The Problem with Writing Cinematically

For many of us, even those who grew up with an intense love of reading, film and TV have a powerful hold on the way we envision stories. I have often heard beginning writers talking about how they have their fiction plays out in their heads like a movie and they want to put that image on the page.

But unless you’re writing a screenplay (or a comic book), all you have to work with is text. And when the biggest single storytelling medium in most people’s lives is visual, that can create problems. I’d like to run through a few of the issues I’ve seen crop up in my own work and that of others as a result of the way that movies and TV have infected our brains.

1. Everything must be dramatized. What I mean by this is fairly simple, but can be a little hard to explain. Basically, a story told on film or TV is made up of a series of scenes that are depicted onscreen, with each scene happening in more or less real time (there’s almost always some cheating around the margins). Unless it’s some gimmick like 24 or Nick of Time, most of the time that passes over the course of the story takes place between scenes. A scene happens, cut, and it’s the next day or next week or whatever. If something important has happened in between, we learn about it in (mostly) real time in the next scene.

My initial impulse as a beginning author and one I’ve seen again and again in others is to simply replicate this storytelling method: scene, cut, scene, cut, scene, and so forth. If it’s important, dramatize it as a scene, then have the consequences play out in the next scene, and so forth. This approach contains two mistakes. First, it largely ignores one of the unique tools in written fiction’s arsenal: summary.

Not everything has to be a scene. Vital information, even key character moments can be conveyed in summary rather than acted out in a full on scene within the text. Indeed, some moments can be more power in summary, like say one character’s refusal to speak to another. The more brusque, detached nature of summary can reinforce the growing sense of distance between the characters. If you’re simply taking the scene, break, scene approach you not only miss out on the advantages of this technique, you are also likely writing too much detail. You can end up with a story that’s very immediate, but feels padded with unnecessary action that could be better conveyed through summary.

(One example of this I’ve seen is someone who describes at length a character getting out of a car, walking up to a building, and knocking on the door–not to establish mood or achieve any larger purpose, but because this was a “scene” and so everything in the scene needed to be acted out until the next break shifted things to another scene.)

Which leads me to the second mistake of unconsciously falling into a scene-focused approach, failing to understand how scenes work in written fiction. While some beginning writing classes stress the difference between scene and summary, the fact is that the difference is very fuzzy. An extended summary can morph into a short scene to add an extra bit of emphasis to a particular moment and then slip back into summary. In the example I gave above, the writer had a very rigid understanding of the boundaries of what a scene was. If they’d just summarized or even skipped over that mundane detail, their story would have flowed much more smoothly. Likewise, the summary I described above about the two characters who aren’t communicating could be punctuated with a line like “I’m done talking with you,” a bit of dialogue we normally expect to find in a proper scene.

2. There are only two senses. A very common example of the drawbacks of the “cinematic” approach is the unconscious omission of taste, touch and smell from descriptions, since years of film and TV have taught us that sight and sound alone are sufficient. But to make a place feel truly real and to make your characters feel real within it, you need to describe more than how it looks and sounds.

In many instances, these other senses can be far more important to the story–the oppressive, soggy weight of the humidity wearing the character down, the slick, glossy surface of the car’s roof offering no purchase for grasping hands, or the cool tangy, lemonade spoiled by the bitter taste of almonds. These are avenues of human experience that written fiction can connect with on a more visceral level than most film and TV.

3. Defaulting to the camera’s eye view. What I’m talking about here is the way in which many people imagine fiction playing out in their heads as if witnessed by some imaginary camera. But we generally don’t write from the camera’s point of view (what’s sometimes called “third person objective”). Instead, the most common POVs are First Person and Third Person. A very tight third person viewpoint might be very caught up in their immediate experiences and emotions, while a first person narrator reflecting on the event from some distance might be more detached, even speculative. Neither one would be relaying information to the reader the way an “objective” camera would.

The tight third person might be very immediate, intense, and narrow in their account, while the first person narrator might take a languid, tangent-riddled approach to the same scene. This means that any story that starts out as a “mental movie” then has to be translated into the actual means by which it will be told. This tends to produce moments where the story will suddenly shift to the camera POV for a few lines or even an entire scene. A classic example is a story with a very tight third person or first person perspective spending too much time describing the viewpoint character’s facial expressions, details that the camera would focus on but the actual POV likely wouldn’t.

The point of this list is not to say that writing cinematically is inherently bad, just that it can be limiting and often in ways you don’t consciously realize. Just being aware of cinema’s grip on your psyche can go a long way towards improving the caliber of your writing.

Ultimately, it comes down to thinking in words, not pictures. Because no matter how brilliant the picture is in your head, words are the tools you’ll use to give it life on the page.

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