In The Last Jedi, Luke discovers that books can be very different than film.

Mythcreants frequently uses movies and shows to discuss storytelling techniques. Our readers are more familiar with these big-budget works, and most storytelling principles are universal. However, videos and books are different mediums that come with their own storytelling trade-offs, not to mention different technical implementation. Since many writers consume most of their stories via film, it’s easy to treat written works like they are movies, but that’s a mistake. Let’s go over six important differences.

1. Films Can Convey Large Visuals in Detail

Gandalf riding toward the great walled city of Ministereth from Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings movies distilled Tolkien’s notoriously long description into beautiful scenery.

We all know the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What takes pages of description in writing is only one panorama on-screen. Movies and TV shows can create an environment that’s large, detailed, and immersive. This can not only make the audience feel like they’re there but also communicate complex layouts and lots of simultaneous actions. If you have a battle scene, a few images can show the audience what’s happening everywhere.

It can be disappointing to realize that text isn’t capable of the same feat. That doesn’t mean that your narration can’t evoke stunning visuals or create a strong sense of place. However, text can’t create the same large and detailed picture that visuals can. Readers quickly get bored with lots of description, and their ability to assemble schematics into visuals in their minds is limited. When writers try to convey a crystal-clear image of exactly what the environment looks like or exactly what’s happening in a scene, it only sabotages their stories.

Instead, narration paints the big picture and relies on readers to fill in the missing pieces.

  • Offering a few concrete details is essential, but those things exist to represent a larger picture. For instance, if the scene is in a forest, briefly describe a few plants, animals, or other features that embody the atmosphere you want. Don’t dwell on any one thing for too long unless it’s important to the story, or it will set the wrong expectation.
  • Details are for evoking the imagination, not for schematics. It’s not helpful to mention exact measurements; use subjective descriptors for size and space. Similarly, you don’t need to mention right or left unless it’s important to keep track of which side is which for story reasons.
  • Focus on the implications of what’s happening in a scene over the exact logistics. If one character maneuvers around another during a fight, what matters is that they are positioned to strike a vulnerable spot, not that they’ve jumped three feet to the left, putting them behind their opponent’s shield arm, and are now balancing on their right foot. 

For more on this, see my article Narrating Layout & Position.

2. Narration Still Conveys Information Better

An attractive black teacher presides over a an outdoor classroom
The movie Serenity opens with a wild string of flashbacks to fill in exposition. One of them is even a classroom so there’s an excuse to teach obvious world facts to viewers.

I recently discussed exposition and its importance to stories. We think about exposition as useless filler, but that’s only when it’s done in excess. Otherwise, it performs critical functions like reducing confusion and explaining why the conflicts of the story matter. Without that, the story would suffer. In a written work, exposition of any kind is usually worked into the narration. This offers maximum flexibility in communicating the right information during the right scene.

Without narration, screenwriters struggle to convey essential information that isn’t evident in a scene. Most often, they rely on dialogue. Doing this can quickly ruin the dialogue, since audiences can tell when characters are saying things that they have no reason to say. That’s why novelists shouldn’t use this method unless the characters actually need to discuss important information. But this is the subtlest method screenwriters have at their disposal, and skilled actors can sell lines that would be laughable in print.

Because screenwriters rely on dialogue to convey information, that means characters don’t spend as much time alone. Most scenes require two characters, or at least a character and an animal companion to monologue at. Since visuals also make it easier to keep track of characters, movies and shows often have a larger cast than a written story of the same size could handle.

When dialogue isn’t enough, films also use flashbacks to convey information. This leads to the occasional absurd movie opening were the audience is shown one flashback scene after another, because that’s the closest thing screenwriters have to a large exposition dump. All these flashbacks on-screen can lead novel writers to think that flashbacks are a good storytelling tool, when they’re actually boring in most cases. In a written work, flashbacks are only worth using when they reveal something that will change the outcome of future events. 

3. Narration Can Be More Imaginative

Kirk, Spock, and two Aliens
If you watch Star Trek, you just have to pretend that all the humans in makeup are actually aliens.

If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve heard the jokes about “forehead aliens.” Most alien species in the franchise only differ visually from humans in that they have a pattern of ridges on their forehead. This is obviously unrealistic, and it led to a Next Generation episode that suggested all the humanoid aliens on the show have a common origin with humans.

Of course, Star Trek didn’t make forehead aliens because that’s what the studio thought real aliens would look like. TV shows usually have a limited budget for costumes and special effects, and to be relatable, aliens need to be played by human actors. Putting ridges on the forehead leaves the rest of the face free for speech or facial expressions. While progress in special effects and costuming has made forehead ridges a thing of the past, most stories on the screen have practical limitations on what can go into the story, whether it’s a limit on the number of sets, the size of the cast, or the amount of makeup.

Novelists have no such constraints. As long as they don’t make their story too complex for readers to comprehend, they can include whatever they can dream up. In turn, readers expect them to use their imaginations to its fullest. Speculative fiction writers are usually rewarded for creating outlandish things that a studio would have a hell of a time depicting.

This can become an issue when a writer wants to create an off-brand Star Trek. Big franchises can get away with a hokey look because they’re grandfathered in; that’s what their existing fans expect. But a writer who copies the limitations of a visual medium into their original novel will disappoint readers. Instead, use the flexibility your medium offers you.

4. Films Benefit From Sensory Spectacle

Dumbledore controls a sphere of water
In the Harry Potter books, Dumbledore says that flashy magic is a sign of an amateur wizard. In the movies, he uses flashy magic.

Sights and sounds can get an instant reaction that text has more trouble achieving. And if those sensory aesthetics are good, the reaction will probably be positive. While a movie might reasonably open with a panning shot, a book that opens by describing a landscape is not off to a great start.

This distinction is especially important for action sequences. In film, it’s fun to see a helicopter crash into a building and blow up. Watching two fencers in a duel gets the blood pumping, especially with exciting music to enhance the mood. Unfortunately, fights are not as exciting in narration. They can be exciting simply because the stakes of a fight are often life or death, but any situation where life is on the line has that same advantage.

Because of the association between fights and excitement on-screen, writers and readers can mistakenly believe that what a boring story needs is more violence and destruction, instead of more conflict in the storytelling sense of the word. Writers might then add a fight scene where nothing important is at stake instead of actually raising the story’s tension with social conflicts or an impending deadline. And when fights are narrated, writers are likely to emphasize flashy moves instead of focusing on what matters to the story.

On the other hand, when books are adapted for the screen, it’s common to add flashy visuals that weren’t in the original. A great example of this is the Harry Potter series. In the books, apparition is overwhelmingly used by wizards for spell transport, and it happens without any kind of fancy effects. But during a wizard battle in the fifth movie, Team Good turns into white smoke and Team Evil turns into black smoke. The color coding doesn’t make much sense but uses the visual medium to its fullest.

5. Films Have Trouble With Internal Conflicts

Luke and Vader Fight in Return of the Jedi
In Return of the Jedi, we wouldn’t even know Luke was tempted by the dark side of the force except the villains keep saying he is.

Stories feature a whole host of conflicts that take place within the mind of a character. Generally, these conflicts come into play when a character is trying to either figure out a puzzle or make a difficult choice. These conflicts are not only the main building blocks of character arcs, but they’re also important for creating a satisfying ending. Winning their internal struggle, whether it’s a battle against temptation or seeing through a clever disguise, makes it feel like a character has earned their victory.

But without narration, movies and TV shows can’t show internal conflicts directly; they have to externalize them. They generally do this with dialogue that highlights the emotional or intellectual challenges characters are facing and with acting that emphasizes a character’s hesitation or conflicted feelings. Fight scenes often show a clever move the hero makes to win the day after almost being defeated, but it’s not unusual for the turning point in a visual work to be glossed over.

Because films can’t show thoughts, they benefit more from reveals that don’t work if the audience knows what the hero knows. For instance, all might seem lost until the hero announces that everything has gone according to their secret plan. I refer to this as a hidden plan turning point, and films do it often because it doesn’t cost them as much. Visual storytellers are still capable of hiding too much from viewers, but they have a much easier time hiding information without straining believability, and they don’t rely on the same level of emotional closeness to keep audiences engaged.

Following the lead of films, writers often neglect narration that focuses on what’s happening inside a character’s head. They’ll leave readers to wonder what a character thinks or feels about a situation instead of turning that into a riveting conflict of its own. Copying the plots of visual works, they reach much too soon for reveals that require them to pull out of the hero’s head. That can be very costly to the story.

6. Actors Can Doom Their Characters

Lexa lies back in bed, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth
When actress Alycia Debnam-Carey had other commitments, The 100 writers thought it would be okay to kill off her character, Lexa, as long as fans got to see her hook up with the lead first. It was not.

Because they often run for years, TV shows are vulnerable to unseen production changes. They often won’t know if they’ll get another season, they might run out of budget, and the show’s talent might leave at any time.

In turn, unexpected changes mean that characters are much more likely to die. When an actor leaves to pursue another opportunity, the character they are playing almost always has to be cut. The character doesn’t have to die, but death raises tension for the remaining characters and gives screenwriters an easy way to explain why the character isn’t around anymore. Since storytellers don’t have much control over when an actor quits, these character deaths can leave plot threads hanging and fans upset.

The frequency of deaths on TV can make writers think that killing off an important character is a better storytelling tactic than it is. When storytellers do their jobs well, audiences become really attached to protagonists. More often than not, killing one will cause some people to quit the story. If you kill off enough characters, even audience members who don’t leave will stop investing in the story emotionally. What’s the point of getting attached to a character if they’re just going to die? 

Deaths are especially upsetting when they happen mid-story. At the beginning, audiences are less invested in characters. At the end, it’s easier to give meaning to character deaths – a character might save the day by going out in a blaze of glory. That way, the character gets lots of candy and the fans wouldn’t get to see them in the next chapter anyway. While mid-story deaths are appropriate for very dark stories, they are much more alienating.

If you’re writing a novel, your story won’t be a flashy movie with a 100 million dollar budget. But in other ways, the medium you’re working in is more powerful. Use the depth and control that narration gives you.

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