Book vs Movie

Book vs movie

In my work as a freelance editor, I've noticed a common tendency among the current crop of science fiction authors to write books as if they're writing movies. That practice is understandable since most science fiction and fantasy novels published after 1980 suck, and therefore today's authors are disproportionately influenced by film.

However, writing a novel by playing a little movie in your head and transcribing what you see in your mind's eye hobbles the final product. Because this generation of authors don't read as much as their forebears did, few of them realize the storytelling advantages that books have over movies.

The film advantage

First, let's examine the storytelling tools in a film maker's repertoire that simply aren't available to novelists.

  • Film is a visual medium. Movies don't have to spend time describing characters, action, and settings. They can just show those elements.
  • Movies are easier to consume. As passive entertainment, they require less time investment and skill on the part of the audience. Bibliophiles often take the ability to read for granted, but nearly half of all American adults now have significant difficulty reading or are functionally illiterate.
  • In addition to their main visual aspect, movies are also enhanced by audio. Music and sound effects add extra layers and depth to the moviegoing experience.
Book advantages

Film makers certainly have storytelling tools at their disposal that novelists don't. On the other hand, authors can pull off feats of story craft that make movie directors jealous.

  1. Authors can directly convey their characters' emotions. Storytelling works by evoking an emotional response in the audience. When it comes to making audiences empathize with characters, novelists who understand their medium have all other artists beat. Authors have a thousand ways to relate characters' emotional states to readers, from subtle word choices that filter descriptions through a POV character's mood, to outright saying how a character feels.Movies have to rely on actors' performances and musical cues to get the same info across. Unless the director decides to include a voiceover, which is hard to do without getting heavy handed.
  2. Novel characters can be themselves. Related to the point above, the simple and necessary act of casting an actor to portray a character imposes hard limits on that character and the audience. Star Wars fans who read the 1976 novelization before the 1977 movie came out were free to imagine what Han Solo looked and sounded like within the broad descriptions supplied by Alan Dean Foster. Then the movie came out and effectively vetoed their imaginations. Now Han Solo is and forever will be Harrison Ford, Just like Aragorn is Viggo Mortensen and Daniel Radcliffe is Harry Potter. Books give readers more creative freedom.
  3. Books let readers make more choices. Every author has a personal vision for his work. Each reader has his own interpretation of a book's events, characters, and setting that will always differ from the author's to varying degrees. I've talked to readers who picture some of my most prominent characters with wildly different hair colors than are clearly defined in the book, for instance. That's an extreme example, but smart authors take advantage of readers' desire to stake ownership over the story by opening aspects up to interpretation. Use your books' higher necessary audience investment to foster audience participation.
  4. An unlimited special effects budget. The author is so called because he wields effectively unlimited authority over his secondary world. And compared to a film director, exercising that authority is practically effortless. As a novelist, you can conjure monsters as big as any realized on film--or bigger, stage battles between millions of swarming starships, and create worlds yet undreamed of. For free. Bonus: You can go the Lovecraft route and totally own film makers by writing of creatures so otherworldly as to defy mortal comprehension.


  1. The unlimited special effects budget is a biggy. The space opera of someone like E. E. Doc Smith makes this Lucas dude look like Ed Wood. You'd need the GDP of several 1st world nations to do his work justice

    1. I think only animation, true animation could do justice to stuff like Doc Smith, Leigh Brackett or Burroughs. Sadly neither America or Japan could pull it off with their respective industries today.

    2. The Earthsea and Lensman anime back you up on that.

  2. You see similar things with comic books, which have spent most of the past couple of decades trying really hard to just be movies on paper. From the late 90s on, you have an influx of writers like Warren Ellis and Bendis who directly spoke against using traditional, comics-specific devices like thought balloons because it was felt they were "too comic booky", in favor of "widescreen" storytelling that tries really hard to mimic the pacing and style of blockbuster movies. The result is that most comics now would be very easy to adapt into movies or TV, but as reading experiences even the best ones feel crippled. You always have the sense that you'd be best off just waiting for the movie to come out.

    1. Every mainstream medium is currently beset by purse puppy artists who are openly embarrassed by those media.

  3. I was reading through Orson Scott Card's "Characters and Viewpoint" recently, and he addressed this topic quite well.

    "The use of cinematic narration as a consistent strategy for entire stories has been in vogue in recent years, in the mistaken notion that fiction can improved by imitating film. The resulting fiction is almost always lame, since there isn't a writer alive whose prose is so good it can replace a camera at what a camera does best: taking in an entire moment at a glance. It takes a writer too many words to try to create that moment--after three paragraphs it isn't a moment anymore. The ironic thing is that cinematographers and films directors have struggled for years to try to make up for their inability to do what fiction does so easily: tell us what's going on inside a character's mind. How they struggle with camera angles and shadows! How the actors struggle with words and pauses, with the gentlest changes in expression, the slightest of gestures--all to convey to the audience what the fiction writer can express easily in a sentence or a phrase of deep penetration into the viewpoint character's mind.

    I suspect, however, that one reason some writers resort--often inadvertently--to the cinematic viewpoint is that they don't KNOW their viewpoint character well enough to show his attitude toward anything. They start writing without first inventing their characters, and instead of of inventing and exploring them as they go along, they avoid their characters entirely, showing us only the most superficial of gestures, telling us only the words the characters say." (from page 171)

    1. This quote shows why Card is rightly considered a master.