Over the last few years we've seen a major transformation in the publishing industry. No, not talking about digital books this time, I'm talking about all the ways the publishing industry is coming to mirror the film industry.
There are some surface similarities of course, the film industry survives on the blockbuster genre series, now so do we. Movies do trailers; now we do trailers. How many times have you heard a new book refferred to as being X meets Y? Harry Potter meets Twilight? The Hunger Games meets Sweet Valley High? That all comes from the film industry.
But most importantly, when people talk about books these days, especially when they give advice on how to write one, what I hear sounds alot like Screenwriting 101:
- Use a 3-act structure that includes a very early inciting incident, major plot reversals at the end of each act and a couple mid-act turning points.
- Focus on character arcs where a character must grapple with and overcome a personality defect in order to succeed.
- Create very clear protagonists and antagonists.
- Skip descriptions and backstory whenever possible.
Now screenwriters didn't invent any of this--the 3-act structure has been around since Aristotle--but structuring a story around points like these has become the standard way of writing a screenplay, and since film is the dominant storytelling medium at the moment I suppose it makes sense that these points have come to to dominate other mediums as well. And, hey why not? It works and everybody likes a tight, well-structured story.
What concerns me though is that if we adopt the language and techniques of screenwriters will we lose a sense of how a book is a fundamentally different experience than a film?
All mediums (fiction, film, poetry, theater, non-fiction etc) have particular strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling. So when you choose to write a story you have to decide which medium's strengths and weaknesses work most to your advantage. You ask yourself "This idea I have, is it a book? A movie? A poem? A play?" You can only answer if you know what the strengths and weaknesses of each are.
So what are the strengths and weaknesses of fiction vs. film?
To speak in a few ridiculously broad generalizations, I think a book excels at being an immersive experience. We'll spend days or weeks poring over a book, while we'll generally spend no more than 3 hours with a movie. Because of this a book is good at doing a deep, sustained dive into characters, relationships, and worlds. Books are great at historical sweep and complex multi-layered stories. Fiction is also better at presenting ideas and character's inner lives.
Film, due largely to time constraints, is a more compact medium. Films tend to have fewer characters and settings and take place over a shorter time frame. They also need to get to the point very quickly and keep the action at as brisk a pace as possible. For this reason film has really embraced the 3-act structure we talked about above. It's a structure that's all about keeping a story tight and moving.
Now, if this is true, if our talks about writing fiction have become overwhelmed with talk of film structure, a structure that maybe serves another medium far better, what do we do about it? How do we talk about writing differently? Do we?
I have no answers here so I'm eager to hear any of your thoughts.
Are we fiction writers veering too much into a film world? Do we need to make our books more...booklike? If so, how?