5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

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.

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

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:

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

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–

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

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.

Books vs. Movies Iceberg Comparison

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.

Jason Bourne Matt Damon

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.

Storming 150-255For 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.

Behold the Dawn by K.M. WeilandFor 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!

5 Important Ways Storytelling Is Different in Books vs. Movies

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. Buenos Dias!

    It’s good to compare the different mediums of storytelling. Most of us are probably influenced by movies. Some more than others. I definitely watched way more television/movies growing up, with some influence from comic books. Being also a visual learner I’m sure that’ll have profound effects on my writing.

    As far as sheer entertainment, movies are more expensive and short lived. Whereas novels extend much longer having a deeper affect on the reader. That’s a plus in the entertainment department. Movies of course, are more visually stimulating. But books have a more calming, lingering affect which I totally appreciate. Yay books!

    I’ve been ruined somewhat by the movie culture. It’s been seared into my thought pattern influencing impatience with my reading. But now I’m getting used to the pacing of books 😊 having the opportunity to be more invested in the characters.

    I love the visuals you provided. The two burgers were cute. “Where’s the beef?” Remember that commercial? The iceberg contrast was great. If movies demonstrate the tip, then we need to become the “berg novelist”. Much like a deep sea diving iceberg tour.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I do think there’s something to the idea of being an “experienced reader.” I’ve noticed among people I know that those who are not frequent fiction readers have more trouble getting into and understanding stories that “experienced” readers have no problem with. This is something to be aware of as a writer. Who are you writing for? Experienced readers or inexperienced readers? How you approach the story may be affected by the answer.

  2. Another interesting thing I’ve been noticing lately is how my tendency to visualize my stories actually hurts my POVs. Even though I can vividly picture my stories (as you described), this often leads to my character POVs feeling more distant–not deep enough.

    For a while, I suppose I bought into the idea that if I could *see* the story in real-time, readers would feel that way, too. But not so. I’ve gotta get inside their heads and see what *they’re* living. (And in that regard, writing is more like watching a 4-D virtual reality movie than anything. ;))

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is a great point and definitely something I’ve observed in my own drafts as well. When we end up concentrating *too* much on trying to evoke the visuals, we often miss out on the deeper opportunities of evoking the character’s inner thoughts and emotions.

      • I mentioned recently in another thread about my being able to avoid info dumps by visualizing the scene. I’m not relying on recreating the visuals, but in telling the story as the POV sees it, getting the correct sequences and actions/reactions, dropping in info along the way

  3. I’ve seen this trend in YA fiction almost to the extreme. Eoin Colfer seems to be the worst. I’m wondering if:

    A. Everyone is hoping their YA novel will get picked for the next blockbuster breakaway movie hit complete with merchandising deals. (Hit or miss when we compare the Percy Jackson series in theaters with the Hunger Games.) So they structure it for quick translation to screenplay.

    B. The expectation is that the readers need to visualize the written medium as a movie in their heads and can’t handle real literature. Louis Sachar is the opposite and writes glorious prose that doesn’t always translate well to film. I can’t see The Card Turner making it to the big screen for instance. Popular writers may feel they must write in this style in order to be read.


    C. YA writers grew up in a cinematic universe and see this as the “natural” way to tell stories. Few are writing books like Life of Pi or Ender’s Game where you get to the closing scenes and the change the way you look at the whole novel. In movies like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, the ending feels almost like a gimmick while in books, the non-obvious is part of the attraction.

    And maybe it’s D. All of the above.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think all of these probably play a role to some extent, especially the third one. For the most part, YA is designed to be light and fast. That’s just the way it’s written. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t mean *all* stories need to be written that way. Yet another reason for authors to understand the genres they’re wanting to write.

  4. Quite an extensive roundup of points, all well put and colorful. (And not just for taking an easy shot at mitochlorians–Jason Bourne’s face does make his point.)

    What fascinates me is the idea that movies’ openings have *more* leeway than books’ do. We normally think of the “Hollywood opening” that rushes into an explosion… but there are some hidden points in that. The more ambitious filmmakers have no problem using a slower opening, and the rest may be trying to quick-satisfy movie executives who hate slowness (“I’m going for popcorn!” is the industry putdown) rather than think the story itself needs it. And as you said, those movies openings are often prologues, ways to isolate one colorful piece of the plot even if it isn’t as closely connected to the story–throwaway scenes, sometimes.

    So the key may be that a book’s first chance to hold a reader may not have time to show a separate character or plot thread; we do better by using a good scene that is clearly, obviously about what and who is at the center of it all. Show we can deliver *everything* in one package right from the start. (Plus, we can’t assume that the flashiest scene will be best, in a medium that doesn’t do flash justice… and does do layers well.)

    I’ve blogged in defense of prologues before, if they’re done *very* carefully. But this makes me wonder if the whole idea of separating the first scene that far might be an unnecessary risk in a book. I’ll have to give it some thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most of the “prologue” scenes I’ve enjoyed in movies are ones I don’t think I would have appreciated nearly so much in a book. As a reader, my initial focus upon beginning a new story is always–get to the point, get to the protagonist. In a movie though, I’m much more patient, as long as the scene is entertaining.

    • I was actually thinking about this last night while I was rewatching the first episode of Foyle’s War. Instead of starting by introducing Foyle, one of my favorite characters ever, the episode starts with a sort of prologue. I remembered why I started watching it one day and couldn’t get into it, and didn’t come back to it until months later. But the moment Foyle walked on the screen, I was hooked — and not even by any kind of obvious narrative question or mystery. I wish I could figure out how to do that! But, as you say, if the best thing about your story is your main character, or a setting, or whatever, it’s very, very risky to start with something else. . .

  5. This is so much in line with what I’ve thought before, but much clearer and more developed. I like to see novels doing the kinds of things only novels can do — allowing a reader to experience from the inside what it is like to be someone else. For all the flashy things movies can do that books can’t, I don’t think any movie can really get inside a character the way a novel can.

    On the other hand, a movie can get away with thin characterization and cliched plots if the visuals are impressive enough, but a book can never do this. Movies can be absorbing based primarily on style and visuals, but no amount of stunning setting description will get me immersed in a story if the narrative stuff isn’t there. And no matter how unique or stylish the setting are in the writer’s head, no matter how graceful or spectacular the action moves, even the best writer cannot convey that directly to me in the way a filmmaker can.

  6. An excellent post for many reasons, but these are my two favourite moments:

    • Use of the word “ interiority”.
    • The midichlorian clip!

    Thank you kindly.

  7. One interesting thing that I realized while watching explosion-filled blockbusters is that movies are actually more subtle than books. If a director wants to hint at something, they need only put a prop in the background and film the scene as if the prop wasn’t even there. I believe Star Trek Into Darkness did this by including a model of the Vengeance at the end of a line of other Star Fleet models in either Pike’s or Marcus’s office. You can watch the scene a hundred times and there is nothing pointing you to look at that final ship. Do the same thing in a book, and you have to put at least a sentence there, which, as brief as it may be, still shines a spotlight on that detail that shouts “Look at me! I’m important!”

    Movies surprise me all the time. The only times books have surprised me is when they have fallen down on foreshadowing or the setup.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, misdirection and foreshadowing are often easier in movies, since, unlike in book, there doesn’t need to be a blatant reference. Also, the fact that readers usually need to be up to speed with whatever the narrating character knows means that a lot of opportunities for reveals are lost.

  8. I have limited time today, so this has to be short…. but this is soooo fantastic and helpful and spot-on! I was grinning all the way through it.

    (Heehee. And I LOVED your ending. So encouraging!!! ;D)

  9. I like to submit the only instance where I actually found the movie to be better than the book, “Jaws” by Peter Benchley. Maybe it was because I saw the film before I read the book or because I was 14 at the time I read it but half way through the book, the story expands into the affair between Sheriff Brody’s wife and the Oceanographer. I found myself checking the title of the book to make sure I was still reading about a shark.
    On another note, while I would love either of my books to be made into films, I would worry if the BBC made a film about my second book. The BBC have a fear of showing extreme violence so when my protagonist shoots up the school, the BBC would only show a frontal shot of him doing so and maybe a second at the end when he puts the pistol to his head. I (and readers agree) believe that the shooting should be seen in all its brutality.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have a tendency to like whichever version–book or movie–I see first. Patrick O’Brian has become one of my favorite authors. I first stumbled on him because of the movie adaptation of his Master and Commander, and interestingly enough, I *hated* his books when I started reading them afterwards. They didn’t measure up to the movie at all. But kind friends urged me to keep reading. I’m incredibly glad I did, because the iceberg under the water of that particular series has become one of the biggest blessings in my reading life.

    • 80smetalman, I totally agree with you in regards to some movies being better than books. Of course, it does depend on the person. Another good example (great example for “Jaws” btw) are the Bourne books (or at least the first one). Without going into great explanation as to why, it’s obvious once you start reading that the writer behind “The Bourne Identity,” is ridiculously talented at taking a story from the book that has so much added fluff, and boils it down to a string of events that are taut and moving.
      Case in point: writing a great book adaptation is borderline genius.

      • I totally agree with you on that. I enjoyed the films so I’m going to have to read the Bourne books.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes, yes, yes! I have *so* much love for the Bourne movies. But the books are just… disappointing. I think a large measure of this is that the nearly-silent-but-always-expressive presence Matt Damon brings to the character creates so much subtext that just isn’t there in the books.

    • I almost can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually think the 1994 Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson is better than the book. I think Emma Thompson’s screenplay incorporates a lot of little jokes that Austen would have liked, the kind of thing she would have included if she’d written it a little later. I’ve seen it a million times, because I often don’t like watching movies I haven’t seen before.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I gotta throw in a vote for the more recent BBC miniseries. It’s always been my favorite adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

        • Yes! That one is also very, very good. And I like that it’s much longer than the ’90s version.

          • Wow, I didn’t realize that there were so many people out there who have found certain films better than the book. Most people will say they enjoyed the book more.
            I don’t know if this should count as well but I preferred the movie Rollerball to the short story Rollerball Murder.

          • 80’s Metalman,

            I’ve found that I prefer Philip K. Dick in cinema far more than in print. His writing style makes me wince. I much prefer what cinematographers do with his ideas.

  10. I grew up as Televisions were becoming common in UK households, so my main source of entertainments were books and my imagination. I prefer a book to a movies while my son, 35 years old, prefers movies. Sign of the passing of time and the ‘quick fix’ many get from movies, the urge for instant gratification.

    There was so much missed out from Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, that I was looking forward to seeing that never appeared in the movies, such as Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry. I still prefer the book to the movies and am re-reading The Hobbit before I watch the movies.

    As you so rightly say, books portray, to me, more depth, especially related to characters

  11. This is funny because I write screenplays. I found this post very insightful. I would say that a script is distilled. You obviously can’t waste words in a novel, but you REALLY can’t in a script. Every scene moves the story and develops character and adds subtext etc, all simultaneously. And losing interiority makes it very hard to convey a character’s mind state.

    Great post, as always and go novelists!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s good to hear! I *don’t* write screenplays (although, of course, I’m a major movie buff) so I wondered how a screenwriter would react to my thoughts here. Thanks for chiming in!

  12. Andrea Rhyner says:

    Your example of the chariot action scene is perfect. Sometimes, films can just show so much more. For me, the biggest advantage films have over books is the music. Music can evoke so much emotion (sadness, faster heart beat with pounding drums, exciting music, scary music to make the viewer anticipate something is about to JUMP out – the possibilities are endless) for people where in a book we have a much harder job to do to get our reader to feel emotions. It is a fun challenge though!

    I appreciate your point that what works in a film or show doesn’t always work in a book. As you said, people don’t often just walk out of a movie. They are already there with popcorn in hand; ready to be mesmerized. I think I’ve walked out of maybe 3-4 movies ever (far more turned off at home). They can grab the viewer with stunning visuals and music and they viewers are just more patient. Again, this is a good challenge for us!

    Thanks for the great advice!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Although, to be fair, the way Ben-Hur‘s chariot race was written back when wouldn’t likely make it past a good editor today. 😉

      • Joe Long says:

        Even though I’ve never read the book, and hadn’t seen the movie for somewhat over 40 years, I knew it was Ben-Hur!

  13. A nice roundup of points regarding these two mediums, if I don’t say so myself!

    For all the brain power I can currently summon (it’s very late and I’m half asleep), nothing comes to mind as far as differences between the two mediums. Oh wait, I JUST thought of one…

    While this point probably doesn’t really matter – since all we care about as consumers is the end product – but I thought it interesting that before movies become images on a screen, they’re subjected to extreme prejudice. That which, I’m not sure a novel goes through unless by your editor (in which case, you should be thankful God invented those kind folk!).

    While books can be self-published these days, and it seems like there are many ways to get your book “out there” to the general public, it’s not really the same for a writer of movies (note I say *writer*, and not *filmmaker*).

    For the writer of movies, especially one who wants to make a living at it, you usually only get one chance per work, to make the right impression: readers in Hollywood generally know within the first 5 pages whether or not they will ‘pass,’ or ‘recommend’ to the higher-up at a studio. This of course, if the screenplay was even good enough to get into the hands of a studio in the first place!

    As a screenwriter, the major pressure is on to bring the intensity and unique experience that the only the FEEL of a movie can bring.
    All of this with using as few words as possible.
    It’s kinda like drilling a mine for the diamond of sentences. Now do that 800 more times!
    I complain to myself about this often: “…but I want to write long flowing paragraphs like a novelist and get into the character’s mindset, and I want to use many different POV’s…” But it gets me nowhere. :-/

    The difference then is that novelists have more latitude for writing words down in different ways, where the screenwriter writes in as few words as possible (always in the present tense), and to make the greatest impact with those words.

    Yeah, so…

    Oh and on a side note: one reason I’ve really enjoyed dramatic TV shows is I’m able to get behind (or under the ice, as in your example) the characters and really create an investment in them (similar to a novel).
    For me, dramatic TV shows are basically the novels of the visual medium world… also why TV is totally beating out movies as a whole these days. People WANT TO INVEST IN CHARACTERS!

    Then, when my eyes hurt from staring at a screen, I can pick up that novel I’ve been working on for the past few months and get lost in its uniqueness that the visual world can no longer give me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I was talking to someone about the state of visual storytelling these days, and he made a really good observation about how it seems like the truly gritty, daring, deep storytelling is moving more and more toward television or streaming, where there’s not only the time and space to really develop storylines and characters, but also more freedom away from the grueling pressures of the box office.

      • That person is absolutely right!
        And a great point in, “more toward television or streaming..”
        Streaming outlets has really expanded and multiplied the amount of venues one can use to get their work out there. Whether movie or TV show. But especially TV in this day and age.
        Almost all of my most memorable viewing experiences in the last 10 years come from TV shows….crazy!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I think, particularly in streaming, there’s a lot more leeway for writers and directors to experiment. They don’t have to play it as safe, which opens up the whole range of storytelling tools and opportunities for them.

      • Joe Long says:

        I know you’re a Marvel film fan, but I’ve enjoyed the story telling and character development much more on “Agents of SHIELD” where they have 15 hours a season, as opposed to the 2 or 2 1/2 they get in each film. The films usually have to focus in on a specific plot point. Ultron was disappointing, but I am looking forward to Civil War

  14. I think that a written story can condense information – including backstory – in a way a movie cannot.
    In “The Warrior Prophet”, R. Scott Bakker manages to tell weeks of a crusade in three thrilling pages. In fact, he does so by throwing in a number of extremly short grisly scenes, a succession of terror. Each “scene” is one to three phrases long and gut-wrenching. This could be done in a movie, too, but Bakker’s tone of voice, the choosing of the words, greatly adds to the effect.
    In English, I can use the words “guts”, “bowels” or “intestines” for the same object but each of them has a different feel. I guess it makes a difference whether someone is “eviscerated” or “gutted”. Written language has a tone and by the choice of words I can give a scene a sort of subtext.
    It makes a difference whe´ther someone “makes love”, “fornicates”, “couples” or “f***s” although it is the same act.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point. In a movie, backstory like this is another excised (which *does* present interesting opportunities for subtext) or given full-on attention through “prologue” dramatization.

  15. Having worked, briefly, in the TV/movie industry, I find myself using some of the techniques that I picked up. But I have to remind myself about the differences before I stray.

    So thanks for the invaluable pointers – including extracts from you own books. Having read those, I can see exactly what you mean. (Although I’m only part of the way through “Storming” – at scene where Aurelia has a fit…)

  16. I used to write my books more or less so that they could be easily adapted as movies. Then I realized … wait a minute. Movies are very limited in a lot of ways (especially getting into the heads of the characters) and I was limiting myself by doing that.
    Nowadays, I don’t really care if my book ever gets adapted into a movie. I write *a book*. If it ever gets turned into a movie, great. If not, the book will still stand on its own merits and not on the hope of getting a movie deal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As much as I would love to see one of my stories as a movie (of course!), I’m *so* glad I get to write books instead of make movies. My inner control freak would definitely freak out if it had to share creative license with a production crew!

  17. Michael Ryan says:

    I lie it the way that Cormac M’Carthy has written many of his greatest books in the style of a screen play. I think that books and film complement each other in the way they take us to places we would otherwise never see, make us feel things we might not otherwise feel and uplift our spirits with hope for a new tomorrow.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      McCarthy is an interesting study, in that he’s both so sparse and so opulent in his prose. He’s built to accommodate both media well.

  18. One difference I notice is that movies have much more compressed timelines than books. It’s easy to put time skips in a book to make time pass in a realistic fashion (ie, key events don’t necessarily happen immediately one after another), whereas in movies, it’s more important to keep up the pacing and flow by having each event lead immediately into the next.

    For instance, in Lord of the Rings the book, seventeen years pass between when Bilbo gives Frodo the ring and when Frodo leaves on his quest. In the movie, it’s maybe a few weeks. The book is more concerned with realism and logic (what are the odds that Sauron would happen to start looking for the ring at the exact time Bilbo gave it to Frodo?) and the movie is more concerned with pacing and narrative economy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In some instances, this is actually something authors can learn from. Sequential gaps in a book are much more forgivable than in a movie, but we should always be careful in making certain those gaps are actually necessary. Readers will benefit from tight pacing just as viewers well, and little is usually lost in the tightening.

  19. “For many of us, stories originate as visuals in our imaginations.”

    I love this statement and it points to something that’s extremely fascinating to me. The imagination.

    According to Einstein, the true measure of intelligence is not one’s knowledge, but his imagination. This statement boggles me every time I hear it. Imagination is very mysterious in my opinion.

    I’m very curious as to how today’s culture of “visual storytelling” has affected the imaginations of writers. Imagination by definition is to form a mental image of something in the mind. Which is definitely influenced by what we’ve experienced of reality. Substantianing the different mediums such as movies, books, comics etc feed our imaginative brains. I know we’re discussing the differences of the two mediums, but I can’t help but ponder on this subject. The imagination of writers is off the charts!

    Katie you said you’ve been reading the classics. I wonder how much, or if at all their writing was influenced by visual storytelling. I know that Dracula and Frankenstein were both written way before TV was invented and their writings are still popular. Awesome!

    I still enjoy the breakdown of the movie structure and storytelling. But it would be great to hear more about the differences of the two mediums. Visualizing it is one thing, but crafting that image into a compelling story is another.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Dickens, in particular, is very visually vivid. His descriptions of characters is second to none, IMO. The description of villain Bradley Headstone, from Our Mutual Friend, has been one of the most vivid character descriptions of all time for me.

  20. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Glad you enjoyed the post!

  21. Excellent blog! I laughed when I saw the burgers picture. It was hilarious, but a good comparison. I’ve also heard that some movies aren’t as good as the books, and from the few I’ve seen, I found this to be true.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In all honesty, for me, my experience with books vs. movies usually comes down to whichever I’ve experienced first. As I mentioned elsewhere in the comments, one of my favorite book series is Patrick O’Brians Aubrey/Maturin series–but I loathed it at first, because I had seen and enjoyed the movie first.

  22. This booktuber does a great review of books vs movies! Love her editing style and intro video!!! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhtoHKF-WUg

  23. Great post – I have been feeling guilty about constantly visualizing my story on the screen. I think it could be because we live in a film-saturated world…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Don’t feel guilty! Just use your powers of visualization to bring the story to life in your readers’ imaginations as well.


  1. […] Weiland shares five important ways storytelling differs between novels and movies. Later in the week, she posted about hacking readers brains by using all five senses in your […]

  2. […] representation, our stories have to wow like never before. They have to be like blockbuster movies. KM Weiland offers some differences to keep in mind, though, before trying to write like a movie. One part that is interesting is “Your Book’s […]

  3. […] never be replicated by something like cinema. As K.M. Weiland has already written (see Point 3 in this post), the internal monologue that is so crucial in writing can never be replicated on […]

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