Assignment: Prose fiction vs. TV and movies

Students learn the limits of a camera and the versatility of the third-person limited

Because television and movies are the dominant narrative art forms of the twenty-first century, most students have spent more hours watching TV and movies than reading novels. The Great Writers are Great Readers assignment makes that much clear.


Consequently, young writers often write in a very cinematic style — narrators are omniscient and can be everywhere, and yet cannot see into characters’ heads. The psychic distance is very remote, like the point of view of a camera.


For example, young writers focus on what a character’s eyes are doing. I have read paragraphs filled with narration that followed characters’ eye-lines as their attention moved from one object to another. Synonyms for “look” are everywhere: gaze, focus, stare, etc. This is the point-of-view of a camera positioned over the character's shoulder. That doesn't establish intimacy with the character, however. Getting inside a character’s head and showing us what is happening within the mind does.


Control of psychic distance sets great writers above mediocre ones. Students need to overcome the influence of TV and movies, close the psychic distance in their stories, and use techniques available to prose authors that are not available to screenwriters. This assignment helps them recognize how limited the camera's POV is, and how versatile the third-person limited or first person POV can be.


Assignment Description

Students novelize the opening scenes of a movie, translating its screenplay into at least six pages of prose written in limited third person or first person as if they were writing the opening of a novel. The student may chose which character in the scene(s) will be their point-of-view character. It doesn’t have to be the main character but the choice should make sense.


The choice of movie is important because of the potential for cheating. You have two options:

  1. Allow students to select a film based on an original screenplay, not a novel, short story, or comic book. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Django Unchained are acceptable, Jaws and Iron Man are not. You should approve their film choice before they begin writing, and you should make sure a novelization of the film does not already exist.
  2. Assign a movie of your choosing, one that every student can easily access, was based on an original screenplay, and has not been novelized. Tip: Genre movies, scifi in particular, often have novelization tie-ins while dramas do not.

Students should be familiar with the movie and its characters -- more than familiar, even. They should know it really well, because they need to know the characters well enough to know what a character is thinking and feeling during the scene they are writing. Their is an element of invention is this -- they will be creating and adding content that is not seen on screen -- but they shouldn't be making it up out of whole cloth.


The completed piece should be at least 6 pages long and should end when the current scene ends. In other words, the student should not just stop when they hit 6 pages.


Reflection Essay / Follow-Up Class Discussion

After completing the writing, it is important for you to know what the students learned from the assignment. You can assign a brief reflection essay to accompany the six pages, and/or hold a class discussion.


The goal of this assignment is for students to recognize the versatility of the limited third person or first person POV. In other words, they should see the power of being inside a character's head, listening to their thoughts as a scene unfolds. Exchanges of dialog that unfold quickly in real time on film can fill pages and pages of prose, or be kept short depending on how much information the author wants to reveal at the moment. In many ways novel writing is about the strategic release of information to the reader. You won't know if the class discovered this power unless you ask them what they learned.