Thinking Cinematically

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Even if we’re aspiring novelists, movies and television serials can teach us a lot about structure, pacing, and character development. That’s because these facets are constants in storytelling, whatever the form that storytelling takes, e.g. writing movies, writing television, writing stageplays, writing novels, or writing short stories.

But how about visuals? Do the lessons of film-making apply to writing a novel, for example?

We appreciate a good looking movie with gorgeous vistas and beautiful establishing shots. Great filmmakers use angles to communicate the characters’ bearings, relationship dynamics, and emotional states. A lot can be said just in the way a shot is framed.

Often, movies willl open with an establishing shot of where the story is going to take place. Then it might close in on a particular adobe – a house, or a place of work or education. Then it moves into a particular room, where we’ll usually meet our protagonist, or set up the context for the story. We start wide and close into a specific.

This might also happen if the character is examining something. For example, a character wouldn’t know that the journal sitting on the desk is bound in leather, that the spine creaks, and that the pages are yellowed and many of them are dog-eared. The character would have to walk over and interact with the journal. They wouldn’t know about the creaking spine or the yellowed pages immediately. Their first impression would be of the cover. They’d probably even run their fingers over it to feel its texture. When they opened the journal, they’d hear the spine. Then they’d see the pages. Again, there’s that logic at place, that sense of closing in tighter and a sequential unfolding of events.

The exception might be when the focus is on a character who is moving from location to location and the story wants to generate a surprise. In this case, we might see the opposite happen: we’re tight on the character, and then widen the angle so we then know where they are. Often, in film or television, the character might relay an emotional state, e.g. shock. Then we widen for context – we’re prejudiced with expectation, and then the context to correlate to that expectation.

Again, it’s logical. It’s no different to you walking into a new location and taking things in. Think about if you stayed at a hotel. When you walked into your room, you wouldn’t know about the bathroom or the balcony. You’d only be privy to what you can see in that moment, and then get an overview as you explore. You wouldn’t know about what’s in the mini-bar until you opened the fridge. You wouldn’t know what the bed is like to sleep in until that night. You wouldn’t know about the view from the balcony until you stepped out onto the balcony.

This might all seem rudimentary, but lots of people don’t think about how a story unfolds around a character in terms of logical and causal structure. They often write instinctively, but those instincts haven’t been honed by (writing) experience, knowledge, and deliberation. There’s no shape to the spill. This makes it hard for the reader to follow when the viewpoint is jumping to accommodate the writer’s thoughts as they scatter haphazardly across the page.

This is where thinking cinematically helps. Don’t worry about the differences in form, i.e. a film can’t communicate senses such as touch or smell the way the book can, nor can it explore an inner monologue unless there’s a narrative voiceover. But think about the way the visuals incorporate the viewer into the story logically and progressively.

Writing any story is no different. Details should be logical. They should progress and build on a foundation. The reader is taken on a journey which they empathise with, and fit into, because it’s a course they understand unconsciously. There’s no need to question it. That’s one of the most important things in storytelling: the reader can question the characters’ choices and why they’ve made the decisions they have (a good story will often stimulate discussion), but they shouldn’t question why the narrative is skipping around. That loses them as readers.

When you’re writing, visualise the way your story progresses. Think cinematically the way you would shoot it if it was a film.

It will help immensely with narrative structure, and all the details that revolve around the unfolding story and the universe in which it takes place.

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