Writing Tips From Fay Weldon

Novel, or screenplay?

Are you writing a novel, or is it more like a screenplay…?

I’ve been silent for some time on this blog; but then I’ve been doing what academics do at this time of year – marking. For me it’s creative writing from post-graduate students whose finals are looming. I’m perfectly happy doing the actual marking, for by the time students have got through to this stage they are – well – impressively creative, and efficient at what they do, and I am, for the most part, full of admiration. It’s the vital, constant checking of the self to make sure the right mark goes to the right student, the to-ing and fro-ing between first marker, second marker and moderator that can be agitating and exhausting – the demands of the digital. But this year, gratifyingly, there were lots of A’s and a few high B’s.

What is of interest to my would-be writers varies from year to year. Fashions seem to change. This year no-one believes in love – romance is out of favour. But on the other hand, no-one seems to be writing about their divorces. And not a detective story or a gritty thriller in sight; but lots of dystopias. This year the paranormal looms large – alternative universes and the slippage between them are all the rage: shape-shifting requires and gets skillful writing to achieve suspension of disbelief. The savagery of the past also gets quite an airing: plenty of limb-lopping, horse-rearing, castle-wall-climbing, and with women, not men, as the protagonists. Next year all may well change again, and we’ll be back to goings-on between mums and dads at the school gate, which can be as interesting and provocative as anything else. It’s not what people write about so much as how they write it which commands attention – I sometimes think you could write a novel about the milk boiling over and have it succeed if you did it properly, with enough conviction, and enough attention to the power of language.

But this year one thing did come up time and time again in the feedback: I found myself telling a wide range of students that they needed to remember they were writing novels and not screen plays. It was what my mother told me. She was a novelist herself, as was her father before her. She would read what I’d written when I started writing novels, and reproach me for not writing ‘properly’. ‘Set scenes,’ she would say: ‘This is all very well but you have to learn to set scenes.’ I, with a whole history of effective screenwriting behind me, couldn’t understand at first what she was on about. It was that you need to describe people and places – not necessarily by whole paragraphs of description, just a few carefully placed adjectives will do – so that readers can visualise what’s going on. It’s all too easy to kid yourself there’s a camera there to do it for you. I soon learned better – that if there’s no camera involved all the hard work of director, designer, lighting people and actors has to be done by you. You have to get the vision you the writer have out of your head, and into your reader’s, using only the words you’re writing on the page. It’s hard work.

For most people nowadays fiction unfolds on a screen – it is all too easy for aspiring novelists to find themselves ignoring their ‘setting scenes’ obligation. The advice came down to me from my grandfather to my mother, and thence to me, so it seems the least I can do for you is pass it on: set scenes!

Only last night, as I caught up with a backlog of things the marking had delayed, I found myself writing to a successful film-maker friend who was attempting a novel:

‘It’s clear this is written by someone more accustomed to writing screenplays and watching film than writing or reading novels. This is no bad thing in itself, other than you have to remember you are writing for an audience who is reading not seeing, so you can’t leave it to the camera to describe – but need to do all the describing yourself. Point a camera at something and the viewer needs all that needs to be known in an instant – the scene is pre-set. Town or country, rich or poor, gritty or glamorous is all made obvious and if there is anything left to doubt, the first notes of music will clear everything up: comedy or tragedy, thrills or spills. The screenwriter wrote just a couple of lines of text which were enough to instruct director, casting director, actor, designer, what to do before getting on with the shooting script, and did so simply and quickly by virtue of describing how anything deviated from the norm. The novelist has to use words to set up scenes and characters, replace music with words. I know from your text what everyone’s thoughts and actions are, and very interesting and compelling they are, but if I knew what anyone looked like, I as a reader would be in a better position to visualise what was going on. The reader knows only what the writer puts on the page; he cannot read the writer’s mind.’

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