Friday, 11 June 2010

Cross-Format Thievery

A novel is not a movie. And definitely not a video game. But that doesn't mean that children's writers can't learn a few tricks from other disciplines. After all, they've been stealing techniques from us for ages.


Sorry, but I watch too many films and don't read enough books. I'm trying to redress the balance, but it takes me 2 hours to watch a movie and the best part of a week to read a book. I'll leave you with the maths...

What to steal:
  • The Three Act Structure - But it's ok, because Hollywood stole this off some ancient Greek dudes in the first place.

  • Dialogue - I wouldn't recommend the works of Roland Emmerich here, but seriously, watch a Billy Wilder film and take lots of notes.

  • Action Scenes - Novel writers can learn an enormous amount from the way movie action scenes are constructed, especially in terms of dynamics, pace, cross-cutting and coherence. The French Connection is always cited as a seminal work, but also consider modern films like Heat, The Bourne Ultimatum and the animated film 9. It's interesting to look at how Paul Greengrass manages to keep the action coherent in the Bourne films even with very short shot lengths, simply by selecting very carefully what he shows. Compare that with Quantum of Solace where the action scenes are so choppy that they make almost no sense at all.

What not to steal:
  • The Modern Trend for Omitting Opening Credits - Good luck having a book with no cover or title page.

  • Clichés - Movies are crammed full of clichés and lazy thinking. Movie-goers love to make lists of these - both in books and on the web, and we writers can read these and know what to avoid.

  • Script Meddling - Publishers might get upset by the weirdest things, but it's nothing compared to the insane amount of interference that screenwriters face on a daily basis. William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade is both a great book about writing and a real eye-opener on the egotistical demands of stars and studios. And if you refuse to make their changes to the script? Well, they'll find someone else who will.

Video Games

While the standard of video games has steadily increased, the standard of writing in them has generally not. This doesn't make them any less fun to play (unless the cut scenes are super long), but it can be rather dispiriting. Of course there are exceptions, but video game producers are prone to overestimating the reaction speed of their audience while underestimating their intellect.

But (and this is a big but) most of our audience are playing video games, so we ignore them at our peril.

What to steal:
  • Immersion - Moment for moment, video games are one of the most immersive activities available. They make constant, primitive demands on your brain and cause your eyeballs to go all dry and scratchy. This doesn't mean we should stuff our books full of pointless action sequences, but it does mean we should consider how best to "cut to the chase" and keep our reader mentally and emotionally engaged.

  • Dialogue - Yeah, again. While the storyline of many video games veers between cliché and nonsense, there is some really sharp scriptwriting out there if you know where to look. Rockstar's games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption show a real focus on using witty dialogue to make the repetition of failed missions bearable. On the other hand, the Resident Evil series probably isn't your first stop here. The games themselves are great fun, but the dialogue and voice acting are cornier than being trapped in a maize maze full of zombies.

  • The Importance of Failure - No-one would want to play a video game that was so easy that you never failed or became frustrated. These seemingly negative emotions are a key reason why games are so addictive, because the player gets such a massive rush when they finally overcome a problem. The arc of a book protagonist is exactly the same - we need to make sure they are knocked back enough times that their triumph feels truly earned.
    On the flipside, there are many games - even really good ones - that are much too hard and cause gamepads to be thrown through expensive TV screens. In books, too, we must make sure that things are never so grim for our characters that no-one wants to read on.

What not to steal:
  • Expository Dialogue - Video game cut scenes are frequently stuffed to the gills with exposition. Booooooring!

  • Pointless Quests to Pad Out the Second Act - What, you mean I have to fight my way back through that whole section I've already explored just to retrieve the enchanted toilet brush of doom?

  • End of Level Bosses - Hmm, should my baddie mysteriously reappear on page 220 just in time to stop the hero and have a big fight?

So, these are a few things books can learn from movies and video games - what can they learn from books? Films and games are primarily experienced through our eyes and ears (and fingers in the case of games). Books are experienced in our minds. It's a rare film that makes us think and an even rarer video game. But books make us think by their very nature.

Ok, that's enough from me - if you can think of anything else we should/shouldn't steal, or maybe from other media (like comics), the floor is yours...



  1. Good analysis.
    Any views on TV/ Radio, Nick?

  2. I didn't add TV because I felt it was a bit too close to films (and there are a few TV programmes that clearly want to be mini-movies). On the other hand, there have been some superlative TV programmes over the last few years and it's clear that TV is no longer seen as second-best for either writers and stars.

    In terms of drama, I'd say TV rules the roost over films these days. I might not be totally sold on Mad Men, but it's brilliantly written. And I have spent way too long watching The West Wing, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica etc, etc.

    I honestly don't listen to much radio drama - I find it very artificial actually, and it seems often to revolve around two people having a boring conversation while a bird tweets in the background. It's never struck me as particularly dynamic, which is I think an issue of not being able to see the actors, because it's hard to add lots of voices without the listener losing track of what's happening. But again, lots of potential for very strong dialogue.

    I think monologue is very well served by radio, because it's something that doesn't need visuals - in fact they can be distracting.

  3. Radio
    What to steal:
    letting your audience use their own imagination
    - no images but the ones in their heads.

    What not to steal
    Sound Effects/music
    Sadly (so far) books don't come with a soundtrack

  4. There's one thing you often see on TV which is interesting, and that's the microcosm/macrocosm thing. The main thrust of the programme might be, say, a family crisis which leads to murder. At the same time, one of the detectives will have a minor problem at home which shadows the main one and, if used skilfully, can add depth.

  5. Woo - look at your new lovely page layout!

    But - that aside - great post. The importance of failure section is brilliant - something always to bear in mind. Thanks!

  6. Nice. It got me thinking.
    With Nex-gen machines like the Xbox 360 and the PS3 - particularly the PS3, games are becoming more like movies - because of the graphics capability, the massive storage on the Blu-ray disc and the machines incredible processing power.
    Games like Uncharted, Infamous, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Final Fantasy have strong characters and story, twists. Not to mention games like 'Heavy Rain' and Mass Effect that have multiple endings depending on how it's played.
    As a writer interested in the 'young adult' market it's as useful to be familiar with their gaming experience as it is to know something of the more common elements that contribute to shaping their culture.

  7. Thanks for mentioning Heavy Rain, Hasan, because this really does seem to be the first game to really strive towards being an "interactive movie". There's a lot of agreement and disagreement on this, of course, but it's certainly got people talking. But for interactive fiction to work, it all comes down to the quality of the writing - the ingenuity of the human brain will always be much more important than the technology behind it.

    I'd like to see video game stories really moving out from behind genre and trying to innovate in story terms a bit more, rather than relying on movies and TV to supply their raw material. Even a highly-praised, carefully-written game like Alan Wake is reliant on its familiarity to serialised TV series like the X-Files and Twin Peaks. We need more Video Games willing to look beyond the usual remit, like BioShock's Ayn Rand inspired world.

  8. I went to a great screen writing workshop at the Surrey International Writers Conference last year and I hear you about the three act structure.

  9. great post, nick. you could write a whole book on this!