Three story tricks you see in movies that you can’t pull off in prose


The story is happening inside your head – thank you dbPhotography

Do you see your novel as a movie in your head? That’s great for vivid storytelling – but you might be making these common mistakes.


We often learn storytelling techniques as much from movies as from reading. But novel-writing has its own laws of physics, as every medium does. Here are three techniques that work well in movie storytelling but not in prose.

1 Scenes with a lot of characters at once

In a movie you can put as many people as you like in a scene – because we can see them. But in a novel, that’s hard to manage. You have to keep them alive in the action and so you are constantly reminding the reader that they are there – fidgeting, scratching their nose or fiddling with their cup of tea. It’s cumbersome and interrupts the flow.

Some writers make it policy never to have more than three people in a scene. Others say it should only be two. One of my ghosting projects was an adventure series with five main characters. I split them into pairs as much as possible. It led to more intimate scenes, with better conflicts and development.

Sometimes, an ensemble scene is unavoidable – in which case it’s better to put it late on when the reader is well acquainted with the characters and what matters to them. Probably the most disastrous place to put an ensemble scene is at the opening.

Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino did precisely this in the opening of Reservoir Dogs. I know it only too well. I’ve seen so many novels begin with a large bunch of characters chit-chatting and revealing snippets about themselves and their world through oblique dialogue – and instead creating a confusing mess.

Yes, I confess I came out of Reservoir Dogs wanting to whack more panache into my writing. But its opening doesn’t work in a novel.

2 Short scenes that chop around a lot

Another filmic technique that I see mistakenly applied to novels is short scenes that jump around. In fact, I’m guilty of this myself. Almost the first novel I was commissioned to write featured a terrorist taking a bunch of hostages to a plane, watched on CCTV by their friends. I saw it all in my head and wrote very short scenes that intercut – the hostages, then the friends watching with bated breath, then back to the hostage. It was pacy and tense. But when I revised it I realized it was a nightmare to read – because I’d written a screenplay, not a novel.

In a novel the reader has to load each scene in their head – where it is, who’s there, what they’re doing. All the things that come over at a glance on a movie screen. In a movie you can hop back and forth all you want. In a novel, if you do it too much it becomes irritating. Think of it as like trying to access a web page on old-fashioned dial-up. If you chop around scenes, the reload time is longer.

3 Point of view

In a film, the audience is a passive observer seeing from the outside. The camera acts as a narrator, drawing our attention to things. It can show us things outside the characters’ usual point of view – perhaps warning that the heroine has left her phone on the kitchen table. In a novel, if you haven’t set up a narrator who can do dramatic irony (‘Little did he know…’), then you can’t show it or the reader will feel something is off.

If what you’re doing with your novel is writing a description of the movie on the page –

a – the scenes might not work as you expect, and

b – you’re missing most of what prose can deliver.

Yes, in the novel you have only words, one after the other. This makes movies – with music and visuals – like broadband and the novel like dial-up – you can’t have too many streams of input at one time.

But these limitations don’t make the novel inferior. They don’t mean you can’t have complexity. Quite the opposite.

Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.

I prefer that, which is why prose is my favourite storytelling medium.

I assume you prefer prose, or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s discuss some story techniques that work better in prose! And techniques that are better for movies…


45 thoughts on “Three story tricks you see in movies that you can’t pull off in prose

  1. Nice post! But don’t forget the infamous “training montage” scene in SOOO many action movies. They’ve all got them. Luke went to Dagoba to stand on his hands and balance rocks; Rocky ran around the city and beat up punching bags to the strains of his theme song. In a novel, it would come across as “he trained hard for three solid months until he was a master swordsman,” or whatever the particular skill was. But in a movie, it gets to be a fun interlude between major acts, set to music, with interesting visuals that sell the viewer on the character’s new-found skills.

    Man. Sometimes I think moviemakers have it easy! But then I think about all the stuff that is surely very difficult in film but that I have no clue about because I’m not a filmmaker. But I do envy them their crowd scenes, quick cuts, visual hints and foreshadowing, and yes, their training montages.

  2. Movies are good at telling a certain kind of story very well. When they stray outside that narrow field, they start to struggle. Lots of very good novels get turned into really podgy, aimless movies because film-makers don’t appreciate that they are working with a more limited palette than prose – even though, within the limits defined by that palette, movies are capable of doing their job superbly.

  3. @Jason, I love the training montage. There’s also the Fun&Games montage – which I’m going to use in my WIP. I think I’ll get away with it…
    @Dave – yes, lots of movies made from novels fail because the more literal medium robs a good metaphor of its power by making it superficial.

    1. Akira Kurosawa made a film from Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT and included a courtship montage! I was a bit shocked by the montage, but I’ve heard that the movie originally ran too long and had to be severely cut so the montage makes sense time-wise.

  4. So you’re saying the opening scene of chapter 2 of my first novel, with a half-dozen villagers reacting to a miraculous event with lots of by-play and back-and-forth couldn’t possibly work? Wow. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I wrote it.

  5. Speaking of training montages, I made a great effort to avoid having one, since a) it had been done to death and b) I didn’t want to do the research involved, and c) it would slow the book down. So I invented Triple-Distilled Elixir of Warrior instead. Saved a lot of time and shook the character up, for a whole lot of development. It became a critical scene for the whole series.

  6. Great post Roz! I hadn’t thought much about the # of characters in my scenes. Thankfully from what I can remember, there are rarely more than 3 and usually 2. Whew!

    Thanks for the insights – I’ll look at my draft in a new way 🙂

    1. @Marc – in principle it’s less likely to work. All is in the execution and how you keep the reader’s interest. A great voice, for instance, might carry something like that through. But it is more likely that it will confuse the reader and make them think, why am I being told about all these people? Are they important or are they just walking scenery? Do I have to remember them all? What am I meant to be picking up about them? Do I have to care about what they care about? Those are the difficulties that such a scene presents.
      But if you’ve made it work, good for you.
      And your triple-distilled elixir… sometimes when we want to avoid the obvious, we are pushed into inventing something really smart.
      @Jemi – thanks! For me I think it’s one of those principles that wrote itself – I’d always tried to avoid having too many characters stuffed into a scene, then started to think about why. Sounds like your instinct is working the same way.
      @bj – internal monologue is a great example. In a novel it can help connect us more firmly with the character. In a movie, it can (but not always) act as a veil that stops us making up our own minds about what we’ve seen.
      @Matt – Agatha Christie… and any scenes involving reading a will! And yes, that type of indigestible scene is common in fantasy. Nice description.

  7. One thing that rarely works as well in movies as in novels is internal monologue. Again, it has to be set up from the beginning, that a certain character will talk to themselves, or will do voiceover thoughts… but it has to be the right *kind* of movie to do that. It works for comedies or lighter movies, but completely changes the mood in other types.

    Internal conflicts and climaxes are very difficult to pull off in a screenplay – which is one reason so many novels do not make good movies. Film is a visual medium, and unless you can *see* something happening, it doesn’t work.

  8. Too many characters is why a lot of Agatha Christie-type denouements are hard to read, though they make great movie scenes. It just comes across as too laboured.

    It’s also a common failing in a lot of fantasy novels, for example when they try and introduce us to the Court in Chapter Two, and as a reader we’re simultaneously trying to juggle the hero, the king, the mysterious vizier, the champion paladin (and his two sidekicks), the cardinal (and the friendly old priest) and several nobles of different factions, all of whom are advocating different strategies to deal with the neighbouring kingdom of Wherethehellwasit, the return of Lord Villain, and the need to rebuild the temple of Obscuria. Even flicking back and forth to the cast of characters every other paragraph, you just lose track of who’s who.

  9. @Marc: Evidently if you’re evoking a scene through lots of people talking and it doesn’t matter who they are, a novel can do that just fine. Eg:

    A murmur ran through the crowd. “Did you see that?” “Up in the sky?” “Was it a bird?” “A plane, surely..?”

    What doesn’t work is when you introduce half a dozen significant characters (ie not extras) all at once, and we’re supposed to follow what they’re all talking about even though we don’t know them yet – eg fantasy politics scenes like Matt described there, nicely parodied by Ursula K LeGuin in The Language of the Night.

    @Jason – training scene montages are certainly an interesting (if highly specilialized!) area where movies can do it a lot better than prose. The montage shows us Rocky going through a lot of hardship to earn his strength and stamina. In a novel, doing it that way would feel like telling. On the other hand, if the point to get across is “he became a better fighter” and there’s nothing the author can think of to say about where that took him internally, maybe the sequence is better left out. Empire Strikes Back avoids the montage – in fact, after some faltering steps, Luke skips out on the training altogether – which makes the showdown much more dramatic than anything in Rocky or The Karate Kid.

  10. I was going to say a similar thing to Verdonk there, that if the group of people are effectively acting as one character then that isn’t the same as a number of distinct characters all sharing a scene (but to be fair I’m only basing that on Marc’s description of them as ‘villagers’).

    What often happens is that a character is forgotten about. I recently read Karen Maitland’s A Company Of Liars, about a group of 9 travellers (a fellowship, perhaps) trying to avoid the plague. It often required me to check back and see if someone had left the group or was sitting quietly to one side.

    In a novel you wouldn’t have a montage, but you would have people learning as they went along. Come to think of it, if anyone has the tech please please please cut all the Harry Potter movies into one training montage, with suitable rock anthem (Chesney Hawkes?), and then put it on YouTube.

    Fighting would be my other one for Movies. If anyone knows a good action writer please let me know. So many times novels duck out of describing the nitty gritty, or else they describe something in a way that’s hard to follow what happened, or else they essentially describe turn based roleplaying (see the Dragonlance books).

    What novels can do of course, is go off at tangents, linking wider issues or events to what is happening at the story, without it beig too disruptive – or indeed, with it being the point of why you like that writer.

    Cheers for the post Roz – I was begining to think that my avoidance of scenes with more than three characters was a weakness, but now I reckon it’s more effective to have one character be the voice of the group and let the dialogue flow more smoothly.

  11. As BJ Muntain said above, internal monologues don’t work well–usually–in film. In screenwriting, voiceovers are looked at like prologues are looked at in novels: it’s possible to do it well, but it usually just detracts from the story.

    One result of the fact that we’re not as privy to internal thoughts and feelings in films is that there’s a tendency for screenwriters to want to “tell” us the characters feelings and reactions through dialogue, which ends up stilted.

    On the other hand, I had a phenomenal screenwriting teacher in college who insisted that we learn to show the internal workings of the characters from their actions, not their dialogue. This has translated into a good practice for novels, too.

    1. @Verdonk – I’d forgotten that Empire pulls the rug out from under us like that. It’s a great script.
      @Jonathan – yes, if you can get the village folk acting as ‘one character’ – ie it doesn’t matter who said what and who they are, just that a crowd of people were thinking the same thing, that’s a good way to make that kind of scene work. But I think you can have a montage-type effect where you distil a few long scenes into a short sequence that shows a progression – if it’s important to show it, of course.
      I now have ‘One and Only’ running in my head. My brain has its own jukebox, unfortunately, whether I like it or not. If that was not the Chesney song you had in mind, pray enlighten me so I can adjust.
      Fight scenes – ah yes. They’re horrible to write too. It’s not a type of scene that’s well suited to prose. I’ve had to write quite a few in my time and try to follow Jane Espenson’s advice. It’s not about the fight, it’s about what other stuff goes on between the characters while the fight is happening.
      @ncb – yes, voiceovers do generally have a bad rep. I watched Hitch recently and felt we were excluded from the action by the voiceover, which wasn’t even consistently there. You’d get used to watching the action and then the voice would come in again and explain something. And everything that was explained in v/o could have been shown through actions – just as you say.
      However, v/o works well in Sex and The City, because there is an overall framing device – Carrie is writing a column.

  12. In my text, the purpose of the scene was to show how different villagers reacted to the same event in different ways. The Hero, who was the proximate cause of the miraculous event, was condemned by some and defended by others. For reasons explained in the text the condemnation is the part that gets broadcast (although it is the minority opinion), and that is what sets the Hero off on his travels. Several of these villagers reappear as part of the concluding sequence of the story.
    Internal monolog is something I try to avoid. My feeling is that people think more in terms of pictures than words, and very rarely go to the effort of putting a flash of emotion into something as slow as words. Any training worth its salt makes action reflexive anyway, no time for thought.
    I don’t do much with fight scenes. I have a few of them, but again the actions should be reflexive. My purpose in any scene is in how the character perceives it or how it comes out, rather than the combat itself.

  13. Better in movies than in words: sex scenes. Well, not BETTER necessarily. But I’d rather be a moviemaker constructing a sex scene than a novelist.

    Better in books than in movies: acknowledgments. Even the most tedious (“I’d like to thank, too, the following fifteen fellow students in my MFA course on novel writing…”) are a hell of a lot easier to attend to and simply to get through than the ten minutes of closing credits on just about any movie made since, oh, 1990 or so.

    My WIP has a half-dozen main(ish) characters. For the most part, each chapters covers events current to one character, two or three tops.

    One exception — egad — the very first chapter. I think/hope I get around the problems you’ve all brought up, though, by just having two of the characters talking: they start out together in a diner, and the others arrive shortly, serially, but say very little. The idea is to get the others to the table in ways which highlight their natures, without having to do the rotating-conversation thing.

    But at a couple of points in the book, I do have them all “on camera” at the same time. The one thing which brought them all together in the first place was a weekly card game, and I do feature a couple of those Saturday-evening affairs. It’s tough. I much prefer to write dialogue between two characters, tops, because for even longish passages I can dispense with “tags” — he said, she said — altogether, which eases the flow. Tough to do when there are four to six distinct speakers.

  14. Internal monologue is, of course, one of the things that prose handles very well, particularly through use of free indirect style. Even more subtly, the author can present observations of the world around that reflect the character’s inner state – a pane of glass being manoeuvred across a sidewalk where some kids are skateboarding, say, as the character is contemplating a loved one’s illness. That is where prose really takes flight into areas that films can never reach, because it is capable of syncing up the reader’s and character’s inner states, whereas in movies or other externally presented narratives, the audience are just onlookers who are more likely to sympathize than empathize.

    Marc makes a good point that you can introduce a bunch of characters as extras and then later come back and flesh out some of those as significant characters. Where prose really hits the buffers is when the reader gets thrown in on a discussion between a large number of characters with individual descriptions, personalities and viewpoints, because of course we can’t keep track of them.

    Even movies and TV rarely attempt multi-way conversations beyond the “assert an opinion” level. Watch an episode of Lost – which does this almost as well as it has ever been done in drama. You’ll see six or seven characters walking through a jungle and the bulk of the dialogue in the scene will still just be restricted to two or three of them, with the others just occasionally chipping in.

  15. I bought a foto-novel of Close Encounters the other day (Scarthin Books, cromford, Derbs – brilliant place). It has stills of the film with speech bubbles. There’s a bit showing Richard Dreyfus thinking ‘They’re talking french so I can’t understand them – that makes me so mad’. I agree that this sort of internal dialogue has no place in proper writing, but if your character is thinking through an issue then internal dialogue has to be the way to go. The inbetweeny between this and emotion is uncertainty. I never like to write a load of questions that the character is asking themself. It seems false when I write it and it looks funny on the page – all those little seahorses bobbing about in the text.

    I’d also like to add to Dave’s point about novels making stodgy films when they translate rather than adapt the text. Comics are an even worse offender, because film makers assume they can use the comic as a screenplay/storyboard because the visuals and dialogue are already in place – when in fact comics are further from film than novels in terms of the way the story and reader interact.

  16. @JES – sex scenes… although possibly embarrassing to write (is that why you preferred to leave them to movie makers?!), seductions can be very interesting. Except in porn, of course, they’re usually about the characters’ overall relationship in some way, or a change in the balance of power.
    @Marc – I like your approach – how the character perceives what is going on is central to any story, I’d say. Not just fight scenes – but good to remember during that kind of action.
    @Verdonk @Marc – we’ve made an important distinction here. Ensemble scenes are fine so long as we’re not required to absorb every detail about a bunch of people we don’t know.
    @Verdonk – the Lost approach is exactly what I used to do when my characters were trekking along somewhere and couldn’t be separated. I’d have mini-scenes to keep them connecting with each other.
    @Jonathan – seahorses! I’ve never heard them called that; I like it. And fotonovels – what a blast from the past. That’s an interesting point about comics making worse films. I love the drama of comics: I would have thought they would make engrossing films. Canyou elaborate?

  17. Re. the comics comment, this was a theory I came up with a few years ago before they started getting better at it. It seemed to me that they were trying to lift the comic text and put it onto the screen, but time works differently in comics: you have a lot of simultaneous actions in one frame, or you have a specific split second of action (punch landing etc) with a few seconds worth of dialogue. Also the visuals work differently – what looks good in a comic does so because they’re not limited to the reality of body shapes and colours.
    The distance between the viewer/reader and the main characters is much more fluid in a comic, as is the angle you see them from.
    Watchmen is one of the few comic adaptations to work and be faithful to the form. It was criticised for excessive use of slo-mo, but these reflected the comic book action – enabling the reader to examine a split second of action in detail.

  18. Roz–how did you know? Your number one has been a consistent source of angst in my novel. I have a scene (aka: the big reveal) that falls near the end but pulls together essentially all the main characters (five) for the grand confession and it always felt like the climax of murder on the orient express to me! I always imagined the scene in film-terms, which as you say, isn’t a comparable medium in this case. I reworked it and reworked it and am still not entirely sold on my solution at this point…

    Ensemble scenes are so hard–technically speaking (who said that? where is he standing again? oh! is he still here?)–and of course, in building and keeping the emotional pacing…

  19. Hi Roz, My ms consists of a teenage boy and his four friends. I try to couple them off. I have few scenes where they are all together. When they are all in the same scene I usually set it up where three are more background and two are actively conversing.

    Another great post!

  20. @Erica – glad I hit the spot with that one! Thanks!
    @Maribeth – ah, is this the graveyard novel? Hope I’m not speaking out of turn… Your instincts are serving you well, by the sound of it.

  21. @Jonathan – I agree with your point about comics. No less an authority than Alan Moore has pointed out that the comic book is a literary medium at least as much as it’s a visual one. We get used to flipping back to check on earlier details in a comic as in a novel – that’s not so easy with a movie, even with rewind. Yet publishers absolutely obsess about comics getting turned into movies. I often speak to UK publishers who would rather pick up a dog turd than read a comic, yet they say, “Do you think your comic could get optioned by a studio? Kick-Ass did, didn’t it? And Iron Man.” (That’s another thing, they don’t even appreciate the light-year gap in success between those two.) Ironically, Moore writes some of the most cinematic of comics himself, Watchmen being a good example, where many of the frame-by-frame sequences do actually constitute an effective pre-vis of the movie.

  22. By the way, it was ‘(I am) The One and Only!’ but if you wanted to you could use ‘Man Not A Boy’ if you wanted to do a mid point medley.

  23. Oooh boy am I in trouble. My chapter book opens with seven characters.

    Great post, Roz and great points. Literature is not passive. Writers engage their readers on many levels from allowing them to visualize the MC on their own to learning new words to stronger introspection.

    I seldom walk away from a movie that gives me the shivers/warm fuzzies, challenges my value system or elicits interest in a word past “What did he say? The music was too loud to hear.”

    It has been proven that watching the screen takes less brain power than sleeping. Now that is passive.

  24. @Jonathan – The One And Only. It had disappeared but it’s back now. Thanks.
    @Cat – Thanks – and I hope I haven’t blighted your chapter book too much. There are cirumstances under which 7 chracters all at once isn’t a disaster (see the very good comments here before you hack!)
    I agree about film v novels – nice point. Novels always seem to be a much more intimate and intense experience. Because we make so much of it ourselves I guess it’s as personal as a dream.

  25. I agree that a good novel engages the reader more than a film engages the viewer, but there’s a lot of mass market trash in both media. Films that stay with you: ‘Let the Right One In’, ‘The Graduate’, ‘To Sleep With Anger’, others I can’t think of right now…

  26. @Laura – there are a lot of good lessons that prose writers can learn from movies, but we must never lose sight of the fact that they are different adn have their own strengths.

  27. Given that Strangers and Pilgrims has SIX key characters, I’d often wondered why the chapters where all six were together and interacting were so hard to write.

    1. Hi Viv! I discovered a similar thing when I was ghosting a series with 5 main characters. Most of the time I split them up because otherwise the choreography was impossible. But at times, they had to coincide – and the convolutions started.

  28. I’m just re-reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and I’ve been rather shocked by the dense, convoluted, narrated prose. I don’t remember it being so difficult. Or perhaps I just skipped great swathes of the prose the first time around.

    My point, however, is that times and styles of writing have changed a lot since Miller’s era. We have become accustomed to the techniques used in movies; we understand them at a visceral level. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that ‘show, don’t tell’ evolved out of that global understanding.

    Who knows, maybe in another 50 years time we’ll be as accepting of head hopping. 😀

    1. Hi Andrea! You’re right that so much has evolved in storytelling – and continues to, influenced by other artforms. Prose writing has become a lot more streamlined since the days when a novelist could start with long, scene-setting descriptions, for instance. We demand more purpose in our beginnings. Whether we can get away with new developments such as head hopping depends on how well we can guide the reader. If it can be done smoothly, it can be done. If it’s done badly, the reader feels adrift from the prose. They lose track of what’s going on in a way that they wouldn’t in a film because the medium is a better conductor of multiple points of view. Prose will always be a narrow tunnel by comparison because of the way it works, the way it sets up shots in the reader’s mind.
      But if someone found a way to overcome that problem, then we’d be well away!

      1. Yes, I agree that execution is the key. However if readers themselves become accustomed to the technique, that will help as well. Whether any of this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I’d hate to think that prose might one day be superseded by other, more visual mediums.

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