Note from Nick: This is a guest blog post by C. S. Lakin, a friend and writer extraordinaire. She recently released a new book, which you must read. See more below the article!
“Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes,” wrote the famous writing instructor Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing back in the 1990s.
Now that we’re knee-deep into the twenty-first century, his words are even more apropos. While some writers balk at the idea of tweaking their writing style to accommodate readers’ desire for a more visually dynamic story, savvy writers who want to see their novels on the best-seller lists would do well to consider learning cinematic technique.
What Is Cinematic Technique?
What do I mean by cinematic technique? Stories that are played out on the screen are presented visually. If you and a group of your friends watch a movie, you will see the same characters doing exactly the same actions. There is no disagreement about what a character wore or what the buildings looked like. Everything in the movie is presented visually. Aside for perhaps a brief bit of voice-over narrative in some movies, viewers watch the story unfold in real-time action, happening now, as Stein described.
For decades—even centuries—novels consisted mostly of narrative and exposition. It was not unusual for novels to have dozens of pages of description, summary, explanation, and just plain “telling” of the story. When you pick up a novel like Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities or Steinbeck’s East of Eden, you’ll notice this to be the case. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of writing; in fact, many, if not most, of the greatest novels ever written contain a prodigious amount of narrative.
And of course, there are still many novels hitting the best-seller lists and garnering acclaim that are predominately composed of narrative. I recently listened to the audio book of The Reliable Wife, which was mostly narrative (I did get bored about halfway through and quit listening). Many successful literary novels rely heavily on creative narrative to carry their stories, and yes, there are readers that do enjoy them.
With that caveat, I will risk saying that such novels are the exception, and that Stein was right—most readers want the more cinematic style of structure in the novels they read. Regardless of genre, a writer can structure a story in a visually powerful way by utilizing cinematic technique.
Cinematic technique is all about “show, don’t tell.” But writers are not taught just how to do that.
The Shotgun Method
Writers know that if they say “Jane was terrified,” that only tells the reader what Jane is feeling; it doesn’t show her terrified. So they go on to construct a scene that shows Jane in action and reacting to the thing that inspires fear in her. And somehow in doing so writers hope they will make their reader afraid too.
But that’s often like using a shotgun approach. You aim at a target from a hundred yards away with a shotgun and hope a few buckshot pellets actually hit the bull’s eye. Many writers think if they just “point and shoot” they will hit their target every time. But then, when they get lackluster reviews, or dozens of agent or publisher rejections, they can’t figure out what they did wrong, or failed to do. Why is this? Is there some “secret formula” to writing visually impacting scenes every time?
No, not secret. In fact, the method is staring writers in the face.
Just as your novel comprises a string of scenes that flow together to tell your whole story, so too with movies and television shows. However, you, the novelist, lay out your scenes much differently from the way a screenwriter does. Whereas you might see each of your scenes as integrated, encapsulated moments of time, a movie director sees each scene as a compilation of a number of segments or pieces—a collection of camera shots that are subsequently edited and fit together to create that seamless “moment of time.”
Writers who take the time to construct their scenes in segments of “camera shots”—shooting their novel instead of narrating it—emulate the methods of filmmakers and directors.
You Don’t Have To Be a Screenwriter
You don’t have to study screenwriting to learn about the different camera shots and angles used in movies and TV shows. Just pay attention to where the camera is throughout a scene. A director will bring the camera in close to make the viewer pay attention to specific small details. He’ll pull the camera back to reveal a bigger picture. At the start of each scene that introduces a new location, he’ll use an establishing shot to show the setting and make it clear where the scene is taking place. These are all “camera shots” novelists can use to create powerfully visual scenes “playing out in front of the reader’s eyes.”
One good way to learn this cinematic technique is to study how some successful novelists do it. Pick up a few of your favorite novels (written in this century!) and tear apart a scene. Imagine where the “movie camera” is and jot down the string of shot segments you notice. Pretend you are the director and are calling the shots. Pay attention to the way the scene builds to a “high moment”—the key moment of the scene in which something important is revealed. Note what “camera shot” is used for that moment.
By studying novels like this—novels in the genre you write in—you can learn to write cinematically.
There is much more to cinematic technique besides camera shots. Filmmakers utilize angles, color, shapes, sounds, and special effects as well. And these are all elements that novelists can learn from, borrow, and adapt in their fiction writing.
Learning to “shoot” a novel is something every twenty-first-century author should consider, for it is doubtful that movies and TV will loosen their grip of influence on readers anytime soon. I love reading and writing novels that are cinematically charged, and I hope you will learn how to wield these writing tools to craft the best novels possible.
Can you name some authors today that write cinematically? What are your favorite novels that showcase this writing style?
C. S. Lakin is a multipublished best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Technique to Supercharge Your Story—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique. You can buy it here in print and as an ebook.