What a Novel Can Do That Film and TV Can’t (Plus, Win a Free Copy of Office Girl!)

This guest column on The Writer’s Dig is from award-winning author Joe Meno (Office Girl).

Over the last decade or so, I’ve begun to think hard about the differences between the novel as a narrative form and other story contemporary mediums. Through my various novels, I’ve begun exploring what a novel can do that other narrative forms—film, television, stages plays, video games—can’t or don’t necessarily seemed suited for.


Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is a winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and was a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of five novels and two short story collections including Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and Demons in the Spring. His latest novel, Office Girl, is in stores now. His short fiction has been published in One Story, McSweeney’s and broadcast on NPR. He is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.

GIVEAWAY: Joe is excited to give away a free copy of his new novel, Office Girl, to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. CONTEST HAS ENDED. WINNER IS smrtlbstr87!


The first obvious difference is language—the ability to explore the dramatic possibilities of single words and words used in succession, the exquisite, the vulgar rhythm and sounds of human speech as presented on the page in small black marks. For centuries now, prose writers have exploited this important difference, though to be fair, the stage play and even a few films and TV shows have a highly developed sense of language. HBO’s The Wire or Deadwood are pretty amazing examples of scriptwriters borrowing from the poetry of prose.

There’s also a large difference between the novel and these other narrative forms when it comes to form and inter-textuality. Most novels are built from various prose forms—scenes, letters, script forms, notes, how-to’s—which don’t quite translate to film, television, or the stage play. Hearing a character read a letter out loud is not quite the same as reading the letter yourself as the prose reader. There’s also something incredibly appealing to me about the juxtaposition of all these forms physically—the look of a letter on the page, the look of a scientific abstract—that is almost impossible to capture in these other mediums.

Then there’s the issue of scale; I think a novel has a different sense of scale than film or TV or even stage plays, because all of these forms rely on a somewhat similar kind of dramatic intensity. In films, we typically see large-scale dramatic events—epic human struggles that have to be resolved within one hundred and twenty minutes. Dramatic TV shows and stage plays are also similar in that the kinds of conflicts they tackle are usually pretty intense, while at the same time limited by the length an episode or stage play can run.

Novels seem to work in an entirely different way. They are not limited by length of time, which means the dramatic events in novels can be more complex, more detailed, more sustained. It seems a number of esteemed contemporary literary novels make use of that specific breadth and scale, traversing multiple eras and introducing multiple characters. If anything, it seems like the novels of the 21st century has more in common with the novels 18th or 19th centuries, the only difference being that contemporary novels seem to reflect our current polyglot culture, weaving in tangential scientific, historical, economical information: a book as encyclopedia or book as internet browser.

But this predisposition towards bigger, more complex novels, novels filled with more and more information, ignores another interesting dramatic possibility in terms of scale. Unlike film, unlike television, unlike the dramatic play, a novel can focus on the narrow confines of a particular relationship, it can create an intimacy between reader and characters in a way almost no other narrative medium can. Maybe it’s because a novel is not actually finished until the reader the words and actively imagines their meanings, where as films, television, even stage plays don’t actually need an audience. They can still function and exist whether or not anyone is watching. But a book needs a reader to be completed, and this dependency builds a unique sense of understanding between the reader and the characters. Also, unlike these other narrative forms, which are often more communal, novels demand to be read alone.

So it seems the novels is perfectly suited not just to telling the most complicated, the most expansive stories, but also the most focused, the most quiet, the most intimate as well. Yet there are very few contemporary examples of authors exploring this particular possibility. Everyone seems to be excited about the vastness, the elaborate, the largess of the novel, both in page length and scale.

After thinking about these ideas for the a few years, I decided to try to build a novel, employing these various novelistic ideas—the heightened use of language, the possibility of multiple forms, and a narrative focus devoted solely to two characters and their singular relationship. The resulting book, Office Girl, follows two young people in their twenties during a few weeks in the winter of 1999 who decide to start their own short-lived art movement. It also contains text, drawings, photographs, a zine, and other artworks that the two young people, Odile and Jack, create during the course of their relationship.  I tried to use these various visual elements to capture Odile and Jack’s developing connection. Whether the book succeeds or not, I feel like the attempt—the intention of trying to take advantage of what a contemporary novel can do that other narrative forms can’t—is one of the ways in which the novel will continue to grow, develop, and sustain itself in this latest period of narrative uncertainty. Instead of building novels to be more like other narrative forms, I think using the novel to do what it only truly can do may actually help the form to endure.


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33 thoughts on “What a Novel Can Do That Film and TV Can’t (Plus, Win a Free Copy of Office Girl!)

  1. jkaz

    Thank you so much Brian for writing on this topic! I’ve been wrestling for some time with writing a screenplay and what I find so compelling is the relationship with the audience. I agree the relationship with the novel reader is much more intimate and yet screenwriting appears also to rely on the trust of the movie-going audience to buy into the 120 minute story with all its subtle imagery. Both mediums have a certain appeal; what a great time to be a writer!

  2. chick-a-dee

    I’ve been a writer all my life but I have never sat down and considered how to be a better or published writer. This article is thought provoking and is being book marked so I can try it too. I can’t wait to win that free copy of your stab at it so I can see how it played out for you.
    Renee Holly

  3. national2080

    I think this is very similar to the conversation going on in fringe theatre right now – what can live theatre alone accomplish. Which is where you see found space and community-focused theatre come in to play.

  4. nataliewrite

    Hello Joe,
    What an informative analysis on the novel. Really appreciate the refreshment of ideas and perspective on this particular medium of literature. I want to read Office Girl!
    Thank you,
    Ms. Wright (as in future playwright)

  5. uriahgreer

    Spelling error here: “So it seems the novels is…” Should be “novel”.
    Also, consider the senses. Movies, video games, and television all consist of only sight and sound. A novel activates the imagination’s understanding of touch, smell, and taste as well–a quality less-experienced writers often fail to employ.

  6. Richard Stewart

    How hard is it to include different elements such as visuals in a novel? Do publishers discourage that, or are thy pretty much good with anything? I was listening to an NPR piece the other day titled Novel Novels, and they were talking about different approaches to writing novels. I wonder if Office Girl, with its use of drawings, photographs, zine, etc. would be considered a novel novel.

  7. Cap Morgan

    Great article Joe – I have always loved the feel of a novel in my hands. I have not even brought myself to use the e-reader I received as a birthday gift as I am too attached to that place where the weight of the book and the anticipation of what’s on the next page far exceeds what is in the next frame in film.
    One other thought that bears thinking about in this year 2012 – if all the soothsayers predicting the end of our technological age (whether through natural disaster or man-made stupidity) are correct – you can still read by candelight! But it would get pretty boring staring at a black TV screen 🙂

  8. Briganne Carter

    I have two addictions (possibly three, but that’s for another story): reading books and the blessed awe of seeing movies on a great big, giant screen. Both are two inspiring forces.
    For years I have watched movies, watched the tilt of an actors head, the sounds, the fear, the textures of this and that and struggled with “How can that be described in words on a page?!” I sit in desperation back at home and try to recreate what my eyes see and my ears hear. It doesn’t go so well.
    I read a wonderful piece where the words fly off the page and I think, “How in the #%@^ did the author move me so @#$! much!? That was so much more of a sensory rush than the movies.” It sticks to my insides and for days, weeks, years later I’ll still remember that time I stayed up to read a particular book and why I couldn’t put it down.
    You said the book needs the reader; the movie will exist independent of it all. I loved that thought. That’s how the book can stay with us. It’s an intimate relationship – the bond of book and reader. Whether the relationship was amazing or turned sour, it IS remembered.
    Seeing Star Wars at ten will never leave me, but I have a hundred lines and images from books to last me a hundred lifetimes.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  9. rbettenc

    My novel originally started as a film script but because of some of the limitations mentioned here I trashed it and started over as a novel. It was so freeing! Thanks for sharing.

  10. MikeLaverty

    I love the premise and look forward to seeing how it actually plays out on the page. When I started reading this article the first thing that came to mind was the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was certainly a literary man and it shows in the opening them, his narration, and many of the show’s references.

  11. lhilke01

    I really like what you have to say and would love to read your book. It sounds like a fantastic creative endeavor. One thing I would add is that in books you can get inside people’s heads more than you can in film or TV. You can really get the depth of their emotions on levels you just cannot totally portray in film. I look forward to checking your book out it sounds incredible.

  12. AraTrask

    This reminds me of the kind of lecture I would hear before a class I took at Columbia called Story in Fiction and Film. It was taught by a writer who joked about throwing a robot into any situation where the stakes needed to be raised. His office was filled with tiny toy robots.

    I miss having you as a teacher, Joe. Can’t waited to read “Office Girl.”

  13. Susacadia

    I am a teacher. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the differences in the ways students interact with the written word, video representations, and audio performances of written words. I have come to believe that no one – proficient readers or novices – gets to much depth until a discussion has been started. There are books I have read with classes in which I am still discovering new depths. The same with films. One of the biggest differences I see in discussion is the ability to refer back to text. Neither video nor audio performances allow participants to refer back to the author’s words in the same way text does. Sure DVDs allow for jumping to a particular scene, but it does not, in the least, have the same result as a discussion of the actual words of the author, and the ready access to contextual rebuttal or support.

    Susan Dewey

  14. Gustopher

    I think the big advantage of the novel is the length of the form. Even with an endless special effects budget you still can’t cram as much amazing stuff in two hours of a film as you can in hundreds of pages of a novel. The ability to let the story be as long as it needs to be provides a great deal of flexibility that is an advantage in presenting the story that other forms lack.

  15. Jill

    It’s so funny that I found this article today! I had a conversation with a co-worker who claimed that “books ruin movies” and also that “books suck.” Needless to say, I was appalled! Maybe I should forward this to him. 😉

    You’re so right; books offer complexities that films and TV shows couldn’t hope to duplicate. Don’t get me wrong, there are some insanely complex films out there, but nothing compares to sitting down with a well-written book. I recently got hooked on HBO’s Game of Thrones and marathoned the entire series in 5 days, and now I’m reading the first book. Let me tell you…if I was hooked before, I’m beyond help now.

    Congratulations on publishing “Office Girl,” Joe! I’ll definitely have to check it out!

  16. beexcellent

    This is a fascinating article.

    It’s true that novels can allow you to explore specific, isolated relationships much more closely than a film or stage play -something that I often exploit.

    Office Girl sounds really interesting -I’ve yet to read a novel that uses so many different forms within the narrative (such as the drawings and zine mentioned above). I feel like this is a recent step forward for novelists and we’ll see more melding of forms in the future.

  17. bahj

    I agree that a book is much more intimate than a movie. In a good movie I get to follow along with the characters–I get to watch and listen as things happens to them. But in a book–one that is written well–I can actually become the character. I can see, hear, and feel the experiences almost as if I were I were the actual character. Also, with a novel, I have the chance to create that particular world the way I would see it. In a movie that’s been done for me. Lastly, you don’t have to invest as much of yourself into a movie as you do into a novel. I think that, at least for me, the extra effort makes the experience all the more pleasurable. Thank you for this article and I will be looking up your new book along with your other works :0)

  18. Larry B

    I’ve come to novel writing after having written teleplays and screenplays (and stage plays). It’s not easier but far, far more satisfying for someone like me who wants to get into the head of a character, and not just churn out plot and dialogue. A novel isn’t just the blueprint like a screenplay is, it’s the whole house.

  19. jesakalong

    I’ve been a big fan of Joe Meno’s writing for such a long time and I can’t wait to read Office Girl. His use of the various novelistic devices is inspiring; I’m very interested to see how he makes it work. Plus, his words here are beautiful: “But a book needs a reader to be completed, and this dependency builds a unique sense of understanding between the reader and the characters”

    1. merchant222d

      While most novels are better than their movie adaptations, it’s not always true for me. Jaws, for instance, was a much better movie than a novel. I didn’t care for the love triangle in the novel, especially since it broke the rhythm of the tension with the shark. The movie was wise to drop that subplot; the book I could skim over those parts, but in a movie, well, they would have had to trim from somewhere else to make everything fit in the time allotted. You usually just can’t put everything from a novel into a movie, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing.

      But I do think it unfair, really, to compare books and movies.Both mediums have their pros and cons, their strengths and weaknesses. For most novels, while I thoroughly enjoy (again, most of the time) all the subplots in a well written tale, backstories, the long indulgence of losing yourself in another world, I also enjoy the action and the sight and sound sensory shower that only a movie can provide. It’s seeing another, even if a bit limited or superficial, vision of the tale. The movie concentrates focus on major elements of the tale, and sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy a tale that way.

      I think most of the time movies and books compliment each other.

  20. jd_

    Hello Joe,

    You have touched on a topic which has also interested me profoundly, and it seems to be a question of narratology. In addition to your statement that there are things that only the novel can do, there are of course only things the play and film can do.

    Instead of critiquing some of your points, such as, books could be enjoyed orally amongst a group, but generally they are employed point by point. There are a few other points which could be philosophically argued, though I will give you the benefit of the doubt that “in general” these concepts play out better in the novel such as time limitations, and the more intricate relation between a single encounter or character.

    Another aspect would be the different immediacies between the texts, which can create the better immediacy, e.g. can a novel bring you *into* the world more so than film? I have often pondered this question myself.

    I attempt to write in all of these forms as well, and while I do agree there are things novels can do, there are of course others which I think the play or film can do better.

    In terms of video games, I have currently not seen one which has that storyline which I have found in the other three, now perhaps this might be the case, and perhaps we are coming to some kind of future Virtual Reality world as the ultimate form of media to bring narrative to us, but I still believe we are quite far from this.

    I will also note that, I am more interested in these forms of narrative to illuminate ideas than I am say, art or poetry, I find the narration, story and plot to be key, it might actually be part of being human.

    Intertextuality could also be viewed as hypermediacy, letters back and forth or telegrams are often used in novels, but I suppose they *could* be used throughout a film as well say (a news story in the back ground) (a clip of a tv show within a movie) … these are using these same kind of forms, but in general due to the aforementioned time constraints they tend not to be as lengthy. Take Bram Stoker’s Dracula for example, it is littered with the intertextuality you speak of.

    Anyway, good post and I will keep an eye on it.


  21. A. Nelix

    I came here because I have this book on my to-read list on goodreads, then I decided I might as well read the article and I agree very well with what he says. Novels tend to be more intimate. The relationships in a good written novel fully explores every aspect of the relationship and that is because novels are generally not limited.

  22. pacanime

    I understand the advantages of writing a longer piece in terms of story and development. I tend to go the other direction though. There are some readers out there who prefer stories and plots that are more to the point. If they come across a 700 page book, they are likely to pass it by. I think an episodic type formula would also work well when writing in the future. A style where several stories follow one character, but appear in one book. Books with that format usually translate into good audio books. I find it’s often good to think about the whole picture of the formats you’ll be employing before you type the first word. Good article!

  23. Daria

    WF2012 is right about Joe. He is unique and brilliant – the way he uses text, drawings, photographs, a zine, and other artworks that the two young people, Odile and Jack, create during the course of their relationship . These various visual elements to capture Odile and Jack’s developing connection is by far the best idea for a novel that I have ever seen.

  24. WF2012

    Joe’s attempt itself is unique and brilliant—building a novel to show what a novel can do that other story forms can’t! Sounds like killing two birds with one stone.


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