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Q&A

What can a novel do that film and TV cannot?

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I have enjoyed writing prose for years and have a few short stories penned. I would like to build up to a novel but believe I have identified a potential weakness in my storytelling.

My style is grounded in visual language, and always has been. I grew up with a lot of film and TV, and have a good knowledge of filmography being a bit of a film nerd when I was younger. As such, even reading from a young age, I always imagined the scenes taking place on film and pictured how I would film them, angles, framing, reaction shots etc. I've always read like this. Because of this, I tend to write in a style that accommodates the way I read and the pacing of cinema almost like a screenplay in prose.

I'm worried that I may be cornering myself and limiting myself to the full power of prose, but I am mostly self taught and outside of High School English have not studied writing in any way.

So my question, what are some of the forms and styles I can use in my writing that are not possible to do with film and TV?

How can I ensure I'm not limiting my potential by writing almost exclusively 'for TV'?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/46373. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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5 answers

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The main difference is the ability to be published.

To break into TV, you need to live somewhere that produces a lot of TV shows (in the United States, you'd move to Los Angeles and try to hang out with others in "the industry"). I'm not sure how else you break in, but it's not easy.

You can self-publish 100 novels with the same ease (and money) it takes to make one 30 minute TV pilot. More eyeballs too. Perhaps there are paths to film/TV writing available to you (by networking or luck) that I don't know about. The reality for most people is that you're a lot more likely to get published with prose, and even that's not easy to do.

But you asked about "forms and styles I can use in my writing that are not possible to do with film and TV."

Forms & Styles

My current project was in my head as a movie for 10 years. I imagined scenes and camera angles and all the rest. I don't have the skillset to write a screenplay (the technical stuff isn't hard to learn, I just don't know it yet) but I could have gotten it down easily enough and reformatted it later.

When I decided to change course and write it as a novel, it was an interesting transition. At first I decided to create it as a heavily illustrated book. Not a graphic novel, but something leaning in that direction. I don't draw but I did choose an artist (who I still think would be perfect) who has agreed to work on it when I'm ready.

My first few chapters were good enough but relied heavily on the illustrations for descriptions (I have those illustrations in my head and described them briefly). For example, Chapter One (after a prologue) happens with an extended family around a dinner table. My prose only barely showed the reader what the characters looked like, how the table was set, what the room looked like, etc. Some of that stuff was window dressing (but a well-dressed window is a joy to look at) but other details are important to the story.

As I continued to write, I stopped relying on the pictures and started narrating.

Description: A screenplay shows you the characters and the setting, sometimes in glorious detail, but it's a barrage. With prose, you can set the scene sparsely or lavishly. The reader can imagine to cover any gaps.

You also can direct the reader's eye. Of course you can do this in a screenplay too. It's called a closeup. Prose gives you more subtlety. You lay out the important parts without necessarily pointing a big sign at them screaming "foreshadowing!"

Character thoughts: There are many forms of narration in a novel. Some allow you to get inside anyone's head, some only one person's head or a small handful. Some don't do it at all.

When I started writing this novel, I had every intention of limiting my narration to what could be filmed. I only included the slightest of thoughts, and then just things that a good actor could convey without words. As I went further, I changed that. And the novel got stronger.

It's not necessary to include thoughts, but most novels do, at least for the main character (or a narrator who is involved in the action). You can easily overdo it but, done right, it brings a depth to the characterization that is hard (and sometimes impossible) to capture in film.

When people talk about the difference between reading the book and seeing the movie and how the book is (usually) better, it's because the book gives you more than a movie can. Length is a huge factor, but also how the characters feel.

Length: Novels can have sequels and TV shows can go on for decades (some soap operas have). But the reality is that you can pack in a lot more information in prose than will fit in a script. When novels get adapted to movies, large portions of plot get cut, subplots are often removed, and some characters are merged with others or just gone.

Nuance: You lose character complexity and other nuances that a novel can give you. If you're transitioning to thinking about your work as filmable to just printed, imagine the world this opens up for fleshing out secondary characters, showing more stops on a journey, or simply taking your time with a story.

Time-depiction: Film uses actors and they are the age that they are. You can use makeup to age an adult and you can go backwards some, but often you need new actors to use in flashbacks or subplots about characters at other ages. Some TV shows do hire actors to show the characters as children or young adults, for example, but they tend to merge ages to limit this.

The TV show Any Day Now has parallel storylines with an adult cast and with them all as children. Orange Is the New Black mostly sets stories in the present day but shows individual characters before they got to prison. Some use the same actors and others use younger adult actors, teens, or small children.

Child actors also age, so if there's a delay in filming, you might end up with a much taller actor (suddenly with breasts or facial hair) because you waited 9 extra months for funding, but the time jump is supposed to be a single summer. It's even worse if you have to skip a season (as many shows do these days) and have the perfect young actors who are going to age out.

Time Jumps: In prose you can skip ahead 5 years without even blinking. The show Jane the Virgin did this between 2 seasons, but they had to recast the children. The adults didn't age visibly because...Hollywood. Pretty Little Liars also jumped ahead, but in that case it was a relief because we no longer had actors in their 20's playing girls in high school. Now the same actors were playing characters closer to their real ages.

In prose you can also go back and forth through multiple timelines with ease. If you want an entire chapter set 20 years ago, no problem.

Settings: You don't have to consider how expensive changing sets is or how you don't have the budget to film on location. Just write it.

Background information: Does the reader need some information to make sense of the story? Your narrator can just tell the reader. You don't want to infodump, but sometimes it's just easier to write a line or two of background. In film, a character has to know the information and tell another character (which might not be what you want for the plot) or somehow tell the audience (reading a diary out loud, inventing a throwaway character like a therapist, etc). For something super important, that's okay. But sometimes you just want a line or two every few pages.

I've left out a few, but hopefully this is enough to get you started.

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One big advantage that may or may not be mentioned here is pacing. With a movie or TV show, due to the time limitations, not only do you have less freedom with content, but you also are limited by the ability to express the pace of the story.

With a book, every reader reads at a different pace, but you can use that to your advantage. It allows you to write as complex and vivid structure as you want to express a similar span of time. Not only that, but a reader will read all the details you put down, while in a movie or show there are many that will go unnoticed.

However, in cases where there are many details you want to express to the reader about something, a graphic may be helpful for visualization purposes.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/46388. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I think in recent years the gap between what is "possible" in a prose vs. film (both cinema and TV) has narrowed significantly - historically the limitations and expense of things like CGI and practical effects made some of the more exotic genres such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy difficult to translate onto film. This is realistically no longer the case in 2019 - assuming budget can be found of course!

That doesn't mean there aren't still potential advantages to prose though - and you're probably already taking advantage of them without even realizing it!

Length

While audiences are more accepting of longer films then they used to be (remember all the fuss over Titanic at 195 mins? Avengers: Endgame is only 15 minutes shorter!) getting a reasonable-length novel into even three hours screen time is difficult without making cuts. TV used to be even more affected - the need to make relatively self-contained stories in ~45 mins of run time severely hampered the complexity and length of stories you could tell, binge-watching and the streaming services have changed that significantly now. But even so the episodic splits need taking account of and mean the story can suffer.

Inner thoughts and feelings

Being in a character's POV (either first or third person limited) can give you a great deal more scope for showing their internal state. On screen you are limited to how the character presents, unless you do narration devices whereas in prose you can show what they are thinking/feeling and how they are acting essentially simultaneously. You can be much more engaging with physical sensations as well in much the same way. Which leads me to..

POV options

First person, Third person, Third person-limited, Multiple POVS - these give you multiple ways to tell the story and engage with character(s).

Passage of time

While CGI and practical effects have again reduced this in a book you can naturally show the entire life cycle of a character. Complete with growing up, aging etc far easier. You can reverse this as well or even halt it. David Boreanez played a "never-aging" immortal for ~7 years on TV. And one who was supposed to be visually young in age. They pulled it off - pretty well actually. But how long could you do that for before the suspension of disbelief gets absurd? Sure you can digitally de-age people reasonably well these days (see Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel) but at a certain point it's going to start becoming an issue.

Anyone can die

Want to shock-kill your biggest character? No problem - no worries about contracts or anything like that. Game of Thrones was notable in TV in that people in the main cast were almost as vulnerable to the plot as a redshirt. In most TV series you know that the majority of the time the main cast is going to make it out of peril because, well they are the main cast - they are in the opening credits and everything.

Much less "censorship"

Censorship feels like too strong a word - but movies and TV have a much tougher time getting more "adult" content such as violence and swearing in then books do. They have regulatory bodies and age ratings to worry about. Game of Thrones was considered extremely edgy for TV (even for HBO) - and it's not even that full-on by book standards (can you imagine anyone trying to get an uncut version of Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastards series on to TV?)

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You've already gotten quite a few good answers, but there's one important point that I didn't see in any of them:

You can easily omit visual and aural details.

If you don't want to tell the age of the protagonist, or the hair colour, or the type of clothes, or if you don't want to tell it yet, then you can. In film and TV that's not easily possible; the protagonist is right in front of your eyes, complete with apparent age, hair colour, clothing, everything. Unless you manage to arrange it that the protagonist is never seen, which is not entirely impossible, but difficult to achieve, and limits your choices otherwise — for example, if you don't show the protagonist, then how do you show his smile? Especially if you want to hide something close to the mouth, like an unconventional beard. No problem in a novel: Just describe the smile, but gloss over (or simply don't mention) the beard. In a movie, showing the smile but hiding the beard is definitely not an easy feat, if possible at all.

Another example: In Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith is tortured with a machine that is described by the torturer as machine that can apply a defined quantity of hurt (I don't remember the exact wording, and I read it in German translation anyway, but that's roughly what was said). There's IIRC no further description of that machine, and that's a good thing. In the movie, they didn't have the luxury of not showing the machine, and that mysterious machine turned into a rather mundane torture instrument.

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I think the main advantage is interior life. You can use narration or thoughts to give us what one character is (or several are) thinking. That's hard to do visually without a cabbagehead character or "As you know"ing, which I hate.

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