Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Readers Want to FEEL

A book is not a screenplay. Well! I'll take "Obvious Crap" for $1000, Alex.

Yes, you THINK that's obvious, but you'd be surprised how many writers of BOOKS don't understand that concept. You know why? Because they're already envisioning their books as movies.

Hands up who hasn't done that. (My hand is down, just so you know.)

But one of the biggest mistakes a fiction writer can make is to say, "This scene is great, because it's exactly how I picture it on the big screen." Oh, boy. Too bad the rest of the world isn't privy to the pretty pictures in your head. Actually, it's a really good thing the rest of the world isn't privy to the pictures in my head most of the time. But anyway...

Do I envision my books playing out like a movie in my head when I write them? Yes, of course. We are a movie-watching society. Our brains have been trained to work that way. I even go so far as to decide which actors would play my characters if it were a movie. Because that's just fun. But it would be a major mistake to treat a book like a screenplay during the writing process. That's because screenwriting purposely takes the emotion out of the equation.

A talented screenwriter recently told me that a true screenplay doesn't contain anything in it that you can't see on the screen. So, you can give stage directions, such as, "Jane frowned," but you can't say, "Jane's stomach dropped to her feet, and she felt like all the happiness had been sucked from the world." You can't say that, because you can't SEE that happening onscreen. You shouldn't write that in a book, either, because it sucks on sooooo many levels. But the point is... screenwriters write to show, because moviegoers need to SEE what's happening. Plus, actors will provide the emotional interpretation.

Books don't have the luxury of talented actors providing the translation of actions into emotions. That's the author's job. It starts with setting the scene with physical descriptions, but that's only the beginning. If a writer describes the action in a book like a passive observer, the reader will never relate to the characters. And what's the point of that? 

Books are nothing without feeling. And there's no way I can truly know how a character is feeling by "watching" him or her go through a bunch of stage directions. You may know when you read, "Jane frowned," that she's unhappy about something; however, a writer's goal is to make the reader feel what Jane's feeling, to describe what it feels like to be unhappy. Unfortunately, we all know. But not everyone can put it into words and make someone else remember how it feels, even when he or she is feeling far from unhappy (because they're reading a good book). But it's absolutely essential that the writer makes the reader feel what the character is feeling so that he or she can relate to that character.

Yeah, it's fun to imagine my novels being played out onscreen by beautiful actors who will meet me and want to be my best friends (sorry... those positions are already filled). BUT I gotta write the books first. Because I don't write movies. I write emotions.


  1. Speaking as a talented screenwriter, I have to admit that you're onto something here. Too often, I pick up a book and discover that I'm really reading a sneaky screenplay. None of the characters are letting me into their head. Granted, on some occasions, it's nice to have a character reveal something that was previously hidden, but for the most part, I think a lot of the joy of reading is losing ourselves in new worlds and experiencing new things through the lives of characters.

  2. Oooh... would we say "talented"? And you're right; I over-simplified my argument for my own purposes (I have a habit of doing that, because it makes me look smart) and neglected to point out that good writing is about balance. A good writer leaves some things to the readers' imaginations and trusts that the readers will come to the correct conclusions, based on the other clues provided. It's equally-frustrating when an author spells out every single thought and detail and feeling. That's when you wind up with a 105,000-word manuscript.