Chances are if you’re reading this blog, you are a Reader of books. Maybe you’re even a Writer of books. I’m both and proud of it. However, I do realize that I’m not normal. (insert your own joke here.) Most Americans are not Readers. Oh sure, they read magazines. They read their favorite section of the newspaper. They read a book if a teachers assigns a book to read. (maybe). They read posts on Facebook and Twitter. But if all the statistics are correct, most Americans only read one book per year. (insert plug for my book here).
How many movies does your average American see every year? I don’t know the exact number, but I do know that it’s a helluva lot more than one per year.
So, why have movies overtaken reading as American’s favorite form of entertainment? Why do people say when asked if they’ve read a certain book, “No, I’m waiting for the movie.” Why have books become little more than fodder for Hollywood?
Big question: Why would people rather see a movie than read a book?
Writers will tell you the answer to that last question is because Americans have gotten lazy. Audiences don’t want to think. They want stories to be told to them and not have to work. They don’t want to use their imaginations.
But what if the real answer (shudder) is even more simple? What if the real reason is (gasp) movies are more fun? (wail)
The question that keeps me awake at night is this: What if movies kill literature? I’m not saying it’s going to happen right away. It’ll take a few years. My generation won’t go down without a fight even. But was that a death rattle I just heard?
I have an idea. (said Lucy to Ethel.) And my idea goes something like this: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Okay, so it’s not an entirely original thought. But it might just work. If novelists could make books as fun, as exciting, as downright enjoyable as movies, wouldn’t the younger generation want to read? (that one was rhetorical)
Yet another question: How in the h. e. double hockey sticks do you make a book more like a movie?
Aye, that’s the rub. As a screenwriter and a teacher of screenwriting and a teacher of English Literature in my past life — and as a newbie novelist in my present life – I would like to share some screenwriting guidelines that transfer easily to book form. I even tried to use them in my book. (insert plug here.)
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far: (writers may be surprised how many of these screenwriting rules they already employ)
Remember as you read these, I’m talking about trying to appeal to the young generation, the people who buy a movie ticket every week and are not spending their allowance on the books we write.
First Ten — Boy o boy, those first ten pages better be good. The words better jump right off the page and into the reader’s mind. And, lyrical, pretty prose usually won’t turn the trick. However, action will. Start with a bang. Get the reader hooked right away. You can always write pretty words on page 11.
Journey — The Protagonist has to go on a journey. They have to start at point A and end up at point Z. This doesn’t have to be a literal road trip. It can be a character journey. But, if that’s the case, it sure would help to create a visual, real journey to accompany the character journey.
Think of all your favorite movies and see if you can remember the journey.
Thelma and Louise – The title characters started off going camping and ended up at the Grand Canyon. During this real journey, they also went on a character journey, discovering themselves and each other along the way.
When Harry Met Sally – Even romances and comedies have journeys. These two characters embark on a romantic journey, but they also start off the story driving from one place to another.
Planet of the Apes – ‘Nuf said.
This is where the saying “Take the trip” came from.
Three Act Plot Formula – This formula has been used since the birth of movies and it’s what an audience expects and wants.
Act One – Hero climbs a tree.
Act Two – Shake the tree.
Act Three – Get out of the tree.
Visual – movies are a visual art form. Books are verbage. The better you can paint a picture with words, the more visual it will be. This sounds obvious. The hard part about painting with words is doing it in as few words as possible. Don’t spend a paragraph detailing a window treatment. Try to infuse action into every description.
Ex: She poked her nose between the purple curtains and peeked through the blinds.
There’s your window treatment in just one sentence and the story also moved forward at the same time.
After reading that, you know what the window looks like, but now you’re also wondering why she’s peeking and poking and what the heck is out there?
Your Heroine also doesn’t have to say or think what’s going through her head. She can show what she’s feeling. Think about the Glenn Close character in The Big Chill. She was naked, sitting on the floor of a cold shower, crying all alone. Her character didn’t say a word and there was no omniscient point of view telling me what she thought. And yet, I felt what she felt. A novelist can paint this powerful picture is as little as two sentences.
This is the movie version of ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’
A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
Enter late, Exit early – This rule is my personal favorite. And, it’s exactly what it says. Enter late into every scene and exit every scene early.
Enter Late – Let’s say your character drives to her lover’s house, stops the car, gets out of the car, walks up to the house, rings the doorbell, the lover answers, they say hello, they walk to the kitchen, sit down at the table and then they argue.
Just cut right to the chase. Start at the kitchen table. Even better, start at the argument.
Another good tip for accomplishing this rule is to start a scene with dialog or action wherever possible. This grabs the reader around the throat and yanks them into the scene right away.
Exit Early – After the fight at the kitchen table, I don’t have to see the character get up and walk out of the house and get back in her car. I’m going to assume she does all of this. So, after the meat of the scene is done, get the heck out of Dodge.
(Further reading about this general idea can be found in Karin Kallmaker’s blog “Leave Out the Boring Bits.” It’s good, sound advice for the whole scene, not just the top and bottom of a scene.)
Short Scenes with Commercial Breaks — There’s a reason James Patterson is so popular. You can read a whole chapter of his during the time it takes to go to the bathroom. People like this.
And modern audiences are used to a commercial break every 8 minutes. So, every 8 minutes their mind is going to wander. Shorten the scenes in your book. Shorten the chapters, too. Audiences will read a whole book, one little bite at a time.
My goal is the same as every other writer’s. I want to entertain, educate and provide escapism. Aristotle (not the Onassis guy, the other one) called this the Three E’s and said every good story has them. Good stories come in many forms. I’m just hoping that my favorite form sticks around for a long, long time. And if I have to join ’em to beat ’em, then that’s what I’m going to do.