Novelists learning from playwrights: scenes

In this three-part mini-series, we will look at what novelists can learn from scriptwriters, particularly playwrights. While the two are very different forms of storytelling, writers of books can certainly learn from their stage counterparts.

This time, we’re looking at scenes.

Playwrights, unlike screenwriters, often have to limit the settings of their stories because of the challenges of writing for the stage. That’s not to say it cannot be done, but taking the audience on an adventure around the world is going to present stage designers with a headache!

The audience is invited into one place and they stay there while the play is performed in front of them.

If there is a change in location, it is clearly signalled: lighting, set, props, etc. A change of scene, just like a change of chapter, is often easy to identify.

Novels and stories don’t have the same challenges when it comes to setting. The author can take the reader wherever they like. Readers can be taken to an almost unlimited number of places almost instantly.

But just because we can take our readers anywhere, should we?

Readers need to be immersed in your world and taken on a journey. Readers want to know where the action is taking place.

Chopping and changing the setting throughout a novel can be one of the greatest things about reading. Going backwards and forwards in time, across the world or even across the galaxy. But how should novelists handle this ability and what can they learn from playwrights?

A stage design sets up a setting. We don’t need every detail just enough and the audience can fill in the blanks. Likewise, in novels, we don’t need too much description. Readers have imaginations and can fill in many of the blanks themselves.

Keeping transitions clear is also important.

Too many locations changes within a chapter are disorientating for the reader. How did they get there? How long did it take? What happened in the meantime?

Keep your chapters tight. Only visit one, maybe two, settings.

Focussed chapters are more engaging chapters. Without the rambling and travelling, you can focus on your characters and the action that is driving the plot. Transitions require description and, unless it is vital to the plot, a car ride to the bar or back home again isn’t forwarding the plot.

Having a limited number of settings is going to reduce the number of accidental plot holes, too.

  • What was the shop called where Jack and Elliot had their first kiss?
  • Which bar did Carol and Sue meet in?
  • Is the cute barista in Starchucks or Rosta?

This focus and tight storytelling can happen, whether your story is set on Earth or in deep space! There might be a whole galaxy out there, but do we, as readers, need to visit every planet? Where is the action going to happen? Let the action happen there.

Next time, we’ll look at how pacing in plays can teach us about pacing our novels.

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