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…