These days, everyone is writing movies. Including novelists. Not screenplays, mind you, but even if you’ve never touched a Celtx program and will never see your story on the big screen, you’re still writing movies.
Our society is saturated by visual storytelling. It’s the cool kid on the block, da boss. Whether we’re talking Hollywood movies, TV shows, or Video on Demand–we’re definitely still talking about the one form of storytelling that has become the most prevalent and powerful in modern entertainment.
Whether you realize it or not, that visual medium is influencing the way you write your books.
The “Movie Mindset” of Modern Novelists
When I was little, I told myself stories and called them my “movies.” Those movies, of course, eventually became my books. (One little girl typing away at her ginormous old monstrosity of a PC just made more sense than trying to convince Steven Spielberg I was writing the next Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know?) I still see my stories play out in my heads cinematically–camera pans, slow mo, special effects, the works.
And I’m not alone. For many of us, stories originate as visuals in our imaginations. When we sit down to write our books, we’re just doing our best to translate those visuals into descriptive prose that will help readers see the same things.
However, the influence of movie culture goes beyond that. The movie industry has created a very specific type of storytelling: faster paced, based on solid story structure, and, of course, emphasizing creative visuals. All of these trends have impacted modern written fiction.
We talk about how books today are different from books of yore, and one of the primary reasons for this is their simultaneous evolution alongside the visual storytelling in the movies. If we compare today’s books with yesterday’s books, we can see that, like movies, they are generally faster-paced, more plot-focused, and more “visual.”
Should Storytelling Be Different in Books vs. Movies?
Naturally, there are both pros and cons to having written storytelling cop so heavily to visual storytelling. But I tend to think that, overall, the novelists’ ability to learn from their movie-making brethren has been a healthy and productive trend.
For one thing, story structure has long been championed much more stridently by screenwriters than novelists. For another, the vibrancy and leanness in visual storytelling has lent much to our necessarily windier, lusher written literature.
However, it’s also important to realize books vs. movies remain totally different animals. It’s one thing to learn from visual storytelling and apply useful techniques to our written fiction wherever we can. Indeed, as you’ve likely noticed, I use storytelling examples from movies all the time. I do this for a couple of reasons:
1. Movies are easier for me to remember. (Visual learner, after all.)
2. I watch far more popular movies than I read popular books, so movies tend to provide more pertinent and far-reaching examples.
But keep in mind that however much we novelists may love movies and however much we may be able to learn from them about our own craft–we can’t afford to ignore the strident differences between the forms.
Today, let’s consider five of the most prominent differences in books vs. movies. Take note of them so you can realize both the advantages and limitations of written fiction, and also so you can know what movie-centric techniques simply aren’t going to work in your book.
1. Your Book’s Pacing Doesn’t Have to Be as Tight as a Movie’s
Many readers complain that movie adaptations simply aren’t as good as the beloved books on which they are based.
There are many reasons for this, but the most common one is simply that movies are a fraction of the length of books. For example, Victor Hugo’s mammoth classic Les Miserables tops out at over 650,000 words and, according to my Kindle, took me thirty-three hours to read. The latest movie adaptation has a running time of just under three hours.
Necessarily, a movie’s pacing is much tighter than a book’s. Whole subplots get axed from movie adaptations simply because there isn’t time to explore them. In your book, you’re not constrained by such limitations. Even within the shortest of genre word count expectations, books have the opportunity spend much more time on a story than a movie (or even a mini-series) ever will.
Takeaway for Novelists
Don’t get me wrong here. Tight pacing is good. You can definitely borrow a useful page from your screenwriting brethren and learn to cut the fluff. But, at the same time, don’t place upon yourself the unrealistic expectations of matching a movie’s tight pacing requirements. You’ve got at least six hours with your readers. Use it.
2. Your Book’s Opening Hook Has to Be Stronger Than a Movie’s
Books and movies are perhaps nowhere more different than in their opening scenes. By the time viewers sit down to watch a movie, they’ve more or less committed to the story. They’re not going to get up and leave the theater unless the movie really stinks halfway in.
This allows filmmakers the comparative luxury of crafting leisurely and artistic openings–running through the credits, panning the setting to show the stage, then focusing on a moment or two of the protagonist’s conflict-less Normal World before getting down to business. Often, movies won’t open with their protagonists at all. They start out with prologue-esque scenes, in which the conflict is introduced via the antagonist’s evil plans.
For example, almost all of the Marvel movies open this way:
Although we certainly do see books (especially thrillers) borrowing this approach from movies, it’s important to realize it simply doesn’t work as well in written fiction. Readers are not as patient in the beginning as are viewers, which means authors must create stronger, faster hooks that get readers to the heart of both the conflict and the character as quickly as possible.
When I argue against prologues in books, I’ve had authors come back with the argument at that “well, my favorite cop show on TV does it like that and look how popular it is!” My response: Yep, it works great for TV, wherein you’ve already got an established, basically captive audience–who, by the way, doesn’t have to exert any effort to sit there and keep watching for a single hour–versus a reader who is likely scanning that first page, looking for an excuse to stop reading and move on to a more promising use of his next six (or more) hours.
Takeaway for Novelists
Before you open your book with a movie-style prologue or antagonist-intro or leisurely characteristic moment, stop and ask yourself if this is really the strongest hook you can present to your readers. Don’t take their readership for granted. Grab them with an implicit question that piques their curiosity, gets them to invest in your protagonist right away, and makes the story’s dramatic question clear from the very first chapter.
3. Your Book Will “Tell” More than a Movie
Movies have quite a few advantages over books. Their visual nature can often seem more exciting, especially when portraying physical action. I don’t know about you, but this–
Messala having passed, the Corinthian was the only contestant on the Athenian’s right, and to that side the latter tried to turn his broken four; and then; as ill-fortune would have it, the wheel of the Byzantine, who was next on the left, struck the tail-piece of his chariot, knocking his feet from under him. There was a crash, a scream of rage and fear, and the unfortunate Cleanthes fell under the hoofs of his own steeds: a terrible sight, against which Esther covered her eyes.
–just doesn’t quite compare with this–
Thanks to their visual nature, movies are able to literally “show” the story. “Showing” in a book, even in the hands of a master author, is still nothing but description.
However, this “telling” nature of a book can actually be one of its chief advantages over a movie. Novels are more interior than movies. Movies show what’s happening on the “outside,” as it were, of its characters. Books show what’s happening on the inside.
Authors get to share their characters’ very thoughts with readers, and, as a result, the opportunities for characterization are much deeper in a book than in a movie.
Takeaway for Novelists
The “interiority” of a novel is arguably its greatest storytelling superiority over movies. Take advantage of it. Delve deep into the heart of your characters–especially your POV characters–and create narratives that speak to readers with the very voices of the characters themselves. Don’t just show readers what your characters are doing; show them the motivations and machinations occurring within the character.
4. Your Book Will Have Less Subtext Than a Movie
Subtext is one of the secret keys to powerful fiction. Subtext is the space between the lines of a story. It’s the unexplained gaps, which readers are invited to fill in for themselves–making the story a much more personal and powerful experience.
Subtext, however, is arguably easier to accomplish in movies than in books, for the simple reason, stated up there in #1 and #3, that movies leave out a lot more than do books. As a result, there are simply more gaps for viewers to fill in when watching a movie than there are for readers reading a book. When Jason Bourne gives us that tortured look in the movies, we aren’t told what he’s thinking. We have to fill in the gaps for ourselves.
Books are different. Not only will readers be unable to see the character’s expression (and trying to describe it in an attempt to gain the same effect rarely works), but they will expect to be told what the character is thinking. The principle goes even farther. When in a particular character’s POV, readers need to know what that character knows, which means even details that are obvious from the subtext often have to be explained or at least acknowledged.
For example, in my historical/dieselpunk novel Storming, the protagonist’s sister-in-law has the mental capacity of a child. This is completely obvious from what is shown through her actions and dialogue. Readers get it. But because the protagonist knows exactly what happened to her, readers need to know as well. Hence, one quick but necessary line of explanation:
Aurelia had been stuck in some kind of fairyish dream ever since she’d fallen out of the haymow when she was twelve.
Takeaway for Novelists
Unless you’re Ernest Hemingway, you’re going to have to be willing to explain more to readers than you would if you were writing a screenplay. However, you have to be careful to balance the needed depth and interiority of your narrative with the still important need for subtext. Don’t explain away all your mysteries; avoid on-the-nose narrative as well as dialogue; and seek out the interesting juxtapositions between your character’s thoughts and his actions.
5. Your Book Will Have More Options for Sharing Exposition Than Will a Movie
Even movies have to “tell” sometimes. The trick for screenwriters, as well as novelists, is figuring out ways to sneak necessary explanations–or “exposition”–into the story without being obvious about it. Often, in a movie, dialogue must bear the weight of this burden. Unfortunately, this often results in characters telling each other things they already know–the dreaded “as you know, Bob” trope.
Most screenwriters are clever enough about sneaking in the exposition that viewers hardly notice, but it can still end up being, um, awkward:
In all seriousness, novelists can learn a lot from the movies about how to cleverly sneak exposition (aka info dumps) into dialogue. But the great thing about being a novelist is that you don’t have to put all your exposition in the dialogue. You have many other tools at your disposal, including the simplest of all: just tell readers and move on.
For example, in my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, readers needed to know why a certain character was in a certain place at a certain time. No need for fancy exposition tricks. The narrative flow allows for a quick explanation:
A gull shrieked overhead, diving low above the broken walls of Jaffa. After his victory on the plains of Arsuf, King Richard had moved his army here until the port city could be repaired enough to act as a supply base.
Takeaway for Novelists
Take advantage of your many opportunities for grounding readers in necessary facts. You can use dialogue when it makes sense, but you can also dribble the info into the narrative itself. As we talked about above in #4, readers expect to know what the POV character already knows. However, don’t abuse your exposition opportunities either. Narrative info dumps are just as egregious as “as you know, Bob” dialogue exposition.
I, for one, am ecstatic I get to live in a world where I can enjoy stories told through a myriad of different media. I love books and movies for many of the same reasons–but I also love them for totally different reasons.
As a novelist, you can observe and learn from the skillful techniques of your movie-making brethren. But don’t forget that your own craft is unique and powerful in its own requirements. Time to go out there and write the kind of book that will keep readers out of the theaters–until the day its adaptation debuts, of course.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion? What have I missed in this post? What are other differences you can think between books vs. movies? Tell me in the comments!
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