In my work as a freelance editor, I’ve noticed a common tendency among the current crop of science fiction authors to write books as if they’re writing movies. That practice is understandable since most science fiction and fantasy novels published after 1980 suck, and therefore today’s authors are disproportionately influenced by film.
However, writing a novel by playing a little movie in your head and transcribing what you see in your mind’s eye hobbles the final product. Because this generation of authors don’t read as much as their forebears did, few of them realize the storytelling advantages that books have over movies.
The film advantage
First, let’s examine the storytelling tools in a film maker’s repertoire that simply aren’t available to novelists.
- Film is a visual medium. Movies don’t have to spend time describing characters, action, and settings. They can just show those elements.
- Movies are easier to consume. As passive entertainment, they require less time investment and skill on the part of the audience. Bibliophiles often take the ability to read for granted, but nearly half of all American adults now have significant difficulty reading or are functionally illiterate.
- In addition to their main visual aspect, movies are also enhanced by audio. Music and sound effects add extra layers and depth to the moviegoing experience.
Film makers certainly have storytelling tools at their disposal that novelists don’t. On the other hand, authors can pull off feats of story craft that make movie directors jealous.
- Authors can directly convey their characters’ emotions. Storytelling works by evoking an emotional response in the audience. When it comes to making audiences empathize with characters, novelists who understand their medium have all other artists beat. Authors have a thousand ways to relate characters’ emotional states to readers, from subtle word choices that filter descriptions through a POV character’s mood, to outright saying how a character feels.Movies have to rely on actors’ performances and musical cues to get the same info across. Unless the director decides to include a voiceover, which is hard to do without getting heavy handed.
- Novel characters can be themselves. Related to the point above, the simple and necessary act of casting an actor to portray a character imposes hard limits on that character and the audience. Star Wars fans who read the 1976 novelization before the 1977 movie came out were free to imagine what Han Solo looked and sounded like within the broad descriptions supplied by Alan Dean Foster. Then the movie came out and effectively vetoed their imaginations. Now Han Solo is and forever will be Harrison Ford, Just like Aragorn is Viggo Mortensen and Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter. Books give readers more creative freedom.
- Books let readers make more choices. Every author has a personal vision for his work. Each reader has his own interpretation of a book’s events, characters, and setting that will always differ from the author’s to varying degrees. I’ve talked to readers who picture some of my most prominent characters with wildly different hair colors than are clearly defined in the book, for instance. That’s an extreme example, but smart authors take advantage of readers’ desire to stake ownership over the story by opening aspects up to interpretation. Use your books’ higher necessary audience investment to foster audience participation.
- An unlimited special effects budget. The author is so called because he wields effectively unlimited authority over his secondary world. And compared to a film director, exercising that authority is practically effortless. As a novelist, you can conjure monsters as big as any realized on film–or bigger, stage battles between millions of swarming starships, and create worlds yet undreamed of. For free. Bonus: You can go the Lovecraft route and totally own film makers by writing of creatures so otherworldly as to defy mortal comprehension.
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