Your book is not a movie

There is a book which I bought in February, when it was released, with the intention of reviewing it shortly afterwards. I didn’t get very far in it. I did, however, make some notes. I thought characterisation was lacking – the reader is told what the characters feel, but it feels shallow, forced, like a stick man with facial expressions drawn on. By comparison, the world was very well developed, and described well. It has a sense of wonder, and some strong visuals.

The author was treating the book like a movie – strong on what would be special effects, but relying on very visual representations of emotions, without giving the characters any depth or subtlety.

The problem with treating a book like a movie is that it isn’t. They are very different media – a movie is very visual, and you can have two or three elements absorbed at the same time – a conversation as two characters flee through streets can be very concise, because the audience can absorb the audio of the conversation, the audio of the chase, the visuals of the chase and the visuals of the environment they’re in all at once. In a book you can only describe one thing at a time, first the dialogue, then the running, then the setting, then more dialogue, and so on.

I read this article recently about how the opening of a movie compares to that of a novel, with the excellent example of how the opening of True Lies might be different if written as a book. Chuck Sambuchino explains how in a movie, the opening begins looking at things from the outside – in True Lies, the snow-covered hillside with the mansion before focusing on the character of the spy. In a novel, Sambuchino explains, you should start with the closer focus, with the spy, and move outwards to encompass more of what is going on around him.

And that is exactly right – movies, being visual, are external. They show what can be seen and heard. They struggle, though, with the internal – what is felt. This is where the novel excels. In a book it is very easy to get deep into a character’s psyche, into their thoughts and feelings, without a conspicuous narrator voice-over which would be required to achieve the same in a movie.

A story should be told in the manner in which it can be presented to best effect. For some stories, that is the movie, for some a TV series, for some a book – but there are also radio plays and comics available. I think the book I started reading back in February might have been better as a movie or a comic book, because it felt like a visual story trapped in dry words.

If a book is what you want to write, then write a book – and not a movie.

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