editing / novels vs screenplays

Notes About a Novel that Reads Like a Movie Script

One time I was given a novel manuscript to read–but as I read it, I felt like I was reading a movie script rather than a novel. Here are some tips I gave to the writer:

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Novel or movie script? While I was reading your manuscript, I stopped to watch a few old episodes of “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” and it struck me that your manuscript in some ways reads more like a movie script than like a novel. I suppose this comes from your family background in film and theatre, and your own playwriting and acting experiences. But as you are moving into novel writing, there are some differences between novel and screenplay writing you need to be aware of. Here are some tips:

Fill in the gaps: In reading your novel, I feel as though there is a need for pictures or graphics—and even music—to “fill in some gaps.” Remember that your readers don’t have all your knowledge about the story, and they need to be able to experience what is going on. You can provide that experience through descriptions of action, setting, and so on. Help your readers see, hear, smell, touch, taste and feel emotions through your words.

Sensory experiences for readers through your words: For example, it is important to “show” the readers the fight in the restaurant rather than briefly “tell” them about it. Are there smells of food burning as the chefs run to the dining room to watch the fight? What kind of sounds are there–people yelling and swearing, crashes as chairs are knocked over or dishes shattered? What does the room like with things flying through the air? As people are eating and the fight starts, do they choke on their food or spit it out as they jump and run? You use a lot of dialogue to develop your characters and their points of view, which is good, but you also need to develop the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory experiences with your words—in the same way you would use action, costumes, music, props, scenery, and so on in a film or theatre production to give your audience the background information they need to fully make sense of what is happening. This is particularly true in your novel which already has unusual cultural and language differences which some of your audience may not be familiar with.

Novel flow or television series episodes? In relation to the novel manuscript seeming a bit like a movie script in some ways, I also felt at various times that the novel is based on a variety of different stories you may have written (or heard from others) in the past and that you have tried to put together into one story. It sometimes seems like a television series with a series of episodes that feature the same main characters, but each has its own plot line and even different settings. While this works for some television (or even movie) series, when writing a novel it is important, if you are joining different stories together, to have ONE main point or problem for the entire story, and be able to make every sub-plot in the story relate to that key “main idea.”

Finding the central idea: You need a single solid foundational idea or point or problem, a key issue that needs to be resolved, a single big question to which everything in the story is related, and you need to be clear in your own mind what that central idea is. It is a good idea for a novelist to write down that main idea in one to two sentences before even starting to write the book. As you prepare to do some self-editing of your manuscript, ask yourself: What is the major question or problem this book will be based upon? What is the real point of the story, to which everything in the story is connected? If you do that before you carry on with your editing (and before starting to write any other novels), the story will hold together better, and there will be a better flow. It will also help you to know in what order to put the sub-stories into the big story, and how to relate them to each other.

You might also want to make yourself outline to follow. Outlines are flexible, but it is a really good idea to have a general idea of the flow of the whole story, a plot plan or road map, with all the sub-stories, before you start, if possible. I know you told me you been working on this for many years, and it has “evolved” and changed direction somewhat as time has passed, but it is important that in the end, your reader doesn’t “notice” that; it is important to have a “smooth flow” when it is finished.

Questions and Comments: What can novelists learn from watching theatre or film productions? At the same time, what differences are there, and how do those differences affect the way a novel is written? Some thoughts are listed above. What other thoughts can you add? Please list them in the comments. Thank you!

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