Storytelling In Books vs Storytelling On TV – A Ramble

One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago was how differently I started thinking about the stories of the few TV shows I still occasionally find time to watch. More importantly, I also started to think about why TV and novels tell stories in such vastly different ways.

A few days before I wrote this article, I noticed that a gloriously silly TV show from the late 1990s/early 2000s called “Relic Hunter” was being repeated on TV. So, I set up the DVR and rationed myself to one episode per day. Yet, my reaction to seeing it again was totally different to when I first discovered a few episodes of this show on DVD in 2014.

Compared to the novels I’d been reading, the storylines in “Relic Hunter” seemed even sillier than before. Things often seemed to happen totally randomly, there were lots of fortunate coincidences etc… Yet, it was still really fun to watch.

This reminded me of something that I’d also noticed in the few episodes of a US detective show called “NCIS” I’ve seen over the past few months. Whilst a detective novel might devote hundreds of pages to the careful, logical investigation of a mystery – “NCIS” will often have the clues fall into place quickly, neatly and easily. Yet, it’s still really fun to watch.

But why is this kind of compressed, contrived storytelling so much fun to watch? I mean, books offer much deeper, richer and fuller stories. So, why are TV show stories still so incredibly fun to watch?

In short, TV show storylines are a bit like watching someone speedrun a videogame – you get to see an expert player going through a series of complex, dramatic, challenging events in an impressively quick time. It’s a demonstration of skill. This sort of thing is extremely compelling to watch.

TV show storylines are also a little bit like listening to a heavy metal song called “Bridges Will Burn” by Iron Fire. The lyrics of this fast-paced song tell an epic fantasy story in an impressively concise and fast way. For example, a a single verse might cover events that take tens or hundreds of pages to describe in a novel.

Yes, the novel would probably be deeper, more atmospheric and a much fuller experience. Yet, Iron Fire’s song feels a lot more impressive and spectacular because it expertly runs through all of this stuff in a ridiculously short time. It’s like these epic events are an ordinary, mundane routine to the narrator.

In other words, it expertly gives the impression of a story rather than telling a full, proper story. Television often does something similar to this, and it’s compelling because it not only makes the characters look like experts, but because the audience feels like they’ve absorbed a full story in a short amount of time (which makes them feel like expert audience members). So, storytelling in TV shows is more about evoking the feeling of expertise.

On the other hand, storytelling in novels actually requires expertise from both the reader and the writer. It also rewards this expertise too. This makes, say, grappling with a complex, long novel feel really satisfying. It also makes blazing your way through a fast-paced thriller novel at light speed feel satisfying too. Reading fiction requires you to reconstruct characters, locations etc.. using your imagination and to keep track of more complex stories, themes etc.. too. In other words, it is a skill and you get to show it off to yourself when you read a novel 🙂

In short, the difference between storytelling in novels and TV is that one makes the viewer feel like an expert, and the other makes the reader feel like an expert. It’s a subtle difference, but a really important one. It’s like the difference between watching a video of someone speedrunning a videogame and actually playing the videogame yourself.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Film And TV

Although I’m sure that I’ve written these types of articles before, I felt like writing another one.

This was mostly because, ever since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, I’ve sometimes found myself missing all of the films and TV shows that I used to watch back when I didn’t read regularly (but don’t really have time for these days, due to reading books).

So, I thought that I’d list three of the many reasons why books are better than film and TV.

1) More freedom: One of the great things about novels is that they have more creative freedom than films and TV shows do. In other words, they’re usually only written by one person, they only use words and they don’t have to pass a censor before they are published. This lends novels a sense of individuality and creativity that films and TV shows can often lack.

Only having one author means that a novel isn’t really “designed by committee” in the way that many TV shows and films are. In other words, a novel is usually the creative vision of one person – they get to shape the story’s world, how the reader “sees” the world etc… in a way that isn’t really practical in film and television. Likewise, because novels don’t cost millions to make, there’s less of a need to appeal to the most mainstream audience possible for financial reasons (which, for example, can lead to films becoming more generic).

Plus, since novels only use words, they aren’t constrained by the practical problems that films/TV shows have. In other words, if a writer wants to write about somewhere spectacular or something spectacular, they can just write about it. They don’t have to build elaborate sets or worry about the special effects budget. As such, there’s a sense that literally anything can happen in a novel. That even the most “low budget” of novels can do things that even mid-budget films or TV shows could only dream of.

Not only that, unlike film and television, novels don’t have to pass a censor. For example, although film/TV censorship in the UK is less strict than it used to be, the censors have been known to enforce bizarre or over-protective rules in the past (eg: they pretty much banned the depiction of various martial arts weapons in films between about 1979-1999).

Likewise, many US TV shows sometimes have to follow absurdly strict censorship rules (eg: even in a “gritty” TV show like “24”, the main character cannot utter any profanity stronger than “damn”).

But, thanks to both the Lady Chatterley trial in the UK and the American first amendment, readers and writers do not have to suffer any of these patronising restrictions. In other words, books are one of the few artforms that respects both the author and the audience enough to let them make up their own mind about everything – free from the controlling influence of a censor.

2) It’s like a boxset, but better: One interesting thing I noticed about the ancient Egypt-themed novel I’m reading at the moment (“Nefertiti” by Michelle Moran) is that, even though it started rather slowly, it eventually started to remind me of when I’d watched a DVD boxset of HBO’s “Rome” TV series about five years ago. It had the same vivid historical immersion, depth and gripping drama.

But, I don’t have to read it in fixed one-hour instalments. The story moves as fast as I can read it. I have the freedom to allow my imagination to work out what all of the interesting locations look like. I can quite literally see what the main character is thinking and feeling. The characters are characters, rather than famous actors. I don’t have to sit through an annoying unskippable copyright warning every time I open the book. I can experience the author’s unique narrative voice. I could probably go on for a while….

I also suddenly realised that one of the reasons why I watched so many DVD boxsets during the 3-4 years that I didn’t read regularly was because they offered an experience that is a little bit like reading a book. However, it comes with all sorts of limitations that books don’t have. So, yes, books are like boxsets – but better. Plus, of course, even second-hand, books are often cheaper than DVD boxsets too 🙂

3) They stand the test of time: One of the cool things I noticed when I got back into reading regularly is that I could occasionally read books (like “The Maltese Falcon) that were written when film was still a developing medium and television was a lot less popular. And the stories are just as vivid as a modern novel. Now, compare this to, say, a grainy old B&W film that could only use whatever limited effects etc.. were available at the time.

Plus, when I’ve bought old second-hand copies of horror novels that were printed during the 1970s/80s, they’re still just as readable today as they were when they were first published.

On the other hand, if I found an old VHS tape that was from the 1980s, I’d have nothing to play it on (so, I’d have to see if it was available on DVD) and, even if my VCR still worked, then the tape would have degraded over time. Whereas, an old book is still just as readable now as it was when it was first printed. And it’s kind of cool to enjoy something that was entertaining people 30-40 years ago and not only still exists but still functions perfectly too!

In other words, books have a timelessness about them that film and television really don’t have. They have more of a sense of history. They run on very reliable technology (eg: paper) that can easily withstand years of use or disuse. Plus, of course, the underlying “mechanics” of books (eg: letters, words, sentences etc..) have remained relatively unchanged for years – compared to the constant changes in technology surrounding film, TV etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂