What You Need to Know About Writing Novels in the Age of Movies

I have a confession. For someone who spends her time writing novels, it’s kind of a deep, dark secret, so brace yourself. I like movies better than books.

Shocking, I know.

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t live without books. I practically breathe books. I gobble more than 100 books a year. Why?

Because I love the way words line up on a page.

I love the dance they create.

I love the precision and the intensity of the craft.

But even more than I love words, I love stories.

And, in my own personal experience, there are certain aspects of storytelling that movies are able to offer that books can’t.

Now, before all the bibliophiles start howling and clicking the red X in the corner of their browsers, let me repeat: in my own personal experience. Many, maybe even most, readers and writers won’t agree with me. But whatever your own thoughts on the superiority/inferiority of books versus movies, you have to admit movies have much from which the lowly novelist can learn.

What Movies Can Teach You About Writing Novels

So why might novelists do well to mimic movies in some areas?

When it comes to storytelling, movies bring a sensual arsenal to the table. Viewers are bombarded with visual and audio stimuli; they are shown exactly what the characters are experiencing, in real time. Novelists may need paragraph upon paragraph of description to set a scene, but a director needs only a single shot. Writers will struggle for their entire careers to “show” instead of “tell.” Movies never have that problem.

Characters who have a real person behind them are immediately brought to life. Inflection in dialogue is instantaneous. Facial expressions convey in seconds what words accomplish only with studied effort.

In her insightful book Lights! Camera! Fiction!, Alfie Thompson points out:

Screenwriters have an advantage when it comes to bringing characters to life. Actors and actresses play the assigned roles and infuse some personality into the character. …if the actor is wonderfully gifted, he can convey a feeling or attitude even if the writer’s words aren’t chosen carefully. Even if the script is pathetic and the actor is as wooden as a walking, talking tree, it’s hard for the audience not to see a “well-rounded” character when a living, breathing, real-life person is walking around on-screen.

The Advantage Novels Still Possess Even in the Age of Movies

With all that said, the written word gives us things movies never can, including:

  • A unique voice.
  • Deeper character introspection.
  • Authorial commentary.

All these things are wonderful and important, but they can sometimes seem pale in light of the visual immediacy, the raw connection of a film. Why else do most of dream of having our stories adapted for the big screen? Of course, the vast majority of us will never see our stories up on the big screen. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t learn from what I call the movie factor.

How to Strengthen Your Novels With the “Movie Factor”

I want my stories to play out like a movie inside the readers’ head. I want them to see the progression of the scenes, the characters walking around, the sweep of the landscape–just as if they were watching a movie. My stories do play out like movies in my own head.

Whenever you’re approaching a big or tricky scene, try this. Stop, close your eyes, and visualize what the scene would look like in a movie. Visualize everything: angles, lighting, stage directions. Even try to conjure up a soundtrack. The results are always intense.

This technique can do wonders for helping you see your work clearly. Details, colors, tiny sounds—all those wonderful telling details—will be come to the fore of your imagination. Infeasible actions or stunts will become easier to spot. Unnecessary dialogue will fall away.

Really, this is nothing more than an intense visualization, with a little bit of a dramatic spin. Even if only in your own personal view, it will inch your stories a little closer to the vibrancy of a movie screen.

Whenever you can combine the best features of these two worlds—movies and books—you’ll be able to come up with a product worth any reader’s price of admission.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Even though you’re writing novels, do you ever imagine your books as movie adaptations? Tell me in the comments!

What You Need to Know About Writing Novels in the Age of Movies

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I love movies. I love books. What I don’t love is reading the book after I’ve seen its movie. Or vice versa. Which I think evidences the fact that while movies give you immediacy, books give you an intimacy. Deciding which of the two is better isn’t easy for me. It depends, I guess, on which I’m doing at the moment–reading an excellent novel, or watching an excellent movie.

  2. Immediacy vs. intimacy: good analogy. And I agree, I don’t like switching media on the same story. I inevitably like the story best in whatever media I first encountered it.

  3. Liberty S says

    This was a great post! I feel the same way. Although I love books, I have a deeper love for movies. I usually don’t have a huge problem with books made into movies or vice versa, as long as the story is true to whichever form it was first in. Though, usually, I think the book version is better just because more can be explained that is lacking in a movie.

    There’s something about movies, though, that makes me dream more than I think books do for me. As a long-time Star Wars & Star Trek fan, these movies and shows similar to them have had me turn my attention to the stars and beyond, helping my creativity launch toward the heavens and inspiring one of my WIPs. Although I’ve read some of the books associated with the shows, I doubt the books had the same impact on me as the movies and TV shows have.

  4. Now that you mention it, movies are much more likely to jump-start my creativity than are books. I’ll come out of the theater after a good movie with ideas absolutely tumbling over each other in my head. But, strangely enough, I don’t often get that feeling after a book – even a really good book. Movies give me adrenaline; books give me peace.

  5. It is well understood that we all love the printed word. The thought of that old saying,”a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to my mind. ‘Tis true after all.

  6. And there’s the dilemma. The movie screen shows us the picture it would take a book a thousand words to describe – and there’s magic in that picture. But there’s also magic, just as potent if also different, in needing the thousand words.

  7. I agree with you on how you said actors can bring so much to the screen in such a short amount of time where it would take pages for the author to tell what the actor told in seconds. It’s something for all writers to try to emulate.

  8. I find interesting (and occasionally frustrating) when I read a book after watching the movie on which it was based and find myself visualizing the actors’ expressions and inflections.

    • I do that too. Like in Harry Potter Alan Rickman’s facal expressions are always a prominate part of Severus Snape’s character because I’ve read the books and watched the movies so many times they are engrained into my brain as one big mix.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Yes! Sometimes I’ll even find myself subconsciously “casting” characters in other books I’m reading. It can be bad when I get an actor I don’t like stuck in my head!

  9. Lorna G. Poston says

    I don’t like seeing a movie after reading the book, because I already have a visual of what the character is supposed to look like. Then when the actor looks nothing like the picture in my head, I’m disappointed. Usually, the movie doesn’t follow the book anyway, so that’s another reason to avoid it.

    Loved the book “My Sister’s Keeper”, (one of my top 3) but I doubt I’ll see the movie. From the trailer, it doesn’t look like it followed the book very well. Also loved “The Kite Runner” but didn’t see the movie.

    There are a few good augments for seeing the movie. I do like movies, just not if I read the book first.

    Qoute: “I want my stories to play out like a movie inside the reader’s head. I want him to see the scenes progression, the characters walking around, the sweep of the landscape just as if he were watching a movie. I can’t testify to how well I’ve accomplished that…” In Outlaw, you NAILED this. 🙂

  10. I’m a sucker for seeing movies based on books I’ve already read. I love seeing how people visualize the story and how it stacks up against how *I* envisioned it, even when it turns out completely different. And I don’t really mind when movies don’t follow the books, so long as they still end up producing a decent story. I have a feeling I won’t like My Sister’s Keeper, but I’ll probably still watch it.

  11. Lorna G. Poston says

    You should read My Sister’s Keeper. A bit different—each chapter is in the POV of a different character—but very good.

  12. I have read it, actually. 🙂 Loved the ending.

  13. Lorna G. Poston says

    The ending had me pounding my fist on the table screaming, “No! No! No!”

  14. Lorna G. Poston says

    You mean the part where the little sister died?

  15. Yes. I love surprise endings, and, despite the tragedy of it all, that one fit so perfectly.

  16. This was a great post! 😀 I must say that if there is something I love as much as I love books, that is movies.

    You are completely right, movies can fill up our senses immediately and when you have someone like the wonderful Meryl Streep playing a character… the fact it´s enough to make the character memorable.

    And I do exactly the same: I try my scenes to play out like a movie. It does help a lot!

    Thanks again!


  17. Another trick I still from the movies is “casting.” Sometimes assigning a character role to a real-life actor can do wonders for bringing it to life and helping us visualize the person.

  18. OMG! Yes! I am doing that all the time! It´s like I can see it in the cinemas already! haha.

    That is so true!

  19. We can dream, right? 😀

  20. Oh, yes, we can! Thank God dreaming is for free

    And after all, what is writing about if it´s not about dreaming? 🙂



  21. Nice post; you struck lots of chords. (fancy harp chords, not a beginner on a homemade banjo) I’m a fairly slow reader on a good day, but books that really spark my brain cell – they tend to slow my reading down further. So I can assemble the scenes out in my head. The comment made about whichever media a story is consumed for the first time was surprisingly true – I had to think about it for a moment; initially it had been rejected. Then, an example popped up: “Dune”. My all time favorite horrible movie. Its saving grace were the sets and costumes and the first 1/4 of the film (it was actually mostly incredible). When I got around to reading the book many years later, the movie came to life again – even the scenes in the book which did not appear in the movie played in my head like another directors cut with additional footage. And, how can you go wrong using Patrick Stewart when Gurney is spouting??

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is a rather strange phenomenon. One of my favorite series is Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. But having seen and loved the movie adaptation first, I initially rejected the books. So glad someone encouraged me to keep reading!

  22. thomas h cullen says

    The Representative ought to never receive visual treatment beyond the craft of “concept art”:

    As a text, for all its ‘groundedness’, it functions simply far too much on the level of the conceptual. (And the parabiblical).

    (Croyan’s own importance transcends too far the “literal” treatment.)

  23. Steve Mathisen says

    I would like to add that I feel the same way about some well written, well produced television shows. I am drawn in by the rich cinematography, excellent and engaging characters and plots that keep me coming back week after week. There are not that many that do all these things well, but Firefly was one that will serve as an excellent example.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, yes, definitely goes for good TV as well. Both the drawback and the benefit of the television format is is comparative length. That means authors get more time to develop characters, conflicts, and themes–although, of course, the flip side is that sometimes things get dragged out into ridiculous melodrama just to keep the story going.

      • Steve Mathisen says

        But nowadays, I have seen story arcs and character arcs that span multiple episodes and sometimes seasons. The little side stories that don’t have to come to a conclusion right away. Steven Moffat is a master at that.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I tend to like best the happy medium between TV shows that go on forever and movies that are limited to two hours. Some of my best viewing (and story) experiences have been miniseries. Really, you could almost argue that Firefly is a miniseries.

          • Steve Mathisen says

            Firefly as a mini-series. That could be said. They sure didn’t plan it that way though. The story threads then took a whole movie to deal with.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Yes, the gap in before the “last” episode (Serenity) is pretty rough, but, in the end, we still got a nice little contained story arc.

  24. I imagine every scene I write as a moving picture. In fact, flickering images haunt my words. And I also watch my share of movies — often when I should be reading…or writing. 😉 What you don’t get in movies, however, is that intimate understanding of what it’s like to walk in the shoes of another person. I still think great literature captures that better than any other art form. That hasn’t stopped me from watching movies, though. The Patrick O’Brian adaptation, for instance, is a longtime favorite.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Patrick O’Brian is one of my favorite authors. Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is possible, IMHO, the best book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen. So much love for the series evident in every shot.

  25. O. L Hallmann says

    Hi, great post!
    Although i don’t agree that movies are better than books I agree that writers can use the way filmmakers writes their stories to improve their own writing. I have studied movie-making and have had good use of the making of the plot in moviemaking when writing my stories. It’s not that different from creating the plot for a novel.
    Something that I think writers should use is to describe their settings as visual as possible. I like when writers do that and I think it’s easier to imagine the settings that way. Also I think writers should use elements as the settings and sounds to improve the chosen feeling of the story. Instead of telling the story you should show it, just like in a movie! If you get what I mean.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We live in a visual age, and novelists have had to adapt by making their descriptions as visual as possible–without boring readers with too much description. It’s always delicate balance, but it’s always an important one.

    • 80smetalman says

      Good point, I’ve been disappointed by a number of films that didn’t live up to the book. The two most glaring were “The Eagle Has Landed” and “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.” The only book I thought to be worse than the movie was strangely enough, Jaws.

  26. Great post, K.M. I am glad to know I am not the only one that feels that way. I love to read, but often times I can get a good story, in the form of a movie, in a much shorter span of time.
    The big screen can also take us on a visual journey that only a movie can provide. Movies like Titanic, Spiderman, Avatar, or Harry Potter draw us in, and in some cases we experience things we have never seen or thought about before.
    The tips you provide are wonderful and very effective. In my current WIP I thought of Mark Walhberg playing the lead role almost as soon as I had the first thought about the book.
    As well as seeing things in the scene, as you imagine it as a movie, I have also been able to adapt the quirks and characteristics of some of the characters, if I picture a certain actor or actress playing the role.
    Thanks for all the helpful hints.

  27. I relate to what you’re saying about movies (and someone else’s comments about tv shows, which I tend to like even better than movies because I’m a character-junkie), only I also gravitate toward comics. There’s a beautiful, unique synergy that happens in that mix of quality illustration and written word. As someone who loves writing, I’m always a little embarrassed when I’m faced with listing my favorite books and can’t come up with many in the genre I write most, but can easily come up with favorite story lines from comic books (or tv shows). Oddly enough, though, I find them inspiring me to write a book, not a script. But I hear writers are an odd bunch, so I guess I’m in good company.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The great thing about being a writer – versus a filmmaker – is that the whole project is much easier and cheaper and we never have to wait for the green light from a producer.

  28. 80smetalman says

    Nice piece, it’s a shame I didn’t see it sooner. I would love for both of my novels to be made into movies and the vain me would like a cameo in each of them. I do try to visualise what I am writing as a film but I worry that the picture in my head isn’t matching what I’m putting on the paper.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The discrepancy between the perfect images in our heads and the words on the page will always be vast. But the better we get at the craft, the more the gap closes.

  29. Might sound weird, but I tend to roleplay when I’m coming up with the story. I’ll walk around somewhere that is closest to the setting to what I’m writing and pretend to be the character to help me feel what she feels and see what she says. A lot of times if I create dialouge outloud it is more natural and realistic.

  30. It’s nice to see that I’m not the only novel-writing storyteller who leans towards movies more than books.

    In my case, it’s also because I’m also a visual artist (drawing, painting, photography, design) as well as a composer (I’ve composed scores for film and video games, and written songs for popstars), so I naturally gravitate towards mixed medium like movies/TV/video games, etc, where multiple creative endeavors are combined to form a cohesive whole. My love for words alone cannot win against that kind of allure, and in my own writing, my influences are more often from other mediums other than books.

    But logistically, I dislike working on productions with a bunch of other people, because there are so many factors that are out of my control, such as when investors pull funding, or we lose valuable manpower, or the people with power force us to compromise the creative vision, or dealing with many other things like changing weather, personnel issues, studio politics, equipment woes, etc. Writing novels means it’s just you and your creative vision, and you are in control of everything. That is why after decades of working in various entertainment industries, I’ve decided to settle on writing novels. It is a trade-off but I think it suits my personality and lifestyle better.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I totally agree with you. There’s never a budget consideration in writing a book. Our imagination is the limit!

  31. I like the sensory immersion that movies offer. And I have a really low-brow addiction to bad martial arts flicks. But I don’t think of sensory immersion as a sole criterion for fabulous art. There are days when my appetite demands introspection and nuanced analysis. There are days when cinema sensuality seems like shallow froth. Then I seek out other sources.

    I go back and forth between artistic mediums for this reason. Each has its own appeal. But by gosh, there are a lot of really, really bad movies. They exemplify bad story-telling, pace, character development, scene and setting; the direction is sclerotic. May nobody ever be guided in their novel writing by movies like these!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The great thing is that we don’t have to choose. We get to enjoy and learn from books, film, dance, music, painting – you name it! It’s like a never-ending buffet of goodness.

  32. Carol Ashey says

    I love both books AND movies. Why does it have to be one or the other? Movies are stories too, they just tell them differently. Both are art, just different forms. My family’s main get together time is sitting and watching a movie. I have grown up watching movies and reading books, and I love them both. My stories also play out like movies in my head.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thankfully, we *don’t* have to choose! I know I am a much better writer for getting to benefit from both (and many more) art forms.

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