Writing Cinematically: 10 Movie Techniques to Apply to Your Novel 

Our guest blogger today is Deborah Raney. We have had the fun of working together since I first became an agent. It also happens that while at Bethany House I was one of the first to review the proposal which became her first novel, A Vow to Cherish, (the inspiration for the World Wide Pictures film of the same title) and launched Deb’s writing career. Twenty years and thirty-plus books later, she’s still writing. She and her husband traded small-town life in Kansas––the setting of many of Deb’s novels––for life in the friendly city of Wichita. They love traveling to visit four grown children and seven grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit her website at www.deborahraney.com.

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If I’d known my first novel—a story about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease—would be made into a movie, I would have written it very differently. But when I got my first glimpse of the script, I understood immediately why the screenwriters had changed so many elements from my novel. Too many of my scenes took place in a character’s head—in his memories or her internal dialogue. I’m so grateful it was my first novel that made it to the silver screen because the experience of seeing my story turned into a script changed the way I wrote my next thirty novels.

Since learning more about screenwriting, I’ve discovered methods of applying film techniques to my writing in a way that makes my novels more visually vivid, more “cinematic,” and hopefully more likely to be turned into movies in the future! Here are ten techniques that translate particularly well to books:

  1. Cliffhanger. Books are often labeled as cliffhangers, but the word originated as a film term. Regardless, ending every scene or chapter on a cliffhanger—leaving your character in imminent danger, or at least with an urgent text message pinging—is a good way to keep your reader turning pages. Don’t wrap everything in a tidy bow at the close of a chapter. Instead, end each scene in the middle of the action. Force the reader to turn the page to find out whether your character will survive or not. Just be certain you show that cliffhanger instead of telling your reader about it.

Don’t say: Little did he know it would be their last night together. Instead: The doorbell made him jump. He flipped off the hallway light and pushed back the curtain. A police cruiser idled on the snowy driveway, the exhaust forming eerie clouds in the chill night air. The emergency lights strobed, then dimmed, and a paunchy officer stepped out of the driver’s seat. 

Don’t reveal why that officer is there until the next chapter…or maybe two. (But also, don’t frustrate your reader by making them wait too long for answers.)

  1. Establishing shot. In film, an establishing shot is a long or wide-angle shot opening a scene to show the audience the locale/setting (or era, weather, time of day…whatever is most important for them to know as the scene begins). In writing, sometimes this type of opening is written in omniscient point of view, and the author then zooms in on a more specific point in the setting—inside a house, for instance. This is a great way to paint the big picture. Just remember: today’s readers don’t have patience for more than a paragraph or two of description. And omniscient is a tricky point of view to write, so you likely will want to get quickly into the head of your protagonist. Here’s how I accomplished that in my RITA award-winning novel Beneath a Southern Sky.

            The thin trail of smoke slithered toward the clouds like a cobra charmed by the music of the coming rain. Though it was hard to tell how far in the distance the fire was, it worried Daria. It seemed more than a bonfire. And hours too early for that besides

            She turned back to the flatbread she was making, slapping the coarse dough hard with the heel of her hand, forming a thin disc that would fry crisp in a pan of grease over the coals.

  1. Jump cuts and fade outs. Don’t feel you must have a distinct beginning and ending for every scene. You don’t always need a formal introduction or a good-bye to the phone call. It’s usually far more effective to jump into a scene in the middle of action already in progress (without knowing what route your character took, or what kind of car she drove to get there). It’s also fine—even preferred—to end a scene in the middle of the action and simply jump to the next scene. Just be sure the opening of that scene conveys to the reader clearly and early on where the setting has moved to and how much time has passed.
  1. Dissolve. In a similar way, you can end one scene and transition gradually to the next by taking a visual element from the first scene and using it in the next. In the movies, a dissolve is a film editing technique where the final image of one scene slowly morphs into the opening image of the next scene on screen. Often one element in the image will stay constant in both scenes. For example, in the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the camera might zoom in on the deadly apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it, then the image gradually changes to the next scene with a close-up of the apple in Snow White’s hand as she brings it to her mouth. Literary “dissolves” work especially well in comedy where a character says, “Oh, Harvey would never do that.” And of course, the next scene opens with Harvey doing exactly that.
  1. Zooms. If the movie camera zooms in on an object, you can bet that object will play a significant role in the story later. By zooming your writer’s “camera” in and describing a close-up view of an object or action, you give it the same importance as an object zoomed in on by a cinematographer. Just don’t forget to complete the circle and come back to that object you highlighted.
  1. Lighting. Describing the light in your scene—bright and sunny, hazy, moonlit, etc.—not only gives the reader a visual image to picture, but also sets the mood, or creates a metaphor for good/evil, happiness/depression, etc. The beauty of using lighting in your novel is that it can be done with just a handful of ordinary, but well-chosen words. Here’s how Robin Lee Hatcher did it in her novel Whenever You Come Around (Thomas Nelson).

            It didn’t take long to pull on jeans, T-shirt, and boots. Then he headed for the back door. The night air was cool, and the moon had risen, casting a soft white glow over the valley.

  1. Magic Hour. Speaking of lighting, camera crews spend endless hours waiting for the warm but fleeting glow of sunrise or the clear blue light of evening, just before dark. Writers have the luxury of being able to capture that “magic hour” any time they choose. But it’s about so much more than what the eye can see. Setting numerous scenes in that mystical, ephemeral light can have the effect of giving your novel a surreal and magical mood. This is especially true if you write fantasy or romance, or employ elements of magical realism.
  1. Soundtrack/Score.You can also create a wonderful mood for your scene by helping the reader hear the music that would be the soundtrack if your novel were a movie. Before “my” movie was released, the director sent me a rough cut—before the musical score had been added. When my husband and I were able to attend the movie premiere in Hollywood a few months later, and I saw the completed film for the first time, I was astonished at the difference music made.

Don’t make the mistake of sending your book into the world before the soundtrack is laid! Give your character a musical instrument to play. Have him always singing or humming or whistling. Have music from a grocery store waft to her ears. The reader will “hear” those songs, and your story will be so much richer for it. And don’t forget that rain, wind, whispering leaves, ocean waves, etc. make a music all their own.

It would take a big chunk of your advance to quote too many words of a song’s lyrics, but you can cite titles to your heart’s content. Here’s how I evoked a soundtrack for A Nest of Sparrows (WaterBrook Press/Random House) and my country music-loving hero Wade Sullivan.

            Wade flipped on the radio and cranked up the volume. Garth Brooks’s voice carried over the wind. The lyrics wove a story from the old cliché, blood is thicker than water. But it was the last line of the song that caused his throat to tighten and a knot to form in his gut. But love is thicker than blood. Wade hoped a certain judge at the Coyote County courthouse believed that.

And later, a different kind of music:

            Wade listened to the everyday sounds of his house—the patter of the kids’ bare feet on the hardwood floors, the creaking of the house’s old pipes as the kids turned the water off and on, the lilt of their thin voices wafting downstairs. He’d taken it all for granted. Too late, he recognized it as music. A melodic air that had changed keys and been transposed to a dirge before he’d made time to appreciate the happy tune.

  1. Crosscut. In cinema, crosscut is the technique of interweaving clips of multiple scenes, usually chronologically, to show simultaneous events (or sometimes to emphasize themes). In writing, this can be especially effective in a thriller or suspense novel when the clock is ticking and many things are happening at once, and the reader needs to be aware of them all. These might be short scenes comprising a chapter, or consecutive chapters of only two or three pages each. Robert Parker’s novels are nearly 100 chapters long, although some of those chapters are mere paragraphs long. But they keep his novels moving at a nice clip (and his sales, too!)
  1. Product Placement. Alas, a novelist doesn’t usually get paid to use the name or logo of a trademarked product in his book, but that doesn’t mean product placement can’t be used to great advantage. Bill Higgs in his debut novel Eden Hill (Tyndale House), plopped his readers firmly into 1963 with his clever (but well-integrated) mentions of a Philco radio, two-tone Nash Metropolitan automobile, Brownie camera, Oxydol detergent, and Hostess Twinkies. You probably don’t want to kill a character with a poisoned Twinkie, but you can certainly use namebrand products in a positive way to create visual images or evoke an era in your reader’s mind.

These are only a few of the film techniques that can be adapted to novel writing and thus bring your story to the reader in living color. There are no doubt others that could be translated for literary use, but for now, that’s a wrap!

 

[This post first ran on Novel Rocket on April 21, 2017. Used by permission.]

21 Responses to Writing Cinematically: 10 Movie Techniques to Apply to Your Novel 

  1. Brennan S. McPherson June 19, 2017 at 3:37 am #

    What an interesting post! When I wrote the screenplay adaptation for my debut a little while back after a producer expressed interest, I ran into the same issue of too many scenes taking place in the protagonist’s head. The end product ended up quite different from the novel–and I’m very happy for it. Characters merged, the story was simplified, the narrative and thematic focus narrowed. It all made the story more powerful, so I think I’d also add “story focus” as a bonus tip for writing cinematically. With screenwriting, you have one narrative focus that is the source of the movie’s tension. Each scene interacts with that one narrative focus. Whether it be one man’s search for meaning, or a woman’s struggle to be a stay at home mother, etc. That’s where the tension comes from, so focus in on it like a laser beam and you’ll likely find your book has much better pacing, and better sale-ability in Hollywood. I know it doesn’t fit nicely with the other tips, but still! 🙂

    Great post!

  2. Deb DeArmond June 19, 2017 at 5:20 am #

    Terrific post! I attended a continuing class with deb at Ba’ath England BRMCWC and she presented some of this info. As I’m working through my first novel,after three NF books, this opened an exciting approach to writing the story.

    Thanks!

    • Deb June 19, 2017 at 5:25 am #

      Spell check is at it again. I wish I could say I’d seen a Deb in Bsth, England. Alas, BRMCWC (Blue a ridge Mountain Christian Writer’s Conference) was in North Carolina.. A beautiful locale in its own right!

  3. Deborah Raney June 19, 2017 at 5:41 am #

    Haha! I was wondering if I slept through that trip to Bath, and I was sorely disappointed if so! 😉 So glad you enjoyed the class in NC though.

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 19, 2017 at 7:00 am #

    Great essay and ideas, Deborah.

    If I may I would like to add another suggestion – bridge scenes.

    There’s a great example of this in ‘Blood Diamond’, when the protagonists Danny Archer and Solomon Vandy are making their uneasy way toward the rebel-controlled mine in Sierra Leone where Vandy hid a huge diamond that Archer covets. Archer, a mercenary, simply wants the treasure, and Vandy hopes to find his son who has been kidnapped and turned into a child soldier.

    The scene to which I’m referring is short, and nothing much happens; they are simply walking across Africa, and the tension inherent in their relationship eases just a bit as they talk of inconsequential things, like family and Archer’s boyhood home, Rhodesia. The shots are long, and the lighting mellow, with a score that is quiet and unobtrusively haunting.

    The scene ends as they are climbing a steeper-than-normal hill; Archer slips, and Vandy’s black hand is extended to help him. There’s a quiet lesson in Archer’s slight hesitation before he takes the offered help.

    This isn’t a distinct watershed; the characters were in conflict before, and are at odds again afterwards.

    The scene almost feels like it could have been cut, except that it is the blood and heartbeat of the dawning respect and a kind of love between the two men that makes the ending believable and emotionally fulfilling.

  5. Deborah Raney June 19, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    That’s a great one, Andrew. I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are tons of movie techniques that could be translated into fiction writing. Someday—when I have time— I’d love to write an entire book on this topic!

    • Rebekah Dorris June 19, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      I’d love to read it if you ever write a book about this! You’ve rekindled the dormant embers from “World Lit and Films” in college. I’d love to be able to write a long take that people would actually read. Maybe someday! Thanks for such a helpful article. 🙂 God bless!

  6. Carol Ashby June 19, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    Wonderful ideas here for giving the reader a more intense experience!

    One thing I’ve noticed in movies is how the POV shifts frequently between characters in a scene. Short, intense periods of seeing through each character’s eyes draws the viewer deeply into the emotional conflict. In effect…they commit the cardinal sin of “head-hopping.”

    I’ve seen too many try to tell us that the writer should only let the reader see through the eyes of a single character for a full scene and even a full chapter, but I don’t think that works well for scenes filled with tension and emotion. Each section should be through a single character’s eyes, but sometimes only through many relatively short sections within a scene can the full emotional impact be pulled out. Movies do it that way. We writers should not feel that we can’t do that as well. It’s not head-hopping in the bad sense when each short section maintains its single POV.

  7. Deborah Raney June 19, 2017 at 10:49 am #

    I think movies can “head-hop” more successfully than novels because they have the huge advantage of the VISUAL. I’m still a huge proponent of NO head-hopping in novels (and it’s worth mentioning that virtually all of my editors feel the same!) I’ve seen it work on rare occasions (usually when it’s actually true omniscient POV), but more often, head-hopping not only leaves the reader confused, but conflicted about who they are supposed to empathize with in a given scene. It takes skillful writing to SHOW the non-POV characters’ emotions through facial expressions, body language, and dialogue, as seen/heard by the POV character, but I find that a far more effective technique. Don’t misunderstand: I love novels with multiple POV characters, I just think it’s more effective when each scene sticks to one POV.

    • Carol Ashby June 19, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

      I definitely agree that random head-hopping should be studiously avoided, but whether it’s a good idea for the POV to shift within a scene depends on the length of the scene and the intensity of the conflict within it. It’s somewhat like what you describe as crosscut above. When there’s a clear signal at the point of POV shift (blank line, small symbol) and clear indication in the first sentence whose new POV I’m seeing, I never get confused. I don’t think my readers will get confused any easier than I do.

      I also think readers have no problem deciding for themselves which character receives more of their empathy. Personally, I get hooked much stronger when I see the conflict from both POVs and feel I understand what’s driving the thoughts and actions of both characters. That’s especially true when the characters embrace different world views at the beginning of the story.

  8. Bonnie Engstrom June 19, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    I loved this interview. What a treat! I’ve learned so much about writing from reading Deb’s books. In fact, after reading one of her earliest books (the first time I’d ever read Christian romance) is when I started to write. My words will never measure up to the beauty of hers, but her words inspired me and still do.

    I will save her tips and suggestions from this interview to use as measurements for my own writing.

  9. Anna June 19, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

    I love this! Already i write books from what i call the “director’s standpoint”, considering the camera angle, lighting, mood, music, ect.
    It just kinda brings it to life. 🙂

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 19, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

    Thank you for a simply superb blog. What a great group of ideas!

  11. Edward Lane June 19, 2017 at 2:05 pm #

    Love it!! I am in communication with a director now. These ideas are going to be helpful in future talks with him. Thank you!

  12. Zoe M. McCarthy June 20, 2017 at 5:28 am #

    Thanks for all these goodies, Deborah. My scenes’ settings improved when I took out my imaginary camera and looked around my setting. I was amazed at what I saw. So I integrated those thing into the action, thoughts, and senses.

  13. Rosemarie Malroy June 20, 2017 at 9:19 am #

    Excellent post. It helps visualize scenes. Rosemarie

  14. Judith Robl June 20, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

    Deb, great post. Thank you for these 10 movie techniques. That’s about as much as I can absorb at a time.

    You might, however, consider another post with a different ten techniques. And another – and another. You’d have material forever.

  15. Kelly Goshorn June 23, 2017 at 6:56 pm #

    Wow, Deb, so much good information here! I’m even more bummed that I missed this class at Blue Ridge this year. Hoping I’ll get another shot next year! Thanks so much for sharing this!

  16. Cindy Mahoney June 26, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    Great post! My husband tells me I should write for film.

    AAACCCCCKKKK . Okay. Sure.

    With trepidation, I read my first film script last night. I enjoy writing novels because I get into the characters heads. But I can see the enjoyment of writing for screen, having an actor show his/her emotional response. It takes the right actor/actress to convey those emotions.

    Misery turned me off from the concept. Stephen King’s novel of the MC’s suffering and internal thought process had me hooked and scared. I worked night shift while I read, and when someone touched my shoulder I came close to hitting my head on the ceiling.

    The film did not do it justice, sad to say. But your post gives me (and my husband) hope. The WIP I have now may fit that bill.

    Cindy (pen name Claire O’Sullivan

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