How to Repurpose an Old Story for a New Medium
I first stumbled on the foundations of my Storytelling System when I was in college and struggling to make a story work. It was a short film I'd written in my introduction screenwriting course that I was excited about, but every time I wrote it the idea fell flat. There was something missing and off about the story and I could not for the life of me figure out what that was.
I would workshop the script with others, hear ideas, and while the suggestions made to improve my story and fix this unknown problem were all good ones, every time I sat down to write this short film again – I tried over and over – it didn't work. I was becoming more and more frustrated because I knew the idea was a good one, I just couldn't seem to execute it.
So I set it aside for nearly two years.
Then one day I was in a creative writing class for prose. I was lost for any new ideas so I decided on a whim to just try out that screenplay I had had so much trouble with in the prose medium. I wasn't expecting much, so I just let myself have fun with it, using the same exact story structure as my short film I'd written, only translating it into prose.
Suddenly, after all that time, my story worked. And it worked super well.
Now you might argue that really time was the healer of this storytelling predicament. And that might be true except for that whenever I've tried to make it a screenplay again, it just doesn't work. The story needs the slowness of prose, the patience of a reader, the unreliability of a narrator. It thrives on those features. It wouldn't be the same story in any other form and the prose version of this story was the one I wanted to tell from the beginning.
So I did. And now I want to help you do the same.
Becoming a Storyteller
One of the most essential skills you'll learn as you go from being a "writer" to a "storyteller" is the ability to perceive which medium is best for the story you're trying to tell. An idea will pop into your head and you'll run through all the different strengths of each medium (prose, screenwriting, playwriting and video game writing) and you'll choose the best idea accordingly.
That's what my free ebook, The Storytelling System is all about – learning to perceive the best medium to tell your story in so that you can save yourself the trouble of all the deleting, wasting, erasing, and hiding away of my story that I had to go through. Because in a time when there are so many different ways to tell your story, I truly do believe you must have a reason you select the medium you write in. It can no longer be mindless when there is so much potential for you to make your stories great by just thinking about the medium.
When to Repurpose an Old Story
But what about all the ideas you had before you became a Swiss Army Storyteller? All the abandoned projects tucked away that you hoped to forget about? Or the ones you completely gave up on because you couldn't get it right? How do you sift through it all and decide whether its worth your time to bring an old story back to life?
After spending four years of my life in undergrad dedicated to storytelling and how to write in various mediums, I'm still not an expert on storytelling and I'll never be. That's what's so exciting and great about it. However, since I've flitted between so many mediums and failed so many times in each one, I do have an inkling as to what stories are to bring back to life and which to leave behind.
REASON #1: You're still in love with the story, just not the results.
Do you have a story that you wrote and hid away, but still think about? A story that you love deeply and just feel you never did the justice to? Perhaps it's sitting on your shelf, waiting for you to gain more "experience" as a writer. But no matter the reason, if there's a story you love and think you failed at the execution, it is definitely one to try and repurpose for a new storytelling medium.
Love and enthusiasm for a project should never be undermined. As a storyteller, it's clear you know that you have a good story but know that you maybe have a bad screenplay or short story. Look for the stories on your shelf that you were sad to see go, the ones that haunt you, the ones that you have promised to get right one day. These are the stories that are dying to try out a new form.
REASON #2: You never finished the story in the first place.
If your enthusiasm for a story teetered out into nothing, it could be due in part to the fact that you were writing in the wrong medium. Perhaps you ran into a huge writers' block or maybe your characters suddenly had nothing to do, or perhaps you have no idea at all why you stopped writing your story.
In writing your story in a new medium you might be surprised to find very quickly that many of the solutions to your blocks are embedded in this new form. Maybe your silent brooding protagonist is better off in a film, where her silence can be heard loud and clear or maybe your independent vagabond has more room to breathe and be herself in an open-world video game. As a result, changing things up might be a step in the direction for a finished piece you love.
It is worth mentioning that not finishing a story because you knew it was bad or because you hated it are not good reasons to repurpose the story. Whenever you choose your story, you must choose one you still love and admire and believe in, including the unfinished ones. Choosing an unfinished story you hated to repurpose will still churn out the same attitude no matter what medium you write in, so choose an unfinished piece you still believe in!
REASON #3: You want to take the story to new mediums.
This last reason is of course, quite obvious. If you've written a story you love and were happy with and want to see how it holds up in new mediums, by all means do it. You might choose to do this just for fun or you might do it because you plan on one day writing a novel that supplements the world in your video game or you want a character from your play to show up in your next movie.
Additionally, in repurposing a story you love and feel proud of in another medium, you'll approach adapting it to a new medium more confidently. You know the story already works as it is, so the pressure is off to get it right. Plus, you won't have to worry about the shape of the story or the plot or getting characterization right. It will all be there for you to mess around with, which is incredibly fun!
However, keep in mind that while you can repurpose every story you've ever written – and you'll certainly learn a lot about all the mediums in the process – there are some stories that are better off left behind. It could be because you wrote it in an earlier phase of your writing life and didn't know what you were doing or because the story was plain bad, or because you wrote the story without any purpose or meaning. Again, though picking up old work that you hated or thought was bad and trying to repurpose it could be an incredibly helpful exercise and even turn out a story you love, working through something you don't enjoy isn't an efficient way to approach storytelling.
How to Repurpose an Old Story
STEP ONE: Consider your options.
After you've picked out the story you want to repurpose or adapt into a new medium, your next step – though seemingly simple – is actually quite hard: picking out what new medium to tell your story in. Though I can't help you decide for yourself, below I've listed the four main mediums I focus on in the Storytelling System and Swiss Army Storytelling and what traits to consider.
Prose: The advantages of prose lie in the language and in the reader. As a result, if you found your story did not work in this medium it might be because your story does not use language to its advantage. If your story has a lot of action it or visuals that your prose does not describe in a way that plays with language, a screenplay might be a better idea. Or, if your story was a character study told in first-person, consider how turning it into a play might make things more interesting.
Screenwriting: Screenplays – though limited by some rules – are all about telling the story via the visuals. If your script isn't aware of the visuals or doesn't rely on them in an efficient or artistic way, you may want to consider turning your story into a play. Plays and scripts are very similar in their strengths, but their differences make the actual storytelling experience feel all the more different. If that doesn't appeal to you, look to prose writing, a slower medium with lots of room to wander.
Playwriting: Playwriting is all about the live experience and the ability for the story to be told over and over again in different ways that still stay true to the main essence of that idea. If the notion of your story changing with each production rubs you the wrong way, or if you forgot that aspect completely, try crunching your play into a short story to preserve the language choices you might have made in it. Or, repurpose it into a video game, inserting the dialogue into the game and offering choices.
Video Game Writing: The main advantage of video game writing is all the possibilities a player feels. They can wander through a world or make actual decisions that change the story. If your quest or outline or even full video game lacks this, a novel might be the better option because it can be as long or as short as you want and filled with tons of details and side character exploration. Or if you feel your story is action-packed or relies on visuals, consider what a TV show repurposing of your story would feel like.
STEP TWO: Work it through the Storytelling System.
Once you've determined what medium you want to take your story in, it's time to work it through the Storytelling System. Flip to chapter two to get more insight on the medium and chapter three to work your story into the new form.
If it helps, compare the original storytelling format you wrote in to the new one you are choosing. See what makes the two different and similar and how you can make the story stand apart from the previous one.
After you've worked your story through the Storytelling System, decide if this is the right medium to repurpose your story into. If not, look to another medium and repeat the process until you figure out what is best for your story – not what's best for you.
STEP THREE: Write the story.
It may seem obvious, but once you've thought through how to make your story different in this new medium, it's time to write the actual story!
If you are writing a screenplay or video game, you might feel overwhelmed at first. While my first tip is to always stress about formatting later, I have articles on how to write a script as a newbie and how to tackle your first video game quest to help ease the writing process for you so you can focus on your story.
Otherwise, let yourself have fun! Don't stress about getting things perfect. Focus on this new medium you are choosing to write in and how you can enhance your story with it, not on getting things like character or plot perfect.
STEP FOUR: Evaluate the results.
Once you've finished your story, set it aside for at least a week – though I recommend at least six weeks – and work on something else, even if it's just journal entries. Try to get your mind elsewhere and then return to your repurposed story when you've distanced yourself enough from it.
After you've read it, decide whether or not you need to compare the results to your old version. Sometimes you'll read this new repurposed story and know it is better and won't need to return to your old story. But if you're unsure, read the older version and then compare the two side by side to see which you like more.
Part of the great wonder in repurposing a story for a new medium is that often you find out very quickly that your first medium choice was the best one after all. It's like a relationship where you break up only to realize that the person you were with was the one for you, you just couldn't see it until they were gone.
While that might seem like a waste of time, seeing your story in a new mold can work wonders on how you think about it. Even in choosing to revert back to the previous medium came as a result of seeing your story in a different light so that the work was still incredibly useful.
STEP FIVE: Get back to work.
After you've evaluated the story and picked out which version was superior – the original medium or the new one – it's time to get back to work.
Even if you decide that your original medium was better, keep the repurposed story on hand. Whenever you get stuck again, take the snippet of your story you are having trouble with and repurpose just that part to get you thinking in a new way.
BONUS STEP: Take it to the next level with Swiss Army Storytelling
If you fell in love with the process of repurposing your story and learning to think like a storyteller, not a writer, and want to learn to rewire your brain to start thinking like this all the time, consider becoming a Swiss Army Storyteller.
Because if you are a writer, you are a storyteller. You do more than put words to the page – you tell stories that can be transcended into any medium. When I learned this everything about the way I wrote changed. I discovered my writers' voice, I became more confident in my abilities to know what a solid story looked like and I challenged the way I thought so that eventually every story I wrote had a solid purpose for being told in the medium I chose it to.
As a result, I started writing more distinctly, learning to use the tools of the medium to my advantage in a way I didn't see anyone else doing. Sure, I failed and made strange stories at times, but my experience in writing different mediums always forced me to question how I was writing and push the envelope forward.
Because I truly believe that more and more writers will start calling themselves storytellers over time. The way to tell stories is changing and evolving. It's an exciting evolution to prepare for, and one I'd love to help you navigate with Swiss Army Storytelling.
Want to continue pushing yourself to think like a storyteller? Check out these sixteen storytelling prompts I've created that train you to do just that!