Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Novels Don't Have Scenes

Novelists aren’t writing a screenplay. Perhaps we have overlooked some of the subtleties of that statement. I’ve read a few books on writing screenplays and the storyboard is king. I’ve tried storyboarding a novel and while it works to some extent, I have found it easier to use mind mapping software to generate an outline. However, if I were to write a screenplay, I could see myself going the other way. I might use the mind mapping software, but I might then want to move it over to a storyboard. While a story is a story is a story, we must conclude that there are some differences in novel writing from writing screenplays.

We talk about scenes in novels, but I think this may be the heart of the differences between a novel and a screenplay. In a screenplay, you have to have a scene. The scene defines who the players will be, the shooting location, the lighting requirements and a number of other things. There are some tricks in filmmaking that may require more than one location for a scene, but as writers, we tend to think of it in terms of one location with a limited cast of characters. If we don’t, the producer is likely to complain and we’ll be rewriting it to reduce cost. What it amounts to, is that that card on the storyboard is the smallest unit we can break our story into.

In novel writing, we don’t really have scenes. Conceptually, we aren’t thinking in terms of where the camera will have to be and the cost of trucking equipment around. We can tell the reader about an object hidden in a character’s pocket and the camera doesn’t have to see it. In like manner, we can jump to a single paragraph flashback that reveals information important to the story and we don’t have to write it as a separate scene.

The true difference is in how we are able to think about the story. In screenplays, something happens in one location, then something happens in another location, then we might go back to the first location in the story. In novel writing, the whole world is open to us. A character can get out of bed, we can follow him as he eats breakfast, he can leave the house and walk down the street, he can arrive at work, spend the whole day going from meeting to meeting, return home and go to bed without us ever needing to insert a firm scene break. So while we may talk in terms of scenes, what we really want to accomplish is to wrap our reader in the world of our novel. The only firm breaks we should ever be concerned with are those when we must change jump to a different storyline or skip over some amount of time. Otherwise, it is fine to do a smooth transition from one location to the next or from one set of characters to the next, if that’s what we want to do.

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