The book is always better than the movie, right? But there are certain things that we as writers can learn from films. Movies can only hold the attention of an audience for a couple of hours, so every second counts. When it comes to our novels, we need to make every word count.
We don’t like watching movies with average characters, so why would we want to spend hours reading books about them? We want our characters to be larger than life. That’s why we’re writing a story about them. Our characters are special.
Being larger than life doesn’t mean they need to have superhuman powers or be the best secret agent that ever lived. Perhaps it’s our character’s overwhelming ability to forgive, or love, or their desire to protect their family. But that doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. As amazing as their love is, they can hate too. If they embrace someone, they can also slap someone in the face.
If your character gets mad, have them throw their casserole dish across the living room, or slam their locker door, or break a window. Who does that? No one I know in real life. But this is fiction. Make it big! Use this as an opportunity to do the things you always wanted to do.
- Exaggerate actions: Ignore the instinct to use average gestures like shrug, smile, laugh, etc. Think bigger. Arms flailing, guffawing, gut clenching peels, you get the idea.
- Avoid cliches: Your character should be one of a kind. Make their actions true to their personality and it won’t feel cliche.
Think of the last movie you watched. Even during action movies there are moments when information needs to be relayed, when conversations are held, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have some kind of action.
Rooted deep in our primitive instincts is our awareness of our surroundings so we’re always prepared for fight or flight. We’re hardwired to notice anything that moves. Our eyes are automatically drawn to action (No, boys. This is not an excuse for staring at girls as they walk by). Our brains are the same. If we read a scene in a novel where two people simply talk, or worse, it involves several paragraphs of setting description, our brains will slowly turn away because there’s nothing to ‘look at’.
- Mix it up: Intersperse dialogue and descriptions with action, even if it’s simply a gesture, a seductive crossing of a leg, or a character pushing their kid on a swing. Just be careful not to overuse the same gesture all the time or leave it feeling flat by just inserting any old thing because you feel something should go there. Make it meaningful to the scene.
- Combine scenes: Is there some way of incorporating the conversation into another scene that’s packed full of action? Instead of having your characters hash out their personal issues over dinner or tea, cut and paste it into a shootout, or in the middle of a daughter’s big school performance, or during a court hearing for a murder. Sometimes the worst time for characters to hash things out is the best time.
- Spread it out: Try not to clump all your setting details together. Sprinkle them out throughout the scene so it doesn’t interrupt the action for too long.
Floaty Head Feeling
Movies definitely have the upper hand on this one. In mere seconds, an entire world of imagery can be relayed to an audience effortlessly. As the story is told, the surroundings are always present in the background. But in novels, we must go out of our way to describe the world around our characters, and not just as a setting where our story takes place, but how our characters interact with it. Our setting can even become like a character, with it’s own set of conflicts and tempermants.
In my last point, I told you to avoid description dumping all at once, sometimes the opposite is the problem. Ever read a scene that starts in one place and then ends up in another but you have no idea how the character got there? It’s easy to get focused on a character’s inner thoughts or dialogue so that all else is forgotten. That’s the floating head syndrome.
When you think to yourself or talk to someone, you’re probably still doing things, right? You might be opening your mail, or gesticulating wildly, or checking out the waiter. Even when you’re abosrbed in a conversation, the world still carries on without you. It’s the same for your character.
- Take a beat: If you sense there should be a pause in the conversation, use the moment to solidify the surroundings, to have your character interact with it. It’s a great way to include some of your setting descriptions, but it also helps remind the reader where your characters are and their progress in the scene.
Don’t mistake floating head syndrome for explanations that don’t really need to be there. Movies don’t feel the need to explain how a character got from one scene to the next. So as a writer, why should you? When Brad Pitt is in the office one moment and then the scene cuts away and he’s at home, we don’t wonder ‘How did he get there? Was it magic?’ No. By powers of deduction, we know that he probably finished his day at work and drove home. Unless he’s playing superman, it’s safe to assume he didn’t fly.
The reader wants to know about information pertinent to the story (meaning the conflict, the plot). They don’t need to know about every menial detail of their day, like what they had for dinner, or how bad the traffic was getting home. This is assuming these details aren’t pertinent to the story. For example, maybe they had Thai food for dinner but are highly allergic to peanuts, or maybe the wife declared that she would leave if her husband was late for dinner again, and then he was held up in traffic.
In the series Pirates of the Caribbean, it seems like it jumps from one exciting scene to the next. The audience knows there was time spent sailing to get there, but if it’s uneventful, it’s a waste of time to show it. The movies are long enough, but if they included a summary of the weeks or months of sailing, it wouldn’t quite hold the same tension. You are your own director. Know when to yell “CUT!”
- Play catch up: To indicate the passing of time, you can catch your reader up once the scene is already in motion, either by flashbacks or through dialogue. Perhaps it’s immediately obvious and you don’t have to waste the words.
- When the purpose of a scene has ended, end it.
- Get to the good part: Start your next scene where the REAL scene actually starts. Not when they wake up, have breakfast, go to the store, and then rob the teller. You may just want to start at the store. Don’t leave your reader saying, “Just get to the good part already.”
- Give your readers credit: Avoid summarizing the time lapses between the important bits. Ask yourself, if it wasn’t important enough to make it a scene, does it even require mentioning? Will the story make sense without it? As long as it’s not too jarring of a switch and you catch your readers up at the start of the next scene, I’m sure your readers will figure it out.