Books vs Movies: Immersion and the power of suggestion

A writing discussion got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects, and now I’m going to get into this.

One of my favorite classes in college was Shakespeare in Performance. We learned about the challenges of stories in different media. I’m going to stick to just books and movies today. I’d love to throw in how theater differs as well, but I’m trying to keep this short.

We’ll start with movies. I love movies. But they aren’t as immersive as books. When watching a movie, you are removed from the action. The flat screen in front of you is a distinct visual separation from what you are seeing.

That is not to say that we don’t ‘lose’ ourselves in movies, or that they don’t affect us. They actually affect us quite a bit.

But when watching a movie, you can choose where to look. Sure, there are tricks that make you focus on specific areas of the screen. Movies are famous for sight lines that make your eyes focus on a specific thing, like magicians.

But, like magicians, you can choose to look away from where they want you to.

(If you’re the type of person who likes ‘looking away’ or ‘logic’, you’ll love these guys.)

While 3D movies blur the lines a little, movies are ‘out there’, something that we watch, not something we experience.

Books on the other hand, you have no free will. You cannot choose to look anywhere but where the writer tells you.

Books written in 1st person make this sensation of immersion even stronger, mostly due to the power of suggestion (If that last article doesn’t convince you, check out this show.). Repeatedly being told that “I feel X” eventually you believe that you are feeling it.

Again, this isn’t my opinion. There’s some science that backs me up. Reading make you more empathetic.

To quote the second article:

Mar explained that when you are engaged in reading a story that your brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.

So the act of reading tricks your brain into imagining that you are the person in the story. Whether you are one of the ‘visual’ people who see the book as a movie in your brain, or someone who just gets lost in the words, you see yourself as the protagonist.

Or to quote the first article:

Your brain actually believes that you have experienced it. When we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Novels are able to enter into our thoughts and feelings.

Now this doesn’t mean you want to murder people after reading about one in the book. Just that, much like with dreaming, in the moment, your brain can’t tell the difference between you and the character. If they are eating ice cream, you are eating ice cream.

Speaking of the power of suggestion, does anybody want some ice cream right now?

Now does this make one medium superior to the other? Of course not. Despite both being storytelling medium, they use distinctly different ways to catch and hold our attention.

But, like individuals, knowing their distinct strengths and weaknesses does help you understand the story you are telling.

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