F is for Films! How thinking cinematically can improve your writing.

Quartz cine film camera
A vintage cine-film camera

I recently heard two different authors mention writing in the context of cinema and came to the realisation that the conventions and style of modern cinema influence my writing too.

The first of these comments was from historical fiction writer, Hilary Mantel. Whilst I am yet to read any of Hilary’s work, Wolf Hall, in particular, is definitely high on my list of books to consume this year. However, in an interview for Open University, she talked of the way she likes to structure and pace her novels as a deliberate attempt to mimic the inter-cutting of scenes in a film. Her preference for this technique is simply due to the fact that she is so fond of reading fiction that uses this style. As a fan of this type of writing myself, and on objective reflection of my long-form fiction, I find that I also adopt the same approach.

That I am also a huge fan of cinema, and have been since a child, is also a factor, but I do think that many readers of modern fiction also expect this more punchy, direct form of fiction. So, what other writing lessons can we learn from the cinema?

Show, don’t tell!

All but the most novice writer is aware of the ‘show, don’t tell’ advice, but even for more experienced scribes, it’s still an easy trap to fall in to. When writing we spend a great deal of time in the heads of our characters and it is very tempting to overtly express every thought and feeling they are experiencing – ‘Bert was unhappy at having to wait for Jenny’ instead of perhaps – ‘Bert thrust Jen’s coat in to her hand and said, “Come on. We’re leaving.”

Unless the film maker has employed the use of a voiceover to relay his character’s thoughts, he or she doesn’t have the option to tell the audience what’s going on inside a character’s mind. They have to show it, through the actions and reactions of the cast. When revising our texts, we should always ask ourselves if there is a way to show how our characters are feeling through what they do and how they do it. Action really does speak louder than words.

Cut to the chase!

As brilliant as older films can be, many of them do suffer from slow pacing and lots of unnecessary padding, which only serves to take the viewer away from the story that is being told. Modern editing and an audience that has become more sophisticated and cine-literate has meant that fewer shots are necessary. As an example, many films from the 50’s and 60’s might have a character stating he is going to travel across town to see his contact at the newspaper office. We would then see him leave the hotel, hail a cab, see at least some of the cab ride, see him arrive at his destination, pay the cab driver, go in to the building . . . . and eventually he would be walking in to the office of the newspaper editor. The modern equivalent would cut out everything after the character has said where he was going, before rejoining the action (perhaps with an establishing shot of the newspaper office) as our protagonist takes a seat in the office. Depending on what the purpose of the office scene was, we may even cut to the end section of their conversation – the piece of information, or character development that we really need to get on with the narrative.

Exactly the same principle can be applied to our writing – get in to a scene as late as you can and get out again as soon as you have achieved your goal. The same goes for redundant characters and details. Unless a character advances the plot, or is a foyle for your protagonist – perhaps as a way to illuminate a new part of their character or motivation – lose them.

Grab the popcorn

The final cinematic nugget I gained was from Keith Morley, an author from my critique group. During a critique of a fellow writer’s short story he suggested that the best way to test some of the theories I have outlined is to take the whole thing very literally. To actually imagine that you are taking a seat in the local cinema and there, on the big screen, your scene is playing out in front of you. Are you happy with what you see? Does the dialogue sound wooden? Do the actions of your characters seem natural and flowing? Would your protagonist really stand up so abruptly, mid sentence? Do you actually need so much exposition? Most of all – is it a film you would pay to watch?

This was a great piece of advice and is an effective way to try to objectively see the scene you are working on.

So, by all means, keep reading and writing, but do make some time to go to the flix once in a while. It can do wonders for your writing.

What are your thoughts on how film and other media can influence your writing? Do you have any other examples to share?

This was my 6th post for the A-Z Blog Challenge. Follow the blog during April for more writing tips, inspirational life posts, short fiction, film-inspired articles and even some songs with audio recordings. Next post – G is for Gold! Why I love Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

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15 thoughts on “F is for Films! How thinking cinematically can improve your writing.

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  1. Showing rather than telling is indeed one of the first rules we learn as writers, and it’s a very important one too. But I think we have to be very careful not to take it too far. After all, one of the big advantages books have over TV is that we can get inside our characters head, a book without some form of internal monologue or discription of how the character perceives the world around them would be missing something I think.

    Rinelle Grey

    1. Fair point, Rinelle. I have been unfortunate to read a few stories and novels that fall prey to that – sometimes done deliberately to make a protagonist seem cool and distant, or when going for a cold objective narrative style. It isn’t particularly fun to read.

  2. This was a very informative post, thank you! I don’t have any tips of my own to add but I do know a writer who says when he writes all he does is transcribe the movie that is unfolding in his head. When I read his books I believe this to be true…I would love to have the innate ability to write in that way.

    1. Hi Dee. Thanks for the comments. I think it’s just a case that some people have been brought up watching lots of TV and film and are probably more immersed in that medium than they are in books. Which in a way is sad, but just a sign of the times, I guess. I suspect you did a lot more reading as a child and I’m sure your writing is all the better for it.

  3. Great post Wayne, got me thinking!
    You’ve covered my S much better than I could! Good thing I hadn’t written it! Because it’s something I’m never sure that I get right, I need to keep an eye on it in my writing.
    As for film, doesn’t everyone see the opening credits in their head before they type a word? My characters are often worked out with the actors playing the characters in the film of the book, if you get my drift! We chat about characterisations all the time while I’m editing the novel. Isn’t that how everyone writes.. no?
    I’m shocked.. and left thinking I’d be better writing scripts than novels. oops!

    1. Haha. Thanks Lynne. I think we can all admit (at least amongst ourselves) that as writers we are all a little schizophrenic, or at least channelling lots of other personalities. I’m perfectly sane. Isn’t that right, Doctor? Yes. Uh-oh. There I go again.

  4. There’s a great moment in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels – it might be ‘Mort’ – where he cuts from one scene to another, but the dialogue carries across as if it were the same conversation. He then proceeds to spend a paragraph or two explaining that it’s a device better suited to a film, with the usual Pratchett humour.

    It’s some while since I read it, but that bit always sticks with me as a wonderful example of a master playing with conventions.

    1. Pratchett is a genius – such a clever, inventive and funny writer. He and Douglas Adams are massive favourites of mine.

  5. When I write a chapter, I see them in my head as if they were scenes in a movie.

    I’ve also noticed with films, you always get a reveal of genre in the first five minutes usually.

    Good books do the same…

    Enjoyed your posts this week, looking forward to more next week.

    1. That’s a good point, Maria. Although one of my favourite exceptions is the film, “From Dusk ’till Dawn’. Starts off as traditional crime caper then becomes vampire movie. Great film.

    1. Wow – thanks! Never been nominated for an award before – I’m flattered! Having said that, I’m up to my eyeballs in work and still haven’t anywhere near finished writing my A-Z posts. Is there a time limit on when I can fulfil all the criteria – answer questions, post award etc etc? If so, I may have to pass. If, however I can hold fire until May (and the other side of this challenge) I would love to take up the offer.

  6. Wonderful post. I always try to think cinematically when writing. Save the Cat is one of my favourite writing craft books, and I also put it down to watching far too much television. I’ve now got a bad fangirl on for reading some old comic books on my tablet – all action and dialogue with the scene and characters already painted for you. It makes me realise just how hard the work is of a fictional author, trying to get all that showing across in a paragraph. We all need awards, lol.

    1. Thanks Hunter. I agree – picture paints a thousand words and all that. I also love ‘Graphic Novels’ (this sounds better when my daughter asks why I’m reading comics).

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