Picking the wrong recipe

The view from Hollywood Boulevard.

How often have you seen movies used as examples on how to write a novel? It’s a shortcut authors employ because familiarity with movies tend to be greater than books.

Movies only consume an hour or two of our lives at a time, and do not require the continued concentration and effort of reading. The plot of a movie is typically the length a few connected short stories or a novella. But, the difference between the two type of media begin at the start. I’ve heard repeatedly that a book must grab the reader in the first few pages. Because a movie has a slimmer plot covered in a shorter time, a book will almost never be as tightly paced.  However, the early attention grabbing requirement that we assume readers are applying to books means that an author has to shove what occurs for the first 10% of the movie into less than the first 1% of the book. Ouch!

Novelist feel forced to introduce the major conflict on the first pages, ignoring the need for portrayal of the characters who play out this conflict. Therefore, the reader is forced to figure out the normal behavior of major characters while reading about an abnormal event. The author must find some unobtrusive way to provide backstory, without shoveling it into the work in chunks large enough to choke on. However, this rarely happens. So, the reader may have to tolerate the initial conflict being shelved until the introduction to the characters occurs.

 The author has an even greater handicap because visual images and sounds portray a setting more rapidly in film than in the written word. Recently, I watch a fictionalized historical film called Matewan (very loosely based on a massacre occurring between striking coal miners and Baldwin-Felts detectives). There was a minute or so panning the disgruntled coal miners climbing out of the mine into daylight, and an immediate switch to the new crew in a cramped box car. This jump from one setting to another would be disconcerting in a book. Scene changes require description of settings, which means more words. During the Matewan scene in the box car, the next set of miners listen to the reading of company rules, which are obviously unfair based on the expressions of the newcomers barreling down the tracks towards the mine.

A modern book would start in the middle of the action—after the train stops and disgruntled miners attack the new replacements. But, only those with a prior understanding of the situation would not be confused by a movie opening in the middle of this skirmish. Instead, movie makers offer a bit of local color by showing the setting and close-ups of important actors, especially their expressions. This lets the viewer into their minds at the beginning. The boring info dump about the company rules remained in the movie even though this would be truncated to a few words in a novel. The movie-going audience is tolerant of a slower start because they expect less requirement to use their own imagination than a book asks from readers.

This is only the start of my discussion. So, as readers please be patient in this exploration of why it is not the wisest tactic to create a book based on the same principles that drive a movie script. And, if you are discussing how to write books, please keep that in mind.

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