Cinematic Writing: Keeping Your Story Reel

Storytelling is a visual medium

Who doesn’t want their novel turned into a movie?

While I wouldn’t say you should write your book with the goal of someone buying it to make a movie, I think it’s valuable to borrow techniques from screenwriters to improve your story.

A movie script is the most structured form of writing you’ll encounter. The three-act structure is tightly adhered to, and as Blake Snyder reveals in his book Save the Cat, certain things happen on certain pages and only on those pages.

The storytelling medium is supremely limited because the writer has 90 to 110 pages, or 90 to 120 minutes to tell the story. In contrast, your book will likely take hours to read. Because of this time compression, screenwriters have certain techniques that we as novelists and non-fiction writers can borrow for our books.

Yes, I said non-fiction writers. Moneyball was written from a book about statistics. Yes, it was baseball, too, but if the author hadn’t done such a cinematic job on his book, it might not have happened. Further, screenwriters can take the principles of a non-fiction book and be inspired to write a script that incorporates them.

First and foremost, for a script, every scene must be essential to the story. A screenplay’s chief structure is the spine of the story, or the dramatic question. Anything that doesn’t hang from the spine has to go.

But that isn’t enough for the screenwriter. Every scene has to do double and triple duty, packing as much into a scene as possible, including plot, character development, foreshadowing, and more. As book writers, we can borrow that double duty for our scenes. We also have more leeway to interpret what hangs from the spine and what doesn’t. I’m not saying you should compress your story, this is a book, not a movie. Borrow the techniques, not the rigidity.

Movies are visually striking. Your scenes should be, as well. That doesn’t mean ever scene must be set somewhere exotic, but you need to paint your scene with just enough unique detail for us to visualize it. The reader will fill in a lot from just a few cues.

Every scene is active, layered with conflict, visual metaphors, and energy. Talking head, just two people chatting, is rare. Consider the scene in Avengers, Age of Ultron, when Steve and Tony are having a tense conversation. They aren’t sitting drinking tea, they are chopping wood with more and more intensity until an angry Captain America rips a big log apart. You can turn off the audio and see what the scene is about. Then Tony has a conversation with Fury as he works on a truck engine. Characters should do something metaphoric as they speak.

Dialog is almost always short and snappy, to the point. Few characters are long-winded. Your dialog should have no small talk, nothing unrelated to the spine.

Strong, clear character arcs are important. Unlike the comic book Tony Stark who never changes, the movie Tony Stark has a vast character arc that includes being selfish, heroic, traumatized, broken, and sacrificially heroic, the complete opposite of where he began. Comic books need to maintain the status quo, movies don’t. Books don’t, even if they are series, the characters should change. If you have a strong character arc, you can include a lost novelist technique of foreshadowing. Again, the Marvel movies are outstanding at this. Every argument Cap and Iron Man have is a foreshadowing of the character’s eventual change.

Finally, the ending is clear, wraps up all major plot points, and leaves us energetically satisfied.

Studying screenwriting will improve your book writing; there are a lot of tricks I haven’t touched on here. You have more freedom, but using the concentrated techniques of a screenwriter can help guide you through your story.

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