The book versus the film – a tip to help writers fix an incoherent and sprawling plot

The English PatientI’ve had this question from Marco Viviani:

I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.

Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.

What stands out for me is this phrase:

‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’

So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.

(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)

sidebarcrop1 Coherence

Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?

Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.

It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?

Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.

With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.

Which brings me to my more practical tip.

2 Clarity

I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot –

  • characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
  • scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
  • the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
  • the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
  • the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological

So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.



Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.

What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?

acxheadedtoretail NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!


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  1. #1 by lion around writing on May 18, 2014 - 8:22 pm

    Nice breakdown!

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 19, 2014 - 8:24 am

      Thanks – great avatar! Do you live in a wardrobe?

      • #3 by lion around writing on May 19, 2014 - 4:50 pm

        Thanks – I do not live in a wardrobe however, it was a little cramped and three children kept using it…

  2. #4 by Ileandra Young on May 18, 2014 - 8:23 pm

    I suppose The Lord of The Rings trilogy is the obvious one. Those books sprawled all over the place and there was no way to make those into a film by including everything.
    Tom Bombadil is cut out (as he is with every adaptation) and so is the journey through the barrow downs.
    Arwen comes to rescue the hobbits and Aragorn at the Ford of Bruinin which introduces her nice and early and sets the scene for her romance with Aragorn which is just a passing thing in the books.
    Elrond brings The Sword That Was Broken to Aragorn before he steps onto the paths of the dead, rather than Aragorn taking the reforged sword before he even leaves Rivendell; this gives Elrond more screen time (woo) and of course allows him to give an update about the rest of the Dunadain and Arwen.
    And if you go right the way through to RoTK, Saruman is killed at Orthanc and doesn’t get anywhere near The Shire which cuts out a HUGE battle which takes place there when the hobbits get home after the ring gets destroyed.

    There are also lots of scenes in the film which are implied in the books but never shown. *shrugs*

    There’s lots of stuff like that, but those films are very watchable (no matter how much I adore the books) and they don’t lose anything from making all those changes. The story persists and remains true to the core of the book, which is part of the reason, I feel, that they were so successful.

    …don’t even get me started on The Hobbit, though. :p

    • #5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 19, 2014 - 8:25 am

      Hi Ileandra – great example. And it’s just as interesting to see which scenes have been added as left out. Actually adapting those books must have been a complete nightmare 🙂

      • #6 by Ileandra Young on May 22, 2014 - 10:13 am

        I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the job, that’s for sure. I still maintain that they did an excellent job and pleased as many people as they possibly could. ^_^

  3. #7 by Dave Morris on May 18, 2014 - 11:51 pm

    What could sum it up better than: Six Days of the Condor (book) becomes Three Days of the Condor (movie)? The trouble is, so many would-be novelists these days are learning their trade from watching movies instead of reading books that novels often lack the depth they ought to have. They feel superficial, like 100-minute movies in prose form. Learning economy of storytelling is a good thing, as long as the writer doesn’t forget which medium they’re writing for.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 19, 2014 - 8:29 am

      Six days to three! We could have had Catch 11 or Fahrenheit 225.5 …
      That’s a great point about learning from movies. It’s not that movies can’t have depth, but they achieve it in different ways. Prose has to do a lot more. It’s music, visuals, action, observation, emphasis, character, back story and special effects all in one, and presented in a way the reader can follow – which is different from the way these effects work in movies. I wondered whether to venture onto that but the post would have got too long (and dinner would have been too late!)

  4. #9 by Lori Sailiata on May 19, 2014 - 3:29 am

    What I always find refreshing about your advice, Roz, is that you allow for things to evolve. So many writing coaches are so focused on shipping. I think of your methods as analogous to the slow food movement. Luxuriate in the indulgence of giving things their proper time for development.

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 19, 2014 - 8:31 am

      Ha, Lori! I love that comparison with slow food, and development. Novels often need to mature – like wine!

  5. #11 by cydmadsen on May 19, 2014 - 4:35 am

    Roz, you couldn’t have chosen a better book-to-film example than The English Patient. The book was fabulous, then I walked out of the movie wondering how in the world it was the exact same story yet entirely different. After a decade of noodling the phenomenon, I do think it’s theme and voice. Readers/viewers are drawn into a story by the voice and stay for the theme, which I’ve just read somewhere is curation of the human condition. Both the book and film hit you first with a strong, clearly defined voice (visual in the case of film), and then the characters and other specifics don’t seem to matter as long as they answer to theme. There are quite a few screenwriters right now making novels of their unsold scripts. It’s a wonderful practice because the structure and demands of scriptwriting constantly stifle the writer’s instincts to lavish on the language and get lost. It’s got to be tighter than those jeans we wore when we were 12 years old. But once we’ve got it, we’ve got the best outline for a novel we could ever want. From there we can let it loose, but we’ve already developed the habit of constraint, hitting the mark, burying plot points so they don’t intrude, and being clear with tack sharp dialogue that never falls into the he-said-she-said tedium. I met Ondaatjne once. A very nice man who didn’t cross his eyes once as I said, “Bollo, duh be de du book like, wa-wa, sign please.”

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 20, 2014 - 8:35 am

      Cyd – always great to see you here. You’re right – the two experiences are so different and need different sensibilities. They almost can’t be consumed close together but should be kept separate.
      I love this phrase of yours – that theme is ‘curation of the human condition’. Wow.
      And you met Michael Ondaatje?! Wonderful. I think your dialogue is what I’d have said.

  6. #13 by debramoolenaar on May 19, 2014 - 5:34 am

    excellent recap – thanks – but would you use the same technique if the novel weren’t sprawling but instead refused to blossom into how you’d imagined them in full bloom?!

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 20, 2014 - 8:38 am

      Hi Debra
      with that problem, you need to expand, not condense. But you can use those principles to find extra plotlines and characters to add.
      You raise an interesting point about expectations. Often a book doesn’t turn out as we expect it, but we get a different book with surprising depths. Or we find there wasn’t as much in the idea as we thought. If that’s the case, could you retrace your thinking to the original idea and see if you could take it in a different direction? Look at your original notes and see if there’s something else you could explore.

  7. #15 by alvaradofrazier on May 19, 2014 - 5:59 pm

    Coherence and clarity, two things that are difficult to achieve until revision.
    As a previous commenter said, “…theme and voice…” When I get distracted and disappear into rabbit holes, I’ll dust myself off and then reread the pages.
    I ask myself, What do I want to say? and “Is this consistent with my themes, with the character’s voice?” and then I move on. After a couple of chapters I re-read again.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 20, 2014 - 8:31 am

      You’re right, Alvarado. But I think we look for coherence and clarity at all the stages in the writing process, even if we don’t truly achieve it until the book is heading towards the final slopes. Your method sounds good! Thanks for commenting.

  8. #17 by jumpingfromcliffs on May 27, 2014 - 12:23 pm

    Interesting approach to the problem Roz. If I’m honest, I’m struggling with the film/book concept, but not every technique will work for every writer I guess. The real winner for me in your post is “return to your themes”. I had the “novel about everything” problem around Draft 2. Going back over the original key themes, then replacing one or two with the new themes which had cropped up, really tamed the beast and added the necessary coherence.

    • #18 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 28, 2014 - 7:09 am

      Hi Jon – I think so many writers go through the phase where the novel is about everything! Then we wake up and realise it will pack more power if it slims itself down. Glad that’s working for you (even if the book/film thing isn’t) 🙂

  9. #19 by Tina L McWilliams on June 25, 2014 - 1:03 pm

    I stumbled upon this post and this is me at the moment. The MS in question, I’ve been working on for over 3 years. It IS sprawling and I do get scared that its out of control, but that could also just be resistance screaming in my brain. I believe, no, I ‘know’ that I will in the end, have created a great read on so many levels, if I don’t give up. Just take it slow, let it work organically. It is difficult, deciding what needs to be left in and what needs to be cut. To make sure what you have chosen to leave in, is crucial and not just a scene you hate to part with. With some parts/multiple scenes, I found it best to edit them down to their bare bones, and if written with enough resonance, hopefully the reader will understand what is happening. ( We always assume our readers are dumb and we lead them) You’re always tempted to walk them through it, but that becomes too bogged down. I’ve also found, when I’m stuck, combining a scene, so that you’re not taking readers on his long seemingly endless journey. Cut to the quick, when you can. Even as I am writing this comment, some clarity is coming to me. So…thanks for listening. 😉

    • #20 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 25, 2014 - 2:17 pm

      Tina, thanks for the soliloquy! Those are good tips. I once made a fairytale synopsis of Lifeform Three when I got too confused by it. I told the story afresh in its bare skeleton. It really helped – and sounds similar to some of the tactics you’re trying here.

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