Readers often tell me my writing is very cinematic and that as they read, they can see the scenes like a movie in their head. I didn’t set out to write in a cinematic way–it’s how I see the story in my head–but it got me thinking about how to make a book memorable like a movie (or, in my made-up word, more movie-able 😉 ).
I studied writing for the stage when I was in college then writing for film while I was working within the entertainment industry while I lived in Los Angeles, many years ago, and the two forms are very different from writing a novel. As a playwright or a screenwriter, your primary focus is story and character. You choose settings, like “Garden” but you don’t design them any more than what is necessary for the plot. And with film, you might offer suggestions of camerawork, like “We pull in on the letter”, but the director and cinematographer determine how that pull in is done, and they can and often do change what’s in the script dramatically. Even the editor can make the flow of a story completely different from what the screenwriter originally intended with a snip of the film–or click of their mouse today.
But writing a novel, you take on every job: You are the location scout, set designer, director, cinematographer, actor, sound technician, visual effects artist, editor… You even get your own craft services (yes, I’m talking about your fridge).
Call me controlling, but there’s something so fun about being able to create on all these different levels while writing a novel. And the more I can do to make my scenes movie-able, the closer I’m getting to what I see in my head.
So, how do I write a scene that reads like a movie? Here are three tips:
Think Like a Cinematographer
Have you ever watched a movie where the scene shows a character hurrying out of the door then the camera pans over to their glasses on the coffee table? We immediately understand what the movie is trying to show us: The character is going to be in big trouble soon because they’ve left behind their glasses and won’t be able to see the danger ahead. In movies, shots will move in close to an object to tell the viewers it’s important, and in novels we can use cameras in the same way.
Imagine you’re writing about a person going to a haunted house for the first time. You might start out by describing the house as the character sees it from the outside (the wide angle shot), then give a bit of foreboding when the character thinks they see a flutter of a curtain in a upstairs window. As they move closer, they see more intimate details, like the grime on the brick, the crushed can hiding under the bushes. Then we move the camera even closer to focus on the scratches on the doorknob and the character’s hand hesitating before they press their palm on it and turn.
Use your descriptions to show wider views of scenes and closeups of important details to pull your readers into the action.
Think Like a Set Designer
Screenwriters can simply put “Int: Living room” to describe the setting of their scene, maybe adding “A large bookcase is against one wall,” if one of the characters will need to use that bookcase in the action of the story. It’s the set designer’s job to dress that set, decide the colors of the walls, whether there are curtains or blinds, whether they’re open or closed, the style of the furnishings, whether they’re new or worn, the artwork that’s hanging on the walls. All these things must show the time period of the story, the economics of the owner, and the taste of the owner, but also support the tone of the scene.
As novelists, we do all that plus we have the added benefit of using the sense of smell to describe a setting. Let’s go back to our character going to the haunted house. Perhaps when they open the door, the stink of stale air slams into them and they step back to take a breath before proceeding through the door. Inside, they notice the peeling flowery wallpaper that hasn’t been in style for thirty years. They walk down the hall and run their fingers over the top of a table against the wall, revealing a thin line in the thick layer of dust. Below their feet, the carpet looks orange, even though under the table it’s still a darker red, plus there’s a line in the center of the hallway that’s threadbare from years of being trodden on.
One caution for novelists here: Just like a set designer will choose a few choice items to standout to signify the mood and/or time, we’ll do the same. We want to describe some big items and some smaller but choose just the right ones that show what we’re trying to get across the best way. We might not include the World’s Best Dad mug that we see sitting on the coffee table if it does nothing to help our readers learn about our characters and world. We don’t want to give every single detail, because we want to leave some for our reader’s imagination. Maybe in their minds, there’s a water bottle on the coffee table or a vase of flowers. Novels are collaborative efforts between the writer and the reader and we want our reader to be able to fully participate by filling in the rest of the set. Give them a few good, solid, specific details so they can start to see that scene in their head, then let them do the rest.
Think Like an Actor
Good directors will tell you that their job is to guide the actor so they can do their best performance. It’s the actor’s job to get across all the nuances of the emotion of the scene through their actions and voice, trusting that viewers will know what it means when they raise one eyebrow while saying, “Really?” To get the best performance, an actor must become the character. They must understand what the character wants in this scene and for the whole story, whether they’re shy around other people, scared or angry.
Novelists must be actors too. We must be able to get into the heads of not just one but ALL of our characters. We must know their motivation, how they move, the nervous ticks they might have and the ways they express themselves. We also need to know why they do all these things and how it affects them. Let’s go back to our haunted house, but this time we’ve got three friends walking down that hallway when suddenly, a cat leaps into their path. Character A screams and runs away. Character B freezes then shakes their hands their hands in front of them like they’re trying to catch their breath. Character C furrows their brow then laughs at their friends. From their reactions we can see their individual personalities without them even saying a word.
Use these tools to make your spooky scenes more movie-able.
Samantha M Clark is the award-winning author of the spooky and mysterious middle-grade novel THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST (Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster). Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or her website.