In his book on screenwriting, George Lucas briefly discusses the difference in approach between writing a movie or a book. Since this question lies at the heart of so many problems that I see with new writers, I want to get into it a bit more deeply. As Lucas points out, with a movie, the writer stands outside of any character and watches the story unfold visually, while with a novel, the writer tells the story from the point of view of a protagonist who is himself a player in the story.
You may not see it at first, but the approaches are vastly different and cannot be easily meshed.
As a screenwriter, you are telling the story as seen from a camera. This allows the camera to focus on different characters at a moment’s notice, to view groups of people, and to emphasize the visual aspects of a tale. This approach maximizes the strengths of film as a storytelling medium.
As a novelist, you’re most likely to tell a story in a way that your audience will experience it. In other words, you will typically stick to one or two viewpoint characters. You’ll tell us how the story unfolds making sure to use all of the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, touch—and you’ll also include the internal thoughts and feelings of your character. By doing this, you can maximize the strengths of the novel as a storytelling medium.
Of course, there are a lot of mistakes that both screenwriters and novelists can make as they get involved in writing. For example, I once read a movie script where a writer told me that a police officer has been working with his partner for five years. But nowhere on screen were we shown that or told that. It also mentioned the character’s inner thoughts in one place, and inner feelings, but failed to tell how that might be shown visually. The screenplay felt sloppy and underwritten.
The screenwriter should focus on letting the story unfold visually and verbally. Instead of writing a note telling us that “John is a farmer,” you show John working on the farm. Instead of telling us on a character sheet that John is a miser, you show John burying his pennies in the barn.
Emphasizing the visual and auditory aspects of a tale is so vital to film, that there are certain tricks that have fallen out of favor in filmmaking. For example, in most films we are not privy to what a character thinks. We rarely hear a voiceover where a character is thinking, even though the technique has worked well in many films. Producers and directors feel that the technique became worn out and cliché ages ago. But it does create a lot of other problems in filmmaking. For example, if you’re creating a big action adventure and you have four main protagonists, say an older romantic couple and a pair of kids, by choosing one person to focus on, you may be limiting the appeal of the film to a wider audience. In other words, if you’ve got a middle-aged woman who has voiceovers, then all of the focus goes to that one character, and people who might be rooting for the male protagonist or one of the children will feel a bit left out.
Similarly, novelists often have problems when they try to make their books cinematic. Usually, this is manifested by problems in viewpoint.
You see, in real life, we live from day to day lodged in our own worldview. We see the world through our eyes, smell it, taste it, think about it, and have our own emotional lens that colors our perceptions. Thus, as a person, you may feel that vanilla is the best flavor of milkshake, that only Democratic candidates make any sense, and that Ford makes the best pickups—despite any evidence to the contrary.
When writing a novel, we can replicate that natural experience more fully than one can with a movie. Thus, we can get deep into the point of view of a single protagonist and let him be the star of the story, having it unfold naturally, as it would in real life. That’s where the novelist gets his or her power as a storyteller.
But sometimes novelists try to be filmmakers. This almost always manifests itself as a problem with viewpoint. For example, a novelist might find himself jumping into the head of every character who happens to come into the story, so that the reader is unsure who the protagonists is. Or perhaps the writer will show us bits of scenes that the protagonist could never have seen. Sometimes the point of view violations are fairly minor. I often see writers say, “Darren’s brown eyes filled with glee.” That’s a viewpoint violation, albeit a minor one. Darren can’t see his own eye color. So you’re a bit restricted if you want to focus on a single point of view.
So different writing tools have evolved for different mediums. When you’re writing for any medium—whether it be novels, film, video games, plays, or whatever—you need to learn what storytelling tools are available for that medium and how to use them.
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