One of my favorite jokes on The Office is when Dwight Schrute boasts, “I know everything about film. I’ve seen over 240 of them.”
It’s funny because it sounds reasonable at first, but then you realize 240 is a pittance. You’ve surely seen thousands of movies, not to mention thousands of hours of scripted TV shows. (That’s also when you realize just how much time you actually have on your hands).
When we tell stories, it’s almost impossible to get movies and TV shows out of our heads because they so thoroughly dominate popular culture. So when you sit down to write, it’s exceedingly tempting to visualize it like a scene in the movies. But it’s also extremely dangerous.
Novels are wholly different beasts than movies. Treat your novel like a glorified screenplay at your peril.
Even a movie is not just dialogue
Novelists are not just screenwriters. They’re also directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers, key grips, best boys… you get the idea.
As I pointed out in an interview with my friend Natasa Lekic, authors who write with film in mind often focus overwhelmingly on the dialogue. They construct scenes around two characters engaging in oh-so-witty banter with few other storytelling cues. If the characters don’t say it out loud in these kinds of novels, it’s almost like nothing else can happen.
But when authors do this, it means they’re not even taking advantage of all the things viewers are absorbing as they’re watching a TV show. Actors’ facial expressions and gestures, their vocal inflections, the setting, sound effects and music and countless other small sources of input. Reduce a movie to simply disembodied words, and you’d have a really banal experience.
But even just approximating film craft on the page falls short of novels’ full capabilities.
Novels are about why and how characters do what they do
Film and TV are visual and auditory mediums. As viewers, we absorb.
Novels are a mind-meld medium. As readers, we co-create.
Think about what’s happening when we read a novel. We attach ourselves to a perspective created by an author using some esoteric ink splotches on paper and fall into a trance where we’re both ourselves and not ourselves. Anything we visualize as readers arises in our own heads and is informed by our own experiences. Millions of people have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and no two readers “see” the exact same wardrobe. It’s weird!!
Because of the nature of the medium, readers are much more intimately connected with characters’ minds in novels than they are in movies. Not only because we can delve into their thought processes to a vastly greater degree than movies, but because readers are literally constructing an entire world in their heads around the narrator’s point of view.
Why characters are doing what they’re doing matters so much more in novels than they do in movies due to this process of co-creation. We’re way more attuned to whether the world we’re constructing makes any sense! We attach to what characters want, which helps us wrap our mind around the story and helps us contextualize why characters are doing what they’re doing.
To be sure, motivations and the stakes matter in filmmaking, but it’s just not the same. In a movie, we will happily watch action stars do things that make absolutely no sense when you stop and think about them, or watch breathlessly as a beautiful actor simply mopes around.
Even dialogue-heavy novels need novelistic craft
Yes, there are writers as varied as Colleen Hoover, Elmore Leonard, and Hilary Mantel who have written dialogue-centric novels. It’s absolutely possible to construct a novel that employs more than its fair share of talking. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu even includes sections that are literally constructed as a screenplay.
They’re still skilled novelists at the end of the day and take full advantage of the medium. Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman is famously constructed nearly entirely around dialogue and has no narrative voice. But look how it starts off. Does this sound like anything other than a novel to you?
–Something a little strange, that’s what you notice, that she’s not a woman like all the others. She looks fairly young, twenty-five, maybe a little more, petite face, a little catlike, small turned-up nose. The shape of her face, it’s…more roundish than oval, broad forehead, pronounced cheeks too but then they come down to a point, like with cats.
Dialogue-heavy novels tend to have an economy of physical description and narrative voice, but they still give readers enough cues to visualize scenes and understand motivations. The storytelling essentials are all present.
Great writers who dial up the dialogue tend to just be adept at sneaking the other elements in.
If you’re going to draw upon movies, think cinematically
Of course movies can be an inspiration for the way you write. It’s inevitable. But if you’re going to incorporate some movie tropes, think less about the dialogue and more about physical actions, immersing the reader within a scene, and keeping us attuned to motivations.
In other words, think cinematically.
One of my favorite series of scenes in a YA novel is in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. In the opening stages of the novel, the two eponymous protagonists oh so gradually escalate their relationship over the course of several morning bus rides largely without talking to each other at all. Instead, they’re simply sharing comics back and forth, then sharing music.
What’s important about these scenes are the gestures, those little physically acted moments. Park holding open his comics so Eleanor can see them, Eleanor showing interest and moving a little closer, escalating to sharing music.
Don’t think solely about what characters are saying, think much more about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Remember that novels are about characters moving through the world, even if it’s just an interior world. It’s about motivated characters trying to get what they want, even if that’s just making sense of their constraints. Even dialogue in novels should be more about doing than simply saying.
Have you noticed your novels veering toward screenplays? How do you avoid movies getting in your head?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 19, 2015
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Art: French photographer in old Yokohama by Yoshikazu Utagawa