion, a useful process in the art of scriptwriting, if the writer wants to be in control of his script. Of course, to be in control of one’s script should be the desire of the scriptwriter, for he ought to know the fictional world he creates “in the same depth and detail that God knows the one He created”(McKee, 1999:71).

Working under supervision in the university made it imperative for me to know exactly why I included or removed any scene in the adaptation, knowing fully well that I would defend my choices in my critical essay. That confidence, that ‘I know what I am doing’, gave me the impetus to approach whoever I could, no matter how highly placed either for interview or financial support for the production. I even had the courage to call Achebe’s house phone to request for an interview. I couldn’t believe myself. But once I had done that, I felt I could approach anyone.

I consider working with supervisors very helpful for one who wants to become a professional writer. If, as Swander et al noted that in the days that creative writing was not yet a university course, “Writing was a craft that one was supposed to pick up by osmosis through a study of literature”, the question is: why did a young writer have to buy a cigarette holder and beret, in search of a mentor? (Swanders et al in Earnshaw, 2007:12). However, it could happen that the supervisor’s ideas are different from your original intuition and could hamper one’s creativeness especially when the student thinks refusing such suggestions amounts to offence or the supervisor is being looked up to as an agency for the publication of one’s material. The differences in ideas are bound to arise, especially, in cases like mine, where the student and the supervisor have different cultural backgrounds. But again, such a situation has the advantage of helping the student, writing his script to know exactly what he is doing and be ready to explain it.

As a fee paying student, the university often affects my concentration when it asks for tuition fees and fines for overdue library books from my dry pocket. As Achebe wrote in Hopes and Impediments, “anxiety can hinder creative performance, from sex to science”(Achebe, 1988: 67). However, the university bestowed me with credibility, especially in adapting the work of a high profile author, Chinua Achebe. After waiting for ages for Achebe’s agent to grant me the copyright permission, I asked my departmental administrator to write her and that got her to respond within days. For academic projects, the copyright permission arguably is not necessary but I went for it because it was part of the investigations I set out to achieve with my programme. I wanted to know what it takes to obtain the permission because most people I interviewed concerning lack of adaptations in Igboland and Nigeria, mentioned copyright issues among other reasons. My experience made see their point. If I was not a research student, a man with no name in the creative arts, would my copyright request not have gone into the shredder?

Reading and Interviews in Scriptwriting

Reading commentaries on Achebe and A Man of the People was unavoidable. I had worked on Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for my BA in English and made references to it and Arrow of God in my MA dissertation. With the critical works and my knowledge of Igbo life and culture, I had the confidence to offer a dramatic interpretation of his novel. I argue that Achebe’s writing began as a response to colonial literature and so could not have had the Igbo or Africans as his primary audience. He was rather writing on their behalf. Simon Gikandi writes:

Achebe felt impelled to define and redefine the project of African literature precisely because whenever he looked around him, he was confronted by the overwhelming hegemony of colonialist rhetoric on Africa – what he once called ‘sedate prose of the district-officer-government-anthropologist of sixty or seventy years ago – which the African intellectual has had to wrestle, like Jacob and the angel, at almost every juncture of our contemporary history. (Gikandi, 1991: 6)

To be ‘impelled’ means that something is forcing you to act – an external force. It was those colonial misrepresentations of Africa that impelled Achebe to write and respond to Europe. Narrative, associated with representation (cf Ryan, 2007:23), was the most suitable genre for countering the colonizer’s image of the colonized. But narrative was considered a western literary form which many Africans did not identify with. I believe that narrative is best suited to a distant audience while drama talks to the immediate environment. With this knowledge and belief, I felt the need to render Achebe’s stories back to his people using the dramatic medium, to celebrate the people’s culture and celebrate the author himself, whose achievements are not really known to the ordinary members of his society.

My interpretation of the novel highlighted the theme, ‘knowledge and hypocrisy’. I found the mask and the masquerade important cultural elements in showing the story. So we celebrated them. The masquerade had a Christmas dance; it had a confrontational dance as metaphor for the clash between Chief Nanga and Odili (the two major characters). Scenes are connected with people masking in the streets in zigzag movements. My intention was for the audience to come away saying ‘after all, no one knows anyone’, ‘people say one thing and do another….’ And so it was: a member of the audience later said to me ‘you gave us a mirror to see ourselves’ and narrated to me how the votes for 2003 local government elections in his area were shared on his dining table Here are two of my most cherished lines of the dialogue.
• MAX: Information is key to social change (Production Script, Act 1: Scene 5).
Max tries to convince Odili to join his party in order to contest against Chief Nanga, who is an epitome of government hypocrisy. But Odili tells Max that this is a daunting task; not for any other reason but for the ignorance of the masses who he says prefer ‘the masquerades’ (Chief Nanga and co). The task then for Odili is to let the people know the true face of Chief Nanga.
• ODILI: Any body can put on a mask but for different reasons (Prod. Script, Act 2: Scene 3)
Odili is masking in persuading Edna, Chief Nanga’s young fiancée, to dump Chief on the pretext that it is in her best interest. Mrs Nanga is in this with another agenda. Not knowing that Odili has an interest, she pleads with Odili to talk Edna out of the proposed marriage to her husband. These lines in the dialogue are not found in the novel but are products of research.

The script title, Kingdom of the Mask, was born out of the conviction that Nigerian politics had been hijacked by hypocrites who glory in deceiving the people. It was no wonder that a month after my production an article appeared in one of the Nigerian newspapers, Vanguard, titled “A Nation where hypocrisy is King” (Ovbiagele, March 21, 2007). Reading the first three paragraphs, one would think it is a review of Kingdom of the Mask but it isn’t. Ovbiagele is one of the many disenchanted observers of the Nigerian political atmosphere. Nigeria was at the eve of the 2007 general elections when my script was staged and Ovbiagele’s article published. It did not require any special vision to see what was coming. It was the same disillusionment attendant on the post-independent Africa which gave rise to such novels as A Man of the People (Achebe, 1966) and The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born (Ayi Kwei Armah 1968). When Achebe wrote A Man of the People, he saw the inevitability of military intervention and ended his novel with a military coup. Reality coincided with fiction. It was Nigeria’s first military coup in 1966 and Achebe’s life was on the line. If corruption is justification for military intervention in government, the eight year civilian regime of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999 – 2007) deserved that intervention. My research into public opinion showed, however, a Nigeria that was fed up with the military and their redemptory rhetoric. So I had to condemn the military immediately after the coup announcement (Prod. Script, Act 4: Scene 5) not only that I shared that sentiment but more because through research, I knew what happen with the original text and that history could repeat itself.

I see graduate research for creative writing students as a ‘give and take’. The university provides mentorship while making demands that could impede rapid creativity but it is necessary when it benefits the student. I notice that gathering so many ideas could also retard decision making. As I was reading Aristotle’s Poetics, another title came to me, ‘The Tragedy of a Nation’. I had so many ideas and titles in my head that I could only decide on Kingdom of the Mask a few days to the production. In any case, it is better to have more knowledge and materials than you need. For if intuition alone can work for any other kind of writing, it cannot work for adaptation of an existing text, especially, from novel to stage. This practice, as Linda Hutcheon observes, requires “extended critical and creative engagements” (Hutcheon, 2006: 39).


Achebe, Chinua, A Man of the People, Oxford, Heinemann, 1966

Achebe, Chinua, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1965-87, Oxford, Heinemann, 1988

Anderson, Linda “Keeping A Writer’s Notebook”, in Anderson, Linda (Ed), Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, London, Routledge & The Open University, 2006

Gikandi, Simon, Reading Chinua Achebe: Language and Ideology in Fiction, London, James Currey, 1991

Hoffmann, Ann, Research for Writers (7th Ed), London, A&C Black, 2003

Hutcheon, Linda, The Theory of Adaptation, NY, Routledge, 2006

Kavanagh Robert M, Making People’s Theatre, Johannesburg, Witwatersrand Uni Press, 2001

Legat, Michael, How to write Historical Novels, London, Allison & Busby Books, 1990

McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, London, Methuen, 1999

Mullins, Brighde, “Writing for the Stage”, , in Earnshaw Steven (Ed), The Handbook of Creative Writing, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Uni Press, 2007

Newman, Jenny, “The Evaluation of Creative Writing at MA Level (UK)” in Earnshaw Steven (Ed), The Handbook of Creative Writing, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Uni Press, 2007

Ovbiagele, Come, “A Nation where Hypocrisy is King” in Vanguard, Lagos, Wednesday, March 21, 2007 []

Polsky, Milton E, You can write a Play, NY, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2002

Ryan, Maurie-Laure, “Towards a Definition of Narrative”, in Herman, David (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, Cambridge, Cambridge Uni Press, 2007

Swander, Mary et al, “Theories of Creativity and Creative Writing Pedagogy”, in Earnshaw Steven (Ed), The Handbook of Creative Writing, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Uni Press, 2007

Copyright Chikwendu PK Anyanwu 2008



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