You’ve all experienced this: you went to a movie that was based on a book, and on the way out of the theater you heard the comments from others: “Oh, the book was soooo much better!”
There are two reasons why this is almost always true:
- The book is far more immersive than the film. It allows the reader to experience the story with more senses and more naturally than a movie does. While a film is limited to telling a story through sight and sound, an author can involve all of the senses.
- The book allows the reader to experience the story for far longer than a movie does. A movie is typically about 90-120 minutes long, but a book that tells the same story might take a dozen hours to read.
Let’s take a look at this first idea. With a movie we have the advantage of film. You’ve heard the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and indeed it can be. You would think that this gives film a clear advantage, but films have their own limitations. They transport the audience using only “sight” and “sound,” but humans have more than two senses, and many people are trained to respond more strongly to other senses.
For example, about 17 percent of all people process information primarily through kinetic information, through motion. These are people who “learn by doing.” They tend to take jobs in factory work, carpentry, mechanics, dancing, and athletics. These people are very much in touch with their bodies, and film doesn’t do well when trying to convey a sense of touch or motion.
Another 3 percent of people process information primarily through scent. With current technology, you can’t smell a movie at all. The only thing you smell is stale buttered popcorn in a theater, and maybe the people next to you.
A lot of writers are trained to try use all of the senses—the sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. In fact, I have a good friend who puts a lot of emphasis on this, and using all five senses does make a story far more immersive, but it doesn’t do everything!
Even if you involve all of those senses on every page, you still won’t immerse a reader. That’s because your viewpoint character is more than just a conglomeration of sensors. A human is a thinking, feeling, dreaming organism with its own experiences.
So when I’m writing, with every scene, it’s important to remember this rule: Your character is the camera. A movie camera is limited to recording a story by sight and sound, but when my character experiences a scene he does it a bit differently:
- Sight--A camera focuses on what a director wants it to, but real people choose their own focus. A real person may move from studying a flower one second to looking off at a distant storm to watching a woman bend to get a drink of water—all in an instant.
- Sound—a film camera gives the illusion of real sound. Most background noise is filtered out, while new sound effects and music are then dubbed in. Right now, here in my hotel room in Brisbane, the television is playing a morning show with some action scenes and the song “The Land Down Under.” Outside, cockatoos and crows are calling while street noises and other birds can be heard, along with the clacking of my computer keys.
- Scent—While I’m writing, I can smell the fresh morning air through the open window, tinged with the scent of soap and other more subtle hotel odors.
- Motion—Kinetically, I’m sitting up on my bed as I type and breathe.
- Touch and Feel—I can feel the sun striking my skin, warming my arms, though my legs are cooler, in shadow. A soft pillow presses against my back.
- Taste—Right now, I can still taste some blueberries that I ate a few minutes ago, though I still have a bit of morning breath.
I’d like to introduce a new concept here, the idea of “filters.” Just as a filter on a camera might modify an image, say by adding golden glow to everything, we as people have our own filters. Here are some examples.
- Time—I’m very aware of time passage. I’ve got to get this article finished, grab breakfast, write a story and do a hundred other things today. You might say that I feel anxious and hopeful at the same time. I have long-term goals that I’m striving to reach. So does your protagonist.
- Thought—And of course my own thoughts and observations add a background narrative to everything that I will experience today.
- Emotion—In every situation, emotion colors what we do. We have our worries, our fears, our joys, and in the opening of every scene that I write, I need to capture the emotional tone of the viewpoint character. (Once the scene starts, I don’t need to constantly remind the reader of what the character feels, because as things happen to the protagonist, the reader will feel those emotions automatically.)
- Experience—A living person stores a huge amount of experience in memory, and this along with the protagonist’s emotions helps to provide motive for all of the actions that the protagonist makes.
- Intent—Not only do past experiences and emotions affect motive, but so do your protagonist’s hopes, dreams, and goals.
So do you see why novels can be so much more immersive than films? The film uses only two senses to convey a tale, while a novel can take advantage of many more forms of input—not just additional senses, but also the additional filters.
Many new authors make the mistake of failing to report certain types of input. For example, I’ve read novels where the author never describes a scent. The author is “nose blind.” In others, we never get into the protagonist’s mind, so we feel that something is subtly wrong, that the character is “thought blind.” In other stories, the protagonist is so poorly developed that he doesn’t have a previous history, and we think of him as being two-dimensional. Many writers will never describe the sound of a voice, or what can be seen in the distance.
The more “blindnesses” that you introduce into your writing, the less effective you will be at transporting the reader into your story.
So remember: In every story you get one protagonist that becomes the camera for your tale. In real life, we experience our world with our five senses, but also through emotional, intellectual, and experiential filters.
Also, in real life we don’t jump around from our point of view into someone else’s POV. We’re trapped in our own viewpoint. So any time that you switch viewpoints, it creates a subtle disorientation in your reader. In fact, sometimes it can be terribly irritating.
The more closely that you can duplicate the experience of being human in your writing, the more powerfully you will transport your reader.
My writing workshop went fabulously in Brisbane, but I still have one workshop left to do in Australia. This may be your only chance to attend one of my workshops in Australia, so if you are interested, please sign up before class fills. My November class in Utah has already filled up. See my live workshops.
My friend Jaime Buckley recently had a reopening of his website Wanted Hero. It's 100% mobile, kid friendly, and dedicated to fans of fantasy (with a twist of humor.) You can check out the website at wantedhero.com. Jaime Buckley is the author of the book series with the same name.
There is an anthology kickstarter going on right now and we are so close to reaching our goal, and we have less than three days left. I am one of the writers included. Please visit our page and consider sharing. Thanks.