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.
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.