Books Are Not Head Movies

Head Movie

A number of readers have asked me to explain my frequent editing advice against writing by playing a movie in your head and transcribing what you see.

To complement the inherent advantages the novel has over film as a storytelling form, here are a few proscriptive reasons to avoid approaching novel writing like screenwriting.

Overreliance on visual description

This is an oversight that pops up again and again in new authors' manuscripts. Almost all of the setting and character descriptions will be visual.

When you consider that a novel can convey information from every sense, limiting yourself to visual details only leaves a wealth of sound, scent, texture, and even taste sensations on the table.

Immerse your readers in a vivid world. Include at least one detail from a sense other than vision in every description of a new setting, object, or character.

Play-by-play style action

Rendering action blow-for-blow in minute detail doesn't make the action realistic. It makes it tedious.

Yet almost all new authors write action--or fight scenes at least--like a boxing announcer calling a fight.

This rookie mistake is a telltale sign of a writer transcribing a head movie.

Avoid this mistake. Keep your readers engaged. Set the scene so the reader clearly understands where every character is in relation to the other combatants and the setting. Then paint the action in bold, broad strokes. Start with short sentences. Steadily build up to longer ones.

Joss Whedon dialogue

You could also substitute Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino dialogue. This literary misstep is less a result of transcribing head movies than of having movies as your major influences instead of novels.

What is Joss Whedon dialogue? It's try-hard edgy, painfully hip, and snarky to a fault. You'll know it when you encounter it. So will your readers.

The equal and opposite error is trying to write dialogue that "sounds real".

Writing effective novel dialogue is a balancing act. It should neither be so snappy as to remind the audience they're reading fiction nor so "realistic" as to bore or confuse them.

Read the transcript of a podcast or YouTube video sometime. Most people are just plain bad verbal communicators. Almost everybody uses lots of vocalized pauses, repetition, and clunky phrasing that we're so used to hearing as to gloss over it.

The same doesn't hold true when real life speech is transcribed verbatim. Seeing the words brings the faults into sharp relief.

Novel dialogue should be the "best of" real speech. Imagine if you could hire a professional writer to come up with the perfect comebacks for you to use when someone cuts you off in traffic.

Your characters do have a professional writing for them, and it's you. Proceed accordingly.

How do you learn to write good novel dialogue? There's on one way. You have to read novels by authors who write good dialogue. Accept no substitutions!

You can start with the award-winning prose of my thrilling Soul Cycle!

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier


  1. The strange part is that most of these were common problems in mainstream fiction when I tried reading it about a decade ago.

    No one could write an action sequence, they spent too long on describing scenery, and their dialogue made me want to hang myself.

    Action sequences should be fast. Most fights are over in an instant, which means the author has to explain why they aren't. You're not writing an action anime or a Stallone movie. The only time a sequence should be long is if it contains a series of events.

    As for the last, snappy dialogue only works in detective fiction and noir because it sets atmosphere and tension. Snappy back and forth is meant to do that. Even then it isn't used constantly.

    Whedon speak doesn't do this. It deflates tension and investment in order to build "humor" where there shouldn't be any. At the same time, it isn't "realistic" like many claim, which has it feeling like aliens trying to do a bit at a modern comedy club.

    If there is a writer that hurt modern storytelling more than Joss Whedon, I haven't met them.

    1. "Action sequences should be fast."

      When I first read classics like The Odyssey or one of the King Arthur tales, I was surprised and delighted by the terseness. Fights are over in a sentence or two, with one gruesome detail about how such-and-such was slain.

    2. Astute analyses. Props to both of you!

    3. Regress harder.

      Writing is painted words dixit John C Wright.

    4. Reminder that the battle that took up two hours of screen time in the Peter Jackson Hobbit movies was a whole five pages in the book, and most of that was Gabdalf describing it to Bilbo, not Tolkein describing it directly to the reader.

    5. "Whedonisms" has an unfortunate feedback loop. When Whedon doesn't botch the dialogue, or when the "look at my stumbling malapropism" verbal pratfall is appropriate, nobody notices... including, I think, people who want to imitate his success. It would be more helpful to look at some of his stuff and take note of when the humour and dialogue did NOT intrude.
      So, yeah, wreckage brings up sample bias again. Let me tell you about how they were up-armouring bombers in WW2, when SUDDENLY...

  2. After reading the first two Gideon Ira books, I find that I want the viewpoint character mental and spiritual fights as well as physical ones.

    And they can also be used to increase tension, only to reduce again by being set aside to go back to doing things, and come back to them later.

    1. The thing is, I think character tension is what makes combat good. I need to think about this, because I HATE emotional tension, but every really exciting work uses it. It hooks me as a reader at the time, but later I'm loath to deliberately wade into that, conflating the necessary tension with my own strong aversion to "people drama".

  3. This is similar to decompression in American comic books. The long tortuous scenes are often a visual Whedon, attempting to be "smartly funny".

    A few (a very few) creators can effectively, and sparingly, use this tool. Most most usages come off as clumsy padding by sadly untalented hacks.

  4. Oooh, bonus.

    Joss Whedon himself demonstrates the beauty of "decompression".

    1. That's one way to give someone a migraine.

    2. That's how you stretch 1 page of content into 6.


    3. Joss needs to have the difference between "storyboards" and "comic pages" explained to him. probably using small words.

      He also needs a good editor. Up for it, Brian?

    4. Nope. I don't give editorial advice to people who hate me, either.

  5. The point about reading being more than visual is very well taken. The writer has direct access to your mind (scary thought of the day), while the film producer has to settle for just your eyes and ears. So yeah, trying to make your book a movie with words is kind of limiting.

    1. Writers can pull off feats that make movie directors jealous.

      Writing is telepathy.

    2. Chris and Brian

      Many years ago a famous French director guest at Bernard Pivot's Apostrophe made the same point. He cited the opening line of a Frenxh novel where the main character sat on his sofa for half an hour.
      He immediately remarked that as director he can't film the scence as is so he has to employ time compression.

      Each has its strengths and weaknesses. So let's respect the autonomy of each one.