I came across a video meant for videographers on how to make ugly locations more cinematic and for every tip the youtuber gave, I realized there was a corresponding one for writing. I tend to write by visualizing the scene as if it’s a movie already, so I found these lessons helpful as ways to make a scene more film-ready and add that touch of cinematic melodrama to every moment.
- Time of Day aka Show only the best part of the action and information in the scene: If the bulk of the day is not that interesting, summarize or just skip. Jump cuts are your friend. Sharp edits rock — where the scene ends tantalizingly close to a big reveal, where the information learned in one scene is immediately applied and contrasted with information in the next scene. The other thing I can take from the metaphor of “lighting” in film to writing is focus and negative space. What is foregrounded and visible and what is darkened and shadowed? What does the lens focus on, which parts of the environment or person? When stuck, close your eyes, visualize the static image of the scene and focus on something, anything else besides the main subject. Use it to hint at the POV’s emotional state. “Turn off lights” whenever possible to leave more negative space, more hints of edges of feelings than directly showing them, which often lessens the impact.
- Change up the angle aka Change the way the character views the scene’s environment and subject: Close your eyes spin around your room, stop and open and say out loud the first five objects/ feelings/ memories you observe. When I did it in my room I got: photobooth photographs, postcard, emptiness (the pictures and postcard were the only thing on the corkboard and the rest of it was sparse), white (from the walls). I noticed the pictures first. Maybe the POV noticed the emptiness first. Instead of looking at your lover straight on, turn away, catching a glimpse of their lipstick from the corner of your eye. Look down, notice the fighter’s stance. Add tears blurring the POV’s vision, or hunger making them focus less on what is being said and more on their next meal. Change the angle, metaphorically or literally.
- Change the angle 2 aka Zoom in or out: Pick and choose moments in every scene to zoom really in to a single moment, a little physical action either the POV takes or a subject character makes. And then zoom all the way out, to memories triggered by actions, by the moment, to worldbuilding context. Explain something that matters to the scene, widening the scope of the reader’s understanding.
- Add camera movement aka Well, add camera movement: Make the character look around, move around the environment. Interact with the other person, interact with other things, study objects, make the other character move around, track them – or not. Everything is a choice, make the choice matter and fit the character. Movement is also made by the length of sentences and rhythm of paragraphs. Internal movement is physical sensations and reactions: heartbeats, sweating, hunger. Especially useful in fight scenes. Use the environment, have objects whip across the POV when they’re moving fast, unfocus general stuff and catch snatches of images.
- Try a new lens aka Change the POV: In multi-POV scenes where you can choose which POV to use, pick the one with the most interesting stuff (ie: information readers need to understand the scene best) to say or the one with the most skin in the emotional arc of the scene. The same scene can work from two different POVs, but in the context of the greater story that’s being told, there usually is one POV that can give the story a better edge so it’s best to interrogate your POV choices and not to default to the one the outline dictated.
- Add haze aka build a coherent, intentional atmosphere: This one is my favorite. Without an aesthetic filter a scene is too plain for a cinematic novel. To create a mood, you need a few choice lines (and just a few, too many and it becomes almost a self-parody – it’s a very subjective thing, though) that set the atmosphere of the moment. The lighting, the internal emotional state of the POV, the objects and their associated emotional baggage for the MC, the level of brightness or darkness, the color palette, the presence and absence of other living things, the weather, the sounds, smells, and tactile materials present, the art and objects in the scene all contribute to the atmosphere so pick and choose a few to create an intentional moment. For the next level of this, look at films with the best cinematography and see the mood motifs: the kind of colors, lens filters and visual cues that recur and abstract that to writing. Similarly, a book should (if you choose to write this way) have a coherent color palette, sensory bank, story beat cues, etc. which recur as motifs to choreograph the desired mood.
Like the video says, at the end of the day, the role of cinematographer (or writer) is to remove information from the scene by using movement, a different angle, a different lens, or by adding haze to leave the emotional core, the relevant bits to get your story across. I asked on Twitter earlier about what negative space means to writing and I think there were some excellent thoughts by others there that are a perfect complement to these tips. Hope these helped and find me on twitter at @sid__j if you want to chat more about writing.