Thursday, January 13, 2011

Novels Aren't Screenplays

Geez, where's she going today?

First off, I feel like I've talked entirely too much about myself lately so now I'm going to talk about my writing.  Just kidding.  But I am going to talk about writing.

Last year (not that long ago, is it) I read something by a nonfiction writer.  It was obvious she could write but for me she was struggling with how to tell a story, an exercise that was totally alien to her.  What did I tell her?  I named a couple screenwriting books and told her to go study them.  Which got her hackles up to some degree.  And she asked someone who seemed bigger and smarter than me and that person told her to go read some books about screenwriting.

Why is this good advice?  Because a script has to tell the complete story in under 120 pages.  Every scene has to matter, impart vital information and keep the audience watching.  A screenplay has a very definite structure.  There are 3 acts and each one performs an important function.

Well, who cares?  Novels aren't screenplays.  No but they do have a structure.  The reason why this structure works is that it works.  Whether it's because people expect it or if it works because of the way the universe is organized doesn't matter.  The 3 Act structure has been around since the days of the ancient Greek playwrights.  If it didn't work it would have been abandoned long ago--people are not that stupid.  (Don't ask me to prove it.)

All bets and all rules are not off just because we went digital.  Good writing, wonderful writing, ...oh skip it, this is obviously not the goal of most people attempting to write.

I read something recently that came well recommended and it was like fanfic.  There were vast passages--and I mean hundred of pages--that could have easily been ditched.  Why?  Because they didn't tell us anything.  We didn't learn more about the character of the characters and since character is revealed through action and there was no action, there was nothing much going on.  It was like one long Twitter experience.  "Wow!  I just brushed my teeth and used a different flavor toothpaste!"  "I just got in the car and am going to work!"  "BummerCity!  I'm stuck at a railroad crossing and the train is sooooo long!"

This is not efficient storytelling.  It's like a webcam aimed at someone's living room.  (You thought I was going to say bedroom but then there would have been at least a vague hope of something happening)

I started reading a book that spent a couple pages on a woman shaving her legs.  I thought "Gee, this is strange."  Is the word du jour random?  It's random if you have all the words in the dictionary in a hopper, you spin it and pick one out.  Then it's random.  It was also useless and boring.  I don't want to see a woman shaving her legs or a character going to the bathroom either.  Sorry.  There are a number of things I don't want to see and those are two of them.

What I'm saying is that it's good to make sure what you're writing is interesting to someone other that just you.  And even if for some random reason other people like this Twitter style of writing, you can entertain the notion of  being more precise in what you're trying to convey in your book.  Think about the construction of your story.
Does everything belong on the page/screen?  Does everything add to our understanding of the story, situation and characters?  Has what you're saying been said before in the story just in a slightly different manner?  If the scenes are similar, do they each tell us something we didn't know before?

If you don't care about any of this, I wish I could think of something clever to say but all that comes to me is that I have no idea why you're writing.  So if you are one of those people, post a comment and explain it.  Help us understand--even if it's not in your writing style ;-)

1 comment:

Nicole MacDonald said...

I like the theory of reading screenplays - acutally one of the comments a few critiquers have made of my work is that they could see it as a screen play. So hopefully I'm doing something right! I have read some amazing fan-fic but you do have to hunt for it. So much of it is written by hormone driven tweens *shudder*

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