Writing the Iceberg


There’s a meme floating around the writing world that shows a picture of an iceberg.  It labels the top part, “The Movie” and the bottom part, “The Book.”

Old_Wikisource_logo_used_until_2006Icebergs, and indeed all ice, share the phenomenon where most of their mass is under water.  Next time you pour yourself a glass of ice water you can see it for yourself, only the tiniest bit of the ice peeks out above the water line.

How does this apply to writing?

When we watch a movie, we get to see and hear everything the main character sees and hears.  While this can make for fantastic storytelling, it’s missing three of the senses – taste, smell, and touch.  I would add emotion as well to the mix as well. While a great actor can express volumes in his use of expression and body language, we still cannot actually hear his thoughts.  A huge chunk of the experience that you can get in the pages of a great book are missing from the watching experience.

This is why the book is almost always better than the movie.

There are exceptions to the rule.  Some books are harder to enjoy than others, they are set in a complicated universe or have dozens of story lines that are hard to keep straight.  It doesn’t matter how masterfully written a story is when the reader can’t understand what is happening, can’t visualize the scene, or is put off by other factors.  This is where a movie, and a great art director, can help the audience by doing the hard work of interpreting the text for the viewer.

However, movie storytelling isn’t the same as book storytelling and many writers can get into trouble if they don’t know the difference.

With movie storytelling, emotions are limited to being shown through facial expressions and actions.  While it’s fine to use these in books, and I’m not saying that you can’t, they aren’t the only way of helping the reader experience what the character is feeling.  Using the written word we can explore more of what is going on internally.   We can hear the character’s inner dialogue, feel their physical and emotional reactions, and come to a greater understanding of the personal significance of a scene.

For a great example of the difference I’d urge you all to read, or reread, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and then watch the movie. While the movie does capture much more of the internal conflict going on with Ender than I thought it would, there is still a lot missing that would be too hard to capture in film.

Here’s your writing challenge!

Take a favorite movie scene and write it out as it happens on the screen – THEN – write the scene again, but this time focus on the main character and what they are experiencing.  Take time to figure out what they might be thinking and feeling.  Compare the two and see which you think is better.


About Jodi

Jodi L. Milner is a writer, mandala enthusiast, and educator. Her epic fantasy novel, Stonebearer’s Betrayal, was published in November 2018 and rereleased in Jan 2020. She has been published in several anthologies. When not writing, she can be found folding children and feeding the laundry, occasionally in that order.
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8 Responses to Writing the Iceberg

  1. katpersephone says:

    I really love this and absolutely agree with you. The book is so often much better than the movie and it saddens me when people would rather watch the movie than read the more complex and descriptive book. Movies just can’t capture what a book can!

    • Jodi says:

      Amen. Part of the downfall of the instant gratification generation will be that they choose the faster, easier fix than the longer more gratifying route of reading the book. Oh well.

  2. diannegray says:

    I much prefer reading the book to watching the movie. Most times you have no idea what’s in the ‘head’ of the actors and worse still – sometimes they change the ending in the movie! Nooooo….. 😉

  3. ericjbaker says:

    I slightly disagree in the concept that books show more emotion than movies. Movies show it differently, through the things you mentioned (actor’s expressions for one), but editing and music also play a critical role. The main difference to me is that, in movies, emotion is by committee: Writers, directors, cinematographers, films editors, and composers. We writers are on our won, which is an entirely different challenge. I certainly agree that book require more active participation on the part of the reader and, in the end, are harder to let go of if they are well written.

    • Jodi says:

      I think we’ve had this debate before, although this time I gave movies more credit than before. I still love movies, I watch them all the time. All we need to do is start making awesome soundtracks for books, that would be incredible.

      • ericjbaker says:

        I was actually thinking of doing that with one of my short stories, believe it or not. It’s a music-themed story, and if I ever get around to offering it, I might post a “soundtrack” of sorts on my blog, made up of You Tube videos.

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