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Books Are Not Movies May 21, 2020

I haven't written a word of Kagemusha 2019 since 2019. I've been telecommuting since my college shut down campuses in March, but the extra time I get from staying home goes into my home: doing extra cleaning because I cook twice as much, working on the yards because I need to get outside, fixing the many problems I see now because I'm here when the sun is up.

This week I dipped my toe back into the literary world by visiting Scribophile. I'm not up to writing my own drafts yet, but I will happily dispense unqualified advice on others'!

Reading the chapters and short stories people have posted, I noticed a pattern. Many authors tend to write as if they're describing a movie or TV show in text. But what would make for an interesting viewing experience makes for a very dull reading experience.

Here's a pastiche, imitating multiple stories equally.

The soldier sat patiently on the wooden bench outside the general's office. The hallway was old and shabby, with unattractive orange wood paneling and a threadbare gray carpet. A painting hung by the office door, portraying a rural town at sunset. The soldier gazed at the deep oranges and purples, wondering if the town was a real place once. No town had known peace since The War began.

The office door opened. A surprisingly small and wiry man stepped into the hall. The soldier knew he was the general by his standard-issue heavy blue uniform, with the three badges signifying his rank pinned under his left shoulder.

"Officer James?" the man said.

James sat for another moment, taking one last look at the painting. Then he stood up. With a start he realized he was a head taller than his superior. He arranged his face in a deferential expression and greeted the general with a curt bow. "You wanted to speak with me, sir?"

The general blinked. "Yes, I did. Come in."

James followed the general into the office, which was as small and worn as the man himself...

This isn't a good opening for a novel. It's a scene the writer (me) envisioned through the lens of a camera and wrote down in the most boring way possible.

Excessive Description

Let's say this is the first chapter of a novel. I have one page to grab readers and get them excited for the next 250 pages. And I spend it describing what a hallway looks like.

In other story openings I've seen detailed descriptions of dystopian cityscapes, exotic deserts, fantastical airships, and quaint village bookstores. To the authors, they're creating a riveting establishing shot—that cool drone footage of the vast landscape that sets the tone for the story. To readers, they're slogging through dull description.

Describing scenery isn't world-building. It's picture-painting. Those dystopian cityscapes in CGI would be breathtaking, but words as a medium can't produce the same effect. An exotic desert on film makes audiences gasp, "Wow!" The word "sand" in text makes readers feel very little.

Reactive Characters

Agents and editors complain about protagonists waking up in chapter one, but more often I've seen them sitting. They sit, they wait, they analyze, and they realize (suddenly!) they're in the middle of doing things.

When they do take action, it's to follow stage directions. They step into halls, walk down streets, climb up or down stairs, move through Room A towards Room B, turn left or right to examine a clue and spin around to look at another character.

This works fine in TV shows. A handsome actor sits on the beach at night, gazing out at the waves. Enter another handsome actor who steps out of an intimidating black limousine and walks down the sand towards the first actor. Close-up of his hand holding a mysterious USB flash drive. Plots ensue.

Or a stunning actress walks down a busy city street in high heels, her face hidden under a hat and sunglasses. She enters a glimmering skyscraper and hurries past employees in crisp suits to the elevator doors. She exits on a higher floor and approaches a receptionist. She dramatically removes her hat and glasses. Close-up of her pretty face. The receptionist looks shocked! And so on.

In text, these purely external descriptions of people sitting, walking, and holding things is boring. So are close-ups of characters making expressions and blinking. How often modern book characters blink! They blink when they don't know how to react. They blink in bright lights. They blink away sadness and unwelcome thoughts. They blink to fill space on the page before speaking.

Temporal Cues

The plague of blinking might arise from writers attempting to recreate "beats" on the page. Moments pass. Characters pause before acting. They fill seconds by considering, mulling, choosing words carefully, and blinking.

Time is flexible in writing. Readers don't need (beat) specified between lines. Writers can control the pacing of a story in many interesting ways, but temporal cues are not one of them.


Writers seem to think they're "showing" by slipping information all casual-like into dialogue or paragraphs about other topics (E.g., "No town had known peace since The War began.") Or by sending a protagonist running across the rooftops, looking down at the people fighting over scraps of food because of The War. This is still telling readers what's going on, instead of allowing them to figure things out for themselves.

In a screenplay you might write, "A dirty dystopian city in the near future. People fight over scraps of food on the streets. A newsboy shouts wartime headlines. OFFICER JAMES runs across the rooftops, in hot pursuit of a criminal."

But like establishing shots, establishing information in writing doesn't have a strong impact on readers. There's a war and people are starving, okay, cool. We're not immersed in the world, and we don't have much reason to care.

How can we fix it?

The sample passage I wrote can't be salvaged, because the very idea of the scene is boring. This theoretical story should begin later, when Officer James undertakes his mission. We don't need a doddering general to explain who the bad guys are beforehand.

To fix smaller flaws like long descriptive paragraphs, stage directions, and characters blinking moments away, we need to change our thinking. We write this way because we see scenes in our heads, and we think we need to communicate our visions precisely: how long characters paused before speaking, what they looked and sounded like, where they moved and what they were wearing.

We're trying to capture everything a camera would show. That's just not possible. We can't invoke the same emotional responses movies can through sight and sound, and trying wastes valuable space on the page.

Instead, we should embrace the primary advantage books will always have over visual media: interiority. Getting inside characters' heads is the one thing a movie or show could never do as well as a written story. They can try with voice-overs and flashbacks, but those techniques are overused and much-hated.

If you want to describe scenery, do it through the lens of the protagonist, not through the lens of a camera pointed at the protagonist. Infuse the description with voice and character to engage readers. Preferably, incorporate description into actions that move the story forward, instead of making characters sit still and look around.

Instead of dragging out conversations with empty fillers like characters pausing and moments passing, think about how we tell stories naturally in real life. Imagine a friend calls you and says, "My boss called me into her office today. She sat down behind her desk and took a moment to gather her thoughts. I sat down too and stared out the window at the birds in the blooming magnolia trees, and the people eating lunch in the courtyard below. Then my boss took a deep breath, and she said..."

You'd probably think man, this person doesn't know how to tell a story. Get to the juicy stuff already!

Few people talk like that. Your friend is more likely to say, "My boss called me into her office today. I was so nervous, like, what did I do? Am I gonna get fired? I wasn't sure if she looked angry or what. Then she said..."

Fiction will always be artificial, but we can take hints from natural storytelling to figure out what interests people. If someone blathers on about boring details, people cut in, "Yeah, but what did she say? Why did she call you in? How did you react?" We care about interpersonal interactions, conflicts, and emotions, not what kind of trees grow outside the window or how deeply someone breathed.


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