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

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