Sunday, April 9, 2017

Middles: Keep Your Novel Moving

With a brother who writes screenplays and teaches script writing, it's no surprise that I sometimes include script writing advice on this blog.

Because my local SCBWI group is talking about "maddening middles" this month, let's consider what movies have to teach us about keeping readers turning the pages through the middle of our novels.

Consider each scene in your novel. How can you make it bigger, more dramatic?

“Imagine the worst thing that could happen, and force the issue,” says Don Hewitt, who co-wrote the English-language screenplay for the Japanese animated film Spirited Away with his wife Cindy.

My brother Doug stresses the effectiveness of “set pieces—the big, funny moment in a comedy, the big action scene in an action movie. The ‘wow’ moments that audiences remember later. Novelists can give readers those scenes they’ll remember when they put the book down.”

Yet even in big scenes, you must balance action and dialogue. Long action scenes can be dull without dialog or characterization. “When you look at the page, it shouldn’t be blocky with action,” says Paul Guay, who co-wrote screenplays for Liar, Liar, The Little Rascals and Heartbreakers.

Hewitt adds, “Try to be as economical as you can with the action, and as precise as you can. Break it up with specific dialogue to strengthen it.”

Don’t let dialog take over either. Any long conversation where nothing happens is going to be boring. David Steinberg, who wrote the screenplay for Slackers and co-wrote American Pie 2, says, “Movies are about people doing things, not about people talking about doing things.” Even in comedies, he says, dialogue must be relevant to the plot. “Dialogue is funny because of the situation, not because it’s inherently funny.” The same goes for novels, too.

So throughout your novel, make sure you have a mixture of action and dialogue. And make sure both move the story forward. If your character is alone during the scene, you can use his or her thoughts in place of dialogue.

Think Movie

Try thinking cinematically as you sketch out a scene. Imagine your book made into a movie. Will it be a bunch of talking heads, people sitting around in an ordinary setting having a conversation? Try putting your characters someplace interesting instead, and maybe even giving them something to do while they talk.

In the original version of Sweet Home Alabama, Doug set some dialogue scenes in the main character’s parents’ trailer. But during filming, the scenes were shot at a Civil War re-enactment, which added Southern flavor to the movie. Apply this approach to your novel. “In a novel, you can get away with just people talking,” Doug says. “But give people something more interesting to do while talking than just drinking coffee. It makes the scene more alive.”

Here’s an example from my middle grade novel, The Eyes of Pharaoh. Reya, a 16-year-old soldier, warned his friends Seshta and Horus that Egypt is in danger from foreign nomads. He promised to tell the more at their next meeting. Seshta has been waiting anxiously:

At last Seshta reached the dock. Horus sat on the end of it, trailing a fishing line in the water.

Seshta trotted across the wooden boards. “Where’s Reya?”

“I’m glad to see you, too. Reya’s not here yet.”

“Oh.” Seshta flopped onto her back and stared at the sky. A hawk soared in lazy circles overhead. Seshta remembered her dream, and her ba fluttered in her chest. She rolled over and stared at the river.

Horus watched his fishing line, seeming content to sit there forever. Downstream, laundrymen sang as they worked at the river’s edge. Two men washed clothes in large tubs, their shaved heads glistening and their loincloths drenched. Two others beat clothes clean on stones, and one spread the garments out to dry.

Seshta sighed. “What do you think of his story yesterday? His big secret?”

“Probably just showing off to impress you. But with Reya, you never know.”

“Well, we’ll find out when he gets here. He’s not putting me off today!”

Horus glanced at her and smiled. “No.”

“I wish he’d hurry.” She slapped out a rhythm on the dock. “This is boring.”

“He’ll be here when he gets here. You can’t change time.”

Seshta sighed. Once she knew Reya was safe, she could curse him for distracting her and get back to more important matters. She needed to concentrate on dancing, not waste her time worrying about strange foreigners.

Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.

But Reya never came.

This is a slow scene by its nature, because they’re waiting for something that doesn’t happen. But the unusual setting makes it more interesting. Hopefully you can see the scene, and you get a feeling for the characters’ different personalities by the way they behave in that situation. We get character, setting, and plot all together.

Visit Doug’s fabulous scriptwriting blog, Let’s SchmoozeDoug's books, The Three Stages of Screenwriting and The Hollywood Pitching Bible, have great advice for novelists as well. Learn more or link to retailers at Screenmaster Books.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of having a conversation at a Civil War enactment - very cool. Adding an interesting backdrop can add interest and flair, to the story, to the dialog.