Plot diversions (or novelists indulgently going off on needless sub-plots just to make their novel longer) are a pet peeve of mine.
As many of you know, screenwriting has a rule of thumb whereby one page is equivalent to one minute of screen time. So every script has to be 90 – 120 pages (one and a half to two hours – it’s all about popcorn breaks in film-land). This is a great training ground for all novelists I believe, as to write screenplays well you have to strip all indulgence out of your prose (stage / screen direction) and stick to the spine of the story. This combined with the need to enter each scene as late as you can, and exit as quickly as you can, helps make a screenplay sing.
Overwriting is a mistake so many novelist make (something that is, if anything, more true of experienced novelists than of newbies). Just because a writer can indulge in a dozen sub-plots in a novel, doesn’t mean they SHOULD. Or that the story will be better because of it. A longer book is not necessarily a better book, no matter how ‘impressive’ it may look on a bookshelf in your house once it’s finished. In fact in my opinion, the opposite is usually true of most books. Give me an 80,000 word novel that has me turning pages at breakneck speed, than a 140,000 word novel that has me skimming pages to get back to main plot that made me buy the book in the first place.
If great prose can perhaps be described as ‘The ability to cause the maximum emotional response in the reader in the minimum words’, then sticking to the spine of the story when writing a novel is the key to help the writer attain that. A writer should ask themselves: if this book was a film, how long would my lead actor / actress be ‘off screen’ before the audience gets bored and fast forwards? Stick to the spine of the story is my two cents on the subject, and remember the ‘ribs’ are there to support the spine, not the other way around.
Also, coming into scenes (chapters) late and leaving early is the ideal way to keep the pacing of a novel up, so trim the fat at both ends for best results and serve at room temperature. 🙂
Brian M Logan