#5onFri: Five Ways Movies Sabotage Your Writing Skills

by John Matthew Fox
published in Writing

In my new book, The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments, I talk about how movies can sabotage a novelists’ writing skills. 

Novelists can definitely learn storytelling techniques from movies, but you shouldn’t rely on movies too much. After all, they are a different storytelling medium, and books can do things that movies can’t pull off (and of course movies have unique strengths as well). 

If you’re a big film aficionado, and watch more films than you read books, then you might find that you’ve internalized a lot of cinematic ideas that are secretly sabotaging your fiction writing. 

Most writers don’t even realize they are making some of these mistakes. Here are five mistakes that novelists can easily make. 

1. Thinking Only in Scenes

Movies can only work in scenes. That’s their only currency. They don’t have the ability to summarize big chunks of time (at least not easily).

But books have this incredible ability to use summary to skip over the boring parts. Don’t forget to use that technique! I would recommend alternating between scenes and summary, reserving scenes for only the most pivotal moments in your book. 

2. Over-Reliance on Visuals  

Look, movies are best at visuals. It is a visual medium. It’s wonderful to watch giant spectacles of futuristic cities, of car chases, of tumbling skyscrapers. And many writers instinctively rely mainly upon the visual when they write, because they have been trained by movies. 

But books, because they rely more upon verbal communication, do a better job at allowing access to all the senses. For instance, I can smell the scents inside books. When they describe a pile of feces in Calcutta, I actually smell it. When I see it in a movie, I recoil from the sight, but my olfactory senses aren’t activated in the same way. 

Another example is character expressions. Expressions work wonderfully in movies: one eyebrow wrinkle and you know exactly what that actor is thinking. But in fiction, you are shooting blanks if you’re describing character expressions. You have to use a paragraph’s worth of words, and sometimes it’s still not clear. To describe emotions, skip the facial expressions and either go internally for your POV characters or use dialogue/body language for non-POV characters. 

3. Sticking to a Single Pace

Movies have only one gear: real-life time. Every second in real life is one second in the film. I mean, sometimes you see slow motion, but this is both rare and only a slight deviation from the regular pace. 

So when I see a novelist that trudges along their story with the same hangdog pacing for the whole book, I know that they’ve been watching too many movies. 

Because books vary their time signatures. One moment we sweep through a month in a sentence, and in the next moment we elongate a brief peck on the lips into a double paragraph extravaganza. Fiction writers are constantly speeding time up and slowing it down.  

If you’ve ignored that technique, start using it! Say to yourself in your best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, “I HAVE THE POWER!” Empower yourself to speed up through the boring parts and slow down for the exciting parts. 

4. Focusing on Characters Externals 

It’s easy for fiction writers to only focus on what characters say and do. After all, we only get to see those externals in films. It’s very rare that we get a steady inner monologue of a character’s thoughts in a movie. 99% of films never let us hear a character’s thoughts. 

But one superpower of fiction writers is the ability to go inside a character. Internals allow us to hear the thoughts and innermost emotions of characters, and this provides an intimacy with characters that is near impossible to achieve in the same way on the silver screen. 

Please, don’t construct a novel where we are never allowed into the thoughts of a protagonist. You’re unnecessarily handicapping yourself. Give your reader access to the ticker tape of your character’s brain and they will bond with them deeply.  

5. Limiting Your Scope 

What are movies most like: short stories or novels?

If you said short stories, you are correct! There have been hundreds of films made from short stories, and the one-to-one correlation is uncanny. On the other hand, movies that are adapted from books often leave tons of scenes and sometimes even minor characters on the cutting room floor. 

What that tells you is that novels are a much more expansive world building project than movies. Two hours ain’t nothing compared to a 500-page book. It would take a mini-series to accurately adapt a novel. 

But many writers have subconsciously adapted their storytelling range to the shape of a movie. They are limiting their imagination without knowing it, putting their story in the box of a two-hour feature film, because that is the genre they know best.

The writer’s goal should be to explore the form of the novel and stretch its boundaries. Feel free to write a 300-page book, or a 600-page book, depending on the story you’re trying to tell. Don’t let movies shape the length of your book. 

Thanks for reading! If you’d like more writing advice like this, I would recommend reading my book, The Linchpin Writer. And if you can think of any other ways that movies have influenced novelists, please post them in the comments. 

Editor’s Note: If you decide to check out the book, we hope you’ll do so using the links in this article. If you do, DIY MFA will receive a commission at no cost to you, and you’ll support independent bookstores! As always, thank you for supporting DIY MFA.

John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he provides editing and creates writing courses, and his books include The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel’s Key Moments and the story collection, I Will Shout Your Name (Press 53). He gives writing tips on Tiktok and Instagram.

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