Mar 28, 2012

Shoot Your Novel

On Monday I talked about making sure not to "shakey-cam" your writing. Today I thought I'd discuss in a more general sense how to learn from movies to improve your writing. I work visually when I write, picturing scenes in my head before I write them down, so paying attention to movies was a natural choice. The time when authors could get away with long prose descriptions and dead scenes where we learn only small amounts about a character or the story are gone. Modern readers have movie theatres, Tivo, Netflix, musicals, Youtube, Facebook games and MMOs to take their attention away from your 250-page book. How do we keep their attention?

We take a lesson from the US Marines.

We improvise, adapt and overcome.

I'm not saying we load our books with sex and violence. I'm saying we watch the techniques used by filmmakers to keep the audience enthralled. What are the things that keep you watching? Here are some of the elements I find hold my attention best:

1: An Actor's Performance. A great tool for keeping a character consistent in your head is to cast an actor in the role and write the character as though that person were playing them in a movie. You get appearance, behaviour and even speaking habits in one easy package.

2: Show. "Show, don't tell" is applied better nowhere else than in good movies. Watch how a character's emotional state can be seen from their facial expressions, or the way they hold a photograph of a loved one. How they stare at a drink in a bar. How hard they slam a door. The human body has a language all its own. Don't forget that.

3: Pacing and Timing. There are fairly strict guidelines for how long the camera should remain stationary on a single character or shot. Generally a film editor will cut to another shot or angle within 60 seconds. Consider how long you dwell on a particular description or scene. Could it be shorter and snappier? Get to the point and move on. Readers are smart, they'll understand what you mean. The same goes for pacing your story. Have you got a lot of dialogue in the first half of your book, then nothing but action in the second half? Consider breaking things up. Pepper your action through your character development scenes to give the reader a breather, but enough incentive to keep on reading.

4: Music and Emotion. Now, I know not everyone likes to write with music playing, and my dream of having a book that plays appropriate music as I read is a long way off. But consider the effect music has on a movie. Music is one of the most important parts of the movie experience. Don't believe me? Watch an action scene with the sound turned off. Dull, plain and simple. Music keeps a beat for the action. Work a beat into the words on your page. It creates a natural flow to keep the reader going. Music guides our emotions to what the story needs us to feel. Consider what kind of music would play in a scene while you write. Keep that feeling in mind and apply it to your words. Don't hamstring yourself by trying to write a sad death scene while you're still laughing from that episode of Friends you just watched. Dredge up the emotions of the time you cried at the end of ET.

5: When to Start. The best movies throw you right into the story, sometimes without warning. Star Wars has space ships blasting across the screen. Superman has Krypton explode as Kal-El's parents send him hurtling towards Earth. If you're not introducing the reader to the core story within the first few pages, you're risking losing their attention. A lot of readers will flick through the first chapter in a book store, or read a sample chapter online. You have that much time to hook them with as much of your story as you can. Don't waste it.

6: When to End. Good movies don't do long epilogues where we learn how many children a character has or what age they started collecting a pension. They end at just the right moment to show the audience that the hero has achieved his goal and that it's time for life to move on. I know it can be hard to let go of our characters. We think that we're doing them some injustice if we don't explicitly tell the reader that things turn out okay for them, or we feel like we're abandoning them and want to hang on just a little longer. But you're not telling their story for you. You're telling it for the reader, and the reader wants that sense of the uncertain. it lets them imagine what life might hold for the characters in the future. The end is when the reader gets to own those characters.

Next time you're watching a movie, pay attention to these and other lessons. Please feel free to share what you find out!


  1. FABULOUS article, Paul! As a visual writer myself, I also draw a lot of my writing style from movies, but I've never stopped to analyse how. In my opinion, you've absolutely nailed that analysis. :)

  2. Great article, Paul! I hate it when authors slag off movies or screenwriters. It is a craft all of its own and, as you have shown here, we can learn a thing or two from it.

  3. Great article. Love the idea of a book that plays the appropriate music. I make playlist for all my WIPs so that would totally work in my world. :)
    Also, I fully agree with your point about knowing when to end. "The end is when the reader gets to own those characters." Perfectly said.

  4. Linda: Thanks! Glad I'm not the only one who works this way.

    Olene: I've seen, first-hand, how much work goes into just one day on a film set. It's amazing to think about the time and effort involved to give us those two hours of entertainment. I'd never slag a screenwriter. In many ways, they have it harder than authors.

    Dawn: I'm a playlight-junkie myself. I couldn't tell you how much time I've lost just looking through my music collection to find the right tracks.