Training scenes work in movies. They (usually) suck in novels

From Nathan Bransford:

Some of the most beloved scenes in movie history involve training for combat.

Obi-Wan Kenobi making Luke put the blast shield down so he can train blind with his lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope. Morpheus and Neo fighting an epic, beautiful, mesmerizing joust after Neo learns kung fu in The Matrix. Take your pick from hundreds of “ragtag fighting force humorously gets their s*** together” montages.

Now, I challenge you this: Name a great training scene in a novel.

I’ll wait.

Okay, sure. Of course they exist! I list some below, and I’m sure some good ones will pop up in the comments section. But if you put the scene where Morpheus tests Neo’s kung fu into a novel, it would be a snoozer. When I’m editing novels, I often see interminable training scenes that were clearly written for the future movie adaptation rather than the actual novel at hand.

Screenplay-ize your novel at your peril. If you have movie training in scenes in mind when you’re writing a novel, you risk crafting a stinker of a scene unless you can tailor it for what works in books.

The reasons for this discrepancy reveal a whole lot about the narrative differences between good cinematic storytelling and good novelistic storytelling.

The interiority of novels

At the risk of oversimplifying, cinema is a storytelling device that favors the exterior, whereas novels favor the interior.

Cinema is visual. It’s nearly impossible to get intimately inside characters’ heads the way we can in novels. We judge cinematic characters almost entirely by their actions (hence the classic “save the cat“), rather than being attuned to their hidden motivations and desires. The occasional clunky movie voice-overs that tell us a characters’ secret thoughts are the exceptions that prove the rule.

With novels, we’re far, far more attuned to why characters are doing what they’re doing. We often know their precise hopes and dreams. We can see the way they’re thinking through their options and choices. It puts a much greater premium on how a character is prioritizing their time and energy and scenes flowing from characters actively going after the things they want in a relatively coherent way.

I am willing to stake this claim: Novels need to make more sense than movies.

That’s because when we read, we’re busy co-creating the world in our own heads. When it’s unclear why exactly a character is doing what they’re doing, it rings a much louder alarm than it does when we’re sitting back in a comfy chair in the theater and just watching things unfold on the screen.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

Manifesto fiction

From Nathan Bransford:

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a substantial uptick in novels crossing my desk that have an extremely overt political message. Their pitches will often cite that the world needs their new book. The authors will treat the message, and the world’s supposed need for it, as the thing that’s going to sell the book.

I call this manifesto fiction. And authors can go very, very far astray if they focus too much on the politics and not enough on the storytelling.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A lot of times I agree with the substance of the political message that’s being espoused! And, at the end of the day, everyone has to write the book they want to write.

But particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publication and if you have writing goals beyond just finishing the novel, here’s the thing you must remember: people will only buy your book if it’s a compelling story.

Focus on the storytelling and make it messy

There is a long and proud history of novels that shift culture and politics through sheer force of story, whether that’s Uncle Tom’s CabinThe JungleThe Handmaid’s Tale, or, more recently, The Hate U Give. There’s also a darker history here, including influential novels that advance racist narratives that I don’t really want to give a further platform by naming.

Knowing this, authors set about writing the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of, say climate change, sometimes with the zeal of converts.

What they forget is that the classic novels that have shifted the culture aren’t didactic diatribes about their chosen topic. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a treatise on reproductive justice, it’s an immersive alternate future that gains power through its plausibility. The Jungle is perhaps the most manifesto-y of these novels, but it’s still a gripping read focused on specific characters who Sinclair goes to great lengths to help the reader sympathize with.

The great danger of manifesto fiction is that the author will put the thumb on the scale as they craft their protagonists and villains, resulting in caricatures and stultifying plot lines. The protagonists are unduly heroic, and the villains unduly villainous. It’s blindingly obvious how things will turn out. The author’s politics are like a decoder ring that spoils what’s to come.

Authors writing didactic fiction will often fail to empathize with their villains and see the appealing traits that give them power. They fail to make it a fair fight.

If you’re going to write manifesto fiction, it’s got to be compellingly messy. We shouldn’t know who’s going to win, and both the protagonists and the villains need to represent a full spectrum of humanity.

Pitch the story, not the message

Publishing employees as a whole tend to be a disproportionately idealistic bunch, but they can only acquire what they think they can sell. And “please read this political diatribe thinly disguised as fiction” is not really a selling point.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford