Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
You may have heard a novelist compared to a director; he’s the guy in charge of a novel’s production in the same way a movie director is in charge of creating a movie.
The analogy is good, but it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, the novelist has the big picture in mind and yes, he works the small details in order to make that big picture come about. But the novelist is responsible for everything in his story. He is the entire production crew.
He is obviously the script writer, the one who comes up with the plot. He’s the director, putting actors (characters) in settings and coaxing the best performance from those actors. But the novelist is responsible for much, much more. As the creation of a movie requires many specialists, so does the writing of a novel. Only, the novelist has to be all the specialists. He alone is responsible for putting his story together the way the movie’s production team does.
And if he doesn’t do something, that something doesn’t get done.
So what fields does the novelist need to be an expert in? What duties does each position demand of the writer?
Some of these positions require pre-production work, activities to be completed before the actual writing begins. Some come to the fore during the creative process, during the actual writing. Others come into play in the editing stage. (I’ve ignored some positions, such as special effects supervisors and camera operators whose duties don’t easily translate to jobs the novelist takes on.)
I’ve purposely kept the production crew’s duties fairly general and only highlighted what each position has in common with the novelist. I understand that members of a film crew are experienced and specialize in particular aspects of their craft.
Screen writers and novelists are the architects of the story. They choose the words that set story in motion. Screen writer is obviously the position with the most direct comparison to the novelist. Both kinds of writers, using only words, create people and places and worlds and events out of a spark of an idea. They create an entertaining fiction out of nothing, drawing on imagination and experience and their creative skills.
The casting director chooses the actors for their parts, decides who is the best fit for the story, who can convey the nuances the story demands. The novelist, like the casting director, must match people to story. Characters in novels need to be right, have the right fit. They must have chemistry with other characters. They have to be sufficient, in every manner, for the part they play.
Characters in novels have to fit the genre, the events, the era, and the tone. The novel is strongest when characters, especially the leads, strike sparks off each other.
The location scout picks the ideal locations for scenes. What fits the story? Where should scenes take place? Which locations should be revisited? How many locations are required—should the characters go to a different location for every scene or can more tension be built by restricting the story to only a few locations?
Which location would enhance the mood of a scene? Which advances plot and reveals character? Which location keeps the characters off balance? Which add contrast to what has come before and what will follow?
The director is responsible for the overall vision of the story. He decides big-picture issues and determines which specific details will make the big picture match the vision he sees in his head. He directs the actors, suggesting different styles of line delivery to see what works best for scene and story. He matches character to scene, deciding who to include, who to exclude, and who gets the focus of the scene.
He decides on the views and angles of shots—which is better in each scene, something up close or distant? He decides whose eyes the story is told through (viewpoint character), choosing the character the audience/reader will identify with.
The novelist does these very same things. He is always aware of the big picture and the fine details, knowing how each affects the other. He directs his characters, deciding how they say their lines and how they move through their set while they speak. He always keeps in mind how his choices will affect both the larger picture and the experience for his readers.
The role of the script supervisor is very important. He handles continuity and prevents continuity errors. He ensures that scenes flow logically. He checks to see if what happens in one scene negates what happens in another. He verifies that props and characters are consistent across scenes.
The writer who ignores continuity may find characters in scenes where they couldn’t possibly be or clues that lead nowhere or vital props in the wrong hands at a critical moment.
Continuity errors instantly pull readers out of the fiction.
The production manager keeps the project on schedule and moving. He keeps everyone on track, reminding them they’ve got a schedule and a budget and other jobs to do after this one is done. He is the taskmaster.
The production manager keeps the writer on task when he’d rather be starting a new project or going fishing or playing with the kids or stripping and waxing the floors—anything other than writing and working through problem scenes.
For the novelist, the production manager may be his sense of discipline or his need to finish a book so he can be paid. It’s whatever he uses to keep him at his computer, working on the novel.
The actor brings his character to life, careful to do nothing that doesn’t fit with that character’s motivations. He uses gestures, words, and thoughts peculiar to the character’s personality. He chooses words and actions that deliberately rile other characters, that elevate conflict.
The novelist must keep his characters consistent according to their personalities and the events of the story. Characters can change and grow, but that growth must be a result of story events, not manufactured because the writer needs some character, any character, to do something. Readers are quick to notice characters who act out of character.
Set Designer/Set Decorator/Props Master
The writer as set designer might not have to be an architect by training or by degree, but he does need to imagine the spaces he’ll put his characters in. Are they tight, roomy, low-ceilinged, open to the outdoors? Are they foreign to the characters? Easy to navigate?
Are the rooms angled with shadowed corners or are there archways and soft lines? That is, what kinds of spaces does the novelist envision for his characters and scenes and events? Does he allow the reader to imagine everything or does he sketch in bare details or does he paint lavish and detailed pictures of each room, each building, each scene?
When the writer decorates his settings, what colors does he use for rooms and outdoor spaces? Which words does he use to describe them? How much description does he include?
Are rooms cluttered and stuffy or empty and echoing? What props are there to be handled—or ignored—by the characters? What is purposely not included in (absent from) the setting?
The novelist as costume designer needs to fit clothing and personal props to the character and genre and setting without over- or underwhelming either story or reader.
Too much detail may annoy. Too little may create confusion.
Each character will have a clothing style (as well as a grooming style), perhaps one that changes with time of day or activity. Personal props—glasses, jewelry, cell phones or other devices, hats, gloves, scarves, boots—can identify character, differentiate characters, and be used to advance the plot.
Clothing colors may be very important to some stories and unmentioned in others. But color can add to mood and to character personality.
Clothing and props should fit character and genre and era and plot.
Sound Designer and Sound Editor
Does the sound add to the overall tone that the writer wants? The writer as sound designer will ensure that readers can hear the story. How does a character sound? What does he hear? What sounds fill the lead character’s living and work spaces? The sound designer decides how sound should be used to enhance story, character, and emotion.
Are the scene locations noisy or quiet? How does sound add to tone and mood and character behavior? What goes on in the background?
As sound editor, the writer can go back into the story after the first draft is complete and add sounds to enhance the story. For our purposes, let’s have the sound editor check for the other sense elements as well. Has the writer included scent and touch and taste for the characters? For the readers?
Director of Photography
The director of photography is responsible for the lighting and framing of scenes. For novelist as director of photography, this means creating the tone of a scene. Is it heavy? Light and loose and airy? Is it somber? Humorous?
For framing, the writer considers what to focus on in a scene. And just as important, he chooses what to keep out of a scene. If a character or detail distracts from the purpose of a scene, he, she, or it doesn’t belong.
First Assistant Camera
The first assistant camera keeps the camera in focus. This is a vital task for the writer working on a novel. Otherwise, the story could be all over the place, dropping the lead character into events that mean nothing to the story or allowing a sub-plot to go on for too long. Without focus, the writer might add too many scenes, too many characters, too many sub-plots, too many events.
The film editor puts together the raw footage. For a novel, this means connecting threads and cutting scenes short. It means arranging scenes in an order more fitting to the story, an order that increases tension and conflict and makes for a stronger payoff. The writer might discover in the editing phase symbolism or a plot thread that needs to be exploited. He can then go back through the manuscript, looking for ways to add those threads or symbols, or highlight those already there. He may also cut threads, cut scenes, and cut characters.
Many an actor has complained about being edited out of a movie. But if it makes for better story . . . cut the character. Cut the scene. Cut the words.
Writers don’t want diluted stories. They want potent ones.
The novelist edits to change pace and tension, to introduce humor, to sharpen, to strengthen. To hone.
In this editing stage, the writer chooses what to keep in and what to cut out. As any director knows, not everything shot makes it into the movie. A writer needs to discover that same fact—not everything written in the first draft should remain in the final draft. Perfecting, making a good story, requires just as much skill with rewriting and rearranging as in drafting the original story.
Polishing and beauty and strength come in the rewriting stage.
The novelist, in creating his production, must perform simple tasks as well as the more involved ones.
He must check facts—what years did television shows offer live commercials? What is the number of people who’ve been to space? How long can average people survive under water?
He must produce an entertaining story with engaging characters and a satisfying ending. He must be aware of his readers and strive to hold their attention while rousing their emotions.
This comparison between novelist and movie crew is imperfect, but it does give an idea of the wide range of details the writer must consider for his novels.
Can his choices be lean in one area? Of course. Not all writers paint lavish and detailed descriptions for every scene and every character. Sometimes spare and sparse is a great style choice for story. And it may reflect the writer’s sensibilities and interests or the genre.
But writers should at least consider the options, know what they can introduce into story to develop a full picture.
The next time someone likens a novelist to a movie director, remember that the writer’s job is much more complex. He is director of his own story. But he also performs every other task necessary to bring the novel to completion, to craft an entertaining product.
And if the novelist doesn’t conclude a task, if he forgets it or ignores it, it doesn’t get done.
And his novel suffers for his lapse.