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Thursday 15 January 2015

the David Lean Rule

a follow-up (and closely related) to last week’s The Clothesline Method.

“Here’s the David Lean Rule, as I would state it, for my own benefit as a writer or for anyone else:

In addition to thinking of a narrative in terms of Act One/Act Two/Act Three, think of it as eight to twelve sequences or sections.

I use this all the time. It’s extremely helpful, I’ve found, with long-form material like novels or full-length non-fiction. Why? Because the Three Act concept of organizing a narrative doesn’t always work with something that’s really lo-o-o-ng.

Three-act structure, remember, was developed for plays, for dramas presented on stage, and for movies—in other words for works that would be taken in by the audience at a single sitting. A play or a movie takes ninety minutes, at most a couple of hours. We in the audience have no trouble remembering, as we’re watching Act Three, some set-up scene or moment from Act One. Three-act structure works. It abets and reinforces the narrative’s momentum. Act One hooks us, Act Two builds the tension and complications, Act Three delivers the payoff.

But a 500-page novel doesn’t work like that. We may take a month to read such a weighty tome. We’ll pick it up at bedtime, read 60 pages, then not touch it again for a week. Three-act structure doesn’t always work in this case because the narrative is not designed to be consumed in one sitting. By the time we hit page 396, we’ve forgotten key characters and moments that were introduced on page 21. And even if we do still remember them, the momentum of the story has been lost because so much time has passed. We, the readers, have to reconstitute it by act of memory at each new sitting.

The David Lean Rule comes in really handy here. If we as writers build our narrative out of eight to twelve sequences or sections, each one of which is more or less free-standing (and possesses its own cohesion and story momentum), the reader can pick up the book and be back into the flow right away.

Another big plus, in my opinion, is that thinking in sequences, as David Lean would, gives a story a classic, old-fashioned feel, like Lean’s movies. I like that. It’s old time storytelling.”

Read more, here: the David Lean Rule

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