From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How Movies Changed the Way We Write

So yesterday I finished Middlemarch. First of all, OH MY GOSH. Seriously, the word novel doesn't seem to do it justice. It's like a novel plus an in-depth study of human nature. I think if it was required reading for anyone who wanted to get married the divorce rate would be much lower.

Anyway, I was thinking about how different today's writing style is from Victorian England. I adore Victorian novels, obviously, but they can be very authorial, long-winded and expository, and no one can really get away with writing like that anymore. Today's writing is much faster paced, visual, and anti-explanatory. In a word, cinematic.

We don't want long internal character descriptions anymore. We don't want political or authorial intrusion. We want to watch an interesting character go through interesting struggles, perhaps a bit of back-story mixed in as we go, and we never want to be told what something means. We want to just be given the facts and figure out the meaning for ourselves, or find our own meaning. Because that's how movies work, and now it's what we're used to.

Think of Pirates of the Carribean. We don't get an in-depth psychological analysis of Jack Sparrow, or even any back story. Instead we just see a very interesting (and sexy) looking man making an unusual entrance on a sinking ship, and we wonder why he's here and what he'll do next. Later on we figure out his history; that he's a pirate whose ship was mutineered away from him--meaning that pirates and non-pirates don't like him much--and he wants his ship back. Very interesting premise. We don't begin with a character sketch, like we do in Middlemarch.

I think these changes are in general good ones. Presenting raw life and letting readers make their own interpretations is healthy. But there are two things I miss. The first is the one-liner pearls of wisdom. The character sketches may be slow and occasionally complex, but they make me feel like I understand myself better, as well as other people. They're the kind of thing I want to hang on a plaque on the wall. As visceral and gripping as today's writing is, you don't get as much of that anymore.

I also miss the fact that Victorian writers were not afraid to write from a specific view point or specific set of values. Perhaps in our modern quest for ambiguity and fear of alienating or offending anyone who doesn't agree with us, we become overly neutral and afraid to stand for anything. It is not bad to have values or ideals, and I think Victorian writers would be surprised at how taboo those things have become. Of course we don't want to be at all close-minded or didactic, but we don't want to be vague or wimpy either. The desire to discover meaning for ourselves rather than be preached at doesn't equal a desire for no meaning at all.

What do you think? Do you agree? And how else do you think movies have changed the way we write in general? Which movies have changed the way you write?

Sarah Allen


  1. I'm very visual in how I work. I write as though I'm telling the story of a movie playing in my head, so this film-inspired way of writing comes naturally to me. I like this shift in writing. I think it shows an attempt by authors to make their work more accessible to a wide range of readers.

  2. I think all the changes are bad. I think that the instant gratification of movies has turned us into children, little Verucca Salts who want nothing but pure pleasure and we want it NOW! I despise the changes and will spend my entire writing life working against them.

    Sorry to sound so angry. Obviously it's not your fault. It's just one of those things that really gets to me.

  3. I think there's room for balance. Also, not every book written in the Victorian era was a classic. We just remember the ones that were because they have survived, due to being so well-written.

    I've read plenty of modern books with "one-liner pearls of wisdom" in them. And ones which portray certain values. The best books are still the best for the same reasons. The packaging has just changed.

  4. As Paul above me stated, it's about balance. And of course, evolution is something that's constantly spinning, so what we see as usual today, might be something old in not a distant future.

    Movies that changed my vision? Pirates of Caribbean, Sweeney Todd, Howl's Moving Castle... And many others. I basically gather inspiration from everything around me, and even from TV series (I'm hooked on Mad Men).
    - EEV

  5. I think the points you make in this post are true, but also most people have been exposed to so much story in it's various easily digextible forms(much more than in the past) that we recognise what a writer is saying (or about to say) very quickly. So a lot of the impatience is due to the redundant nature of the information.

    But this isn't just true of books, we're just as likely to get tired of cliches and tropes and poorly worked in exposition in movies, which have changed a lot over the years too.

    Basically if the reader/viewer knows what's going to happen before the writer tells them, that is going to undercut the effectiveness of the story as a whole. I think that's why we've had the big change in all forms of narrative fiction.

    Moody Writing
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  6. This is also true. Audiences are smarter and more knowledgable than ever. They don't need as much exposition as they did in the past.

  7. The movie "The Pianist" has helped me with my writing. Early on it becomes a one man movie, so I definitely saw a lot of raw emotions and despair. But I didn't see these things because the actor said "I have raw emotions and I'm in despair." It was his actions that showed those feelings. It helped me to show and not tell with my writing.

    Great post!


  8. Wow, fantastic discussion here guys. I think the changes are about becoming accessible and keeping the reader from knowing what comes next, those are excellent points. And don't worry about sounding angry, Sarah, you have a good point as well that todays visceral style is lots of times all about instant gratification. These points and everyone's varying opinions about them are why we have so many different books and literary voices, which is a wonderful thing :)


  9. What I object to most is that in many, many writing circles I see this visceral, "lean prose", movie type story telling promulgated as the ONLY right way to do it. The ONLY way that readers will enjoy your stories and the ONLY way to get a book published. I HATE that.

    I am a strong proponent of "there's no one way to write, there's only which way works for you".

  10. I agree with Sarah as well although I think writing is going the way of the lean prose so it's an uphill battle. Not that other styles can't be successful, it's just that much more difficult and they have to be that much better. Part of this probably is influenced by the internet and all the "scan-reading" that one does each day.

    As for movies (and I'm going to throw in television at this point because of how cinematic it has become in the last decade) that influenced writing style: the two biggest were The Wire and Mad Men. To me they view like a good novel reads. The plot is surprising but feels inevitable; the characters have depth; the universe they exist in is vivid. Television series like these have more influence on my writing (at least for novels) because there is the time to develop the story.

    Movies influence my short stories more. Get in, get the conflict going, and resolve (or don't).

  11. The TV series of Middlemarch was shot in Stamford where I went to school.
    The problem I have with films is when they change the story line and especially the ending. Hitchcock was a master at this, but look what hedid to Rebecca.

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  13. When I outlined my trilogy and wrote the first book, there was a direct intent for it to be made into a movie. So yes, what makes a movie a blockbuster directly influenced how and what I wrote.

  14. I think you're absolutely right. I enjoy older books for the wisdom in them that I feel we lose a bit sometimes in modern commercial literature that focuses more on a character's actions than the details of their inner life. But by and large, I think I enjoy exploring humanity through their actions as much as through an author's words.

  15. A heated debate indeed. I'm surprised at some of the anger expressed here at the changing desires of the audience. With advancement in media and technology, people are used to a fast pace. However, well-paced action certainly should not mean that a text offers less food for thought.

    Saying that, I'm also tremendously pleased that there is less political and religious preaching in texts these days. I don't have anything against allegorical messages, I guess... I like characters to learn something... but a book should not act as propaganda.

    It's not always about writing just what "works for you" though, is it? If it was about the writer's self, then why talk to an audience at all? I think writing will always be a partnership between reader and writer. If the writer has something to say, a message to convey, then they surely must aim to get their meaning across in a fashion that their ever-changing audience can identify with?

    Why be mad at an audience? Is it just me who thinks that shouting and preaching at them is more likely to send them running to the hills?

    My mam would say "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!"

  16. Great topic. I think movies--and TV even more--have changed the way we tell stories. If you were born in a typical household with a TV, you'd been exposed to the three-act structure before you could form a sentence. Middlemarch is not constructed in three acts. It's more like a mini-series, to put it in contemporary terms.

    We also tend to put more emphasis on dialogue, with less internal monologue and description. We like more action. We like conversations to be short and to the point.

    There's nothing wrong in all this, unless we lose our taste for the classics. Luckily, it seems you haven't. Nice to hear from someone in your generation.


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