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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.


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