Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

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