You're Not Writing a Movie

I recently finished my first book. The story is split up into four parts, one of which is based on something I wrote (very poorly) back in high school. This essay covers the biggest thing I've learned since then, as well as the biggest thing you shouldn't.




Over the course of the last year, I learned to play the ukulele. I learned the chords and how to put them together, and I learned the strumming patterns that I could never figure out on the guitar. I taught myself how to pick, how to add percussion, and how to accompany other musicians. After countless hours of not writing, I can proudly say that I’m the best baritone ukulele player on the block.

This is what you shouldn’t learn. It won’t be a foreign concept to a place called /r/ShutUpAndWrite, but talking about writing isn’t writing. Bashing at a ukulele while a Word document happens to be open isn’t writing. Writing is writing, and if you’re in this sub, then odds are you’re writing prose.

Which leads me to what you should learn: you’re not writing a movie. Unless you’re writing a screenplay, in which case, you do you.

You might visualize your story, and the sounds might be crystal clear, but the bottom line is that as far as everyone outside of your head is concerned, you’re not working in an audio/visual medium. You have text, and that matters, because different mediums come with different tools and different advantages.

Disadvantages to text

You can’t get visual information out as quickly

Don’t even try. A picture is worth a thousand words, and your average movie runs at 24 frames per second. A ten second panning shot of Some Other Loser Cabin is worth almost as much as the word count goal that we’re not going to reach.

But it’s okay. Take a deep breath. The reader didn’t want to see every detail of me and Pierre’s pillow fort anyways. They just want to know how it made Lt. Fluff feel when he was never invited inside.

So who cares if you can’t get visual information out as quickly in text? As we’ll examine later, there are plenty of text-exclusive tools to make up for this.

You don’t get a soundtrack

No orchestra. No ukulele jingle. No Zimmer BRAAAMs. You can listen to all of the inspirational post rock you want while writing, but that won’t make it a part of the story. Maybe in a spiritual sense it will, but again, we’re concerned about the not-in-your-head people.

Again, don’t worry. It’ll all be okay. We might not get music, but cinematographers and writers alike get subtext. Just like a soundtrack, subtext works in the background of a piece to convey some idea, without slapping the viewer across the face with it.

In this case our tool may be harder to use, but if it’s used well, then nothing is lost. The emotion is still conveyed, whether it’s through intricate dialogue or through a minute of searching for royalty-free audio clips.

You have to give readers more to care about

Videos are interesting. They shoot information into your sensory whether you’re paying attention to them or not.

Text doesn’t work that way. Have you seen it? Of course you have. You’ve seen so much text that you ignore it more often than you register it. Sometimes you don’t even pay attention while you’re reading it. So if you don’t give your readers something to care about, don’t be surprised if your work gets a readership on par with the iTunes Terms and Conditions.

This might just be the biggest disadvantage to text, but try not to think of it that way. Try to think of it as an obstacle to overcome. Make it your goal to give the readers something to care about. First and foremost, an interesting title and/or an interesting hook. It doesn’t have to be huge; it just has to put an idea in the reader’s head, and more importantly, make them want to explore that idea further.

Advantages to text

You can work in senses beyond audio and visual

As the sub-sub-title just said, you can work in senses beyond audio and visual. You get smell and touch and taste, but going even deeper, you get senses of equilibrium, fullness, temperature, tension, and proprioception. When you go beyond sights and sounds, you’re cranking the verisimilitude up to 11. Just remember that these less common senses are akin to adjectives; they can be your friend, but only if you use them sparingly.

You can omit information more selectively

Film can convey information more readily—good job film. But writing is effective at restricting information, and if you do it in the right places, then it can still be advantageous.

Let’s say Alice has a mostly pretty face with an absolutely abhorrent nose, and for some fucking reason, it’s crucial that we don’t even think about her nose until the big reveal. In a film, they would have to get creative. They would have to keep a large part of her face out of every shot, yet do it in a way that doesn’t call attention to how a large part of her face is out of every shot.

In writing? Just don’t mention it. Rattle off purple prose to your heart’s content about how beautiful the rest of her face is, just don’t tell the reader about that specific part of it. In the end the reader isn’t likely to think twice about it. Unless you want them to.

You can get into a character’s head much more readily
^ THE BIGGEST POINT. EVER.

Maybe you do want the reader to think that there’s something off about Alice, you just don’t want them to know what it is quite yet. If that’s the case, then have your POV character Bob talk about Alice is a slightly different way. Have him prattle on about how drop dead gorgeous she is, but make him hesitant about it. Give him some reluctance to describe anything near her nose. As a bonus, you can throw two twists in at the end and reveal that Alice and Bob both have noses that belong in a science museum.

In writing, the connection between what’s shown and how it makes the character feel is direct. This is the biggest advantage writing has over any other medium. Use it. It doesn’t rely on directing & cinematography & acting & special effects—it only relies on you. Get into your character’s head, and then get your character’s head into the readers’.

Common ground

  • The seven basic plots remain the same
  • Good development is still showing, not telling
  • Don’t waste too much of your audience’s time

What happens when you use the wrong tools

In closing, I want to highlight what happens when you use the wrong tools in writing. So let’s take a look at My Immortal.

Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don’t know who she is get da hell out of here!). I’m not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie. I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I’m in the seventh year (I’m seventeen). I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow. I was walking outside Hogwarts. It was snowing and raining so there was no sun, which I was very happy about. A lot of preps stared at me. I put up my middle finger at them.

“Hey Ebony!” shouted a voice. I looked up. It was…. Draco Malfoy!

“What’s up Draco?” I asked.

“Nothing.” he said shyly.

But then, I heard my friends call me and I had to go away.

Notice how this chapter employed 0% of what I covered in this essay.

You can’t get visual information out as quickly

Tara starts her story by attempting to describe every aspect of her main character’s appearance. It took a behemoth of a paragraph to cover, and apparently it still wasn’t enough, because in later chapters she describes the clothing again and again.

You don’t get a soundtrack

Maybe Tara thought she had a soundtrack, and that’s where this all went wrong. Maybe if we had an engaging narrator telling us about the clothes while montage music played in the background, this would be halfway tolerable. Maybe if an orchestra put every fiber of their soul into playing the most clever music they’ve ever played, we would get that Ebony and Draco are about to enter an obsessive yet oddly noncommittal relationship. But there isn’t a soundtrack, so we’re left with nothing.

You have to give readers more to care about

Fascinating as goth culture is, on its own it doesn’t give us much to latch onto. We don’t get any reason to care about Ebony, other than, “I’m the protagonist so there.”

You can work in senses beyond audio and visual

Tara did not.

You can omit information more selectively

“Here’s my full name and my life story and what I’m wearing and how I feel about music and what I think of this anomalistic weather and if you want to learn more you can go to my website www.Ebony+Dark%27ness+Dementia+Raven+Way.sue to look at my ref sheet.”

You can get into a character’s head much more readily

Alright, fine. To Tara’s credit, we did get into Ebony’s head. She goes a little overboard by making it My Immortal: The Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way Show, but still, if there’s one thing this story has, it’s character.


So, are these hard and fast rules that every work of literature must follow? No, of course not. These are just a few things I’ve learned in my years of writing, and I thought I’d pass it on for other writers to consider.

I look forward to writing my next book/learning to play the guitar. Maybe if enough of us become authors, we can all start a band.

© Ray Underscore Thompson, July 2015