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.

Lights Camera Fiction Alfie ThompsonCharacters 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.

Tell me your opinion: Even though you’re writing novels, do you ever imagine your books as movie adaptations?

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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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