Want to Write a Novel? Learn to Write a Play, First.
A long time ago I remember reading in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (a wonderful memoir) that he had once written a play. He said it was awful. Long and sprawling. He shelved it, never to write a play again. At the time, I wondered if the reverse were true. Would a playwright be a bad novelist? I was a college freshman dabbling in both forms, poorly.
After graduation I continued to write two more uncompleted poor novels. Then many, many days and years later that still, small voice, that sometimes spoke to me from the back of my head, perked up to say, “Write a play.” Shortly thereafter I came across an ad for a playwriting teacher. I signed up.
This teacher, Susan Charlotte, was the most fantastic teacher I ever had and I studied with her for the next five years. As a result I won quite a few playwriting awards and had a respectable number of productions done around the country.
Playwriting is all about structure. Of all the literary arts I don’tt think there is one which suffers from more restrictions than playwriting. A playwright does not have endless pages in which to develop character and plot. The cost of the venue, the cost and the time of the people helping to put the play together and the audience’s patience won’t tolerate it. The most a modern playwright is generally allowed, if you’re not Tony Kushner, is two hours to say what you want to say. That amount of time is getting less and less. The 90 minute full-length play with no intermission has become popular. This means you can’t waste precious stage time languishing in pages and pages of description or lofty dialogue. Not if you want to be produced. You have to have a good handle on the structure of what you’re doing. I think the structure that playwrights follow could be equally useful to the novelist.
An Economy of Language
One of the things that excited me when I first turned seriously to novel writing was the great amount of space I had in front of me that I didn’t have on the stage. This additional space would afford me a chance to use language to describe. You need to describe the scenes in which a play takes place just like you do in a novel, especially in a modern theater that has little money for elaborate sets. You can even use beautiful language like you might in a novel, but in a play the language cannot simply be beautiful for it’s own sake; it must move the story along. In a play all description comes out of the mouths of the characters. There is no mysterious God-like “narrator” who knows everything and goes on and on as is the case in some novels. Characters on our modern stage would never make long monologues of description unless the playwright’s goal is to put the audience to sleep. To write for the stage you must learn an economy of language, to say more with less. The modern novel requires this also. Readers have many choices in how to spend their time. A novelist who indulges him or herself with an undisciplined, unpurposeful language will lose the reader in the same way a playwright who creates long unending speeches will lose his or her audience. This does not necessarily mean you have to write a short novel; it means that no matter what the length every word must count.
There’s no place in which it is more important for a playwright to succeed than in the area of dialogue. A play is all dialogue. But again you don’t have a lot of time. The dialogue must instantly begin to reveal character. It must also move the plot a long. In modern theater audiences won’t tolerate characters going on and on without that dialogue revealing something new. Is this any different from a novel? Most of us have read novels in which the characters blather on, while we wait, bored, hoping something will happen soon.
Something I rarely hear novelists speak of, but playwright always talk about is: What is the character’s objective? What do they want?
Every playwright seems to know (or should) that all characters must want something, otherwise, except for very minor characters who speak one line (non existent in today’s theater) they need to be cut. Since novelists have ever so much more space than playwrights they often people their books with characters who represent something but have no real want within the book. As a playwright we know that a character like that has no want has to be cut from the play. A producer is not going to pay an additional actor to play a character who doesn’t want anything. As a novelist YOU are the producer. You might ask yourself: Can I afford to keep a character in my novel who isn’t going after anything, who’s just hanging around, but not doing anything important. This type of character can deflate the energy from your story.
To determine your character’s objective you need to be able to state what the character wants in one sentence. This objective will be what drives the character throughout the book. You need to be able to state this one sentence objective for all your characters.
Just like in real life, characters meet with obstacles. This is what forms your plot. If your character can get whatever she wants with no struggle, no one will care. Readers like to identify with characters who struggle against obstacles. Whether they overcome or not will determine whether your story has a happy ending or a sad one.
Stakes are what give you the potential of writing a page-turner. And this is the area where I find most novels lacking. Donald Maas in Writing 21st Century Fiction talks using different terminology mentions objectives, but the structural element he really stresses if “stakes” only he talks about the importance of having microtension in every line of the work. Whether you are talking about micro tension or stakes you must ultimately ask: “If my character doesn’t get what he wants what will happen?” If your answer is something like he’ll lose the only woman he ever loved or the bad guys will kill him,” you’ve got high stakes. If, on the other hand, your answer is something like: “She’ll just get another job. or She didn’t really care about that dude, anyway,” you’re stakes are pretty low. If the reader has been watching your character pursue her want all along and she’s getting close to the show down and the reader knows and cares about what happens the reader is going to keep turning those pages. If the stakes are low, the reader is unlikely to keep reading. Why would the reader care about character who doesn’t care if the objective is achieved or not. It doesn’t really matter what the stakes are. If you’ve set up the story so that the reader believes this is something the character really wants the reader is likely to go along with you. You can as easily have high stakes in a romance novel, an adventure story or in literary fiction. The character has to want what they want very badly. It doesn’t have to be life and death or something out of a spy novel; it can be a quiet something. What is important is that the reader be aware that the character he’s has grown to love wants this something and will do just about anything to get it.
Every good play has scenes which end with a promise of things to come. The first act ends with a bigger promise of things to come. The promise is that a cliff hanger of something important that is going to happen next. Chapters of novels that end with a promise will keep a reader reading.
I once had a playwriting teacher, the late Milan Stit, the author of the Broadway and film hit, The Runner Stumbles, who told us that after the hero gets what she wants or clearly doesn’t you have twelve lines with which to end your play. I don’t think I ever met that strict guideline. But believe me I did count lines after the conclusion. In a novel you would have more than this, perhaps, one more short chapter. If you keep going on passed this you risk wearing your reader out and leaving him with a bad memory of your novel instead of the satisfied one he originally had.