Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What You Can Do In A Novel That You Can't Do In A Movie

Novels, especially long ones, can draw a reader into complexities, depths, abstractions, theory of life, the universe, and everything -- with a variegated texture impossible to duplicate in a motion picture. Novels can argue for and against several propositions at the same time. Films -- because of the nature of how the human brain assimilates information -- simply can't do that.

In addition, today's viewers are conditioned to bits that can be sandwiched between commercials. Many young people who do not read printed text at all prefer to spend their entertainment hours watching short videos on YouTube or comic/animation websites, stories broken into webisodes.

At theaters, the management offers popcorn refills you can go get in the middle of the movie.

People can't sit still for more than an hour these days. And most 20-somethings are so conditioned to the 40 minute class or TV show that they see nothing wrong with their disability. They think it's normal to be unable to sit still for three hours. They think it an unusual imposition, an irrational demand, to pay attention to one thing and one thing only for three hours. (hence many workplaces now allow texting and surfing while at the work-desk)

And the same is true of reading novels. Though some fantasy genres are able to sell very thick novels (about 600 printed pages), most books have become shorter. And if they're not shorter, they are more "thinly" plotted, structured like movies.

People live their lives and imbibe their fiction in sound-bytes and 5-minute YouTube videos. To understand, comprehend, and grok a really complex theme, the reader must be able to remember what happened on page 20 by the time they get to page 620. Modern life does not foster this ability.

Books on how to write novels don't even explain how to construct a long, long novel that isn't over-written, fat, wandering, shapeless and boring with a sag in the middle.

So I was delighted when a student writer asked me (and then reminded me) to explain the structure of very long novels, with emphasis on how to structure a novel for 3 viewpoint characters, even if they're all protagonists.

It's really very simple to do, but infernally difficult to explain.

In order to understand how to craft such a long novel that doesn't sag in the middle or peter out at the end, you have to have a firm grasp of the basics of structure that I've discussed previously.

Protagonist, antagonist, conflict, beginning, middle, end, and THEME.

And the most important structural component in a long piece is THEME.

A short story (under 7,500 words) can have one theme, and only ONE. It must be something very clear, starkly simple, mostly concrete -- something you can say in 3 to 10 words. "Life is Just A Bowl Of Cherries" -- "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" -- a bumper sticker.

A novelette (to 17,500 words) can have a DOMINANT THEME and 1 SUB-THEME (and only one).

A novella (17,500 to 40,000) can have a DOMINANT THEME and 2 SUB-THEMES (only 2).

A NOVEL (40,000 words and up) (up to any length) can (but doesn't have to have) a DOMINANT THEME and UP TO 3 SUB-THEMES and no more than 3.

I did not make this up. I learned it in the Famous Writer's Course (a correspondence course on how to write fiction which I completed in the 1970's).

I've been a professional reviewer since the 1980's and a paid reviewer for The Monthly Aspectarian since 1993. I've read a lot of books in addition to the books I read just because I want to. I have NEVER seen this above paradigm of thematic relationships successfully violated.

If you want to see how it works in practice, read the early draft of my Sime~Gen Novel, UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER which is titled SIME SURGEON and posted for free reading at
http://www.simegen.com/sgfandom/rimonslibrary/surgeon/SURGEON1.html Then read UNTO ZEOR, FOREVER (which had a HC edition and a paperback edition so you might find a copy somewhere).

The difference is the thematic structure paradigm strictly enforced, rigidly applied -- because my editor at Doubleday insisted or no publication. Her favorite mantra "It isn't clear" -- comes from how she searches for that thematic structure and the inner relationships between the sub-themes. But she, like most writers, does that subconsciously.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was a seat-of-the-pants writer who let her subconscious work out of conscious sight. Don't ask a centipede how it walks! If you don't naturally think in terms of THEME on first draft, don't try to "learn" how.

It is not a thing that can be learned. However, if you do work thematically naturally, but are untrained in how to do it -- you can learn to perfect your performance. (Remember: Writing Is A Performing Art).

It doesn't matter how you get to the final, finished product -- only that you do get there. So if you must write a very long novel and don't work with theme in your outline stage -- you will just have to rewrite.

A 2 hour movie uses up the material that would fit somewhere between a short story and a novelette. At the very most about 20,000 words of narrative text makes a 110 page film script.

A long running TV series like the 20 years of GUNSMOKE would be a series of novels. A miniseries like THE WHEELERS, can be a series of big fat novels shrunk to the small screen.

So if you're structuring a novel that you hope one day will become a motion picture, try to stay with one, single, monotone, theme.

If you can't construct a novel that will come out to about 40,000 to 80,000 words with one single dominant and clear theme -- then you really won't be able to do the longer forms.

If you attempt the longer form without the primary skills, you will end up with furious, emergency rewrites to order from an editor who has no idea what you really meant -- because you didn't make it clear.

If you write using THEME to structure your work, you will be able (with practice) to write and sell a second or at most 3rd draft of a 160,000 word novel.

If your subconscious is well trained in doing this thematic work, you may be able to do that without actually knowing that you're doing it. Then only minor rewriting will be necessary.

Whether you do it consciously or unconsciously, your finished product must fit this paradigm in order to succeed as a story. If it doesn't fit -- you might sell it; you might get it through editorial with minor hassles; you might even excite a lot of readers. But you won't find your novel still on the shelves years later, and you won't have a drawer full of respectable reviews that you are proud of.

In order for bloggers to talk about your book -- they need to have an idea of what your book says. And what your book says is your THEME.

If you can't find the themes of the novels you read, you need to practice until you can. Some people learn by example, so here's an example from my blog last week.

Michelle West's THE HIDDEN CITY -- is a tour de force of thematic clarity and complexity.

As should be the case, the title is the theme. This novel is about the hiddenness of entire communities.

The novel follows two points of view until well into the story where the universe has been clearly laid out -- then bits of other points of view are woven cleanly into the text.

There are 2 major point of view characters, protagonists both. But they have a conflict between them -- that resides HIDDEN within each. Their relationship gradually reveals what is hidden inside them as they gather other people about themselves -- each of which has something hidden inside that they must learn about. The reader learns what is hidden, and some of it is revealed to the character who is hiding it -- but not to the other character.

These are not "secrets" -- these are things that exist but the character is not aware of their own subconscious issues until events and relationships reveal them later in the book. They can then become "secrets" -- a thing which is known but deliberately withheld.

The setting is a city built over the remains of an ancient ruin -- which only the protagonists know how to enter. Below their normal reality lies a HIDDEN CITY.

So the physical setting explicates the psychological theme.

Then the antagonists as they are introduced through offstage action (hidden from view at first) turn out to be something very different from what they appear to be on the surface.

When the protags and antags finally come to a gigantic confrontation, much is revealed -- only to lead to more questions about what may yet be hidden from view.

One point of view character is a magic-user -- and the "hidden" and also "secret" nature of magical power is thematically discussed through her.

So the setting is HIDDEN, the characters have inner traits hidden from themselves, they hide things from each other, and the final action is triggered by lessons in impersonating those above or beneath your station in life and thus finding things within yourself that have been hidden from your consciousness.

Everything in the novel relates to that theme of HIDDEN.

HIDDEN is the DOMINANT THEME and it pervades everything in the novel, every description (even the various places they live).

There are 3 sub-themes. A sub-theme is another statement about the broader, more abstract or philosophical Dominant Theme.

The dominant theme DOMINATES the other 3. These are not 4 separate statements about the nature of reality. You can't find a set of 4 themes to write a novel about by randomly choosing philosophical statements from a book of quotations, your personal cardfile of story ideas, or just by picking a thought that occurs to you as "neat!"

These are an AXIOM and 3 POSTULATES derived from that axiom and proved by it. Think Boolean Algebra. Think Tetragrammaton. PROVED by it -- shown not told. Dramatized truths.

One of the sub-themes in THE HIDDEN CITY is virginity. One character is a sexual virgin and a virgin in the sense that she's never killed a human being. Another character is neither kind of virgin -- BUT is a virgin in the sense that she has never had a family that cared about her.

The process of losing virginity is the process of REVEALING the adult hidden within the child. It was there all the time; you just weren't aware of it.

Two of the characters are so traumatized that they don't speak aloud -- so they invent a secret language of gestures. That serves a vital plot point at the ending. Nothing that is established is there just to explicate the theme -- everything must figure in the plot or it gets cut. Ruthlessly cut. (save it for the website) This very long novel is actually sparsely written -- there is not one word that should be cut. There is no decoration. Nothing is there simply because it's interesting. Every word is functional.

One of the characters makes a living (and gets embroiled in all this trouble) by exhuming archaeological treasures from the city beneath the city, treasures the antagonists are after for magical reasons. Reasons of POWER.

They are all abandoned by family, bereft, orphans all in different ways. Alone, they forge bonds of family among themselves and become a community in search of safety in the shadows.

The Dominant Theme pervades, but each sub-theme illuminates or discusses the dominant theme.

So we have
a) virginity hides the adult
b) archeology reveals the past
c) languages conceal and reveal magical power

And it's all done in show don't tell.

That's why I spent all of last week's blog entry raving about this book. I had picked up and discarded 3 huge novels and was feeling as though nothing good was being published this month -- and then I found this and couldn't put it down.

If you can't tell what a book is about by the bottom of page 1, it is not going to be a good book. I know. I've read a lot of books, turning pages and hoping.

What the story is about is the THEME. In a film, you should know within 2 minutes what the film is about -- and by the 5th minute (page 5 of the script) the theme will be stated, even if obliquely.

The first theme you introduce in a novel and lay out in dramatized detail is your DOMINANT THEME. Don't touch the sub-themes until chapter 2 or even chapter 5. Make sure your dominant theme is clear before you start discussing it.

If a reader doesn't want to read a book about your dominant theme's philosophy, you don't WANT them paying money for your book because they'll only go on amazon and write a scathing review dissing your book! Don't sucker the reader. Respect the reader. Tell them what you're talking about right on page one (but not in so many words).

Take the first line of Marion Zimmer Bradley's first version THE SWORD OF ALDONES. We were outstripping the night. The whole novel is about running away from metaphorical "darkness" -- evil, power let loose, subconscious guilts for letting power loose. The key confrontation that turns Regis Hastur's hair white is at NIGHT.

Take the opening image from her runner up for the Hugo, THE HASTUR GIFT. The riding party crests a ridge and looks down on the valley of Thendara -- the Comyn Tower across the town from the Terranan Tower at the space port. The book's main conflict is Magic vs. Technology and the THEME is the far reaching consequences of the knowledge of both (i.e. LOOKING DOWN -- seeing the pattern from above). Those who know must lead, even where none follow.

So, how do you take an idea that's been throbbing in your mind for years and turn it into a large novel that has this structure?

First you practice writing the single 75,000 word novel until you can do it in your sleep -- protagonist, antagonist, conflict, beginning, middle, end, THEME.

The large novel with 3 protagonists is just 3 of these novels, and it's not quite 3 times as long because you don't have to repeat the background.

Each of the sub-themes is the story of ONE protagonist - antagonist pair.

And they are bound together by the dominant theme, which is the one thing you really want to say about "life, the universe, and everything" -- with this novel. Each protagonist's story explicates and illuminates that one dominant theme.

So you have a "Star" and 3 "Co-Stars" or Supporting Actors. The co-stars must have lives, backstories, personal quirks and "buttons," internal conflicts and enemies which show-don't-tell the arguments for and against the thesis that forms the Dominant Theme.

A long, complex novel is an argument about the topic -- showing all sides of the issue, from different points of view. And eventually, the writer must "end" the novel with a conclusion to the argument -- but with a long novel where all sides of the issue have been thoroughly illustrated and discussed, the ending can be equivocal from the reader's point of view -- but the characters must come to a conclusion they intend to live with. In a sequel, that conclusion can be blasted to pieces -- but for the reader to be satisfied with the novel, the main characters must find some kind of peace on the main issue.

Take Classic Star Trek. It's classic because it's structured exactly this way with a Dominant Theme "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and two prominent sub-themes "Logic demands curiosity" and "Emotional health demands security".

Kirk - "Follow me!" (into the unknown for the sheer fun of it)
Spock - "Unknown, Captain" (therefore something to be pursued, solved, discovered)
McCoy - "I don't want my molecules scrambled - " (exploration isn't worth the risk)

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are 3 protagonists. Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, etc are SUPPORTING characters.

Now "who" are Kirk, Spock and McCoy? I learned from Gene Roddenberry while interviewing him for Star Trek Lives! that he always saw Kirk, Spock and McCoy as 3 parts of himself.

In other words, the 3 added up to ONE PERSON -- one whole, fully dimensional person.

So how do you write a novel with 3 protagonists so that the 3 themes are all sub-themes of the same dominant theme?

You start with ONE character -- one fully dimensional, whole, complete personality. Then you factor that personality into 3 parts.

Roddenberry used to say that Kirk, Spock and McCoy were himself in different moods.

So try that. Take one character you fully understand and plunge him/her into different moods. Or give them different backgrounds, upbringing, advantages and disadvantages - the same basic person actualized and realized by different challenges. Or in different incarnations.

The trick here is to do the exact opposite of what a reader does.

The READER sees 3 different characters and plunges into the story to find out how they RELATE to each other -- how they are parts of a whole.

The WRITER does the opposite. The writer sees 1 single whole character and plunges into the story to discover how that character manifests as 2 or 3 people.

Remember the protagonist and antagonist are reflections of each other. They are bound together into conflict by a single theme.

So each of the 3 protagonists has a theme (sub-theme to the whole novel) and a personal antagonist bound in a conflict which must be resolved by the end of the novel.

The first conflict to be introduced must be the last conflict to be resolved. See Marion Zimmer Bradley's CATCH TRAP. I watched her struggle with that ending word by word, event by event. It taught me how that structure must go, and how to take an imagined story and craft it into the structure. It means changing things that to you, as a writer, are so real that you scream, "No, that's not the way it HAPPENED!" But that's what it takes to craft a great novel which is a work of art, a work of a Performing Art.

In a work of art, every single element is a "reflection" of other elements.

You take one whole thing and display it in different versions, different lighting, different moods, different circumstances. To "perform" a long novel, the one thing you take (your raw material, your clay or paint or sounds) is your Dominant Theme.

Theme works this way in music too. Study how musical chords are constructed. Long novels are constructed just exactly that way -- around a group of themes that are related philosophically like the notes in a chord played in a key.

Ever heard of "keynote" -- and by extension "keynote address?" Think of your long novel as a convention and your dominant theme as the keynote address. Or the typical ending of a speech, "On that note, let me present to you -- "

Themes get their unity by starting out as one thing -- and then being factored into a series of related things. Poetry works the same way as a long novel -- no matter how long or short the poem, all the parts are about that one single idea, concept, notion.

It is that underlying unity of theme -- the ultimate pervasiveness of the dominant theme -- that gives your built universe verisimilitude -- that makes it seem real, possible, plausible enough for people to walk into it with you.

And in a longer work, what keeps the reader picking the book up every night rather than watching TV, is the precise relationship between the Dominant Theme and the Sub-themes -- how they argue the point of whether the thematic statement is true or not -- how the sub-themes prove the point (not whether they prove the dominant theme's point, because they must prove it, but HOW it happens!).

That's where the kind of suspense comes from that lasts after the book is put down -- and a longer work has to be constructed to be put down. Everyone has to pee sometime!

The reader wants to know HOW these characters will come to understand the truth of the dominant theme, while being reassured that they will come to that understanding. If the characters don't come to understand it - the reader will be disappointed. Failing to produce that understanding is the writer's cop-out, not a surprising "twist."

Having stated your dominant theme at the opening, drawn a clear picture, then introduced the sub-themes to argue, challenge and ultimately illuminate and support the dominant theme, you must (at the resolution of the conflict; as near the climax as possible) make it clear that the characters finally understand that Grand Truth represented by the dominant theme.

And you're taking a big chance when you do this. Half the readership will disagree with your idea of Grand Truth, Transcendental Truth, Self-Evident Truth. And they won't want to read your book because it's drivel.

The trick is to make your drivel so crystal clear, your statement of the nature of reality so penetrating and powerful, that it will be fun for your detractors to read so they can argue against your point.

In order to get people arguing against your point, you must MAKE YOUR POINT -- clearly. And that means you must use this thematic structure.

Once you get them arguing, though, your name will be all over the bloggosphere and amazon won't be able to keep your novel in stock.

You have to goose people into arguing the truth which is your Dominant Theme's statement.

I've given you two examples, THE HIDDEN CITY and STAR TREK. OK, let's do an exercise because you have to practice this to get it. But as I said, it's really easy to do if you've learned all the previous techniques we've discussed and have explored enough different philosophies to have something to say.

So let's create a dominant theme and 3 sub-themes.

Try this one:


a) Deadlines
b) Decisions
c) Ceremony, Formality

Take that and create 3 or 4 characters to illustrate the arguments.

a) Deadlines -- the character is a college student whose HS teachers always gave him extensions when he missed the deadline for an assignment. Now he's editor of the college newspaper (brilliant guy - think Barak Obama with time-management issues). It doesn't come out on time. The students impeach him.

b) Decisions: The College Dean advisor to the Newspaper must decide what to do about this kid who doesn't beleive in deadlines but is a brilliant newspaper editor.

c) Graduation -- The Valedictorian who wins his/her position over the Newspaper Editor. Maybe this is the Student Body President -- or a Football Star. The Newspaper Editor doesn't get his diploma at the graduation but the character who understands formality and ceremony does - and lands a great job, too.

OK, that was a quick, off the cuff exercise. If I were really going to write this theme set, it wouldn't be a college campus story.

Here's what to do to teach yourself to do this.

1) do this much of an outline (a, b, c, above) for 5 different stories, different settings, that could be titled THE GAVEL FALLS. Extend a, b, and c to be complete thematic statements such as -- "deadlines are for dodos" -- "decisions should always be hedged, CYA" -- "Ceremony doesn't count" Use your own variants -- push your imagination to find off-the-wall statements about these subjects.

2) create 5 more theme-sets and run the same exercise for each of the 5.

You can quit as soon as it becomes so easy, it's boring.

The drill is the point here, not "learning" but "practice." The better you condition your subconscious to think in theme-sets like this, the easier it will be when you sit down to write a long novel. Your subconscious will do all this work for you before telling you that you have an idea for a long novel.

Just remember a long novel is not a movie. To make it into one, a screenwriter will choose one of the sub-themes, make it dominant, then change it to be a statement the chosen audience for the movie will either agree with or violently disagree with. This could become the inverse of your own personal philosophy of life. (note what happened to Ursula LeGuin when Earthsea was made into a TV miniseries). When the theme changes, the characters change characteristics.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg



  1. This is awesome, Jacqueline! I've been waiting all my life for this kind of instruction. Okay, actually just since I first created RESURRECTION.

    "It is not a thing that can be learned. However, if you do work thematically naturally, but are untrained in how to do it -- you can learn to perfect your performance. (Remember: Writing Is A Performing Art)." This is where I'm at right now. I seem to do all this naturally, but I'm untrained and, therefore, my performance is unpolished. But, now, thanks to you, I can start practicing.

  2. Thank you, Kimber an.

    I hope everyone does see the connection between working with themes and all my posts about philosophy and worldbuilding and the connection between those two.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. I thought this was a great post. However, I'm struggling to reconcile the idea that you can end equivocally for your readers with the idea that you must clearly make your point. I'm also struggling with your use of thesis-like language (i.e., make your point, argue for this, etc.) because I don't perceive the themes you gave--hidden, where no man has gone before, the gavel falls--to be theses. Can you help me understand you better in those areas?

  4. Joe:

    You don't need to struggle to reconcile these two concepts because they are not two concepts but the same thing.

    A non-fiction work has a thesis -- something it says, a proposition put forth and argued from both (or more) sides.

    A fiction work has a THEME -- something it says, a proposition about fundamental, intangible philosophy -- about the human condition -- which is put forth and argued from both (or more) sides.

    Thesis and Theme are really the same thing. It is what the author wants to say.

    When an artist creates a song, poem, drawing, mural, building, bridge -- whatever -- the artist is making a statement, communicating a vision brought back from the higher planes of insight, from dreams, the Inner Planes or wherever the artist's mind goes to "see" the universe.

    Writing fiction is a performing art. The artist "goes" to this inner wellspring to "see" and then tells you a story to illustrate what has been "seen."

    Any work of fiction is a "statement" the way a painting is a "statement."

    "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a theme -- a recurring pattern -- and a thesis about the human ability to apprehend The Unknown. About the adventurous attitude toward The Unknown.

    HIDDEN CITY presents a thesis about life -- the important part is hidden.

    The Gavel Falls -- is an image, a visual image, which carries connotations of finality or possibly beginnings. Or many other things -- it is an image which means many different things to many people. So it's a thesis that can be argued -- there are beginnings and endings. Some people believe life is circular without beginning or end.

    You argue these points from all points of view by understanding what your target audience thinks, feels, believes, wishes, wants.

    The three examples I chose were as sparse and open-ended as I could find because they are exercises. Each writer will take each theme to mean something other than what I pointed out.

    As here, what captures my imagination about Where No Man Has Gone Before may be boring to you. You might be thinking Here Be Dragons.

    The point I was making is that there is a certain set structure which always works -- and within that structure, you design and build a work of Art.

    You can't teach Art. Artists are born not made. But a born artist can't create Art without training.

    For a writer with huge stories to tell, immense points to make, this clue of the Dominant Theme, and 3 sub-themes DERIVED LOGICALLY FROM IT (according to the interior logic of the audience as well as the Author -- an interior logic which is a meeting-of-minds)is a key that can transform a ranting, raving, self-indulgent polemic into a Work Of Art.

    You can say the same thing -- just structure it according to the "grammar" of storytelling, and you will be able to communicate your vision, or at least ignite vision in your readers.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Thank you for elaborating on that. I've already bookmarked this post, so I can look at it again the next time I start a new novel project. :)

  6. Joe:

    Thank you. Be sure I get a review copy of that new novel incorporating this technique and remind me of this post.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg