The pulp era was a different time. Dime novels, pulp magazines and radio were the primary forms of fiction. Silent films dominated the theatres until the 1920s, with musicians playing music to accompany the show. The first Technicolor feature film arrived only in 1935, and it would take another three decades until colour firmly supplanted the black and white movie. In 1936, there were only 200 television sets worldwide; by 1948 one million homes in the United States had a television set; all-electronic colour television was introduced in the US in 1953; but most TV broadcasts were still in black and white until the mid-1960s. In the heydays of the pulp era, the printed word was one of the main drivers of popular entertainment.
Today, the consumer is spoiled for choice. High-definition cable television, anime, movies, video games, mobile games, television, apps, YouTube, the list goes on and on. Today, after leaving school, a person can live his entire life without reading a single book. From the primary medium of fiction, the written word has now been relegated to an afterthought.
This isn’t to say that people aren’t reading. There is still a voracious demand for books. Ereaders such as the Kindle allow readers from all over the world to store huge libraries in convenient-to-carry devices. The webnovel is modern-day serial fiction presented in an easy-to-digest format, perfect for the busy reader who reads on his mobile phone on the go. Self-publishing and print on demand technologies empower anyone to become an author without going through the hassle of working with literary agents and publishing houses. We live in a new pulp age, and pulps are booming.
But like it or not, the screen is the primary driver of pop culture. Screen conventions have bled over into the page. We now live in a time where writers who do not read write for readers who favour screens. People for whom video games, superhero comics and blockbuster movies are the cornerstones of culture. To both writer and reader, the page is not the primary medium of entertainment. Today we see writers who attempt to write stories using screen conventions.
This results in an inferior product, neither a true book nor a movie, TV show, or game.
The page is not the screen. Any would-be modern writer needs to plant this firmly in his head. What works for the screen does not translate well to the page. While there are points of similarity, the differences are even more important. The critical difference lies in audience participation.
In a book, the writer supplies the words, the audience provides the imagination. Both collaborate to create worlds and peoples. These stories exist only in the minds of the writer and the reader. The reader has be an active participant to fully enjoy the story. He needs to see the characters in his mind’s eye, hear them speak in his mind’s ear, sense what they sense using the faculties of his imagination.
On the small and big screens, the audience becomes a consumer. There is nothing to imagine. Everything is already displayed in front of you. You see the setting and the characters, you watch the action unfold in real time, you hear characters speak in their own voices. All the audience need merely do is passively sit and watch. With colour technology, they don’t even have to imagine the colours on screen. As image resolution improved over the decades, the viewer sees every little detail of every character, every prop, everything displayed on the screen.
Video games are a different kettle of fish. The player becomes an active participant in the world the designer created. He engages with the mechanics of the game to experience content the creator developed for him. To facilitate this engagement, the game presents a combination of audio, graphics, and text, all of them directed to the singular purpose of allowing the player to proceed through the experience. While the player is more active than the viewer, the totality of his cognitive processes is focused on game mechanics. He uses it to figure out puzzles, develop strategies, understand what to do next. He doesn’t have to imagine what the characters or the world look like, or how they react to his actions. They are all presented to him.
What does this mean to the writer?
First, many modern consumers raised on screens are accustomed to passive consumption. They are accustomed to experiences with immersive colour and audio. Reading words makes them work to visualize the events of the story. Reading becomes effortful. What is effortful is perceived as tiring to someone not accustomed to effort. What is tiring tends to lead to the reader closing the book.
Second, many writers are competing with screens. A favorite writing strategy to provide an experience similar enough to screens that it attracts a ready audience, and yet novel enough that it attracts the reader’s interest. They aim to transform effortful entertainment into effortless entertainment.
Pop culture references are an easy way to do this. Have the characters drop mentions of pop culture every few pages to hook the reader. The reader instantly understands what is going on. It makes the character, and the writer by extension, feel like he is one of them.
The trouble arises when references appear where they are not appropriate. I have seen books where isekai’d characters drop pop culture references in conversation, and predictably the natives of the world don’t understand what they are saying. This reveals the references for the illusions that they truly are. They exist not to facilitate storytelling, not to smoothen communication between in-world characters, but for the writer to nod and wink at the audience. It is irritating. Once you see it you cannot unsee it. These references do not exist to drive the story, but merely to remind you that the writer wants to reassure you that he is one of us, even at the expense of the story.
Tropes are essential for entertainment. Every story must obey genre tropes. Characters must fit archetypes. Events must follow cultural norms. At the extreme, we see readers who read not for stories, but for tropes. They plow through entire sections of text, see familiar tropes, experience the pleasure of recognition, and continue skimming the text on the hunt for more tropes.
Modern fiction is infamous for this. The tsundere, yandere, and all the deres out there. Plots that are essentially excuses to string together graphic violence and explicit sex in a barely-coherent sequence of events. The appearance of screen conventions even and especially where they are not necessary. All this to keep the story feeling familiar to the screen-obsessed reader, so he will continue to read on.
This approach means that the story is tropes and archetypes and nothing more. Characters are bound by their archetypes without being allowed to rise beyond them. Countless variations of the same tropes appear over and over again, without innovation, without creativity, without taking the risk that the reader would not understand them.
I would not be surprised if, one day, we see a book in which the text merely describes characters by archetypes, events and actions and items by trope names, and settings by references to other pop culture. No description, no depth, no dialogue, nothing more than trope after trope after trope arranged in sequence on the page. And it becomes an international bestseller.
I believe in another vision for fiction. I believe that there is a better way to write. I believe that writing in the new era does not require dumbing down the story to little more than a steady-state dopamine drip of tropes and nostalgia. But that demands writing with an understanding of the differences between the page and the screen.
The old adage that a picture paints a thousand words has never been truer in this age.
On the screen, everything is displayed to the viewer. Characters, environment, props, everything on the screen is visible. It is real to the view. On the page, the reader has to imagine everything described within the story.
Information on the screen is presented all at once. Everything that remains on the screen remains in the viewer’s awareness. In contrast, information on the page is processed sequentially. Word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. The skilled creator can convey far more information with a single image than a page of words. Once something is no longer mentioned on the page, it goes into the reader’s working memory, and from there it is at risk of slipping into oblivion. Without subtle reminders, especially in longer works, it is easy for the reader (and writer!) to forget a critical detail.
In the age of the screen, there are two distinct writing styles the writer can adopt.
The first is minimalism. The writer uses the absolute minimum of words necessary to set the scene, choosing to spend the majority of his word budget on the most important aspects of the scene. In old pulp action stories, notice how many words are spent on character interactions, such as dialogue or fight scenes, as opposed to setting. There is just enough description to help you visualise the scene, before the author focuses on the actions and characters. Robert E Howard is a master at this.
Minimalism is not glossing over the scene and placing the burden entirely on the reader. In The Rising of the Shield Hero, a weapon shop is described like so:
I stole a glimpse of the interior through the open door. There were weapons of all sorts hanging on the stone walls. It was exactly what you imagine when you think of a weapon shop.
“Welcome!” the owner called out to us amiably. The owner too was exactly the sort of guy you picture when you think of a weapon shop.
This is not a description at all. The author is asking the reader to insert a scene from a weapon shop in the latest JRPG he played. It’s as if all weapon shops are generic, all media is generic, all characters are generic—and by extension, the reader is capable of nothing more than visualizing generic things.
In the Goblin Slayer light novel, the town where Goblin Slayer and his party frequents is described as “There is a [X] at [Y]”, for page upon page. No life, no detail, nothing more than a list of buildings and places of interest. Again, the reader is expected to visualise a frontier town from the last JRPG he played.
This is lazy writing. Instead of creating something new, something unique, the writers chose to hand off the burden of description on to the latest video game du jour. This is not description, but delegation.
It’s telling that The Rising of the Shield Hero and Goblin Slayer are themselves based on games, with references to RPG mechanics and principles. Instead of adapting tropes and ideas across media, the writers chose to simply let the reader’s games take on the heavy lifting. The result is ‘description’ that describes nothing at all—it is simply a trigger for the reader to visualise content from the last game he played.
The key to make minimalist writing work is focus. Focusing on the most dramatic aspects of the scene. Andrew Vachss and Ken Bruen are masters of this style. Though characters and actions are minimally described, every line leaves an impact—the opposite of generic writing.
On the screen, every visual must be tightly integrated with events on the screen. Colors, background, aesthetics, everything must be congruent. Every visual element must synergize with each other to create the intended atmosphere and tone. A single element that is out of place is immediately noticeable. This is used to good effect in the movie The Bourne Supremacy, in which Jason Bourne (and an observant viewer) picks out an assassin in Goa by the way he stands out from everyone and everything around him. If it is not deliberate, however, this becomes distracting.
On the page, by emphasising only the important elements, you save the time, energy and heartache of seeking congruence. A minimalist writer doesn’t have to describe a character’s clothing or gear beyond the bare minimum unless it is important to the scene. He doesn’t have to describe the architecture of a building either. This saves a lot of time writing, researching and editing—an advantage the writer has over the screen.
The second writing style is atmospheric. The opposite of minimalism, this style goes in depth, painting a vivid setting through lengthy descriptions. More than just purple prose, such description sets the stage for what is to follow.
When describing locations, people, equipment, or other things, these descriptions should inform character interactions and choices later on in the scene or the story. The unique properties of a location should be used to the fullest, be it a crumbling cliff face or a busy city street. A soldier climbing the cliff will have to figure out how to avoid stressing the worn rock even further, while a beat cop chasing down a criminal on a street will have to work around nearby cars and passers-by. How a person dresses and comports himself will influence how other characters act towards him. A person’s gear determines what he can and cannot do in a scene. Detailed descriptions set the scene for future action and prime the reader to suspend disbelief and accept the events on the page.
The one thing the screen cannot do is show a character’s thoughts. On the screen, you have to infer character’s thoughts from words and actions. Very rarely will you see characters speaking directly to the viewer through his thoughts. Even then, those thoughts are limited by the dialogue conventions of the medium. Thought-monologues tend to be short, because it holds up the action on the screen.
On the page, you can go in depth. You can have pages, even chapters, worth of mental monologue if it’s linked to the plot. You can insert a character’s thoughts into descriptions of places, people and action. The only rule here is that these thoughts should add to the scene instead of slowing down the story.
People in fiction do not talk like people in real life. This is a good thing.
People in fiction speak more boldly, clearly and dramatically than in real life. Every line of dialogue is a performance. But different media treat it differently.
In TV and movies, you can infer much about a character through facial expression and body language. Dialogue is limited to what propels the plot. In games, dialogue serves the additional burden of informing the player where to go next and what to do when he gets there. Trails in the Sky 1 and 2 are superb examples of this: the characters pass on information to the player through naturalistic dialogue and repetition of key points disguised as acknowledgements.
On the page, dialogue is a critical method of character interaction and storytelling. Without visuals to work with, a story must rely heavily on words, including the written word depicted as the spoken word. Processing written dialogue requires much more effort on the reader’s part to track the dialogue and the events on the page.
The greater the effort invested in processing a scene, the more invested the audience is in the scene. Processing spoken dialogue requires little investment of energy. It is easy for the audience to tune out spoken dialogue that drags on for too long. This is not a good thing.
Screen dialogue must keep the audience invested. In games it needs them to pay attention to the scene so they know what’s going on and what to do next. In TV, it needs to keep the viewer from tuning to another channel. In movies, it needs to need to keep the viewer from blanking out or leaving. This means every line is infused with character.
In modern screenwriting, snark is a cheap way to maintain audience investment. Quick, easy hits of cheap ‘comedy’ keeps the audience hooked by making them laugh, but such ‘writing’ prioritizes quick wit over everything else—be it the scene, the atmosphere, the plot, the characters. Snark in huge doses fails the congruency test, disrupting the atmosphere, the plot, the story itself. Snarky dialogue should not be written at the expense of the story or the characters, and yet it has become the default for Hollywood. With sufficient snark, the viewer may forget that there’s supposed to be a story being told.
The page demands more than just snark. The reader is already an active participant. He is hearing in his head every word being spoken. Everyone being snarky all the time makes them indistinguishable from each other. When all they have is snark, they are nothing but snarkers. They do not have the emotional maturity or the capacity to deal with situations where snark is inappropriate—which is most of life. This turns off readers who expect greater maturity from the characters.
The reader is heavily invested in reading dialogue. The viewer is much less invested in hearing dialogue. People expect spoken dialogue to be quick, tight, compact; and for written dialogue to be longer and more elaborate.
This means that on the page, dialogue can serve many more functions. It can be used to tell a story within a story, to infuse otherwise dry exposition with interesting character interactions, to paint suggestions of a wider world outside the confines of the story. Dialogue on the page can do much more than dialogue from the screen, and the wise writer takes advantage of such properties.
The page and the screen diverge most dramatically in the depiction of action. TV and movies show blow-by-blow depictions. Games abstract action to varying degrees, from the classic JRPG style of character running up to slash a character and running back, to the visceral player-directed gunfire of first person shooters. The page? It depends.
An action scene must drive the plot forward, present the protagonist with a problem to solve, build upon the outcome, and reveal his character as he acts. On the page, describing intensity is most important. The psychology of the fight—emotions, thoughts, wild swings of emotions—can be captured on the page. The writer can plunge the reader directly into the mind of the characters.
In a game, the player feels this intensity through playing. The player experiences these swings and surges for himself. On the screen, the viewer senses it at a remove by observing the characters and the action and inferring the characters’ states of mind. In neither case does the audience experience the character’s psyche directly.
Television and movies have to show every blow. In contrast, most writers should avoid the blow-by-blow style unless they know martial arts. The greater the detail, the more likely you will get something wrong, and most writers get everything wrong about fights. But if you do know your stuff, this opens the door to greater depth not possible in other media.
Depth is in the details. Gear choices, and explanations thereof. A character figuring out his opponent’s plans and turning the tables. Deep exploration of body mechanics and subtle tricks. All this builds up to the payoff and justifies why a certain character deserved to win the confrontation.
On the screen, actions have to be visible. The audience needs to see what is going on, the viewer to appreciate the scene, the gamer to understand what to do next. On the page, actions do not have to be immediately visible. On the screen, you need to show big, large movements. On the page, you can capture the small details that lead to victory. Things like shuffling forward to steal distance on the enemy, a subtle feint, a non-telegraphic strike, using large motions to hide smaller ones.
A writer who knows his stuff can create a far more authentic action scene than a creator confined by the limitations of the screen.
Deep Inside the Heart
Prose has a power the screen cannot match: the power to dig deep into the heart and mind of a character and bring it out onto the page
In films and TV, a character’s psychological state has to be inferred. In games and visual novels, it is brought out in dialogue or flashbacks. On the page, you can dig directly into the character’s heart and soul, and present the raw truth of the moment. This can be applied to all aspects of the story: setting, character interactions and descriptions, dialogue, action.
Writing for the page is not the same as writing for the screen. By digging deep into the character’s heart, you do the one thing the screen cannot.