Thursday, April 12, 2012

Movie Openings vs. Book Openings: Outside-in vs. Inside-out

I know I said my next post would be about language and dialect in crime fiction, but as you can see that’s not the case. I’m still going to do it, it’s just I’m planning to use James Ellroy as my example and the books I own of his are in a box somewhere in my parents' basement. I’m moving soon and will have access to them then, but until then I’m going to procrastinate and talk about the difference between the opening minutes of a film vs. The opening pages of a novel.

Last night I watched ‘Alien’ for the first time. Everyone’s got a list of classic films they haven’t seen, and the Alien movies are on mine. My plan is to watch them all before Prometheus comes out so I can stop feigning enthusiasm whenever I’m talking about it with my fellow film geek friends. Anyway, after a long credit sequence, the movies starts off with several outer and interior shots of a spaceship. We don’t see any people, just long empty hallways (I tried to find the opening scene on Youtube, but the best I could find was here. Skip over to 2:27 to get past the credit sequence). Its a few minutes before we see any human beings. The movie starts outside (literally, with the shots outside the spaceship) and then shows us the world in more detail (the shots of the inside of the ship) and only then shows us the characters.

A similar but different opening is the one in Aquirre, The Wrath of God. The opening shot is of a huge mountain face, jutting not only vertically but into the side of the sky. It is wrapped in clouds. As the camera moves in we can see figures making their way down the mountain like a chain of ants. Even with such a massive line of people the whole expedition still looks tiny and insignificant compared to the natural world around them.

Eventually the camera gets in closer to the group and we can start to make out individuals in the mass of people. There are slaves, native people chained together carrying chickens, wheels, religious artifacts. There are Spanish conquistadors struggling to move in their suits of armor. There are even a couple of high-born ladies, wearing fine dresses and being escorted down the path.

And then we finally get to hear Aguirre, the main character, speak. Once again we see a movie start from at a distance, move in closer, and then finally zero in on the characters.

I love both these openings, especially the Aguirre one (how many movies can reveal so much about the characters by how they walk down a mountain?) but they are good openings for movies, not books. Movies are a visual medium. Show me something cool and we're good to go. But a lot of writers try to use this same technique to start their stories. They will paint a picture of a sweeping vista, or describe some fantasy throne room, or set me down on an alien planet. They might talk about the weather, the season, how many people are there and for what purpose. After they’ve done this they might introduce me to a character. Maybe.Or maybe they'll go on for a little bit more.

I often see these kind of openings from new writers, or from people who are drawing their influences from cinema more than literature. And hey, anything can be done well, I just don’t think the outside-in approach plays to writing’s strengths. Writing is a sensory medium. Not literally, unless the book comes with a scratch-and-sniff card, but through the written word you can recreate people’s memories of sight, sense, taste, smell and sound. It also has an edge over movies for getting into people’s heads. We’re not just experiencing a new situation, we’re seeing how a certain character experiences it. By being in a character’s head and looking out, we see not only this new world, but, from how they see it, learn about the character. Movies are stuck on the outside of that. We can only see the surface, the skin*. With books we are inside that skin.

*This is not an insult. Some of my favourite actors are people who can express so much with the most minimal tells.


  1. The Alien films are one of my favorite series. I agree with you about openings. For movies, the sweeping visuals are nice, but they don't work in books. I always begin right in the action.

    I read your story in Daily Science Fiction this morning. Great piece! :)

  2. Loved your DSF piece today. And this blog article was interesting, too. I never thought about the difference in how movies open versus books. But you are right.

  3. Hiya Nova Scotia, British Columbia here! ... Liked your story in DSF too.

  4. Hi widdershins! BC is beautiful. Some winters I dream about moving out to Whistler and just skiing everyday.

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting, and thanks for reading my story at DSF.