Books Are Not Movies

Many writers see their novels as movies, picking a cast to portray their characters, visualizing scenes as they would play on the screen. But books are not movies. A movie set can be seen in an instant and does not detract from the action, while a long passage in a book describing that same scene postpones the action, making today’s readers impatient. (Action in a novel, as I am sure you know, is any forward motion that fosters change in the characters: dialogue, physical interactions, even a simple touch of the hand.)

Nor is a book a movie script. Some novelists are so enamored with envisioning their book as a movie that they omit descriptions altogether. They tell their story mostly by dialogue, which leaves readers untethered, “like water, willy-nilly flowing.”

If two characters are having an argument, for example, it is necessary for readers to know where it is taking place. An argument in a pub is different from an argument in a bedroom, but they don’t need a long description of the bar or the bedroom to get involved with the characters; a few significant details will anchor the scene in their minds. A detailed set is necessary for a movie’s verisimilitude, but those same details negate a novel’s illusion of being true. Do you stop in the middle of an argument to note the contents of the room? If you do, you lose not only your focus, but the argument as well.

Even a short descriptive passage can negate the illusion if the object or setting described has no significance to the story. A lamp may be placed on a side table in a movie set for no reason other than the set designer liked the way it looked, but if an author spends many words describing that same lamp, there has to be a reason. Perhaps it is a source of contention between characters. Or perhaps one character will bash another over the head with it.

So, if you visualize your novel as a movie, don’t describe everything you see. Describe only what is important, (what is important to the characters or to the story, not what is important to you as a writer) and then . . . ACTION!

5 Responses to “Books Are Not Movies”

  1. Christian Says:

    Thankyou for your blog! 🙂 God Bless You

  2. nomananisland Says:

    For me, this is becoming a cross-blog conversation.

    I would agree that the key to writing novels/prose is to write “enough” to tell the story. The balance between description and action, dialogue and details, is a delicate one. As I’ve said to you before, Tolkien spends pages on details that in a movie would take seconds.

    Conversely, the twenty-minute battle scenes in the LOTR movies were only three or four paragraphs long in the novel. Pages on trees, paragraphs on battles, versus a swift image of a tree and a prolonged action scene. They’re very different formats, each successful in their own ways.

    Me personally, I’m lucky enough to see my novel in my head the way you’d see a film on screen. But readers can’t see my mind-film. So I have to play film-director, and choose the most important details to convey an impression, and hope readers translate that in their own imaginations into details and interesting scenes.

    But I certainly don’t see my novel as a movie. The formats are different. If it was a movie, I’d have written a script. Novels are a special thing: the author’s attempt at communicating their imagination into words, and then sharing it with readers to provoke their own imaginations. It’s incredibly intimate and personal. Films leave out the imagination — you can see it on screen. It’s more the audience seeing one vision of the story, instead of developing their own in collaboration with a writer.

  3. sonjanitschke Says:

    I think that long descriptive prose has its place.

    It’s not what floats my boat, but I think it’s a little dismissive to say that only a few “important” details are necessary for the characters.

    James Fenimore Cooper certainly went to great lengths to make sure the reader knew how that one rainbow looked in the minds eye of whichever character — good lord that man could go on and on like a little energizer bunny!

    And his books are part of the classics.

    Same with Tolkien.

    Personally, I think the determining factor of anything depends on the writer and how he writes it. A lot of descriptive prose today is very bland. They use the same words, they don’t give us a different metaphor to make us see it differently — or worse, they don’t link it in some way with the characters.

    Which is why Christopher Paolini’s first line is ridiculous and retarded, even though it’s brief and to the point:

    Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

    And that’s the last of the world changing scent!

  4. Bertram Says:

    Sonja: Thank you for stopping by and contributing to the conversation. You may think you are disagreeing with me, but you’re not. I was referring to dialogue when I said that only a few details are necessary to anchor the scene in the reader’s mind. Too much description does detract from the interaction. I also spoke against describing details that have no purpose in the story. You said it better though. It’s true, description does need to be linked to the characters to make it vital.

    My blog is not supposed to be a didactic essay on writing rules, but is a personal odyssey, a means of helping me find my way through to being a published writer. If anything I say helps another writer, fine. But we all have our own styles, and I am not trying to convert anyone to mine. No, that’s a lie. I like a certain type of book (light on description, inane dialogue, and experimental techniques, but heavy on good characters and innovative stories) so the more people who write the way I like, the more books there are for me to read! (I am being facetious here. Mostly.)

    Good luck with your writing.

  5. nomananisland Says:

    I like that “inane conversation” bit. That’s funny.


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