While the foundational rules of storytelling are the same no matter what medium you’re using, the story’s format still has an impact. Books and films are noticeably different, if the whole moving-picture situation wasn’t enough of a clue. Nevertheless, a lot of new writers first learn about storytelling through movies and TV, which is understandable, considering how many viewing options we have these days. The problem arises when authors pick up storytelling habits that might work onscreen but will leave readers snoozing on the page. I see this a lot with my clients, so I’m hoping that by covering these issues now, we can all save time and money on future edits.
1. Making the Protagonist a Jerk
In the vast majority of stories, the protagonist needs to be likable, meaning that the audience needs to like them and enjoy watching or reading about them. Unfortunately, this requirement is seriously muddled for two big reasons. The first is privilege, plain and simple. Privileged audiences give similarly privileged characters more slack, which is why Jonathan Archer still has fans ready to excuse his unending incompetence and naked bigotry while Michael Burnham gets pilloried any time she frowns too hard.
The second reason is actors and how unreasonably charismatic they are. Even when a character is pure slime, the right actor can make them fun to watch with a winning smile and a sonorous voice. Leonardo DiCaprio makes it fun to watch a scummy con artist in The Wolf of Wall Street. Michelle Yeoh turns a genocidal dictator into a wisecracking truth teller in Star Trek: Discovery. In Supernatural’s early seasons, Jensen Ackles lends Dean Winchester a down-to-earth charm, even though Dean’s entire character at that point is eating pie and disrespecting women. The list goes on.*
Prose stories do not have this advantage. In a novel, readers primarily judge the hero by what they do, not how they look and sound while doing it. Describing your hero as having Hollywood looks and charm doesn’t help, as that’s only telling the reader that such qualities exist, not actually portraying them. A movie hero might be able to get away with insulting senior citizens if the actor can sell it as an eccentric quirk. A prose hero doing that will just seem like a jerk.
It’s easy to forget how this works when an episode of your favorite show takes your breath away. Actor and script seem to merge, making it difficult to tell if the dialogue is actually good or if the performance is just top notch. But your readers will remember in a hurry when they have only the page and their own imaginations to work with. This is why we spend so much time talking about what traits will make readers fall in love with your hero. In prose, it’s all on your shoulders as the writer. You can’t hope that a brilliant actor will take your writing and enhance it with their personal charisma.
If you want readers to like your hero, that hero needs to do likable things. If they’re nothing but a selfish ball of misanthropy, readers will lose patience fast.*
2. Including Action for Its Own Sake
Action scenes are cool. With skilled choreography and a decent budget, I can happily watch two protagonists swordfight, even if it isn’t terribly relevant to the plot. Of course, it’s better when a fight scene is relevant to the plot, but in visual mediums, a fight is also entertaining for its own sake.
In prose, fight scenes are just words on the page, like any other. It’s certainly easier to make them tense and exciting because they tend to have high stakes built right in, but they aren’t inherently entertaining. If readers aren’t invested in the protagonist, they have no reason to care about a fight scene where the protagonist’s well-being serves as the main stakes.
This becomes a problem when authors try to follow the adage about bringing in men with guns if the story isn’t working. Don’t get me wrong, a well-crafted fight scene with proper stakes can be just what the content editor ordered, but only if it has those secondary elements in place. Readers need to not only care about the combatant’s goals, but also like the hero well enough to worry about them getting hurt. Without those supports, a fight scene is as boring as a trip to the pharmacy.
Visual fight scenes are also much better at getting audiences to fixate on the spectacle of a fight rather than the drama. In Black Panther, T’Challa wins the fight against Killmonger by… stabbing him at a certain point. T’Challa does throw his sword up in the air beforehand, but there’s nothing there to show why Killmonger would fail to dodge this attack after dodging all the previous ones. In short, there’s no turning point.
That’s not great for the film, but Black Panther can get away with it thanks to all the flash and sizzle of the fight. In a book, such an ending would ruin the entire fight. Not only is there no clear mechanism for the hero’s victory, but also there’s nothing to show why they deserved to win. In prose, a good turning point shows how the hero earns their victory, whether through being clever, putting in previous good deeds, resisting temptation, etc.
3. Keeping Production Constraints
In live-action science fiction, most aliens are essentially humans in makeup and prosthetics, and it’s pretty clear why. Anything more alien-looking has to either be a puppet or CGI, and both options have serious limitations. Even with lots of talent and all the money in the world, it’s difficult for puppets to match human actors for mobility, and CGI still has a habit of aging badly. That’s assuming a production has near unlimited resources, which most don’t.
As viewers, we accept this. We don’t write off Vulcans as unrealistic for being essentially humans with pointed ears or question why Gelfling puppets don’t have the same range of movement that we do.
This is fine until authors start thinking these conceits are the mark of good storytelling rather than production limitations. I most often see this in the form of humanoid aliens. Outside of a TV show’s limited budget, humanoid aliens almost always seem hokey. Aliens offer a great opportunity to get creative and imagine something truly out there. For most stories, the weirder, the better. Not only is it unrealistic for aliens to look like humans, but making them more, well, alien is an important source of novelty.
On the other hand, if your aliens aren’t substantially different from humans, they might as well just be humans. Occasional reminders that the aliens are, in fact, alien will only be a distraction. If you can make an alien character human without significantly changing the story, that’s a sign they should probably be a human in the first place.
Another area where authors get confused about production limits is in scifi technology. Most big-budget scifi franchises have futuristic weapons that are actually less effective than modern firearms. Looking at you, Star Wars and Stargate. Alternatively, sometimes they go the Star Trek route, where phasers are supposedly very powerful weapons, but that performance is never portrayed onscreen.
While phasers and blasters are annoyingly ineffective when you think about it, they at least have cool special effects going for them. If your prose character has a fancy space gun that works like a normal gun, it’ll be both disappointing and confusing, as readers wonder why technology hasn’t advanced in the far future. While it’s always good to put limits on your scifi tech so it doesn’t get out of hand, if it’s no more capable than the junk we use today, then it’s probably not serving the story.
4. Portraying the Hero Externally
Camera technology has advanced a lot in the last century or so, but films still can’t show us what’s going on inside a character’s head.* Voiceovers are always an option, but they’re heavy-handed at best, and even the most loquacious voiceover can’t communicate more than a fraction of the hero’s thoughts. Don’t feel too bad for filmmakers, though; they have powerful tools to bring across a character’s thoughts anyway. The actor’s expression is a big one, as is the film’s soundtrack. Audiences are even willing to tolerate a bit of contrived dialogue now and then if it fills in the hero’s internal gaps.
Prose authors don’t have any of those tricks, but it’s okay: we have internal narration instead. Unfortunately, new authors often neglect internal narration. At least for the authors I work with, this is a habit learned from film. Sometimes, they’re trying to create a specific effect. They might want to open their story with the hero appearing to be a damsel in distress, only to surprise readers with badass martial arts. In other cases, there’s no special goal in mind; that’s just how the author thinks characters should be portrayed.
It is almost never a good idea to shut readers out of your protagonist’s head. Readers need to know what the hero is thinking and feeling; that’s how you build attachment. If the hero is a complete cipher, it’s difficult to invest in them because readers don’t know them. Internal conflicts are effectively impossible without internal narration, ruling out some of your best options for drama. Even stories with omniscient narration take the time to show what the hero is thinking. It’s that essential.
If readers can’t get attached to the hero, then nothing the hero does matters and the story is boring. Readers also need the hero’s internal thoughts to properly contextualize what’s going on. If the hero is attacked by hellhounds, is that a serious threat, or are demonic doggos a common nuisance?
Worse, it’s difficult to stay out of a hero’s head consistently, so most new authors will occasionally zoom into the hero’s head for specific moments. This is a jarring experience, and it quickly becomes contrived. Somehow, the hero can shield some thoughts from the reader but not others.
There are very few situations where stories actually benefit from concealing what the hero knows. To do so successfully, you must keep the reader from feeling like anything is missing, so they don’t get frustrated. Then, after you make the reveal, it must seem plausible that this info wouldn’t have entered the hero’s thoughts before. If you can’t meet those requirements, then don’t conceal internal information. It’s not worth the cost.
5. Leaving Engagement Low
The undeniable truth is that written mediums take more effort to engage with than visual ones. That’s why your unfairly talented visual artist friends can easily get a bunch of social media reacts on their illustrations, but finding anyone to beta read your short story is like pulling teeth.
Watching a movie or episode of TV is more work than looking at an illustration, but it’s still a lot easier than reading a novel. This means filmmakers have more leeway to waste the audience’s time than novelists do. It’s still better if filmmakers don’t waste the audience’s time, but they’re more likely to get away with it. If the first two episodes of a TV show are slow and meandering, I might stick around to see if it gets better. If the first two chapters of a novel can’t hold my interest, it immediately gets the boot.*
When released in theaters, movies have even more leeway. You’re often there with friends, and leaving before the movie finishes requires you to walk in front of people, which feels rude. Plus, tickets are expensive, and viewers generally feel like they need to get their money’s worth by finishing the movie. The theater’s superior visual and audio systems also help distract from annoying flaws. This was sharply demonstrated by the scathing reviews for Wonder Woman 1984, a thoroughly average superhero movie that had the bad fortune to be released on streaming thanks to the pandemic.
Prose stories don’t have any of this leeway, but it’s easy for authors to imagine they can waste the first few chapters on slow worldbuilding or deep character studies. Some of their favorite shows have done it and been fine, so what’s the harm? Turns out the harm is a book getting put directly on the never finished list.
As prose writers, we need to remember that reading a novel is a big investment. If we want someone to make that investment on our behalf, we need to give them a reason to continue right from page one. That means a compelling conflict, it means working on your ANTS, and it means a likable hero that readers are excited to follow. The medium we’ve chosen demands such commitment from us. In return, we can tell stories without spending the millions of dollars necessary for a movie or TV show.
If you’re ever worried that you might be spending more time with film than a novelist should, let me put your mind at rest: a good story is a good story, regardless of medium, and there’s a lot we can learn from our screenwriter comrades. They tend to be pretty good at crafting throughlines, for one thing. But we also need to keep in mind that different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. So long as we do that, we can avoid these bad habits and binge our favorite streaming show in peace.
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