Why You Need to Read Fiction To Write Fiction
Training your brain to think in prose
Recently, literary twitter was abuzz with one of those ridiculous debates that pops up every few months: Do you actually need to read books to be a write books? You might think there isn’t much to debate here. Don’t you need to study any profession or hobby to be good at it? It’s hard to imagine an aspiring chef saying, “lol why would I ever eat anyone else’s recipes?” Yet there’s always a certain percentage of aspiring authors who say they don’t need to read widely to be a writer. Indeed, some even say doing so would “taint your voice” or “wastes time” that would be better spent writing.
I think this is obviously wrong and anyway the writers who think this way tend to give up quickly. If you don’t love the artform you are practicing, you’ll never have the endurance to stick with it. Not much point in debating that here. But there was something that stuck out to me in the tweets, which was the number of aspiring writers saying something along the lines of: “I can get all the ideas I need from TV and video games.”
Well, yes and no.
There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from video games or TV or comments you overheard on the street or anything else. I’ve written posts about stealing dialogue lessons from The Sopranos and my science fiction novel absolutely took some inspiration from some video games. And I have no interesting in debating what artforms are “better” than others.
But here’s the thing about different artforms: they have different strengths and weaknesses. Different things they can do or not do. And one of the biggest problems I see in new writers is a failure to use the strengths and possibilities of prose. These writers aren’t thinking in prose, not thinking in the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. Instead, it often feels like they are trying to translate the screen to the page.
Here’s an example of what I mean: reaction shots.
I often read student work in which one character says something quippy (or dramatic or whatever) and then we are served a round of reaction shots. Sarah gasped, her hand over her mouth. Iris scrunched up her face like she was about to sneeze. Ugly Tim’s eyes bulged. Hot Tim cocked his head and shouted, “Oh my god you really said that!”
In a TV show or movie, reaction shots are ubiquitous. It’s easy to understand why. On screen, there’s no interiority to convey emotions and humans are always drawn to human faces. Showing the characters’ faces is a basic way to get across the characters emotions while being visually interesting. Plus, you paid a bunch of money for those actors so their faces better be getting screen time! (This is also why you rarely have main characters wearing masks or helmets that would obscure their faces even if the lack of them is totally illogical.)
But what makes sense on screen doesn’t necessarily make sense on the page. Indeed, these reaction shots can literally not make sense depending on the POV. When you say something to someone in front of you, you don’t typically then turn around and scan all the faces behind and around you for reactions, right? Reaction shots play into the strengths of the film medium. They don’t play into the strengths of text.
In general, writers who aren’t reading a lot of prose fiction seem to have an over-reliance on faces in text. I see a lot of writers who describe every character’s emotions through the face, often with nonsensical metaphors: Fear rippled across my face. Her mouth was buttressed with worry. His eyes bobbled with anxiety. Etc.
(Side note: learning to write metaphors that make visual sense is another thing that’s hard to learn from TV and video games.)
Human faces are intrinsically fascinating in a visual medium. I’m not so sure they are on the page. Either way, this kind of face focus doesn’t make a lot of sense for a character’s POV. Is the surface of the face the place where you feel all your emotions? Don’t you ever feel a sadness sinking in your gut? Or a fear racing through veins?
Almost every element of a narrative varies between different mediums. Take something as simple as character’s clothing. In a visual media, your brain can process every item of clothing a character wears almost instantly. Every character gets a full outfit. In prose, it would actually take quite some time to describe every item—he wore scuffed brown hiking boots, light blue jeans that were too baggy, a green v-neck sweater over a baby blue button-up….—I’m getting bored even typing that. So most likely you only mention an item or two, if that. Certainly you can write out every item a character wears, but doing so puts a ton of emphasis on the clothing. It only works if it makes sense thematically with the book. E.g., the superficial brand-name obsessed characters in American Psycho.
Here’s an even bigger area where mediums differ: time manipulation.
Manipulating time is one of the key skills in any narrative medium. Time determines pacing, emphasis, and so much more. I think you could write an entire book (or multiple books) about how time can be deployed and manipulated in different mediums. But real quickly, time on the screen tends to pass as it passes. One second for one second. Time jumps between shots and between scenes, but if we’re getting a short scene in film or TV, we’re typically getting it in real time. (Yes, theoretically a TV show can, say, freeze frame and give us voice over but there’s a reason this isn’t common. The medium has different strengths.)
Time on the page is far more fluid. We don’t read in real time. A second on the screen tends to pass in a second, but a second on the page can be stretched out as long as you want. You can spend as much time as you want describing details or dipping into character’s heads. Hell, some books like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine cover only a few minutes of real world time over the span of an entire novel.
Time can also be summarized much easier in text. One hundred years can pass in a sentence. If a character keeps tapping their finger, you have to show that over and over again on TV. In prose, you can just say they kept tapping their finger. You can also summarize dialogue easily in prose. Milton and Clifford squabbled about baseball for awhile. Finally, Gillian told them to “shut up.” Actions and dialogue can be summarized when they aren’t important and shown only when they are important. “Show don’t tell” shouldn’t mean show everything. Show the important parts, tell the rest.
The balance of summary and attention in a scene is what signals to the reader what is important in that scene. What you linger on is what the reader will linger on. This is true in film too, of course, but lingering in film is a different set of skills. Zooming in or panning with a literal camera is different than zooming in with prose.
This seems very basic yet I frequently see work that doesn’t summarize in scene. It might summarize between scenes, but when some aspiring writers are writing a scene they feel the need to describe every single action and every single word that every single character says. It feels to me like they’re imagining TV scenes in their mind and then writing those on the page. The result is typically clunky and flat, because the pages aren’t leaning into the strengths of the medium. They aren’t thinking in prose.
I’ve been mostly talking about film here, but all of this is true of comics and video games too. The way one deals with time in comic panels is completely different from either text or film. Static images with text are completely different than moving images with sound. It’s also very different from prose. Having collaborated with comic artists before, I can tell you they know when a writer is actually thinking about panel placement and the medium and when they are not.
Again, the point here isn’t that prose is “better” than film, comics, or video games. It is that each of these mediums has different techniques to achieve the same effects. By all means study video games and study movies. But make sure to also study lots of prose. The reverse is true as well. Imagine an novelist who said they didn’t need to read comic books or graphic novels to write one!
One should read widely if one wants to be a writer for many reasons. It helps you understand the marketplace and what readers are looking for. It helps you know what’s overused and cliché. And, yes, you should probably love the medium you are working in. If you don’t, there are plenty of other things to do.
But above all, an artist needs to lean to think in the medium they are working in. Whatever that is. They need to imagine the possibilities and constraints of their medium. They need to train their brain to process ideas in film shots or comic panels or poetry stanzas or whatever medium they are working in.
When that comes to fiction writing, that means they need to read, read, read, and read.
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