As a fan of various works in various mediums, it can be exceedingly tempting to look at a TV show or movie and think: “I want to write something like that.” If you’re trying to write for TV or film, more power to you.
But if you’re trying to write novels or short stories, this kind of thinking can end up a dangerous trap.
Because mediums are different for a lot of really important reasons, and they have certain advantages and disadvantages that simply can’t be ignored. However, looking at what you enjoy in other mediums can be helpful, as long as you keep a few things in mind.
Visual mediums have some particular elements that prose can’t really duplicate. The biggest thing is that a visual medium can supply information to the audience in a way that prose can’t, or at least not without a lot of verbal gymnastics. Unnamed mysterious characters, the look of clutter in a room, slapstick comedy, comedic timing, and facial expressions—again, a clever writer can convey these things in prose, but it’s not easy.
Similarly, visual mediums don’t have rules for POV that are as clear-cut as prose. A film can show a one-second reaction shot of each character in a room, while the main character is doing something else—prose would have to resort to the awkward technique of listing out each character’s expression (or thought in omniscient POV, rarely used today). A film can show a brief reaction from a character across the universe. Prose can do some of these things, but only with section breaks or chapter breaks, which doing for a one-moment reaction would only jolt your reader out of the story.
In fact, multiple storylines and protagonists is something visual mediums do constantly, and with an ease that prose probably could never accomplish. TV shows in particular tell multiple character stories across simultaneous time, using cuts and visual cues to keep things from getting confusing. That’s why most books adapted to TV shows add a lot of characters, or at least expand minor characters’ storylines, because there’s a lot more to explore in a visual medium.
Character introduction is also very different, but not necessarily better, in a visual medium. We can see a character in a moment, and get a sense of their fashion, expression, personality, age, hygiene, posture, race, gender expression, and more—before they even do or say a thing. If a novel attempted the same thing, there’d be pages of description before the character did anything, which would no doubt alienate the reader. Yet in a visual medium, various characters (and settings, time periods, objects, etc.) can be established quickly and easily, allowing for those multiple perspectives and storylines.
But prose can get into a character’s thoughts, feelings, and history in a way a visual medium would never be able to accomplish. A one-paragraph flashback to a childhood memory, symbolically significant, would require a whole set, actors, and precious screen time in a movie or TV show. And the immense subtleties, contradictions, and hidden emotions of a person’s psyche can only be expressed by the most talented actors, and even then it’s not always possible (I think this is part of the reason voiceover has become increasingly ubiquitous—to account for some of this).
So what should you do when something in a different medium inspires you?
The first thing I do is accept that I might be enjoying that medium in a way that I could never recreate in my own creations. Loving an actor, or a couple’s chemistry, or a visual setting or style… I can’t capture that in prose, no matter how much work I put into trying. If what I’m responding to are elements that tie specifically into visual elements (for me, I think actors play a big role in this—loving a character for its actor’s charisma, not necessarily for the writing/dialogue of that character), then I have to accept that it’s the love of a fan, not a creator.
But if what I’m responding to are story elements? Plot twists? New kinds of characters, or relationships? Without directly copying those elements, it can be great to use them for inspiration. Maybe the technique a show uses pitching forward and backward in time would work for a story… or maybe the setting of a quirky small town inspires you.
I think as our fandom culture grows and cross-pollinates more and more, we’ll see prose works inspired by visual mediums and vice versa. Authors may come up with new tricks and techniques which can capture some of what we love about TV and movies.
So be inspired! But know what’s inspiring you, and know yourself.