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Movies vs Television and How They Relate to Books

I love movies. I’ve been a movie buff since I was too young to remember. Movie buffs like me don’t watch movies, we experience them. If you’re not a movie buff, you probably don’t understand, but let me try to explain.

I want to be immersed in a movie. Surround sound, 3D, screen filling my vision, lights out to avoid distractions. I want to feel like a reporter embedded with the rebel forces as they attack Scarif or the Colonial Marines as they secure the colony on LV-426. Dinosaurs on the loose in Jurassic Park? I want to be running alongside Dr. Grant. Ironman and Captain America having a disagreement? I want to be in the middle of it.

You have probably gathered by now that I like action movies. I generally don’t go to the theater to see a comedy or drama. I go to take advantage of what it can provide that my home theater can’t: the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I like television too, but when I watch TV, I’m more into the story. I want to see how Captain Kirk figures out how to destroy the planet killer. I want to know what the hell the damn smoke monster is and why there’s a polar bear on the beach. How is Rick going to get out from under Negan’s thumb? Is Daenerys ever going to make it back to Westeros with her army?

To most people, movies and TV series are very similar mediums. Especially when you’re watching a movie on your television instead of going to the theater. Both use pictures and dialog to tell a story. But movies tend to tell bigger, more epic tales. A TV show in America only has about forty minutes to tell its story (or twenty for a half hour program). A movie, on average, has one hundred and twenty minutes, or three times the time. So you tend to get more with a movie.

But television shows have a significant advantage over movies. They don’t have to explain everything about all the characters in one sitting. You learn a little bit about them each episode. As the series progresses, characters evolve. Sometimes characters you hate become characters you root for, like Jaime Lannister or Ben Linus. Then there are times when the writers create some new twist for a character for the sake of an episode’s storyline, so a character’s history grows as well.

That’s not something you get in a movie. Even in a movie series, it’s hard to pull off. Star Wars did manage to make Luke a little less whiny as the original trilogy progressed, but there was only so much they could do without being completely unbelievable. (Yes we can believe aliens, and the Force, and even smart-alec androids, but we can’t believe a character who completely changes personality between one movie and its sequel.)

So what does all of this have to do with books? A lot actually, although more generally, written fiction.

Microfiction (stories less than a thousand words, sometimes less than one hundred)  can be compared to the shorts you sometimes see at the beginning of feature movies (modern moviegoers tend to think of Pixar here, but this was common practice in the early days of movie theaters). Short stories and novellas are like television shows, with a series of related novellas like episodes of a television series. Novels are your full-length movies.

When most people think of reading a book, they think of reading a novel. Depending on the genre, that could mean anything from 50K words for most romance and middle-grade novels to more than 1.7M (and growing) words for A Song of Ice and Fire. Most fall in the range from 80K to 120K, or 200 – 350 pages. A book series telling one big story might be three to five books. Other book series, like Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher books, tell stand-alone stories with the same characters.

But there’s a new trend in books: novellas.

Historically, novellas have been avoided by the big publishers because they were too expensive to produce for what they could be sold for. (More precisely, the money is in the big hardback books.) Occasionally they would bundle several novellas in a single book (e.g. Stephen King’s Different Seasons), but only for popular authors.

That’s changing.

The popularity of eBooks is the biggest contributor to this shift. An eBook novella doesn’t cost any more to deliver than a novel. So an author can create a novella in 20% – 25% of the time it takes to create a novel. This lets an author release content more quickly—which makes readers happy—and be sold for less—again, happy readers. A lower price tends to mean more sales, so more people are reading an author’s work—happy author.

But it’s not just eBooks. There is now a push for printed novellas. James Patterson has been at the forefront of this movement with his BookShots novellas.

All this leads to the next logical step: serialized novels.

Serialized novels isn’t a new concept. Stephen King has done it. So has Tom Wolfe. Charles Dickens did it. In fact, many novels from the 19th century were originally serialized. In recent years, with the world-wide-web, serialized stories have made a comeback. Andy Weir originally published his blockbuster The Martian one chapter at a time on his website. The Washington Post even published an article touting the format.

A serialized novel can be like a season of 24 or Dexter, with each installment telling the next bit of the story. A series of serialized novels would be like multiple seasons of these shows. Season One: Jimmy Wimmy and the Doohickeys of Fairyland, books 1 – 5. Season Two: Jimmy Wimmy and the Tugboat, books 1 – 5.

Another way of serializing a story is to follow the format of a more traditional television series like Chicago Fire or Law & Order. Each novella is one episode, telling a complete story, but adding to the overall story arcs that either wrap up after a few episodes—or many episodes—or continue throughout the series. For example, in Battlestar Galactica, each episode has its own story, but there were some story arcs that lasted multiple episodes and other story arcs that lasted the entire series—like trying to avoid the Cylons and trying to find Earth.

As an author in the fast-paced, I-want-it-now world of the 21st century, the concept of publishing a novel in serial format has its appeal. For one thing, it doesn’t take a year to figure out if your readers like your story. If your serialized novel isn’t getting any traction, you can wrap it up and move on to another story in a few months. For another, you can access readers who don’t have time for a mammoth War and Peace sized novel.

Serializing a novel has its challenges that are unique to the format. For example, you may have an idea for a story arc that doesn’t pan out. If you’re writing a traditional novel, you can just go back and edit it out. If you’re writing a serialized novel, you’re stuck with your bad arc, and you have to do something with it, or your fans will lose interest in your story. A good example, in Dark Ties, I originally had an evil spirit that haunted the protagonist and the antagonist. It was the reason for their connection. As I was writing, I decided that was a stupid concept. Had I serialized that novel, I would have been stuck with trying to explain what happened to the evil spirit.

So serializing has some interesting applications. And some serious drawbacks. Looking back at movies vs television, do traditional novels provide a more immersive experience than serialized fiction? Is serialized fiction really like an hour-long television program that allows characters to grow in ways they can’t in a novel? All good questions. Still, I’m thinking about experimenting with it.

Right now I’m working on a fantasy story that is intended to be a series. I have the basic ideas for three separate trilogies in mind (though those ideas are bound to evolve). But due to the nature of epic fantasy, it could work well as a serial. The first book would be four or five novellas 20K – 25K long. When I was done, I would put them together and offer them as a full novel for people who don’t like the serial format. But those who do like the format would get to read the story quicker. Instead of releasing one or two (or three if I could manage it) books a year, release twelve to fifteen novellas over a couple of years. Fans get to start the story sooner, and as an author, I find out quicker if the story is something the fans like. Sounds like a win for everybody.

What do you think?

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