In Defense of the Novel

In which I completely and utterly fail to defend the honour of even the worthiest novels.

More than once, I’ve gotten myself into an argument online about whether the novel is “better” than a television show or movie.

I often find myself in these arguments with other writers, which usually means that the vast majority come down on the side of ‘yes’. For a long time, I was among them – anyone who said otherwise was clearly mistaken.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I will love novels until the day I die. I want to be a writer, not a director or an actor or a special effects artist or any of the hundred jobs that goes into filmmaking. I very definitely and unequivocally think that novels have strengths that television and movies do not.

But better than?

Let’s examine the arguments.

Usually the arguments I see fall into one of several categories. First and foremost, in a book, you can write things you simply can’t show on screen. Second, that watching rather than reading stories is inherently a less cognitive activity, and therefore the book is better on an intellectual level. Third, that books can contain more depth, and thus, more substance, because they are longer, even if only in terms of hours spent consuming media. Fourth, that books are more portable, and not dependent on battery life or other technological circumstances. Fifth, the tactile experience of a book is superior.

So, I’ll get the quick one out of the way first: Books are more portable and convenient. It is a fact that a power outage or connection issue will kill your ability to watch television, phones are battery powered and can run out of charge, as can laptops, and streaming is dependent on an Internet connection. However, if we’re talking about books and movies as media, we kind of have to acknowledge that e-readers run out of battery, too. So, it’s not like battery life is a restriction inherent to only movies and TV shows. But let’s narrow the field to just paper-and-ink books for a moment. It’s not like paper-and-ink books don’t have portability issues. A single book can sometimes be the size (and approximately the weight of) a household brick – compared to a phone you can fit in a pocket or small bag. Your phone might run out of battery, but you also might forget your book. A power outage might kill your television, but the same power outage will leave probably two things: A torch to read your book by and the battery life on your laptop – often enough for at least one movie.

On another note: Why is portability a reflection of the medium? Why does a book have inherent worth over a TV show or a movie just because you can experience it in different places? The ability to travel with a book doesn’t change its content, its writing, or its thematic discourse So this argument can safely be discarded – there’s too little difference and it’s beside the point of quality of the medium.

The other quick one – tactile experience – is similarly dismissible. If we’re talking just about the quality of the medium, then the tactile experience has absolutely no bearing on the content. Now, I’m in no way arguing that it’s wrong to prefer books over TV shows because of the tactile experience. That’s your prerogative as a human being with opinions. But to say that the smell of a book (new or old) or the feel of turning pages makes the book a superior overall experience to all people? To say a book conveys tone or message or theme better because it smells better? I’ll have to see some pretty compelling evidence before I take that one seriously.

The third point I have discussed before – books can definitely contain more plot, and therefore have more opportunities for depth than a movie (whether or not they capitalise on this is up to the individual book and the individual reader). But a TV show? I tend to equate one novel with one season of a television show, in general, so we’ll use that as an estimate. Even one season of a show (using American standards: half-hour to 40-minute episodes and a 22-episode season) will take the viewer at minimum 11 hours to watch; a TV show with six episodes per season and 45-minute episodes takes 4.5 hours to watch. Contrast this with the average novel: Take the average reading speed to be 300wpm (estimates I have seen range from 200wpm to 350wpm, with a few instances of “250-350wpm”), and the average book to be 90,000 words long (a very short fantasy novel, but a very long thriller).  That works out to the average book taking the average reader 5 hours to read. So, really, a TV show has more time in which to introduce concepts to the reader, more time in which to flesh out motif and symbolism, and more time to develop characters and plot. Sorry, kids – I think the TV shows are overtaking us on this one.

Now, the thorny issue. Books are inherently more cognitive than movies or TV shows.

Hoo boy. Where do you even start?

Usually this is presented somewhere along the lines of “But in a book, you have to use the words to imagine what the characters and places look like! In a movie you just watch it all handed to you on screen!”

To which I say OK, yes, alright. You got me – it’s harder to use your imagination on a TV show or movie. But at the same time … is imagining a character’s face really the only thing that’s going on in a story that makes you think? And isn’t that really just a trick – arranging letters into things that mean specific images to make your brain display those images?

It sounds a bit odd to say, but isn’t saying “Alice had blue eyes and red hair, in sharp comparison to Bob, whose hair was dark brown and whose eyes were nearly black” pulling exactly the same trick as “Quick, don’t think of a pink rhinoceros!”?

If we want to talk about tricks that make our brain fill in the blanks of an image or sequence, let’s go ahead and talk about montages for a bit. Montages are an amazing and fascinating piece of cinematography, simply because it’s a series of barely-connected images threaded together in such a way as to trick our brains into implying chronological sequence. Think about it – in any other situation, showing the same person one day, then suddenly two months later after one cut would be cause for adding some sort of explanation for why so much time has passed, or some sort of explanation of what happened during that time. But string enough of them together in a row, and the audience gets the impression that we’re watching time pass. Similarly, add music to that, and you give the idea of what the end goal is – is this a Rocky montage, where we’re training on the way to achieving victory? Or is this a montage of someone spiralling further and further away from victory? Add a different song in the background, and Rocky could very well be losing himself in his training until he forgets the real world, only to realise that no amount of training could prepare him, and his last hope is shattered. On that note, imagine a montage where there was no music, or the music changed throughout the montage, with each cut, just like scene music. Wouldn’t it get choppy and confusing? But adding music makes the brain make the association that this whole stretch of jump cuts is actually one scene in and of itself, and then infers that it is a scene designed to show large amounts of time passing.

Cinema tricks like that are the cinema’s version of describing a character’s “eyes darting around the room and finger tapping on the side of their coffee mug” and expecting the audience to infer that the character is either nervous or impatient. Varied sentence and paragraph length, and prose style are to novels what colour and lighting, and camera angle are to movies and TV shows. Cinema has a very different set of tricks for conveying implied information, but they still imply and use shorthand just like a novel. So, no, I don’t think a novel is actually more cognitive. In fact, if your TV show isn’t a cognitive experience, then you’re probably missing something. Whether or not you consider that a good thing is between you and your DVD shelf/Netflix subscription.

Which brings us on to the final point, and by far the most common: You can show things in a book that you can’t show on screen. This is by far the most common, and the most vehemently argued. But it misses the point in a similar way to the point above.

A great example of this I saw on the Absolute Write forums (unfortunately the username of the poster has been lost to the imperfection of the human memory and the search function) was “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass”. Is that technically a colour? No. But did a colour spring to mind when you read that? It’s quite possible that yes, it did. For me, it’s a very pale, almost translucent, blue in a summer sky shade.

In a movie, you’d have to actually colour the thing blue. You’d have to make that decision, rather than letting the reader make it for you.

But here the question is begged – why would you want to use language that way? What does “the same colour as the sound of breaking glass” suggest that “pale, almost translucent blue the shade of summer sky” not suggest?

Well, first of all, it suggests that the colour is not really a colour – that the senses are getting their wires crossed. On a very practical level, this may be an excellent way of demonstrating a character has synaesthesia. On a more fantastical level, it could be a way of demonstrating that the situation the character is in has transcended the laws of physics, or that a particular stimulus has overwhelmed them so much that they are no longer able to distinguish their senses, or entirely make sense of what they are experiencing.

Similarly, a book need not worry about a special effects budget – when I discussed limitations and rushing, I listed this as one of the advantages of a novel: That the novel has no special equipment or effects budgets to worry about, and thus won’t be limited or restricted on those fronts. This remains true, and it remains an advantage to novels. However, it is getting steadily less true as CGI becomes cheaper and more sophisticated.

But let’s think how a movie might show that same thing. Say what you will about the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it did an excellent job of demonstrating that whatever Dave was experiencing, it was not within the realm of his comprehension. Swirling colours and close-ups of his eyes darting around, looking for something that made sense all came together to create a sense of chaos. It did this by showing the audience chaos and then interspersing it with shots of the character reacting, indicating Dave was just as confused as we were.

Side note: I invite anyone who believes that a movie can’t achieve the same sense of a fantastical world as a novel to watch any Terry Gilliam movie.

So, I’m not sure that the book has the edge in ability to indicate things without stating them outright, either. I’m not even sure books will have the edge in special effects for long, either.

This does sort of paint a bleak picture of the future of the humble novel, which is why I think a lot of writers tend to reject the idea. If a book isn’t any better than movies or TV shows, then what is to stop people from reading books altogether? After all, movies and TV shows are in chunks more suited to today’s generation who can’t concentrate for as long as it takes to read a whole book, and contributing to the decline of literacy!

More seriously, and on a less extreme level, what’s to stop all the classics and the pieces of culture that make up our understanding of the world from being lost, if nobody wants to read them anymore?

Well, whether or not that’s a bad thing is a whole ‘nother debate, but let’s just slow down for a second.

Nobody said that novels are going away. They probably will eventually, but they’re not going away anytime soon, that’s for sure. They are still a vastly different medium from the TV show or the movie, and they have a different metalanguage and always will, so it’s highly unlikely that TV shows and movies will ever replace the experience, though they may eventually grow more popular than it, just like short stories and poems haven’t disappeared, but they are much less commonly read than the novel nowadays, when previously poetry or verse was the primary form of literature (at least in Western civilisations). Even if novels aren’t ‘better’ than newer media, they’re for damn sure still ‘different’, and that’s enough to keep them going.

I, for one, am glad to have different options available for telling stories and conveying theme and message, and different vehicles for different stories.

But I’m just as glad that, for now, I won’t need to learn how to properly compose a camera shot in order to tell stories myself.

Reading Between the Development Lines

I talk a lot about the differences between novels, video games and TV shows/movies. Honestly, it’s one of the most interesting questions I have about studying media. Every time I think about the differences between them I find something else to take into account when thinking about their stories and construction.

There’s one difference that I think not a lot of people take into account when they’re considering the differences between the groups, though. And again, it’s one that sets novels apart from the other groups.

Writing a novel is usually a solitary act. It also takes a long time – it’s hard to find exact statistics on how long it takes books to be written and published, but I’ve heard people talking about two books per year (six months for a book seems fairly reasonable for a full-time author). On the other hand, most of the writers I follow tend to have books released once every two to three years – no word on whether that’s just a publication issue or whether that’s for writing as well.

And then, of course, there are writers like Pat Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin, versus some self-published authors who bring out books at a staggering rate. I really don’t have accurate numbers here.

But there we are – for the sake of argument, let’s say six to nine months is a reasonable time frame to write a book in. That’s from go to woe, outlining to first draft to edited version, through beta readers, everything. It’s also imagining that the author works on only one project through the whole time they’re writing, without taking, say, the time beta readers spend reading the project to work on outlining another book. Let’s also imagine that the book is roughly 90,000 words long.

That’s a very large time commitment. And any author will tell you that they never quite feel like the book is ready by the time it’s released; you eventually have to just let it go. You’ll also probably hear about deadlines, especially for editing.

So keep in mind that I’m in no way saying that novel writers are never pressed for time or never having to sacrifice completion due to time constraints.

However, the visual media very clearly suffer from production restraints in a way that books simply don’t. It’s not uncommon, watching shows (especially animated ones) to be able to tell where the budget was allocated throughout the show – there are often one or two episodes where the animation just isn’t as smooth, where the characters go off-model more frequently, or where the writers just didn’t have time to think the script through, so it feels lazy and phoned-in. One of the problems very common for producers of video games is deciding on what features need to be cut so that the game can make it out on launch day.

Novels tend to be much more uniform. When they’re rushed, the book as a whole suffers, not just one aspect of it. You can tell a rushed story because it has plot holes and poor plotting all the way through it, not in just one or two scenes, or in one or two aspects.

This is because of two things. First, there’s only one person writing a novel, and there is no budget. While fundamentally, the process of getting paid for a novel is pretty similar to getting paid for being part of a video game development team or the crew of a TV show, the novel is much simpler. Both work on the “I’ll spend a certain amount of time and effort on this, and when I’m done, I’ll hope people pay me back enough money to make this a good investment of my time” principle, but an author is usually a sole trader, or part of a very small group. You don’t need to ensure that an author gets paid up front, and a certain wage before you start making money on the venture. You’re also usually dealing with less money and fewer overheads – you don’t need to pay for software licences with writing (you can, but you don’t have to), or expensive equipment – cameras and so forth. A writer can afford to take more of a risk, and operate on a smaller profit margin, and to write at the same time as doing other paying work, but the film crew simply isn’t self-sustaining unless they make a profit from their films. A producer has to be more budget conscious, because it’s much easier to lose enough money to make filmmaking or video game development an unviable option than it is to lose enough money on a book to make writing no longer a viable pursuit (especially now in the days of open self-publishing).

Second, a novel has fewer ‘moving parts’, so to speak, than either a movie or a video game. A novel has writing, and that’s about it. A movie or TV show, on the other hand, has the writing, the camerawork, the actors, the sound design (both the soundtrack and the sound within the show), any animation, CGI or special effects that might be present, the set design and probably a hundred and one other things that I haven’t remembered. When you make a video game, add to that the character design, character movement animations (they get special mention because they have to be calibrated so they look right from any angle the player angles the camera at, and be set motions responding to any input the player gives, as well as more “standard” cutscene animation), all the design and balance of game mechanics, coding, level design, and again, probably many more things I’m missing.

Simply put, when you’re writing a novel, really the only thing that can go wrong is the writing. Poor plotting, shoddy spelling and grammar, inelegant sentence construction, and muddy themes. That’s about all that can go wrong when you’re writing a novel. A TV show, movie, or video game has a whole lot of other things that can go wrong completely independent of each other, and because of the amount of money it takes to create pieces in any of those media, it’s basically a given that you’ll have to drop one in order to serve the other.

What makes this topic magical, though, is that you don’t actually have to do this badly. The standard example I see given of this is in video games, because up until recently the medium was extremely limited in what it could do, and it doesn’t yet have a set of shorthands like movies and TV shows can use to convey information or story without having to spend lots of money and time (tricks like montages, which don’t even feel like tricks anymore). Stuff like the Silent Hill games – they had technical limitations that meant that beyond a certain distance, their rendering stopped working so well, and it looked bad. But it was a horror game, so they put a fog around everything, which reduced the amount that the game needed to render at any given time, and stopped the environments looking aesthetically unattractive.

When you get a creator who really knows and understands the limitations of the medium they work in, that’s when you start to get really interesting content. One of the most interesting things is looking at a story (and TV shows and video games are best for this, because they’re usually forced to cut more corners than novels or movies) and seeing where they chose to cut corners in order to serve the things they felt were more important.

To The Moon was everywhere a little while back. I loved it. I started playing in the evening and didn’t stop until the whole thing was finished – it must have been 3am. There was so much care and attention to detail put into the character designs and the aesthetics – even though it did have pixelated retro-style graphics, they made sure to render quite sombre locations (none of the garish colours of a lot of that style of game art … mostly) without making the environments indistinct, or making it hard to figure out what a particular texture is. And they definitely put a lot of attention into the thematic cohesion, and the plot and the logical consequences of their world (despite the qualms I have with the plot, it was clear that they put a lot of time and effort into it). But the gameplay … now that’s where things started to fall through. The gameplay was the minimum necessary to get you from Point A to Point B. It wasn’t badly done, mind you – they made the mechanics fit the mood of the piece, and they were very intuitive mechanics, but there was nothing to them except find some things, use them on another thing. It was a game, I suppose, but the mechanics obviously weren’t the focus.

Contrast this with HALO 4 – like other HALO games, it pays close attention to its mechanics, to making the guns feel satisfying to fire, and that they get the guns as close to balanced as possible to support a variety of playstyles. But the story was nothing to write home about – it was the minimum possible to get you from firefight to firefight with a sense of escalating tension. Their audience wasn’t there for the story as much as they were for the HALO game (and for many, the multiplayer and social play, where the story is completely irrelevant). They could certainly have spent more time and effort on the story, just like To The Moon could have spent more time and effort on the gameplay. But working on the schedule they had, and the budget they had, they would both have had to take away from the core reason (in their opinion) that their audience would play the games.

TV shows run recap episodes for the same reason – they want more budget held back for the huge plot-relevant episodes (especially season finales) to make the best parts of the show as good as possible. I’m convinced this is why Code Geass ran so many school drama episodes – because they were far easier to animate and write than huge mecha battles. But the creators were smart – instead of running recap episodes, they offered the audience breather episodes that were more lighthearted and silly than the main plot, to keep the tension from escalating too far too fast, or the mood from getting too dark, and incidentally saved some budget that they could then use to avoid other shortcuts like ‘action lines’ (common in anime fights where they didn’t have the budget to animate the background, so they just animated a simple colour with moving lines on it in between punches to save costs).

So next time you’re watching something, or reading something – ask yourself where they took shortcuts, and what they used that shortcut to accomplish elsewhere. Did you notice that shortcut the first time around? Is something that you didn’t even think was a shortcut until you stopped to think about it?

I apologise in advance for any favourite things I ruined by making you think about them like this.