I am going to use this week to discuss an issue that changed my writing and how I approach the novel: cinematic techniques.
It is a concept that makes sense--not just in terms of writing--but in terms of our readership.
Kids today WATCH. Their access to media often comes through screens. No, I am not suggesting that people no longer read--I'm just saying that today's most accessible form of communication/entertainment comes to us via visual means. We are presented with story THROUGH THE CAMERA'S EYE.
With so much focus on reluctant readers as well as boys and books, I studied cinematic techniques at Vermont College, and I continue to be fascinated by it now. It makes a lot of sense--if you have heard me speak, you know: I was NOT a reader. I was a TV watcher. My introduction of story began through sitcoms and films. (My mother had to pay me to read!)
So how can novelists use that idea--the camera--as they write? Let's start with an introduction.....throughout the week, we'll get to definitions and examples in the literature............Consider this A MOVIE TRAILER......
LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION!
Why Thinking Like a Director Creates Strong Suspenseful Fiction.
Everything I know about Cinematic Techniques in Novel Writing to this Point in Time........
(Pass the popcorn.)
The lights go out. Credits roll: I Know Pictures Presents…A Second Time Lucky Film. Loud rock music hurts your ears. In conjunction with Nose to Nose Enterprises. Actors’ names flash before you. The black screen turns gray and dissolves to a boy in his room.
His face is flat, his expression, cold. You stare into his eyes until the camera pulls back and you see his large body, thick in the middle. The camera cuts to a desk covered in textbooks including Advanced Chemistry and American Literature. But it doesn’t stay there long. The camera pans to a photograph behind the books. Someone—you presume the boy—picks it up and looks at it with you. A teenage girl and boy, the same boy you have already seen, stand with their arms draped over each other. They are smiling. The music fades slightly and you hear voices: a woman preparing breakfast, and a man slamming the door, but not before he says he will be home in time for dinner.
You make assumptions based on the visual images. The boy is being played by a famous actor known for his collagen enhanced lips and penchant for surly roles in depressing films. The room and the books are his. The girl in the photograph is probably his girlfriend—they are too entangled to be siblings. And perhaps, due to the music or the grimace, you think something bad has happened.
The voices fade. The music bangs against your eardrums. Still focused on the photograph, you hear someone rifling through the desk. The camera cuts to close in on a piece of notebook paper. The words are large—you can read them as a girl’s voice reads: Dear Alex. The camera pulls back as she reads on. “I am sorry. There was no other way.” The boy’s posture slumps. “Please forgive me,” she says.
You are curious, but if you want to know more about the letter, too bad.
Cut to a city street. Our boy runs to more percussive music. He runs hard, through a working class neighborhood. The camera leaves him to show us what he sees: garbage on the ground, empty parking lots, and a construction site. Cut. Two boys sell hot chocolate. You see the steam from their hot breath on cold air. “Hello, Alex,” they shout. Cut. The neighborhood changes from simple to wealthy. The voice over returns. “I should have run faster.” You see a bridge. And a canal. And a large rock, six or seven feet in height. The camera closes in on the rock. You don’t see the boy, but you hear his heavy steps and shallow, quick breaths. You hear each foot hit the ground. As he crashes into the rock, you hear him cry, “Belinda.”
Due to its visual nature, film has a great ability to show; the audience sees the settings and characters. The filmmaker does not need to describe or explain. The weather, the rooms, and the features of the characters are all on the screen.
In the above sequence a narrator does not appear on the screen to inform you, “This boy is depressed. Someone died on that rock.” And he doesn’t say, “You see that letter? It’s really important.” The boy does not turn to face the camera and say, “My facial expression is sad, because my girlfriend tried to kill herself and I’m the one who found her.” The viewer sees, listens and infers. You watch to learn the truth.
The same thing happens when you read a great novel. John Gardner describes the experience as dreamlike; Robert Olen Butler calls fiction “omnisensual cinema” or “cinema of the mind.”
When writing fiction, it is therefore helpful to consider the visual nature of cinema and the effect visual cues have on story structure. By thinking in terms of filmmaking, the writer can overcome basic pitfalls, “the impulse for abstraction and analysis, for summary and generalization, problems of rhythm and transition” (
But how does a writer create virtual cinema using only words? Writers should work like they are literally behind a camera. As directors of the cinema of the mind, writers need to understand how to create shots, scenes and sequences. They must know how to move the camera into close ups and long shots as well as fast and slow motion. They must know where the camera sits in relation to the action and show what the camera sees.
I'm going to leave it here, for the sake of pacing and brevity.
Well, not quite.
Last week, I attended the BANFF film festival tour. There were eight films. They celebrated the risk taker and the beautiful natural world. But the camera NEVER left the POV of the filmmaker. We were always focused on the skier or jumper. We never got to see what the jumper saw or experienced. What a bummer!!!! Great films and great books make that leap. They make magic! Stay tuned for more.......