The Craft of Cinematic Prose
Fiction writers, show your audience a world worth reading.
One Arabian summer, a notorious street rat cons his way into courtship with the local princess. Between swaths of Robin Williams one-liners and cultural stereotypes, he offers the princess a world tour via magic carpet. As they take to the skies, the suitor serenades his love with a now-iconic ballad, beginning with these words:
I can show you the world.
That's the dream. As readers, we want to see the world. We want the starry tableaus, the seven wonders splayed out beneath our gaze.
There's a reason movie tickets outsell books. Cinematic storytellers captivate us through high-octane thrillers and studious, symbol-laden dramas alike. In a world where Marvel routinely recoups $1,000,000,000 (count those zeroes, kids!) on a single film, how can the average author compete?
Answer: the same way they've always done it, by telling incredible stories. Even better, writers can steal Hollywood's tricks to create narratives that imprint themselves on the reader's mind.
Let's get thieving.
Take your shot.
Everything that happens in a movie – even an animated one – depends on the audience's perspective. Where the director puts the camera determines what the audience sees, how much they see, how close they are, and even what they don't see.
Let's take two scenes from popular movies. First, in Avatar: The Way of Water, the character Lo'ak interacts with a whale-like tulkun. Note the camera movement and the focus shift between the characters.
Now watch this action scene from Avengers: Endgame, where several heroes take on the archvillain Thanos. Pay attention to the way light draws your eyes to important elements, and note the lengths of different shots.
Congratulations! As an author, you're the screenwriter, cinematographer, AND director (and the costumer, dialogue coach, best boy, craft services, janitorial staff...)
Everything we do as writers is expressed through language. In cinema, individual shots control the pacing, focus, and impact of each scene. In prose, sentences and paragraphs serve the same role. They direct the audience toward each element.
Bill sighs. "I don't know, Vanessa." He taps his fingers on the laminate tabletop. "As favors go, this one's a bit beyond my pay grade."
Reaching for Bill's hand, Vanessa squeezes his palm. Behind her, the bells above the door announce a new arrival to the diner. Bill glances up, biting his lip, but Vanessa digs her fingernails into his palm, drawing his gaze back to her.
"Oh, Bill," Vanessa says, eyes twinkling, "you don't have a choice anymore."
Where's the camera? The first shot shows Bill talking and betrays his emotions through the tapping fingers. Then Vanessa’s hand moves, drawing our eyes for a moment. The bells in the background take our attention before the camera shifts back to Bill, then to Vanessa again. In three short paragraphs, we find emotion, tension, stakes, and character through a series of perspectives and actions.
- Exercise: Rewrite a scene (or part of a scene) from one of your own projects or a book you enjoy. Make a list of the "shots" you'll use, then write each one in sequence.
Describe the right things.
Have you ever read prose like this?
She was short, but not too short, just the right amount of height for someone like her. Her auburn hair curled lazily around her ears before trickling down her shoulders in fiery, cascading waves. Her pale skin was decorated with constellations of freckles that made her appear charmingly cute. She wore a blouse adorned with some kind of flower, possibly calla lilies, in concentric circles emanating from the bottom hem. Her belt—
Yeah, we get it. She has red hair and she's wearing a blouse.
There's nothing WRONG with the sentence above, in that there's nothing WRONG with cold pizza for breakfast. If the thought of chilled pepperoni-pineapple-pie offends you, you'll see what I mean. Let's try again.
Bill's contact was a redhead wearing floral print. When she stood to shake his hand, the top of her head barely reached Bill's shoulders.
Not perfect, but better. More importantly, it's active – we can see the description.
How long would it take a movie to convey the same information? One second flat.
Use description efficiently. Point out the details that matter and let our incredible brains fill in the rest. We all know what people look like. We don't need a primer on how hair works.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King discusses using description to "cause the reader to prickle with recognition." As he puts it:
If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can't you? ...Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's. [Emphasis mine]
I don't care what color your protagonist's shoes are unless she's infiltrating the League of the Off-White Pumps and finds herself stuck in a pair of burgundy cowboy boots. (Side note – someone write this, please.)
Pick the details that matter. Let us complete the picture. You can use far fewer words to make a stronger impact because the character comes from our own mind, and therefore resonates with us.
- Exercise: Choose five characters from your own work, or from a favorite novel. Describe each one's appearance in exactly eleven words.
Look! Over there!
In the Oscar-winning movie musical Chicago, the protagonist Roxie Hart imagines a series of dazzling cabaret numbers featuring the characters in her life. One of my favorite songs from the show, "We Both Reached For the Gun", features incredible storytelling through perspective. Watch as we travel seamlessly between a live press conference and a ventriloquism performance.
Talk about a story within a story. Instead of telling us that Roxie is being manipulated and controlled by charismatic attorney Billy Flynn, we get to SEE it played out.
The way Roxie fights against Billy's control. The way the media responds to them. Billy's emotions and expressions as he shapes the narrative. The changing lighting and scenery in the caberet portion. The pure, transitory, exhilarating fun of it all!
As a songwriter and musician, I'm partial to this kind of expression. Maybe you're not, but you can shape stories in the same way. It's all about choosing where your audience's attention goes.
Billy's face. Roxie's face. The reporters' faces. Wide shots. Zooms. Close shots. Colors. Puppet strings. Perspectives.
Show us what matters, but don't let us linger unless we HAVE to.
- Exercise: Read one of your favorite scenes, either from your own work or a piece of fiction you love. Highlight every action that takes place, then make a list of "shots" from what you've read.
What books do you love that tell cinematic stories? What elements SHOWED you the action? Leave your comments below!
P.S. – I'm including one of my favorite examples of cinematic prose from my own work. Eleison placed in the New Worlds challenge last year.
About the Creator
I love fantasy epics, action thrillers, and those blurbs about farmers on boxes of organic mac and cheese. I live in Orlando, FL with my wife, two temperamental avocado trees, and the World's Cutest Puppy™.
It's realy enjoyable
Your welcome never laughed so much and then felt emotional- great work- well done 👏 you deserve a win if you ask me.
Absolutely hilarious and quite entertaining keep up the good work, you may make a book yet!
I read this post your post so nice and very informative post thanks for sharing this post
Very well written man!
Excellent work here you explained and scoop out scenes like little innards and goopy bits. Cool!
Nice piece. As someone whose studied English and Film (really my first love) I tend to come at my writing from a glorified screenplay perspective - preferring to use dialogue rather than rambling prose, so I was nodding along with this. Subscribed. Will catch up with your stuff
Nice work. Really engaging and enjoyable. :)