Hmmm. I see that my "here's how I wrote my wonderful novel none of you have read yet" post didn't exactly set records for commentary. How is this possible? Is it because I left out What I Was Wearing While I Wrote My Novel, or Things I Saw in My Navel While Thinking about My Novel, etc.? I'm perplexed.
Nonetheless I forge ahead, leaving the issue of "how much to outline" behind and dutifully answering a second question re: screenwriters writing novels. Reader Blake had found that he was unable to turn off his "Screenplay Mind" and go with his "Novel Mind" while working on his novel, and asked "do you switch back and forth from screenplay approach to novel?"
ell, what is "Screenplay Mind?" Screenwriters are known to be problem-solvers. One speaks of the screenplay as a blueprint, the plan for a cinematic building not yet erected, and on a pragmatic level the screenwriter's primary job is to create a structure that will hold. Put whatever curlicues on the window dressings you desire (see "the director's vision"), but that midpoint had damn well better prop up the middle of the story, or the whole thing crumbles. Screenplay Mind focuses on plot and structure above all else.
Novelists, on the other hand, are generally more often thought of as storytellers. Because the novel has the unique ability to present a story from within the consciousness of its narrator and/or characters -- articulating the inner life of human beings, presenting their points of view in vivid detail is its strong suit -- the "how" of how a story is spun by the author's voice, the narrator's style: this is what does a lot of the work in creating the seemingly seamless "uninterrupted dream" that is a successful novel's achievement. Novel Mind focuses on the inner life of characters, and the themes that arise from the conflict between inner and outer worlds.
Disregarding for the moment the fragmentation that comes with home viewing, movies are meant to be seen in real time. Thus, like sharks that have to keep moving through water to keep breathing, screenplays have to maintain tension and momentum to keep those butts in their seats. As screenwriter Callie Khouri once said, "If you have information on the screen that doesn't move the story forward, you are taking moments away from people's lives."
Because novels are generally meant to be picked up and put down, as opposed to read in one marathon sitting, novelists have the leisure not afforded to screenwriters. But this is also, I believe, a liability. A novelist can use voice, vision, character detail, theme, metaphor, et al, to tapdance all over and around a gaping plot hole -- they can get away with it, in ways a screenwriter cannot.
pplying Screenplay Mind to a novel keeps the novelist honest -- in the sense that it keeps asking "is this [passage, scene, sequence] essential to moving the story forward?" And, if the novel is character-driven (as the best tend to be), the Screenwriter asks the Novelist: "is this essential to revealing character?" By essential, I mean: if I held a gun to your head, would you still insist that this bit absolutely had to be there?
But here's the thing, in terms of process: I firmly believe that these questions cannot be asked until a first draft is completed.
When I started my first draft, using only the barest of skeletal outlines, full of gaping plot-holes and unanswered character questions, I went full-force with Novel Mind; everything I wanted to write into the manuscript, I wrote. Afterwards, once I had a complete first draft of my novel, I outlined what I had written. When I had a beat sheet that reported and listed every scene in the first draft, then and only then, did I invite Screenplay Mind into the room.
uring the entire time (roughly three and a half years to write the draft I deemed good enough to show) that I worked on all subsequent drafts, I referred back to this (now constantly changing) outline that resulted from the process explicated above. I made sure that every beat was actually moving my story forward (or was essential to revealing character). I became fairly ruthless about this, killing many a darling along the way, because my screenwriting years had inculcated that basic fear in me -- the fear of losing the thread, and thus the audience.
Did this hurt the novel? Somehow rob it of lyrical freedom? Not if you ask my book editor, who's currently putting me through the wringer with a fat set of revision notes. No, as irony (or poetic justice) has it, my editor is making me kill even more babies; she's diabolically adept at ferreting out the passages, long treasured by me and my ego, where I've slowed the narrative down with some indulgent, over-written prose.
onversely, after reading some 5,984 screenplays as a professional reader, I'm convinced that the over-emphasis on plot and structure in most screenwriting texts and courses does great harm to screenwriters, by putting the cart before the horse. Because a detailed outline that supposedly solves every plot problem before one even begins a first draft effectively kills the process of discovery in a project.
Thousands of those scripts I read are lifeless -- because the writers didn't take the time to write it wrong, write it long, take risks, go hog-wild. They were too busy figuring out how to get the perfect first act pinch to land on page 25.
hat's why I encourage writing students to write "outside the draft" -- write scenes that came before the story proper begins, write an inner monologue for a protagonist that will never be shot, imagine the future for a character beyond the ending of the movie. It's the same principle. Honor the process over the product, instead of worriedly racing through the draft to keep up your daily page count, and you'll find things out.
This is what novelists do. Philip Roth famously admitted in an interview that he'd written about 150 pages of a novel before he realized what the novel was supposed to be about. He trashed that 150 pages of work and started over anew. But because his Novel Mind still retained the discoveries he'd made while "doing it wrong," it informed all of the new material he then created... which subsequently won a Pulitzer.
Apply the Screenplay Mind to your manuscript after your Novel Mind has exhaustively worked through a complete first draft, and I think you'll get the best of both worlds.