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Shortcomings and Strengths of the Written Word

Too often I come up with a fun new story, map it all out in my head, and then realize, "I can't write this. It wouldn't work as a book. It has to be a movie."

Many writers and readers believe that you can convey anything with words, if you're creative enough. But the truth is, there's only so much you can express in a single continuous line from left to right. The written word is inferior to other forms of communication in many respects.

The primary advantages of books over other media is on the authors' side. Unlike A/V production, which requires capital and cooperation, a single person can write a novel by investing nothing more than excess energy and time. But from the readers' side, books are expensive, time-consuming, and hard to understand. You can watch TV, eat, fold laundry, and carry on two conversations all at the same time because visual media approximates what we see in the natural world. Written media doesn't. Reading books requires unnatural effort, training, and solitude.

This effort is precisely why many people consider books "superior." They believe that movies, TV shows, and video games, by being easy to consume, will cause our brains and culture rot away. That, of course, is total BS. People engage with visual and interactive media the same way they do with books—only they don't have to study and practice for years to be able to do it. Watching a movie or a stage play or even a banal prime-time comedy isn't a passive activity. Audiences are constantly empathizing, hypothesizing, and moralizing. Assuming that reading must be better because it's harder is like assuming that a food must be healthy because it tastes bland.

As writers and publishers, denying the genuine advantages of competing media and clinging to the Books-Are-Superior-Because-I-Said-So way of thinking doesn't do any good. We need to acknowledge the shortcomings of books as they are, instead of labeling everyone who doesn't like them "unenlightened."

There are many things that A/V can do that we simply can't match in writing. However, there are several things that we can do that visual media can't. Instead of pretending that the weaknesses don't exist, why don't we play up the strengths?


This time last year I published a post titled Writing Novels Like Screenplays that addressed common film conventions that don't work on the page. They boil down to:

  • Head-hopping
  • Scene-hopping
  • Time-hopping
  • Visual and physical gags
  • Currying favor or antipathy through appearances

You also don't have music to set the mood and pace. Describing visuals with words takes up substantial real estate, instead of subtly influencing the audience from the background. We battle constantly to find the right balance of physical action, internal action, dialogue, and description, and we often have to give up one in favor of another in the interest of tone, pacing, and flow.

Not only can we only present one piece of information at a time, but there are some types of information we can't share at all. In one of my novels-that-can't-be-written, Korean pop music is a frequent gag and even a plot device. Description and romanized lyrics won't cut it. "Sorry Sorry Sorry Sorry, Naega naega naega meonjeo, Nege nege nege ppajyeo, Ppajyeo ppajyeo beoryeo baby"—does that mean anything to you? If you haven't heard the song or seen the troupe of grown men in high-fashion suits doing a silly dance on the video, all the words in the world can't adequately convey it. The attempt will only fall flat.


Internal Monologue

My number one pet peeve in movies and films: voice-overs. Voice-overs are the crutch of the lazy screenwriter, much like flashbacks are the crutch of the lazy novelist. Few use them deliberately and well—many use them to fill in the holes left by bad storytelling.

The head-hopping advantages enjoyed by creators of visual media come thanks to the third-person perspective. It isn't even third-person limited, which sees into the thoughts of a single character, but third-person "detached"—we see no thoughts at all. The audience observes everything from the outside. Voice-overs are an attempt reap the benefits of third-person limited or omniscient, and they almost always fail because they're so artificial.

Here's where written stories win hands down. No matter which point of view you choose, you have the opportunity to give detailed insight into a character's or many characters' emotions and thought processes. You can excite empathy in ways film can't—by having characters speak words that contradict their thoughts, by showing their emotions under blank faces, and by letting them express themselves even when they don't do anything at all.

Flexibility of Imagination

Short of sinking millions into special effects and computer animation, filmmakers are largely limited to the portrayal of settings, people, and props that are easy to construct or obtain. But in writing, you can be as unique and outrageous as you want.

The advantages for sci-fi and fantasy are obvious. But even if you write in a "realistic" genre, the freedom to tweak the world without regard for feasibility is enormously useful. You can fly your characters off to anywhere in the world and build settings any way you want. You can write high-speed chase scenes through the busiest streets in Beijing, and have characters pull of physically impossible stunts, and make up technology that doesn't exist (and never could)—and it doesn't cost you a penny.

Even mundane scenes can be a pain in the behind to film—scenes in crowded places, small spaces, in the dark, or in popular and recognizable locations that have to be reserved and closed off from the public. When you write novels, you don't have to worry about any of that. You want your hero and heroine to meet for the first time during a tour of the Palace of Versailles? Go ahead. You want him to propose at the top of the Statue of Liberty? Have at it. They get married with a wedding party of 500 in the middle of Central Park? Why not! Add some fireworks at the reception and a sunset kiss on the honeymoon cruise to Alaska, while you're at it. The director's nightmare is the writer's dream.

Flexibility of Time

Though frequent time-hopping is a no-no in written fiction, time-bending isn't. In fact, it's usually necessary to achieve the effects you want.

On the screen, conversations and events have to take place more or less in real time. On the page, time can be entirely redefined at your convenience. A single second can span five pages. A trip that takes several hours can be over in one sentence. The food can arrive almost immediately after the characters order it, a conversation can fit oh-so-neatly between boarding a train and disembarking, and an antihero can recount his entire life's story in the time it takes a bullet to travel from a gun chamber to his chest.

This is how Jane Austen portrays a strawberry-picking party in Emma.

The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking—strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of.

"The best fruit in England—every body's favourite—always wholesome.—These the finest beds and finest sorts.—Delightful to gather for one's self—the only way of really enjoying them.—Morning decidedly the best time—never tired—every sort good—hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable—hautboys very scarce—Chili preferred—white wood finest flavour of all—price of strawberries in London—abundance about Bristol—Maple Grove—cultivation-beds when to be renewed—gardeners thinking exactly different—no general rule—gardeners never to be put out of their way—delicious fruit—only too rich to be eaten much of—inferior to cherries—currants more refreshing—only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping—glaring sun—tired to death—could bear it no longer—must go and sit in the shade."

You can't film that. You can show a brief shot of people picking berries, or you can flesh out the monologue to something coherent, but you can't collapse the conversation so neatly and comically without turning it into a farce, like manic montages in sitcoms.

Freedom of Expression

The list of things we "can't" do in screenwriting is longer than the list of things we can. Movie studios only take scripts that follow a rigid three-act structure, don't have too much dialogue, meet the requirements for certain ratings, and fit the images of certain actors and actresses. TV stations dictate the moral/religious codes and political agendas you're allowed to support. Sitcoms are built around laugh tracks and commercial breaks. The arc of mystery shows is so predictable that you can tell who the bad guy is based on the time. "Nope, it's only 6:50, so she's innocent. It's gonna be that other guy."

In books, the list of things you truly "can't" do is much shorter. Unless you write romances for a publisher that says the heroine must be an independent professional and the hero must be six-foot four and they must make out in chapter 2 and have sex by chapter 5, the story is up to you. The only limits to the content are obscenity laws and your courage.

The irony is that because books don't sell well, writers and publishers are scared of creating anything original. They think books won't sell if they don't follow tried-and-true formulas, mimic other bestsellers, and limit "controversial material" to long-settled issues that only the extremists still grumble about. (Like the existence of homosexuality. Ooh, so edgy. Homosexual activities have only been going on for the past all-of-human-history or so.) But maybe books don't sell because the ones published are turned out of templates, are carbon copies of books we've seen a million times before, and don't say anything substantial for fear of criticism.

When readers pick up a novel, they do it because they want a novel experience. Sure, they like their genre conventions and standard arcs, but that's just the container. The container isn't nearly as important as what you put inside it. Is Anna Karenina an enduring classic because of its plot? "The young wife of a respectable statesman has an affair with a handsome jerk, then throws herself under a train. The end." People haven't continued to read it for the past 140 years because they don't know what happens. They read it to experience how and why it happens—what makes Anna transform from a vivacious, attractive woman to a psychological wreck.

Epistolary Style: Pros and Cons

The other day I read a book. I know, I know, I should stop doing that. Nine out of ten times after I finish reading a book, I wander around with a look on my face that makes Sweetie ask, "What happened?" I answer, "I read a book." He sighs and says, "You know better!"

This particular book was what the trendy publishing types call "upmarket fiction," on the borderline between literary and commercial—the sort of book that critics invariably compare to Jane Austen and college professors incorporate into hip electives designed to fill lecture hall seats and Gen Ed requirements. I read it because it's somewhat popular and was supposed to be uproariously funny. But it wasn't funny. It was mildly amusing sometimes, but for the most part it was depressing. Basic synopsis: horrible people are horrible to each other until they realize how horrible they are, repent, and change their ways.

The novel was written in the epistolary style, as a collection of emails, letters, diary entries, interview transcripts, etc. from many different people. Leaving my opinion of this book's content aside, I'd like to go through some pros and cons of the narrative approach.

Pro: Multiple Layers of Meaning

Most epistolary novels are told, for the most part, in first person. This means that in addition to what people say, you can add layers of meaning through how they say it. You can reveal character through grammar, word choice, punctuation, and even font styling. You can put implications between the lines and inject social commentary through caricature. For example, in this novel there were several mass emails from private school administrators filled with meaningless ultra-PC nonsense and personal letters between women steeped in passive aggressive hyper-friendliness.

Con: Too Many Layers of Meaning

What people think and what people communicate are two very different things. We don't have personalities so much as construct them for the benefit of others. We think, we feel, and then we choose how to express those thoughts and feelings to produce the effect we want.

Sometimes we do it deliberately, filtering our words and behavior to fit the mold of "a good person," "a grown-up," "a cute girl," "a cool guy," etc. Most of the time we do it unconsciously. Whenever I interact with people I don't know well, I revert to the personality I learned as a child: meek, sweet, quiet, obedient. Internally, I am none of those adjectives. But even when I make an effort to be more assertive, my voice and behavior modulate themselves involuntarily.

So the way people write emails, letters, diary entries, etc. is largely artificial. What you see in a piece of writing isn't the writer's raw thoughts, but a selective slice of those thoughts shaped to fit a personality they've learned to project. The problem is, when people read things in the first person, they presume they are actually in the writer's (or fictional writer's) head. They have to make an effort to read between the lines and see that what the characters think and what they say don't necessarily match up.

In this book, there were several sudden 180° spins in personality. The horrible titular character, who had been complaining nonstop about her city's poor people, rich people, and all people in between, suddenly wrote a sweet letter to her daughter saying she was ashamed of her behavior and their city is a wonderful place to live. Her horrible husband, who regularly ripped into her in front of rooms full of people—including the secretary he was sleeping with—suddenly snivels that he just wanted to help her. And her horrible neighbor, who had been writing nothing but nasty emails full of deceit and pettiness, suddenly wrote a confession to her estranged spouse about how sorry she was that she had hurt people more than she'd realized.

Most of these spiritual conversions struck me as hollow. All we ever saw of these characters was the bitter, angry, snotty way they expressed themselves in the first half of the book. In order to accept their reformations, you have to believe that they weren't actually bitter, angry, snotty people, but that they were only communicating the bitter, angry, snotty parts of themselves.

But I, like most readers, assumed that what they wrote is what they really thought. When a character behaves horribly, but you never see their thoughts, you can explain their motives later for sympathy. But when a character seems to think horribly, as evidenced in their private diaries and letters, it's much harder to convince readers that they really had a heart of gold all along.

Pro: Unique Ways to Reveal Events

The funniest parts of this book were in the revelation of comedic events after the fact. I returned the book to the library already, so I don't have excerpts in front of me to quote, but an email exchange between Posh Prep School mothers might look something like:

Email from Amy to Sarah
Brittany's tree roots are destroying my yard! It's going to cost me an arm an a leg to have them taken out!

Email from Sarah to Amy
You should make HER pay for it.

Email from Amy to Sarah
I certainly will! I'm going to confront her at pick-up tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Mass Email from Posh Prep School Principal to Parents
Many of you have no doubt heard of the tragedy that occurred during pick-up yesterday....

In epistolary novels, events don't have to flow into each other or even reveal themselves linearly. You can create gaps and hops akin to scene cuts in visual media, in which a character says, "Come on, what could go wrong?" And CUT, the bars are closing on her jail cell.

It's much harder to pull this off in a traditional third-person novel because scene and chapter breaks are sporadic and jarring. You can't hippity hop through time as smoothly. But in epistolary novels, you can time-hop, scene-hop, and head-hop with impunity.

Con: Limited Ways to Reveal Details

At some point in an epistolary novel—or likely at many points—you will want to narrate a scene linearly. You'll want to incorporate dialogue and action. The problem is, people don't write emails, diary entries, etc. like they're fiction. At many points in this novel, the epistolary style devolved from a tool to a conceit.

Email from Sarah to Amy

You won't believe this, but Brittany's husband invited me to lunch today! We went to the Lenny's across the street from the office. At his request, we sat at a quiet booth in the back. After we had taken our orders, he leaned towards me confidentially and said, "I asked you here today to talk about my wife. Has she been acting a bit odd lately?"

I almost laughed out loud. Calling Brittany "a bit odd" is like calling Antarctica "a bit chilly." But I have to work with the man, so I took a sip of water with lemon and chose my words carefully. "Brittany doesn't socialize much with the other parents at Posh School Prep," I said finally....

Who writes emails like this? Nobody. Though the epistolary style gives you a lot of flexibility between passages, you don't have much within them. If you want detailed action and dialogue, you either have to incorporate a narrator or say "screw consistency!" and make characters text ten-page short stories to their friends. This book took the latter approach, and it annoyed the heck out of me.

Tips for Writing Descriptions

My never-ending search for a reliable critique partner continues. Last week I thought I had a good lead on a writer around my age. But then I read her entire manuscript, left detailed comments, sent them back to her...and never heard from her again.

It's probably just as well, because that manuscript shouted "FIRST NOVEL!" on every page. She wasn't a bad writer, she was just a new writer. Nobody writes a publishable novel on the first try. It's like starting a video game as a Level 1 character and trying to take on a Level 10 boss straight off. You have to grind up some skills and experience points first.

Reading her manuscript, I recognized many of the same mistakes I made when I wrote my first terrible novel in high school (and when I wrote my second after college, and my third in grad school). One of her biggest weaknesses was in her descriptions of settings. They were either missing entirely or were non-specific, generic, and flat.

Here are some tips for writing descriptions that I wish someone had given me before I wasted five manuscripts figuring them out.

Existential vs. Active

People typically describe places in conversation like this: "We went to the park on Friday, and it was beautiful! There weren't too many people, but there were a lot of ducks in the pond. There was a good-sized playground for the kids. And there's a nice restaurant nearby, too."

There is, there are, there was, there were. Grammarians call these existential clauses. Readers call them boring. Here's how a new writer might describe the front of a house.

The house looked like it was built in Victorian times, but it had been well cared for. It was beige with green gables and was surrounded by a white picket fence. Rose bushes were planted along the wall. A marble fountain was in the middle of the yard and a swinging bench was under the trees to one side.

It sounds sweet and lovely, but this passage could be describing a photograph. There's no action or sense of movement—just a list of "things" that exist in close proximity to each other. But even inanimate "things" can be active.

Beyond the white picket fence stood a beige and green Victorian, grand and sturdy despite its age. Well-pruned rose bushes sent a delicate perfume through the warm summer air. A marble fountain gurgled in the yard, and a wooden bench swung gently under the rustling trees to the side.

Same setting, same features—but while the first passage sits idly on the page, the second one pops out of it. You don't want photographs, you want movies.

Static vs. Interactive

One of the tricks I used in the rewrite above was to incorporate multiple senses. In addition to sight (colors, positions), we have smell (the scent of the roses), touch (the warm air), and sound (the gurgling fountain and rustling trees). Multiple senses kick the description up from "movie" to "virtual reality."

Settings aren't painted backdrops for the characters to stand in front of and carry out the story. You want them to interact with it. New writers tend to make characters see and stare at things.

I went through the gate and followed the cobblestone walkway to the entrance. As I passed the rose bed, I admired the pretty pink and yellow blooms.

Then I noticed a small gray cat on the porch. It sat at the top of the steps, swishing its tail and gazing at me with saucy yellow eyes. The collar around its neck was studded with a dozen glittering stones. I stopped and stared. Were those diamonds?

The action is very hands-off, like the protagonist is an outside observer instead of a key player. Why stand back and look at things when you can interact with them?

The gate squeaked closed with a gentle clang behind me. My heels clacked over the cobblestone walkway to the entrance. As I passed the rose bed, I couldn't resist the urge to sniff the pretty pink and yellow blooms.

Suddenly something furry brushed against my leg. I jumped and looked down. A small gray cat sat by my feet, swishing its tail and gazing up at me with saucy yellow eyes. I bent down to pet its head, and my fingers brushed a row of hard, glittering stones on its collar. I leaned in closer to examine them. Were those diamonds?

Long descriptive passages that paint static backdrops can stop the narrative flow dead. They're like those annoying parts in Disney attractions, e.g., the Haunted Mansion, where the ride stops moving and you're supposed to sit still and look at the scene. Readers get to them, see a block of adjectives and "things," and are tempted to skip ahead to when the ride starts moving again. But if you integrate scenery into the story and vice versa, you not only preserve the flow but make a deeper impression. A cat you see sitting on the porch is a decoration. A cat you meet and play with becomes a character.

Visually Interesting vs. Verbally Interesting

There are many breathtaking scenes in this world that fall flat on the page. Try describing the Grand Canyon to someone who's never seen it. It's a big hole in the ground, surrounded by a lot of rocks. Redwood National Park is a bunch of trees, and the Pacific Ocean is full of water.

Scenes that are astonishing visually may be boring verbally. Impressionistic language (beautiful, majestic, wonderful) and emotional philosophizing (e.g., seeing the Grand Canyon stretch into the horizon reminds you of humanity's fleeting insignificance) will only get you so far. Here's a description of a living room that would look lovely in real life.

Katherine invited me inside. She sat me down on a couch and hurried to the kitchen for tea. The living room was light and airy. The walls were painted a cheerful yellow, and the furniture was upholstered in subdued floral patterns. A vase of fresh-cut flowers sat on the coffee table.

My hostess returned with a smile and silver tray of tea things.

There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing interesting about it either. The room sounds perfectly pretty and perfectly ordinary. But you can make it pop by adding unique elements.

Katherine invited me inside. She sat me down on a floral-patterned couch and hurried to the kitchen for tea. The living room was light and airy. Framed cross-stitches of squirrels and songbirds hung on the cheerful buttercup walls. A hand-carved cuckoo clock ticked away over the fireplace, and a time-worn rocking horse sat in a patch of sun under the window.

My hostess returned with a smile and a silver tray of tea things. She set it on the antique coffee table, next to a vase of fresh-cut mums.

The room was plain before, but with the addition of imagination-stirring details like the cross-stitches, cuckoo clock, and rocking horse, it gets a much-needed dose of personality. The second room wouldn't look much different from the first in real life—both would leave good impressions—but in text the second stands out more and gives some insight into Katherine's character.

Generic vs. Specific

Why settle for "yellow" when you can say "buttercup," and why say "flowers" when you can clarify the visual with a simple switch to "mums"?

You don't have to write many words about a setting to say a lot about it. You just need to choose specific ones. The right details will add layers of flavor, history, significance, and emotional resonance.

Katherine's kitchen looked like it hadn't been renovated in decades. It was small and cozy, with a linoleum floor and white cabinets. All of the appliances were pink. Music crackled from a radio on the counter.

Now transform it from "blah" to "bam!" with specific details.

Katherine's kitchen looked like it hadn't been renovated since 1955. It was small and cozy, with a checkered linoleum floor and white walnut cabinets. The ancient Kenmore oven and petite refrigerator were a strawberry-ice-cream pink. Soft jazz crackled from a transistor radio on the shiny Formica counter.

The smallest details can transform an entire scene. The kitchen could be from 1985, the appliances hot pink, and Katherine could be rocking out to retro pop, and it would evoke a very different image of her character. You can even kick it up a notch and have her listen to a particular song or music group—though you have to be careful that your target audience would recognize the reference.

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