1. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Movies and Novels - are comparisons useful?

    Discussion in 'Novels' started by BayView, Jan 21, 2017.

    We often see people using movies as reference sources when trying to puzzle out novel writing. There was recently a link to a Writer's Digest article (http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/4-approaches-for-the-first-chapter-of-your-novel) in which the writer used movies to illustrate ways to start a novel. His explanation was that "I often use film and television examples when I teach because they illustrate so perfectly the concepts of storytelling and are so universal."

    I agree that movies are more universal than novels (ie. it's more likely that everyone in the discussion will have at least a general knowledge of Pirates of the Caribbean than that they'll have similar familiarity with Treasure Island) but I seriously question the idea that they perfectly illustrate storytelling concepts. That is, I think they do a good job of illustrating movie storytelling, but I really don't think they're a good parallel for novel writing.

    One of the movies mentioned in the article was Juno. I think the original opening sequence for that movie is at (always hard to be sure with YouTube what's been adulterated by users and what hasn't, but this matches what I remember of seeing the film in the theatre). It's a lovely opening sequence for a movie. There's peppy music, some interesting graphics, some dynamic visuals, an idea of the main character's body language and physical attitude... it's fine. I don't love it, but I can sit through it. But the same opening in a novel?

    To start with, it'd be impossible. If we accept the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words, we'd be at maximum word count just trying to describe this one sequence. So, okay, don't take the advice so literally, we'd really just write about the main happenings. But what the hell is the main happening, here? A girl walks through town, drinking orange juice, then goes into a store. How would we write that in a way that would make someone want to keep reading? Without the music and the graphics and the rest, what is there to make readers care?

    Honestly, I'd say that, music aside, the Juno opening is more like the cover of a book (graphic text, visuals, general idea of main character's appearance) rather than a good opening scene. And I felt like most of his other examples were similarly problematic.

    In my opinion, comparing books to movies ignores the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium. Trying to translate the sound and visuals of movies to books doesn't make sense. Movie directors have better control over pacing (the audience isn't likely to skim parts of a movie), etc. And I don't think there's really any way to bring the thoughtfulness and depth of a book to the movie screen effectively. Not that good movies can't be made from books, but they're different from the books, for sure.

    Does this make sense to you guys? Are there times when it is a useful tool to reference movies while discussing how to write novels?
     
  2. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    Well, yes and no.

    In my opinion, as I write both, the storytelling is the same. Plot, pacing, character development, dialogue, are the same. The frame is the same. Its' how you deliver those components to the audience and manipulate their emotions that makes them different.
     
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  3. Mikmaxs

    Mikmaxs Senior Member

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    Nah, I think that the opening to Juno could totally work as the opening to a book, if you had good enough prose.
    Actually, that's a pretty good metaphor - In film, you don't have prose, you have cinematography. You don't use adjectives or the lack there of to describe the actions being taken, you use visual language instead.

    It's true that scenes in movies are generally paced differently than in books, because in movies, you generally can't slow down or speed up what's happening with the level of precision that you can in books. You can use slow-mo shots, or you can stretch time/speed it a long a little bit by cutting away or using other tricks, but you can't choose to completely stop the action at will - Things have to keep moving.

    In the general sense, though, I think that - on the whole - movies and TV probably actually have more in common with books than they do with live stage performances.
     
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  4. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    So can you elaborate on that? I can see character development being the same, and dialogue... and maybe plot, as long as we're looking at the broad strokes. But how do you relate pacing in a movie to pacing in a book? Just general terms, or do you think they're pretty much identical?
     
  5. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    How do you think the Juno opening would work? Like, would you describe all the stuff that's in the opening? Or would you just say "Juno walked to the store"? Or... just a similar idea of setting a whimsical mood? Can you think of books that have opened like this?

    And I agree that filmed drama has more in common with books that live drama does, but... that's not saying much, really!
     
  6. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I guess my corollary to this is... why don't we just use books as examples when we're talking about writing books? Is it because there's no real cannon anymore, no set of books we can assume most people have read?
     
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  7. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    For me they seem to be. I just go by gut, manipulating chapter and paragraph length the same way I manipulate the length of a scene. This is too long, break, this is too short, add. Slow things down, speed things up, that sort of thing.
     
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  8. Selbbin

    Selbbin The Moderating Cat Staff Contributor

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    That, and the saturation of the medium. Most people can consume more film than text. It just takes so much longer to consume. And yeah, I think more people are familiar with the same examples, considering less films get made than books published, yet more films get seen than books read, on the whole. Statistical strike rates are much higher.
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2017
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  9. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    The perfect example of Novel vs. Movie, is Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', and Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now'.

    Both masterfully use the tools of the trade to tell a similar story. It's just storytelling.
     
  10. Wreybies

    Wreybies Thrice Retired Supporter Contributor

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    For me, personally, yes, this is the answer. My age comes into play as well. A lot of the Science Fiction I would be tapping as examples (and that I often do tap as examples) tends to get zero reaction from forum members, not even to contradict me or to tell me I've remembered or interpreted it incorrectly. Just... nothing. I'm left to assume that these older works just aren't on the "reading list" for readers younger than me. o_O

    ETA: Not exactly nothing as regards engagement. There are a handful of members who are into the same genre who are close to may age and we nod to one another knowingly and say "Yep, yep. Good example." but the OP is rarely amongst this group; thus, all this agreement is of little use to him/her who doesn't know the work.

    Worse is when you mention it and the reaction is "Oh... that's an old book, though." You can only hear that so many times before you find yourself pricing dentures on the internet.
     
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  11. Mikmaxs

    Mikmaxs Senior Member

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    Feature a heavy internal monologue and keep the scene short?
    I don't read all that much content in the... Romcom? I guess Juno is technically a Romcom... In the Romcom genre or anything similar, but this could be compared to the open of The Fault in Our Stars. The main character isn't doing anything interesting, and most of what she talks about isn't really plot relevant in specifics. It sets up that she's got cancer and is bitter about it, that's all. The rest is just tone and window dressing.
     
  12. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    That's exactly it, Bay... which books could we reasonably assume to have been read by even ten percent of the population? Harry Potter maybe? Lord of the Rings? And let's be honest, how many people read them and how many people are able to follow along with the discussion because they've seen the movies? Now, if you want to drop a reference to Star Wars, Forest Gump, or The Godfather, well, shoot, everyone has seen those, right?

    I think there are definitely certain story telling elements that are effective in prose and cinematography for the same reason. But lots of crap doesn't translate at all. Robert DeNiro lifting an eyebrow in a movie has the same effect as one paragraph of interior monologue in a book. And one five second CGI shot of a landscape can do the work of a full SFF chapter. I suppose the dialogue mechanics are similar, but movie dialogue has to be condensed or people will fall asleep. If you were to put Hemingway dialogue on screen the characters would be stuck in a Parisian cafe for three hours before the opening scene ended.
     
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  13. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    This is an interesting discussion. I've actually studied this quite a lot. I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding in terms here. In the quote you used, @BayView, "...they illustrate so perfectly the concepts of storytelling," the concepts are the same, that is narrative concepts. @Selbbin hit it on the head when he said the delivery is different. The elements of narrative are the same.

    So if we're talking about composing a narrative, with terms included in the study of narrative theory, it doesn't matter if we're talking about a book, movie, etc. POV, Protagonist, Conflict, Plot, Crux, Types, Masterplots all exist in narrative, no matter the medium.

    If we're discussing narrative elements, and how they are used, then you can interchange novels for movies. If we're talking about execution, it's a different story.

    I'll use the opening of Juno. What are we getting from that opening? (I'm speaking for myself because meaning is subjective.) I get some characterization at the very beginning when she walks the opposite direction as the runners. That shows me she's going to be a bit of an outcast. It also works as a bit of foreshadowing to Michael Cera's character because he is on the running team. In novels, we can add characterization and we can foreshadow, but the execution will be different.

    The tone for the movie is set with the music and the change between animation and real-life. In novels, we also set a tone. We don't do it with music, rather word choice, sentence length, etc.

    In this opening, we also get a feel for the setting. It's visual, but we get the feeling it's a relatively small town. That is a type. We all have preconceived notions about relatively small towns, so some of that work is done by utilizing that type. In a novel, we also use types for this exact reason. It helps readers identify with what we're writing without beating them over the head with mundane details.

    To summarize: The opening of Juno works for me for the following reasons.

    1. It introduces the central POV character right away and gives us a glimpse into who she is.
    2. It foreshadows her foil (Michael Cera).
    3. It sets a tone that carries throughout.
    4. It gives us an idea of the setting in which we will be spending the movie.
    (There's more, but I'll leave it here for the sake of brevity.)

    All four of those points are good things to add into a novel, but again, the execution will be different. I think the important thing is being able to identify the elements of narrative which are universal, and having the ability to apply that across medium.
     
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  14. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I love using movie examples. Does it sometimes screw a writer up to look to a movie to discover how to write? Sure. I think it's something every writer needs to work out for themselves distancing themselves from trying to be cinematic without having the prose skills to integrate the feeling that is usually backed up with movie music. I re-read Lolita a few months ago and used an old copy to take notes in the paperback and it is amazing how Nabokov intentionally wrote in a cinematic style. There is even a curious reference to a reflection in Charlotte's sunglasses which was being used at that time in film noir. Hitchcock showed Miriam getting strangled in Strangers on a Train from the reflection in her fallen glasses.
    I think it's easier though to take things from a narrative and pace perspective. It's hard sometimes as a writer to know when to cut a scene. You find yourself writing out an entire days events so you can start the next day in the morning etc rather than having those necessary cut off points that movies make.
     
  15. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Funky like your grandpa's drawers.... Staff Contributor

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    What I discovered was because I grew up watching movies/tv and reading books in equal portions that my entire concept of story telling was just that. Half movies and half books. That was just how I experienced stories as a kid. Now, I have trouble separating the two from each other. The even funnier thing is now video games are starting to creep into the debate a bit too. The early editing books I read always talked about how books had to be faster paced to keep up with the cinema-influenced attention spans of readers. That reader's conception of pacing and storytelling had been forever adulterated by television. These would have been 1990s suggestions. Now, I think that video games are influencing writing wayyyyy more than they should be. You can see it all over the place, especially in SFF. It's like, here's a character, here's the first town you find, these are your weapons, these are your powers, these are the factions, and here's your dialogue wheel. I love video games but this is not good. Not good at all.
     
  16. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    Well book-movie, is a bit more complicated as movies can't squeeze everything thing into them.
    Movie-book, well that is just plain lazy.
    Then there is the rare film made, that has nothing to do with the book, and just seems weird.

    Though I don't have much room to speak considering my uncommon approach to how I have
    written my novel/sequel, which is a more cut the dull moments out thing where possible.
    And more 'scene to scene', than straight through each day/month/week/year type.

    But for the most part movies vs. book comparisons will always be at odds, because some have
    only read/seen one or the other, and others have done both. Typically the reader is not as satisfied
    due to many factors such as casting and edits of the overall story, that can change the tone and
    story in the film adaptation of the book. Even down to important details that get left out that
    are important to the story. Granted we have to understand that film adaptation is one persons
    interpretation of another persons writing.

    Bottom line is to expect to watch a poor interpretation of a better piece in written form. To be fair
    it is limited to one persons interpretation, which can soil the overall atmosphere the original book
    it is based upon.
     
  17. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    This always bothers me. I don't like to hear people say "expect a movie to be worse than the book." You can't compare the two in that way. They are totally different forms of narrative. It's impossible to do a blow for blow adaptation. It wouldn't translate the way one might expect.

    I'll use Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk for this example.

    In the book, Seargent Dime is my favorite character. He's proud, sometimes arrogant, quick-witted, funny, and always speaks his mind.

    The adaptation came out in October last year, an Ang Lee production. I couldn't stand Seargent Dime in the movie. So, I had to ask myself why I couldn't stand him. I was expecting to like him because I knew Lee had copied a lot of dialogue WORD FOR WORD from the novel. So Seargent Dime was saying the exact same things in the book and movie. Why didn't it work?

    Texture. The movie lacked an identical texture to the novel, which isn't an inherently bad thing. There's just a certain atmosphere that can be created by the narrator of the book that can't be emulated on the screen.

    I use this as a perfect example of why you can't compare the two. And, often, a direct adaptation, I think, would fail miserably. I've learned to appreciate the choices directors and screenwriters have to make in an adaptation, and respect those decisions as artistic choices rather than an insult to the novel.
     
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  18. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll It's Coffee O'clock everywhere. Contributor

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    @Spencer1990 I will admit to being a bit harsh with the expectation.
    Though in a sense we do agree that the adaptation from one media
    to another can affect the atmosphere and delivery. And you are
    correct film cannot capture the narration from a book, it is simply
    not an easy task to translate prose into motion picture.
     
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  19. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    Yes. We absolutely agree. The part I disagree with is saying that films are worse than for their inability to exactly match a novel.
     
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  20. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I actually try to distance myself from current movies because I can start to trend and I've produced a lot of dumb ideas because of it. One I recall was entitled Let's Play - about a group of people trapped in a house where each room, hall had some impossible task/ game/ puzzle to solve before they were released into another section - sound familiar? Cube and all those rip off horrors. I managed some chapters and gave up. It might make an okay short but as a novel with dialogue and 2-d characters - ugh.

    Some are better for it. Hitchcock's Marnie had a streamlined beauty to it. Winston Graham's seemed a bit longwinded and unfocused.
    And some directors just aren't good for projects - Take Lolita - Kubrick is stylish and perfectly captured an acid tone but there was no sense of America. So it's a bit of a fail. Lyne in the 90's is too arty. He perfectly captures late 40's America but the movie is too damn romantic. Another fail. I would've filmed it in the 70's with Hitchcock.
    He knew how to sway sympathies.
    Another book that improves in movie form is Pollyanna. The book is too sweet. Pollyanna rolls through it as though she never questions her own philosophy. In the movie version they at least show Hayley Mills looking embarrassed, momentarily defeated, angry, frustrated, deliberately manipulative, fearful. She looks as though she knows her philosophy is being attacked and trying to weather it even though most of her attackers are her elders.
     
  21. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    Princess Bride is another interesting adaptation of the book - I feel like it made loads of changes, shifted focus quite a bit, but managed to maintain the sense of wry whimsy, which I would think is a difficult thing to pull off.

    But all these comparisons, I think, contribute to my argument that we need to be very cautious when trying to take lessons from movies and apply them to writing novels. I agree that the elements are the same, like if we put them in a list: plot, setting, etc. are important for both mediums. But when we go beyond that and try to actually get into the details of things (like, for example, trying to examine the different ways of opening a novel by looking at the different ways of opening a movie) I think we're making a mistake.

    If you want to think about different ways to open a book, read different books. Go to Amazon and use the "look inside" feature if you're only interested in openings and don't want to spend a fortune (or spend an afternoon at the library).

    If we want to discuss different openings, we should refer to books and people who haven't read those books can go look them up. And then, sure, include a movie or two as bonus material, but not as the heart of the matter.
     
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  22. Mckk

    Mckk Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think in terms of how to tell a story - you know, story structure, what sort of content might make a good opening, story development through to climax - these things would be identical between books and movies. I've been watching a lot more Disney now that I have a toddler (mostly for the Cantonese audio - bought it dubbed precisely for the language), I also found myself analysing the stories a little more because I know these films by heart. I noticed, for example, the introduction of Scar at the beginning of Lion King was rather ingenious, the way Mufusa was established right before his death was why his death had such impact. Or Aladdin - we never actually see him steal the bread. For all we know, the bread was his and he's just being chased for no reason. We know he stole it, but the emotional impact of seeing the theft and already seeing the object in the thief's possession is quite different. The second time we actually witness the theft (the melon later), the scene was funny and demonstrates Aladdin's intelligence, which softens the blow of it actually being a theft.

    These things help inform what sort of information should be in an opening of a book, for example. Movies are also extremely concise - you can be sure every element, every last word was put in it intentionally. Imagine writing an opening that contained as much information and was as entertaining as any of these Disney openings. What was established before a particular point in the story that makes this particular scene especially hard-hitting? These are things we can take into narrative.

    However, when it comes to how to effectively inform the readers of the same thing you might in a movie, that would be different.

    But movies would probably only be useful if you were writing a conventional book. Books, I feel, are a lot more versatile - you can keep a lot more hidden, you can have a far more flexible chronology.

    Anyway I think there're things we could learn from good movies that would apply to writing - but if one is serious about writing books, then one should really learn primarily from other books. It's like trying to learn badminton by watching how tennis players play - there's probably some overlap, but it seems a little... foolish, and it's only going to delay proper learning because it'll take you just as much time to realise which parts would only work for a tennis player and not a badminton one.

    To be honest, we use movies as examples probably because we're lazy and these days fewer people read and fewer people read widely. I would question a teacher who had more movie examples than writing examples when teaching about writing. I would also question a teacher who doesn't seem to pay attention to the differences in the two mediums and just happily and liberally apply everything from films onto books - this tells me someone who is not very nuanced, aware, or indeed knowledgeable. I don't mind being drawn to movie examples as long as the teacher also points out what might transfer well onto narrative and what might not, making students pay careful attention in what they use to convey the same feeling or power in the piece.

    I'd love to dissect the script to Phone Booth - I find the screenplay absolutely stunning. The dialogue is seamless and drives tension, and all that when the entire film revolved around a phone booth and quite literally nothing else. Some head shots, that's all. The whole thing is extremely dialogue heavy without any dramatic effects or clever camera work - yet I've seen it many times and still every time it takes my breath away how well written the whole thing is.
     
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  23. matwoolf

    matwoolf Banned Contributor

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    I don't engage with cinema at all. Is it my age, something that happens to everybody? The idea of box sets, or actors makes me ill. Even with theatre I carry heavy prejudice, thinking theatre is for the actors rather than the pleasure of any audience. It's a crippling prejudice, I'm quite ashamed. I am happiest with Radio 4, LBC for froth, Radio Sussex for 'sheep news' and pop music when celebrating friday :/

    I did try with cinema, but I'm too dumb to find even 'Rams' or whatever. Film-makers are pricks, anyway. There goes that prejudice again. I like writers.

    But even there I don't/can't read books the way I once did - or as often...

    [ASSHOLE stream of consciousness/experimental wip character study/is not me]
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2017
  24. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributor Contributor

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    I'll agree with you that when we get into the idea of technically creating prose (putting words together to form sentences, sentences to form paragraphs, paragraphs to form scenes, etc.), then we absolutely must study other examples of prose. That said, if we're operating on a theoretical level, it would be unwise to push one medium as more important than another.

    This is a case of which comes first. We have to have a good theoretical construct of our work before we can make it mechanically sound. If I don't have an interesting plot, characters, etc, then what would be the point? And figuring out what makes an interesting story happens through study of narrative, not just prose narrative.
     
  25. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    So at the "paragraphs to form scenes" level we're still not able to draw good comparisons to movies? I think we're in agreement, then.

    Once you get up to the "need a compelling conflict" level, sure, any story will do.
     
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