What Reading Can Teach a Writer (That TV and Film Can’t)

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First of all, I want to make clear that I’m not bashing film as a storytelling technique or claiming that the written word is a superior art form.

Novelists aren’t better than screenwriters. There is no denying that our art forms have some differences, though; for sure, they have different strengths and weaknesses.

It’s common advice from writers who have made it big to read. They tell us to read, read, read, read. They don’t say, “Watch tv. Consume sitcom after sitcom, movie after movie.”

SOMETIMES STORYTELLING IS STORYTELLING

On one level, storytelling is storytelling. That holds true no matter the medium.

Heck, I’ve written posts about what writers can learn about storytelling from watching sitcoms and watching Doctor Who. And I hope to write more posts along that vein in the future.

Watching storytelling via film can teach traditional writers a lot about story.

  • Film can teach us about narrative structure and time manipulation in fiction.
  • Film can teach us about pacing.
  • It can teach us how to write good dialogue, and what makes good, realistic dialogue.
  • It can teach us TONS about character development.

My point here isn’t to claim that watching tv is a waste of time for novelists. My point is that reading can teach us all these things, and more.

There are some aspects and techniques involved with novels that don’t apply to film, and vice versa.

HOW FILM AND THE PRINTED WORD DIFFER

Film can’t teach us grammar. It can’t give us examples of grammar in action the way a well edited book can.

Beyond that obvious but important point, there is the impact of film’s visuality.

Film is a visual medium. The camera, by nature, eliminates a lot of the description required in novels.

A novelist has to ask:

  • How much should I describe the house the characters are in? The room and its layout? The size, quality, and condition of the furniture? How important is that?
  • What details of my characters’ physical appearance matter?
  • What, if anything, should a reader know about what my characters are wearing?
  • If they should know what Ben’s wearing, how I should tell them? Should the narrator mark it? Would Randy make some jibe or comment about Ben’s shirt? Is that believable?

These are not issues, really, for a filmmaker. The film must be filmed in a physical place, and with people (I’d hope) that are wearing clothing. In fact, I’d say a filmmaker would have to go out of his or her way to hide where a scene is taking place or who is involved in it.

That involves all kinds of cool tricks with lighting and camera work. And the audience always knows something is up. We know obvious information is being withheld, ostensibly for some purpose that will become clear later.

Sure, the camera can close in on a badge, to show the audience that a character is a cop or in the military. Sure, it can show the butt of a gun in closeup to reveal that a character is armed.

But this doesn’t translate directly to a novelist. Not in the way reading a western novel would.

MOOD IN FILM AND NOVELS

Mood is another thing that works differently in film and fiction.

  • Film can use music the characters don’t hear. And films use music HEAVILY to set mood. The best a writer can do is refer to a song by title (hoping the reader knows it) or describe music using heavy adjectives and adverbs (not usually a mark of good writing). And that’s assuming there could logically be music playing in the scene.
  • Film uses visual cues to set mood: color, lighting. Again, the only way a writer can use color to set mood is to tell the reader what color something is. And while that’s possible, and fine in moderation, writing feels stilted when a color is given for every object in a room and every piece of clothing someone has on.
  • Tone of voice comes from an actor in film. It’s automatic. You can’t avoid it even if you want to. On the page, a writer has to give a reader cues to apply tone: and those cues had better not be easy, lazy adverbs! You can’t learn how to imply tone in a novel by watching a movie.

These are some of the reasons writers tell other writers, “You have to read.”

Film is helpful for novelists, sure. It’s just not AS helpful. Reading is an indispensable tool for us.

I know there’s nothing really unique or wise here…. But I get suckered into watching too much tv. I guess I wrote this to get myself reading more 🙂

I’m really curious: is there a movie or tv show in particular that has taught you something about storytelling? That has affected how you write? How do you think film, as an art from, can help us novelists in our pursuit of self-expression?

Please feel free to share your thoughts! And don’t forget that if you don’t want to miss out on future posts from my blog, you can sign up at the top right of the page to follow my site by email.

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26 responses to “What Reading Can Teach a Writer (That TV and Film Can’t)

  1. Love this post! For me I’d say that Buffy The Vampire Slayer (no, really) taught me a LOT about storytelling. Actually watching the show can teach you a lot about character development, dialogue and making the unbelievable, believable. I also studied Joss Whedon’s scripts in my screenwriting class at University which confimred my suspicions that he’s a genius. But there’s still no better medium than reading to improve your writing.

    • Love what you say here!!! I have a friend who is obsessed with Buffy and often posts quotes and dialogue snippets…. it’s really, really good. A writer can DEFINITELY learn from that show. 🙂

      I love too your remark about making the unbelievable believable. That’s what fiction is all about, no matter what your genre is.

  2. I will admit to getting a lot of storytelling and character development ideas from TV and movies. A lot from books too. One big difference that I noticed between books and cinema/TV is that books leave more open to personal interpretation. We’ve all had that moment of seeing the translation of a book to a visual media and go ‘they got *insert physical trait/scenery/plotline* wrong’. The truth is that some things don’t translate well and readers have to create more in their head than movie watchers. With something in front of your eyes, it’s to possible to argue over correct hair color.

    I’m also chuckling about the grammar comment. Just imagining a drunken English professor yelling at the TV, “You mean their! Not they’re! Oh, now you’re saying there? Get it right!”

  3. Every writer should periodically read classics. That’s my classic advice, anyway. 🙂

  4. Whether it’s a book or a movie, I analyze anything that seems to have a plot. I think film teaches us a lot about moving forward with the action, but not description. Although I draw a lot of inspiration from visual things, so watching a good movie or something helps flesh out lots of ideas! I wrote a post on this because movie trailers always make me want to write, and always have. Before I figured out I was a writer, I think something inside me recognized plot and story in the trailers and responded, but I could have just been a hyper teenager 🙂

    • Oh, man that’s awesome!!! I totally get what you’re saying about the trailers. Trailers are the skeleton of the story, just the set-up, the scenario. they’re just begging you to flesh them out!

  5. On her blog, Kristen Lamb often references movies to teach elements of writing. I would highly recommend her blog.
    But I must agree with you Victoria–being well-read is an asset. I know it has helped me.

    • Thanks for mentioning Kristen. I really enjoy her blog on occasion (though I don’t stop by as often as I should.) She is extremely insightful! It’s called Warrior Writers for anyone not familiar with it.

  6. You bring up some great points. I am a book lover, so I agree with them all.

  7. for seven years I wrote screen plays. I did not earn a cent. I earned a thick skin. You can crit me over my shoulder as I type. The only praise was when the director ripped the page out and it never came back. I also learned about structure. I took the beginning – middle – end – hooks and turning points directly over to my fiction book writing.

    A film is 100 pages. In a book I have time and space….so the “music” plays longer in my head.

    Thank you Victoria….in the trailer I did not notice if you had a job?

    • A thick skin is VERY important. I can definitely see how you feel “freer” writing books, too, after the page constraints of screenplays.

      I’m unemployed at the moment. Former graduate student…. Hoping to find something soon!

  8. I enjoy movies and great TV shows. But I learned to hone my imagination through the written word. With a book, you have to creates in your head. With visual media, the images are already in front of you. But with movies or shows I’ve loved, I’ve learned the value of three C’s: characterization, being concise (have to tell a story in 22, 42, or 90 minutes), and continuity.

  9. I agree whole heartedly here. I used to select scenes in a book and break them down to see how they work. Now that I mention it, I should do more of that…

    • That is a CRAZY useful exercise. I don’t do that either nearly as much as I should, especially after leaving grad school. (I used to have to do it, haha!)

      I think it would be a lot more fun involved in books I like rather than books I had to read for my professors.

  10. Great post. I love the way you break it down, “Storytelling is storytelling.” I’m glad to know other writers appreciate all forms of storytelling while still holding the written word in greater regard.

  11. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 09-19-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  12. Harry Potter is so inspirational and awe inspiring. It does actually tell you a lot about writing especially in the fantasy series.

  13. I really like looking at movie adaptations of novels and picking out what changed and why. One example is the house fire in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” It served a different purpose and proved a different point in each medium.

    What we forget is that movies need to gloss over a lot of character building and world building. There isn’t a lot of time for internal monologue in a film. I liked that in text, you have more access to memories and emotional roots. The “Willow” book talked a bit about Sorsha’s father, which justified her betrayal of Bavmorda far more than her crush on Madmartigan did.

    Text allows for deeper storytelling. The imagination has no budget.

    • I totally agree! Glossing over worldbuilding is frustrating, but understandable in the film media. Film is more visual, which is both an asset and a constraint. And time is DEFINITELY a constraint with film. I notice it with every adaptation I watch!

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