Writing

Five Bad Habits Writers Learn From Movies and TV

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

Leonardo DiCaprio addressing a crowd in The Wolf of Wallstreet Seems like a charming guy.

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

Killmonger and T'Challa dueling in Black Panther Maybe just stab him? It’s more likely to work than you think!

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

A Tellarite from Star Trek Are the soulless eye-pits on purpose or…?

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

A film camera set up outdoors. Call me when one of these can do an internal monologue. Arri Alexa Camera by Sean P. Anderson used under CC BY 2.0

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

A sleeping cat in a basket. It’s not as cute when a book puts readers to sleep. Sleeping Cat by Mammiya (license)

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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Comments

  1. wnat

    2. also encompasses gratuitous sex scenes.

    • Cay Reet

      Definitely, yes.

    • DaVinci

      *thumbs up*
      I’ve gotten the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” from other writers to include these. So far, in six novels and two screenplays, I included one, and it’s rather comedic.

    • AlgaeNymph

      Indeed. Sex scenes either have to develop the plot somehow, or *be* the plot to begin with. Anything else’ll have me skimming through them. Of course, there’s always writing them as omakes…

    • Julia M.

      Yeah. As an asexual, those make me cringe.

  2. Tony

    “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.”

    Yep. As I’ve put it: “Han actively shoots Greedo, and nobody bats an eye. Avatar Kyoshi refuses to save her enemy as he accepts his death, and everyone loses their minds.”

    Also, another common example of portraying the hero externally is when the narration goes into a weird amount of detail about how sexy the (usually female) viewpoint character is. Some of this site’s posts about how to avoid sexist descriptions of women went into this.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Kyoshi is my favorite Avatar, I would watch a who series about her. And yeah, a lot of books take a weird amount of time to tell us how hot the female protag is. Artemis by Andy Weird had that problem, to the point that the hero felt more like a bad love interest than the main character.

      • Jeppsson

        I’m usually not that bothered by some “male-gazey” camera angles in movies or TV shows if they’re otherwise good (not saying I love it, just that I’m usually not that bothered), but when books spend loads of time describing how hot a female character is, it’s often much worse.

        I’m not sure why that is, but I can speculate… One reason might be that the camera in a movie often comes off as “impersonal”, not like any particular character’s point of view. If a female character is alone, and the camera shows off her hotness, it’s always “the impersonal camera”. It’s not portrayed as if she ogles herself , like the way it’s often done in books (sometimes with a cringey attempt to simultaneously have her insecure about her looks, and thinking of herself as unambiguously hot so that the reader gets it).

        When the camera does show us someone’s point of view, and it’s, say, a male character meeting a female one and then the camera sort of slides over her body, it usually only takes a couple of seconds. And in real life, checking someone out for a couple of seconds isn’t weird or offensive if you’re just discrete about it, not ogling the other person with big circular eyes like a cartoon character. I mean, SOMETIMES I’m bothered by this, it all depends on the details, but this might be a reason why I often just let it slide.
        In a book, in a male character’s PoV, you can have him think something like “she was a tall and very attractive brunette” and it comes off as pretty normal, but then the reader won’t know the details of her hotness. And as soon as the author goes into detail… you get the impression that he ogles and ogles.

    • AlgaeNymph

      Wait…people are upset Kiyoshi didn’t save Chin the Conqueror? But he was a jerk. And a dummy.

      • Tony

        People aren’t UPSET, but Kyoshi does have a bit of a reputation among fans for being ruthless. I guess part of it is that the show sets up her willingness to kill as a contrast with Aang, but I still wonder if the fans would view a male character as quite so brutal as they view Kyoshi.

  3. Star of Hope

    SPOILERS FOR SUPERNATURAL (do we even need spoilers here? I find them redundant)

    Regarding Supernatural and Dean, so you think it’s finale is bad or really awful? I learn towards ok as there was nothing they could ruin more by having put God into the story. Dean is also a huge dick, contrary what Castiel said.

    • Star of Hope

      As addendum, a bad habit I would add would be milking the shit out of your cow until it’s nipples turn red. you need to know when to end your story. If you cleared all the character arcs and the themes in the story or if new conflicts are unnecessary, then quit. Good shows like Kipo knew when to end and at least JoJo creates new stories for new Characters, which Supernatural should have done 10 seasons before. So just leave your precious creations alone when they are done and create more worlds and don’t you dare to destroy them unless they are the Turner Diaries, then burn it to nothingness. Now I hope I sparkled an interesting conservation here, I wait as patiently as a schemer(I am of the good, as in good guy variant of the schemer archetype).

      • Cay Reet

        Hello fellow mastermind (we don’t just come in the evil variety)!

        Yes, knowing when to end a story is an important thing. Some stories are just wrapped up so well, then someone thinks ‘this can be milked for another sequel’ and upsets the whole story for it. That goes for books as well as for TV series (which then get another season) or for movies.

        Another thing I would add, especially with current examples like “Fate: The Winx Saga” is ‘don’t try to reboot in name only’. If you want to work with the setting of a property again, try to keep to the core, don’t turn a bright, positive series into a grimdark drama just because you think everyone wants grimdark.

  4. SunlessNick

    In Supernatural’s early seasons … Dean’s entire character at that point is eating pie and disrespecting women.

    Early seasons plural he was, but in the first season itself, he was better that that (which makes the subsequent ones all the more annoying).

    Also re 1, screen writing has another advantage, which is musical cues to stir the desired emotion, even if subconsciously.
    My most immediate example there is negative. I watched The Third Man for the first time last night – the story and dialogue were good, the acting variable, but… – let’s just say the zither turned out to be a *terrible* instrument for generating suspense. But positive examples aren’t hard to find.

    • Beardedlizard

      It reminds me of the first blade runner, where the main character literally rape his “love interest”, with some kind of romantic music in the background to let the audience know “it’s alright, it’s not rape. We’re putting cute music, see? seeeee?” They even treated it as cannonicaly romantic in the sequel.

      The first time I watch it, I didn’t catch on what was really happening because the music tell you it’s alright. But without it, if you strip the scene of its cinematographic glamour, it becomes super uncomfortable.

  5. King Atlas

    Wonderful article! Will there be a follow up?

  6. AlgaeNymph

    Point #2 gets me thinking about the superhero genre in general, and why I almost never see it in a text medium. I suspect the problem is more fundamental in that the genre is pretty much *based* on visual wonder (fight scenes, exotic locales, memorable costumes, etc.). When it *does* go deeper, whether discussing systemic problems or just good dialogue, it’s still visual-only, almost as if it’s tradition. The closest I’ve seen the genre in a text medium is in role-playing games.

    That’s my observation. Where I’m going with this is that I’d like to read an article on writing superhero stories. Given how I’m thinking on writing one myself, particularly one with gray morality (*not* grimdark so you know; I’m depressed enough as it is), such an article (or two, or three, or four, or more…) would be quite relevant to my interests. ; )

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, superheroes are rarely tackled in pure written form (although I’ve read a few good stories, such as “Soon I Will Be Invincible”). I think one reason is that a lot of things which define superheroes work better in a visual form – like the costumes, the action, the heroic stances, etc. Classic superhero stories are much easier to tell in a comic book or a movie (or a TV series). They’re much harder to get right in written form.

      Well, I’m editing a story in a superhero setting for release right now – Isadora Goode is from an old heroic family in a world where superheroes and supervillains exist and their interactions a codified to a high degree. She’s decided not to follow her family’s plans (she was to become a damsel, like her mother), but becomes a villain instead – the first necromancer in a century. Yet, the stories I write are less about ‘good vs. evil’ and more about Isadora’s own problems and the adventures her work gets her into (such as having to fight powerful vampires in a tomb she was looting). Her brother is technically a hero and on the side of good, but he’s not a good person because of this. Isadora is a villain and technically on the side of evil, but she’s not a bad person because of it. She’s also regularly saving her brother’s and nemesis’ damsel…

    • Dinwar

      I suppose it depends on how one classifies superheroes. Many ancient myths are very similar to the MCU. The stories about the Argonauts, for example.

      Still, you are correct that today superheroes are mostly limited to visual media. I think much of this is due to the fact that most of the problems these heroes solve are resolved violently. It is easier to show a dramatic fight than to tell about it. A realistic depiction of a fight would be either supremely boring or supremely confusing—boring, because most fights are over in a few seconds; confusing, because things are happening too fast for conscious thought (thus the necessity of training). There are ways around this, but stylized visual portrayals are easier.

      I have seen some descent Batman stories. This is, I think, because while Batman ultimately solves problems with violence, he starts by thorough planning for every contingency. You can write a noire detective story using Batman, and it makes perfect sense.

      Another option may be to write differently. I forget the name, but there is a style of writing that uses newspaper articles, letters, and the like to tell the story. “Dracula” was written in part in this manner, if I recall correctly. This would allow one to depict the action after the fact, and with a focus on the broader context (both in therms of the plot, and in terms of the collateral damage). Superman and Spider-Man would be good options for this, as both work closely with news outlets, providing an excuse for the stylistic choice. “Superman writing about himself to hide his identity” could get interesting, from a psychological perspective—the tension between maintaining his secret and the whole “Truth, justice, and the American way” thing.

      • SunlessNick

        “Dracula” was written in part in this manner, if I recall correctly.

        Entirely so, if we count journal and diary entries.

      • Cay Reet

        “Dracula” was completely written in epistolary style (what you referred to with newspaper clippings etc.). Yet, the style isn’t very common, because it’s not really one story that way. You have several different sources which means you need to write them in several different ways. The reader needs to get used to every different source afterwards. There’s a reason why this type of writing is rare – people don’t enjoy reading it as much as they enjoy reading a novel with a regular narrative.

        The two books published alongside the release of “Blair Witch Project” 1+2 were made very much like that, presented as case files with different kind of data in them.

        • Dinwar

          I don’t think you’re correct in saying it’s not one story. It’s not one narrative, but many styles of story have multiple narratives. It was one of the things I liked about early installments in the “Game of Thrones” books–the same event was seen from different perspectives.

          I don’t think reading this style of book is the issue. We do it all the time–this is how we approach complex events in the real world, via newspaper articles, discussions with friends (used to happen via letters very frequently), official reports if you have access, that sort of thing. We learn about current events in epistolary style. The difficulty is in writing. In a standard book you have one writing style to capture, and that’s hard enough. Using multiple styles requires the writer to have a firm grasp of all those styles of writing.

          The internet has provided some interesting avenues for exploring this writing style. The SCP Foundation is primarily epistolary, the concept being that the articles are files from a covert agency primarily focused on keeping humanity from being destroyed by anomalous phenomena. The website “Nationstate” also has a somewhat similar approach when you get into the roleplaying aspect. I’ve seen other examples as well, but haven’t finished my coffee so can’t think of any. The benefit of this style in the age of the internet is that many people can contribute. The problem is, well, many people from the internet are contributing.

          • Cay Reet

            It’s one story, but not one narrative.

            As a writer, this means writing several different voices, since an article, a blog/vlog/diary post, and another kind of ‘original material’ all will be written differently. This means that they will not read the same, either.

            It might be changing again today, with the internet being a thing, but for a long time (years before Stoker wrote Dracula, as it were), epistolary stories weren’t popular with audiences.

    • silverware

      Wouldn’t say they’re that rare. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee, Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts, the Antagonists by Burgandi Rakoska, Hench by Natalie Walschots, and, if you count them as a form of literature, Choice of Games have a lot of superhero themed games.

      Tho all of these examples are about supervillains and company, lol. Maybe because as you said the heroic posing and fighting doesn’t work well in prose, and the anti-heroes have a lot of angst that translates well.

      • silverware

        I forgot Dreadnought by April Daniels

      • Cay Reet

        Forgot about the ‘Please Don’t Tell My Parents…’ books. Although those are more about the drama of being a teenager with superheroes for parents who gets pushed into the villain role.

  7. KElliott

    To get a good idea of how much the visual spectacle adds to or carries an actions scene anime adaptations of manga is a great place to look. Manga is still a visul medium so gets to play around with some spectacle, but seeing the exact same story with identical beats, except with animation, colours and voice acting really dials that spectacle up to 11.

    It’s definitely good to consider other ways that action scenes are satisfying, as spectacle can’t carry everything. Doubly so when you’re writing prose.

  8. Erynus

    As i grow older and grumpier, i have less and less patience with movies and shows. A curse of knowing the tools of the trade is that i can spot bad writing in a bad written show, and it hurts.
    A lot of new shows seem to be the same (like the custom of leaving a character almost mid sentence for the next “season” when the center plot issue is not even remotelly solved; just cut it after a batch of 6 or 8 episodes and call it a season)
    I tremble whenever i think how it would look on plain writing, if they can’t make an entertaining show with all the tricks of visual media.

    On another topic, I’m amazed how little people comment on the plot of WonderWoman 84 revolving around raping. I couldn’t believe it did passed the edit room.

    • GeniusLemur

      I think it was Neil Gaiman who commented that he doesn’t consume much fiction anymore because it’s so easy for him to see the stories’ inner workings and therefore know exactly what’s going to happen and get bored.

    • Julia M.

      “On another topic, I’m amazed how little people comment on the plot of WonderWoman 84 revolving around raping. I couldn’t believe it did passed the edit room.”

      Yeah. That was BAD. (I just read the plot summary and cringed. It was totally horrific.)

      We’re come a long way with making less light of rape (especially with the MeToo movement), but unfortunately, there’s still a double standard of this with female on male. Female on Male rape is often played for laughs. (As is Female on Female, Male on Male, and prison rape.)

      This could’ve been avoided if the love interest just came back in his own body.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      “just cut it after a batch of 6 or 8 episodes and call it a season”

      This is one of the problems I had with the Mandalorian: seasons one and two just feel like a single season they split in half due to budgetary restrictions, then added filler to bring the episode count up.

  9. Elias

    Thanks for sharing. Number three was mos def an issue for me.

  10. J.S. Pailly

    So I’m a science fiction writer, and at one point I had a gelatinous blob creature as a main character in a story. The critique group I was in at the time told me that I shouldn’t do that because aliens have to look human in order to be relatable. It was one of the most frustrating examples of #3 I’ve ever experienced.

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