I have two pieces of advice today:
1. Don’t write your book as if it were a movie.
2. Do write your book as if it were a movie.
I love movies – and have spent considerable time daydreaming about my books as movies. There’s something magical about the scenery and the characters coming to life in front of you – with background music, no less! But some writers fall into trouble when they try to achieve that effect in the book itself.
Against the left-hand wall were boxes of restaurant provisions, primarily paper towels for the rest rooms, candles for the tables, and janitorial supplies purchased in bulk. The right-hand wall, which faced the beach and the ocean beyond, featured two doors and a series of large windows, but the coast was not visible because the glass was protected by metal Rolladen shutters. The banquet room felt like a bunker.
Sole Survivor, Dean Koontz, p. 239
What happened here? Koontz seems to think he has to describe every feature of every scene down to the minutest detail for the scene to be vivid in the reader’s mind. But would the hero – who is about to find out whether his daughter is alive or dead – even notice janitorial supplies purchased in bulk? When you watch a movie, do you note the size, shape, color, and texture of every object in sight, or do you subconsciously register a general idea, and go on taking in the action?
The last sentence in this sample sums up, in seven words, what the preceding sixty-one words drag out. All Koontz needed to do was make some passing remarks about his hero squinting in the dim light of the mostly obstructed windows, or about the irony of the ordinariness of the restaurant supplies contrasted with the life-changing revelation he knows he is about to have.
Take the less-is-more approach. One or two details can go a long way into showing your readers where they are, but it will only hurt your writing if you describe everything. You’re the writer, not the set designer. You’re also not the fight choreographer. Don’t describe every single move in a fight scene. Your readers will get lost if they have to imagine each strike according to your exact specifications. A scene in a movie requires extensive choreography, but the viewer only perceives lots of movement and tension and clanging blades or flashing bullets, and that’s all you need to convey in your book. Not “a cut down across the left, followed by a two-handed thrust and a sweeping kick” for sentence after sentence after sentence.
Writing a book and making a movie require different methods to produce similar results. Give your readers a sense of scenery and action, but don’t get bogged down in details. Get back to the story!
Read my other post on how to “show, don’t tell” by writing with the screen in mind.