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Let’s just apply, for a moment (and for the hell of it) some screenplay wisdom, to novels.

A scene in a screenplay exists for one of two reasons: a) to propel the narrative, and b) to reveal character. With the great scenes doing both. Let’s go further by defining a ‘scene’ as a moment in time and space. In other words, if the scene is two guys catching up for the first time for 20 years since college, and they’re sitting in a diner back in the town where they grew up (for example). That’s a single SCENE. If they leave the diner and drive off to a local watering hole, it’s a new scene because the LOCATION has changed. If they ‘flashback’ mid-scene so we (the audience) are transported to them sitting in the same seats in the same diner, back when they were 17, it’s a new scene because the TIME has changed.

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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

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Good article by TERRENCE RAFFERTY from the always excellent, NY Times.



When the strange, arresting, thoroughly frightening novel called “Frankenstein” was published in London on New Year’s Day, 1818, there was no author named on the title page, and readers and reviewers, almost to a person, assumed the book had been written by a man. They were mistaken. The creator of “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus” was Mary Shelley, who was the daughter of the radical political thinker William Godwin (to whom it was dedicated) and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — and who, when she finished the novel, a few months shy of her 20th birthday, became the mother of horror.


Brian M Logan

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