I’ve been reading a lot of screen-writing manuals (as research for a novel, not because I want to write screenplays). And it’s been pretty fascinating. The nice thing about screenplay books is that they’re incredibly prescriptive. One of the most popular ones–Save The Cat–says that your second act turning point MUST occur on page 25. Not on page 23, or on page 27…page 25 is where it’s got to be.
If I was actually trying to write screenplays, I imagine I’d find it infuriating. But since I’m a novelist, I think it’s actually a bit nice to have a book that’s unafraid to give real advice. Most writing manuals are a bit froofy and guarded. There are too many examples of famous and beloved novels that contain some really bizarre decisions. For instance, what is up with Wuthering Heights? Why is it told as a weird story-within-a-story? And why does it leap forward, halfway through, and begin talking about the children of the protagonists’ in the first half?
So novel manuals are afraid to say anything definite. But that means they just don’t say anything at all. You come away from them thinking that the way to write a novel is to just read a lot of novels and then write a novel. Which is fine. It’s even true. But you don’t need a book to tell you that.
One interesting thing that I learned (from Save The Cat) was this distinction between scenes and sequences. The author, Blake Snyder, describes a sequence as a part of the movie where the dialogue is intercut with a lot of action (an action sequence, a sex scene, a negotiation, the operation of equipment, driving a car, etc.)
I thought about this when revising my novel Enter Title Here. In This Beautiful Fever, there are maybe two parts that I think of as being really locked-in: places where everything falls away and I feel really gripped by the narrative. And they both have what I’d call a sequencey feeling to them: there’s an interplay of action and dialogue and internal monologue that works really well. When writing them, I thought of them as setpieces and I used them to anchor what I thought of as the “acts” of the novel.
In Enter Title Here, I feel as if these sequences are more common, but still limited in number. There are maybe six or seven of them.
It’s tempting to say that novels need to have both scene and sequence, but I’m not sure that’s true. There are definitely novels that are all sequence. For instance, Emile Zola’s Nana has roughly eighteen chapters and each of them is basically this fantastic ten thousand word setpiece. In one of them, she’s performing a play. In another, she’s spending all of some dude’s money. Etc. Etc.
Grapes of Wrath* is also much more sequence than scene. Not only is it intercut with these fast-moving impressionistic chapters that are a bit orthogonal to the main plot, even the main plot often has a lot going on (I’m thinking of, for instance, the strike, or the Joads’ midnight drive across the desert).
I would say that Mrs. Dalloway is also mostly sequence. There’s never a moment at which people aren’t somehow in motion.
It’s also tempting to say that sequence is better than scene. I think there is something to that. Sequence certainly engages the interest in a certain kind of way. But plenty of novels work very well without it. Evelyn Waugh’s comic novels don’t really contain any sections that aren’t just two people conversing. I’d also that Jane Austen is much, much more dialogue than action. Even when people are strolling and talking, the environment never really impinges on their perception.
*Speaking of Grapes of Wrath, the other day I was thinking about Ma Joad lying on the floor of the truck during their ride across the desert and I got chills. Oh man, I’m getting chills right now, just writing about it! That book is really, really awesome. I was also thinking that there is some alternate reality where Grapes of Wrath is indisputably the greatest American novel: the alternate reality in which the Steinbeck’s socialist revolution actually came to pass. There’s such an element of prophecy to the book. When it closes, you can feel that something has to change: that there’s no way this rotting system can totter on for even another five years. But, unfortunately, it did. It tottered on right into the modern day. So Grapes of Wrath has to content itself with just being a wonderful novel, rather than a piece of our history.