Maybe novels should be written like movies.

If you spend a hundred pages getting your reader to a picnic, something big better happen quick and early.
If you spend a hundred pages getting your reader to a picnic, something big better happen quick and early.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE AN EXCEPTION to the rule. There are exceptions to every rule. But, more and more, I am beginning to believe that the day of the great literary epic lies abandoned somewhere in the distant past, buried in the past century, and it may not be seen again for years.

There was a time when people read for the sheer pleasure and luxury of immersing themselves in great writing. Quite frankly, it took forever for something to happen. The story simply rocked along without a plot. Not yet anyway.

And readers didn’t really mind. They were patient and had come along for a long ride. Look at Gone With The Wind, for example. It took Margaret Mitchell the first hundred pages for everyone to simply get to the picnic. And once they arrived, not a lot happened.

In this new digital era of publishing and storytelling, here’s what an author has to do somewhere in the first ten pages:

  1. Everybody goes to the picnic.
  2. Somebody shows up with a gun.
  3. A marriage falls apart.
  4. Someone falls in love.
  5. Someone falls in love with the wrong man or woman.
  6. That’s why the marriage fell apart.
  7. The gun fires.
  8. Someone screams.
  9. Someone dies.
  10. Someone flees in the dark.
  11. The dead man is a stranger.
  12. He had no business at the picnic.
  13. He has one business card in his pocket.
  14. Someone reads the name on the card.
  15. It belongs to the man who hosted the picnic.
  16. Everyone looks around.
  17. The host is missing.

And now the preliminaries are out of the way, and the action can really begin.

Authors can’t back into stories anymore. They have to jump into the middle of the first paragraph with both guns blazing, figuratively speaking. If it takes readers a hundred pages to get to the picnic, they change their minds about page twenty-two and go somewhere else.

It doesn’t matter about the genre: mystery, thriller, romance, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. The stories must open with a bang, then keep a reader’s imagination running hard for the next 50,000 to 60,000 words. There’s no reason to write long when readers want to read short, so give them what they want: shorter books and more books.

It strikes me that novels these days should be written like screenplays. Set the scene with a couple of paragraphs. If the scene begins at an old house, you don’t need to spend a half dozen pages describing the history of the dwelling and each of its rooms.

Simply write: The house may have been grand when it was built three years after the Civil War ended. But time and weather had taken its toll, and now the old structure was rotting and as gray as the sky overhead.

What else is there to say?

The reader sees it.

He’s got the picture.

Move on.

Jump into the dialogue as quickly as you can.

Let the characters tell the story.

Everybody likes to read dialogue.

It moves fast.

It moves quick.

The end is always in sight.

And don’t forget the merits of inner dialogue.

Understand their thoughts and you better understand the character.

And when you write about your characters, you don’t need to spend chapters going back in time to write long drawn-out backstories. Simply write something like: He hadn’t been sober for two consecutive days since his wife ran off with the hometown banker eight years ago. It had been on a July Fourth night. Everybody saw the fireworks. Nobody found the bodies.

What else is there to say?

Get out of the way.

Here comes the dialogue.

Several years ago, when I wrote the screenplay for a CBS mini-series on The Gambler, I meticulously wrote a lengthy narration for each scene.

The director told me: “You don’t have to describe each building in the town.”

“Why not?”

“Just write: Cut to street scene.”

“But what if the actors wants to know more?”

“Actors only want to know their lines. Actors don’t read narration. Actors read dialogue. Write too much narration in the script, and they’ll throw it away and look for a story with more dialogue.”

He was right.

It’s no different with readers.

For most, their minds are framed by what they see at the movies and on television. Their attention spans are short, their patience even shorter.

And that’s the challenge facing serious writers today. You are no longer permitted to write literary prose for page after page after page of narration. Now, perhaps, it’s more important to write a novel like a movie script.

Let’s see if you can capture and cage the same magic in a single paragraph. That’s what separates writers, the good from the bad. Readers will let you know which is which.

Secrets of the Dead is written much like a movie script, but with a lot of internal dialogue.

 

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  • You wrote The Gambler script? I am so impressed.

    I agree: the literary prose is eminently skippable for me when I read, so I don’t inflict it on those who may read Pride’s Children – a few quick sentences or sentence fragments, and they better be doing double and triple duty to establish mood and character, and be essential for the plot.

    That’s the aim – and the last revisions will include removing anything not absolutely required.

    Readers have huge databases in their heads: Main Street. A dusty Wild West town. Noon. We’re done.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I agree one hundred percent, Alicia.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    I believe that you can create a strong visual image without wearing readers out with a long, detailed narrative that is usually skipped over and never read anyway.

  • Darlene Jones

    Read “A Cup of Tea” by Amy Ephron. Not a word out of place. Sparse, but eloquent. Reading it is like watching a movie.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Darlene. I will. That’s my kind of writing.

  • Excellent points, Caleb! I think many authors see the big names get away with it and figure they can too. Not so. Jim Frey likes to call a writer’s original chapter one, the author clearing their throat. So true! Definitely sharing this on my FB page. Thanks, Caleb.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Sue. The little names have to work harder than the big names and write even better to ever get noticed.

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