Thursday, September 30, 2010

Emulate Television or Movies in your Writing?

I feel that a lot of times, authors will be inspired by movies when they begin writing. And I understand that appeal, since a number of us probably end up watching more movies than we read books. I mean they are less time consuming, can be shared easily with other people, and usually don’t require a lot of imaginative effort. So then we as writers start to imitate what we see on the screen in our writing, we make a huge mistake.

The truth is that while books and movies may share a lot of story structure in the middle and end, the beginning of a novel is more akin to a television show. If you plan on taking story telling hints from the visual stories, then I suggest TV rather than movies. (at least in the beginning).

TV programs compete with 100s of other shows on at the same time as them, and when the break between programs comes on and people start surfing, they need to grab hold of the viewer and can’t let go. They need a compelling hook with an interesting character facing some sort of problem. For instance a ER type show might begin by showing some very unusual and possibly deadly ailment affecting a patient, a cute little 6 year old girl. Yea, everybody want to see if she makes it.

Does that sound familiar? Isn’t that pretty much what every writing tip tells you about your first page? Because just like the TV viewer, a reader browsing a bookstore is surfing through tons of books, all trying to grab their attention. If they happen to look at your book, you have only a couple lines to hook them before they move on, just like in TV.

Contrast this with movies where the viewer has spent the money on the ticket and entered the theater with their popcorn in hand. This gives the movie a chance to slowly bring the viewer into their world. They can have the opening credits scroll by in a fog while they show the setting. Then they can show the main character getting ready for work and doing their daily routine before anything interesting happens. But the only reason they can get away with this is because the viewer has already committed to the work. This just does not happen with books unless you are such a big name that readers pre-commit to you.

So when you write that opening chapter, don’t take us on a journey through the geology of your world and/or start with the character in their ordinary routine. I see that far to often in the fiction that I critique. Give us a compelling character stuck in a problem that we need to know the resolution of. Without that your book will be put back on the shelf or deleted from the editor/agent’s inbox.


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