By Kathy Flann
Baltimore, MD, USA

“The book was better than the movie!” We’ve all heard it. Maybe we’ve even all said it.

Why is it so often the case that the book is better than the movie? There’s no way to be totally conclusive. We’re talking about two art forms, and it’s not as if we can conduct
Kathy Flann
a study and apply our data findings to the problem. That might be as absurd as that moment the in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the Deep Thought computer decides that the meaning of life is 42. Or indeed as absurd as making Hitchhiker’s Guide into a movie.

But something is going on. We can probably agree on that much.

Movies and novels both feature protagonists and plot arcs. Both have settings. In both forms, we can lose ourselves in a made-up person’s struggles  – whether the story involves a farmer battling the elements or a lonely city dweller trying to fulfill star-struck dreams or an android on a quest to become the first A.I. contestant on The Bachelor.

A movie should, by all rights, run circles around a novel. The experience is immediate. We get to live a story through our senses, often with sound quality that’s practically better than real life – explosions and chainsaws and the sizzling of eggs in roadside diners. We get the visuals firsthand, too, such as the facial expression of, say, a hotdog vendor when the main character buys up all his stock and feeds it to her Pug. There might be creases that deepen around the vendor’s mouth, a lift of the eyebrows.

A book requires its readers to look at symbols on a page and then translate these symbols into the kinds of images that a movie provides directly. Why would anyone prefer this? It seems preposterous.

And yet, a novel does offer some things that a movie does not. After spending a couple decades teaching the writing of fiction at universities and working with fledgling writers at writing conferences, I have come to notice that drafts usually fail if a writer has not grasped what these unique features of the novel are and used them to their fullest potential.

It took me several years to figure out that I needed to teach people that they’re not writing a movie. Most people have watched more movies than they’ve read books. As a result, their fiction sometimes has what I call an “external” quality.

When we watch movies, we look at our main characters. We see their faces and movements for two hours, and we hear what they say. Our relationships to the main characters in movies tend to be similar to the relationships we have to our friends and family. We figure out who these people are by observing them. We draw conclusions based on things the characters say and do. Because movies rely on what we can see and hear, they tend to be more reliant on observable action than fiction is. It would be hard for the audience to sit still if there were ten minutes when a character stared into middle distance. And I think this is why stories that were conceived first as novels work better as novels.

In a novel, we tend to be inside the main character, gazing out at the world. The camera doesn’t look at our main character’s face. Instead, the camera is, in a sense, the character’s eyes. We also, of course, hear what the character hears, as in a movie. What’s different is that, from our vantage point within the character, we have access to the other three senses as well – smell, taste, and touch. The power of smell and touch in particular cannot be underestimated. There can be cut grass, Coco Chanel perfume, the smell of coffee brewing. We can experience gravel, Velcro, the fur of a puppy. A movie can evoke these things by showing them to us visually, of course, but here’s where science actually does have a part to play. There are studies that show that reading fiction lights up the parts of readers’ brains responsible for the body. When the main character uses an arm or a leg, the parts of our brains responsible for moving our arms and legs are activated. We have the illusion that we are using our senses directly, an effect that movies don’t appear to have. The fact that a novel can give us this experience can, in part, account for the enduring appeal of fiction.

But by far, for my money, the most important thing that a novel offers – as a result of its internal access – is the thoughts of the main character. Sometimes the thoughts are the action in the story. Our main character’s mother says, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Our main character says something snippy in return, like, “Of course I know what I’m doing!” But what he’s thinking is I’m probably going to make a hash of this. She’s probably right. We’re all going to die. When something happens, we find out what the character’s reaction is to that event. In real life, we are always having thoughts that we don’t speak out loud. Even extroverts don’t say everything they’re thinking (though it seems like they do, at least to us introverts). When it comes to human interaction in a novel, the really intriguing dynamics perhaps occur in what goes unsaid. And this is arguably a bit harder to depict in a movie.

In short, the relationship the reader has with the main character in a novel resembles the one the reader has with the self. This may sound obvious or basic, but it has implications that writers should probably take the time to contemplate. A novel may be the closest approximation there is to living inside a consciousness other than one’s own.

The fact that novel readers can share the experiences and private thoughts of the main character in such a three-dimensional and intimate way more than makes up for the two-dimensional experience of reading the symbols on the page.

The inverse may also be true, by the way – stories conceived first as movies might make lousy books. Maybe that’s why the adaptations don’t tend to go that direction quite as frequently in the first place.

Beginning writers, unsure of the differences between movies and novels, sometimes present their readers with the worst of both worlds. They depict the very same things a movie can offer – external action, mainly focused on things we can see and hear. The drafts are stingy with the other senses and, most importantly, stingy with the character’s thoughts. What’s worse, the reader has to access this action through the written word rather than experiencing it directly on a three-story movie screen. Blech and ho hum.

The good news is that most new writers grasp these concepts quickly and easily. There’s a part of their psyches that understood these distinctions between novels and movies all along, simply by virtue of a lifetime of experience with both forms. I love that look in people’s eyes when they have a moment of recognition like that – yes, the look says, I comprehend this idea not just in my brain but in my bones.

Ultimately, this is what workshop is for – to help people understand what they already understand. The lifetime of experience we all have being a self, inhabiting a consciousness, is perhaps our best schooling. I have always believed that everyone has a story to tell and the ability to tell it. If that story is to be told as narrative fiction, the key is to sink into the character’s mind and body, to become that person. Writing fiction might really be called “Acting for Introverts.”


Lights. Camera. (Internal) Action.



Kathy Flann is Associate Professor, English (Creative Writing) at Goucher College and an award-winning author. Her latest collection of short stories, Get A Grip, was published in November 2015.

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