Why Can’t a Novelist Write Like a Screenwriter?

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Recently, a blog reader asked me why readers dislike it when the POV character dies at the end of chapter one, when most TV cop shows start with the victim being murdered — and nobody complains.

As I said in my blogpost on 8 Ways Not to Start a Novel: “This classic opener for TV cop shows doesn’t work to start a novel, because readers identify with the first character they meet in a book, and if you kill off that character immediately, readers feel betrayed.”

But, as our blog reader asked, why is that? Why do they identify with a character in a novel more than one in a TV show or movie?

I had to cogitate on that for a while. I’ve been mulling over that question myself. Recently, I read a mystery where the protagonist-sleuth turned out to be the murderer. I felt I’d been tricked. When the novelist has lied, leading us to believe the POV character is the novel’s main protagonist, like in the TV cop show opener, or the POV character is pretending (to the reader) to try to solve a murder they actually committed, we feel cheated. The author is lying by omission.

But would we feel the same way if the story had been a movie?

Probably not. Look at the popularity of films like The Usual Suspects, when you find out one of the “good guys” is really the bad guy everybody’s looking for. People ate it up.

Why a New Novelist Might Want to Imitate a Screenwriter

Most of us who have grown up in the industrialized world learned storytelling from screenplays as well as books. Many younger people were exposed to much more TV and film than written word storytelling in their formative years.

This hardwired certain storytelling tropes to our brains. So when we start out we may try to tell stories using screenwriter tools, not the tools of a novelist. I know I did. My teenaged stories read like plays.

That doesn’t mean we should spend endless pages on description, but a novel needs a lot more description of characters and setting than a screenplay. And it can have plenty of internal monologue. No voice-over required.

Why Does Withholding Information Work in a Film, but Not a Novel?

My answer to the blog reader who asked me that question was this: actors.

Then: directors, lighting designers, sound engineers, composers, costumers, film editors, etc. — all those people influence the way we feel about characters in film. A film is a team endeavor. Also — a film is something a viewer sees from outside the creative process. The viewer is not on the “team.”

This is what I realized: A novel is an intimate experience between only two people: the writer and the reader.

The reader’s imagination does a lot of creative work in experiencing a novel. If the author sets a scene in a castle, every reader has an image of a castle in their heads they bring to the story. In a film there’s a crew of location people and set designers to do that job.

With a film, you’re a passive viewer. (That’s why they say watching TV is harmful for people with depression, but reading books is not.)

Because the writer/reader relationship is so intimate with a novel, the reader hates being tricked. It feels as if a trusted friend has been lying.

But when you’re a viewer, on the outside looking in, you have lots of signs and signals that this situation is about to change. Music, lighting, setting, facial expressions, etc. can show the viewer they’re not on solid ground. They know things are not to be taken at face value.

We don’t need that element of trust between screenwriter and viewer we have between novelist and reader because there are so many other creative minds working in between.

What about Unreliable Narrators?

Isn’t that trust broken by an unreliable narrator like the mendacious POV characters in Gone, Girl? What about that Girl on the Train who narrates the story but is too drunk and in denial to know what’s really going on?

Are those books violating the reader/writer bond?

Some people think so. Not everybody was happy with those books. If you check Amazon’s 1000’s of one-star reviews on those books, disappointed readers mostly say they didn’t like the characters: “too angry and unlikable” (Gone Girl) and “the weakest people you’ll ever meet.” (The Girl on the Train.)

Those readers didn’t like the characters mostly because they deceived the reader. Another reviewer called The Girl on the Train “bleak, and deceitfully constructed.”

A whole lot of other readers, of course, adored these books and made them tremendous bestsellers. I read somewhere that Paula Hawkins, who wrote The Girl in the Train, is now richer than J.K. Rowling.

So I’d never tell anybody to avoid the unreliable narrator. Personally, I enjoy those books, because I have fun reading between the lines. It’s like playing a game with the author.

You still have the close reader-writer bond, but the author is challenging the reader to a game, rather than telling a straightforward story.

Other readers may dislike the author for it, because they don’t read to play games. If you write this kind of thriller, brace yourself for some nasty one-stars. But you might cry all the way to the bank.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

6 thoughts on “Why Can’t a Novelist Write Like a Screenwriter?”

  1. Mr Kotter, Mr Kotter!
    Ooohh, pick me! Pick me!

    It’s because they’re different forms of media!
    Because they rely on different narrative tools, techniques, and tropes.
    And the audience has very different expectations.

    And because screenplays alone a video do not make. The actors, director, cinematographer, and score all help set the tone and mood to sell twists and concepts most authors struggle to present.

    A novelist must do everything just with words. It’s harder.
    Screenplay novelizations require a distinct skill. Some can do it and make it work but not everybody.

    Just as some novels are effectively unfilmable because their narrative doesn’t translate to a visual medium or the adapter is compelled to put their own spin on the material, even if it destroys everything the novel intends. (STARSHIP TROOPERS, FOUNDATION, among many.)

    • There’s this, but I’m also skeptical about whether or not this “dislike” of killing off a POV character applies to the genres of crime / mystery and horror. We routinely see a POV character killed off in these scenarios, but in these stories there’s also an established main character. The reader knows the character is a red shirt, as it were, especially if the death is in a prologue.

      I’ve never felt betrayed in that scenario, and I’m genuinely surprised to know that some people are; this reaction only makes sense outside of the genres of mystery and horror. There’s also the “back of the book” factor: If you know from the back of the book that say, Miss Marple is investigating a murder, are you really shocked and betrayed that the murder victim is killed off in the first scene? I’m struggling to understand this notion. The reader read the back of the book, they know who the protagonist is.

      I guess you can bop the readers over the head by putting a dateline at the beginning of the chapter, e.g., “two weeks ago, six years ago, etc.” But still.

  2. I’ve never read Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. But I can believe that readers despise despicable characters. No one likes spending time in the POV of an idiot or a jerk. I warn writers not to have their protagonists carry the idiot ball to advance the plot. The best mistakes the protagonists can make are the ones that the audience is rooting for them to make.

    Rachel in “The Ring” was playing by primal laws about how to deal with ghosts, and the audience was rooting for her to play by those rules. We cheer when she finds Samara’s bones, and plans to give Samara a proper burial. That’s always the last “step” when dealing with ghosts. So when it turned out the ghost was playing by a completely different set of rules we didn’t think Rachel was stupid for doing what we wanted her to do. We’re just impressed about the twist, and fearful for her and Aiden.

    As for movie advantages — movies can have “stunt casting.” Drew Barrymore’s death was shocking in Scream precisely because she’s Drew Barrymore and we “know” a big-name actress will not be playing someone who dies in the first five minutes. Her appearance in the posters and the trailers would lead audiences to assume that her presence means she’s going to play a major character.

    The closest books can come to “stunt casting” is with archetypes, e.g., like when JK Rowling used a non-evil talking snake in the first Harry Potter book. And it has to be an archetype, because stereotypes don’t always translate from one generation to the next, or from one place to the next. I mean, Michael Caine said no British director would have cast him to play the character he played in “Zulu” because of his accent (I gather his was the wrong class). He was fortunate that to Americans, all British accents sound the same. But in Western civ, we’re all on the same page about talking snakes.

    • That’s all the examples that came to my mind when I read that “don’t” rule. Maybe if you are calling that first chapter Prologue instead of Chapter 1 you are warning the reader so you can break the rule.

  3. Like so many writing “don’t” commands, the key isn’t what you do but *how* you do it.

    Pretty much every “don’t” has at one time or another been done successfully by somebody who understands the conventional wisdom and knows how to use it to their advantage.

    When it comes to distasteful protagonists they don’t come much worse than Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION (aka, TIGER! TIGER! his original title).


    Gully Foyle is lazy, uneducated, a scummy bully, who graduates to monomaniacal murderer and rapist on an arc, not of redemption, but of vengeance, who drags down and destroys even those trying to help him. It is set in a corrupt and degenerate age to boot.

    It uses pretty much every don’t of the age and a few that were acceptable then but unacceptable today. Yet it works brilliantly.

    Bester nails everything, setting, characters, pacing, plot, climax… The story is rated among the best SF novels of all time and reads as fresh today as in 1953 when he wrote it while living in London for a year.

    BTW, Bester is an oddity in that he only wrote a handful of SF novels (4), all brilliant, despite being active for decades.

    Skill matters.

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