To all the novelists and prose writers out there, I have bad news: you’re not writing a movie. This means that no matter what you do, your story will be less cinematic than it could be. And as we all know, “cinematic” is the ultimate quality for any story. No one’s ever written a think piece on how screenplays could be more “novelistic.”
Fortunately, there are still steps you can follow to make your prose story at least a little more like a movie. I’ve actually offered advice on this before, but those tips are old and busted. These are the new hotness.
1. Be as Distant as Possible
The biggest difference between prose and screen writing is that movies don’t usually have narrators. In film, voiceover narration is considered heavy-handed, and it usually annoys the audience. This means that prose stories have a big advantage in portraying what’s going on inside the main character’s head because they can simply describe it. Readers can quickly be brought up to speed on how the protagonist feels and what they know about the current situation.
This is really important for building attachment and investing readers in the story, so obviously you shouldn’t do it. Instead, describe the main character (and all other characters) exclusively from the outside. And no, I don’t mean employ a clever omniscient narrator to fill the reader in. Stick purely to physical details that a camera could pick up. That way, your story will feel like it’s being filmed in a studio. How cinematic!
I can already hear the naysayers complaining that this isn’t a fair comparison. Films have all kinds of tricks to bring across a character’s internal state, from the actor’s facial expression to an emotionally charged soundtrack. Is it fair to give prose authors the same constraints as a movie when they don’t have the same tools? Yes, obviously. We’re worried about cinematic writing here, not whether the reader has a good time.
2. Only Exposit in Dialogue and Flashbacks
A second function of that pesky narrator is to deliver information that the reader needs to know. Stuff like how the magic system works, why two nations are at war, and why you can’t actually be mad at the jerkass love interest.* While some stories take this exposition too far, it’s easily the most efficient way of establishing what’s going on and why it matters.
So clearly that all has to go. You know what filmmakers do when they need to deliver exposition – either they use an establishing shot and hope that’s enough, or they just have two characters deliver the information in dialogue. That should be more than enough for you lowly prose authors!
What if the characters already know the information in question and have no reason to talk about it? Just have one of them say “as you and I both know” first. Now you’ve established that they both already know the information, so everything technically makes sense. If it sounds really forced, then you could always have one character turn on a news program that just happens to be talking about the relevant information. That sort of thing never gets old!
And if you need to establish something that happened in a character’s past, it’s time for a full flashback. Even if the only information you need is that the character was once a child due to the linear nature of time. A book could communicate that in one sentence, but you’ll use an entire scene, and you’ll like it!
3. Write in Very Small Font
I’m not sure why, but it seems like the big trend in movies and TV these days is to make scenes so dark that no one can see what’s happening while also making the dialogue effectively inaudible. Sometimes, the characters’ lines are simply drowned out by explosions and background music; sometimes, the actors mumble so much that it sounds like they’re talking through a pair of Styrofoam cups connected with string.
Apparently not even the professionals are 100% sure why this is happening, but that doesn’t stop it from being a cinematic quality that prose writers should emulate. What we need is something that makes the story very difficult to understand, but not completely impossible. We want to simulate the experience of squinting at the screen and turning the volume up to maximum.
The best solution available to most of us is writing in really small font. Most novels use between size 10 and 12, so you’ll want size 6 at the biggest, but 4 would be safer. Depending on eyesight, most people should still be able to read that if they really work at it, especially if they have a magnifying glass handy. Ebooks are an issue here, since most ereaders can adjust the text to any size, but you can solve that by only making the book available in .jpg and .png formats.
For audio, it’s even easier: just have your narrator record super quietly. That’s basically the same as watching a movie. You should also have them record some sections at normal volume. That way, listeners will have the experience of being overwhelmed by a background noise after they’ve cranked the sound up.
4. Depend on Skilled Actors
We have entire articles about how to make your characters likable, as it’s an important aspect of storytelling. Specifics vary, but in most cases, the more you can improve traits like sympathy, selflessness, and novelty, the better received your characters will be. It’s also important to craft believable dialogue and powerful motivations so readers will care what the character does.
That is, if you write your story like a boring and uncool novelist. In a more cinematic experience, no one cares how well written the character is, just how good the actor playing them is. In the Star Wars prequel movies, Obi-Wan is one of the most bland and uninteresting characters you’ve ever seen, but Ewan McGregor is so charming that we even care when he says “hello there” to people!
Likewise, Discovery’s Mirror Universe Georgiou is basically the worst once she becomes a good guy. Not only does she act entitled to forgiveness, but she also continues to harass and belittle the other characters under the guise of delivering “hard truths.” Any rational captain would boot her off the ship in a heartbeat, but she’s played by Michelle Yeoh, whom it is scientifically impossible to stay mad at. Her dry wit is just too powerful!
The most cinematic choice available is clearly to throw out any ideas of what makes a character compelling or interesting, and instead assume the actor will deliver all of that. Except that in this case, the actor lives exclusively in your reader’s imagination. Also, be sure to include some lines of dialogue that are truly awful, so that readers can have the experience of McGregor trying to deliver “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” like it’s a real thing a human would say.
5. Include Snacks
What is more essential to the cinematic experience than snacks? Nothing, I say! Buying overpriced movie popcorn is a rite of passage, as is smuggling in candy from home. Sorry, theater chains – I’m not paying a 100% markup for M&Ms, and I don’t care that it’s your entire business model! If you’re watching a movie at home, even better: you can have an entire buffet table of snacks to choose from.
Books are notably lacking this experience, which is yet another example of how tragically uncinematic they are. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: include snacks with the purchase of every book. Remember how we’re all going to publish in super-small font from now on? You can use that extra space to create a hollow for candy! That way, when readers open up your story, they’ll already be in a good mood because there’s surprise chocolate.*
That’s physical books covered, but for ebooks and audiobooks, the candy’ll need to be delivered. Unless whoever buys your book also has a 3D food printer, in which case I guess they could just download the snacks. For everyone else, you can hire couriers to bring them delicious treats. Yes, this will drive up prices, but that’s yet another way to make your book feel like going to the movies.
6. Make It Unpausable
Perhaps the least cinematic thing about books is that if you need to stop reading them for whatever reason, you don’t miss anything. Maybe you’re confused and need to read the scene again, or maybe there’s an ominous crash from upstairs and you need to see what your cat’s destroyed this time. Either way, you can pick back up right where you left off. That would never happen in a truly cinematic experience! James Cameron gets it: according to him, if a three-hour Avatar sequel is too long to wait for the bathroom, just miss part of the movie. Hopefully not an important part.
Technically speaking, you can pause movies that you watch at home, but it’s clear that such behavior goes against the cinematic spirit. For a true movie-like experience, it should be literally impossible for readers to put your book down without missing something. For ebooks and audiobooks, this is easy. Just “sell” them under an extremely limited license that only lasts a few hours. If a reader takes too long, the license expires, and no ending for them. Or if you’re some kind of extremely cool hacker, you could corrupt the file so the pause button doesn’t work and the pages randomly skip forward every few minutes.
Physical books are a little more difficult. Ideally, each copy would include some kind of self-destruct system, giving readers a strict time limit before the text is reduced to ashes. There’s probably still a bunch of surplus fireworks floating around from the 4th of July, so maybe start there. If you’re not from the USA, then see if your country has its own holiday where people irresponsibly set off a bunch of explosives.
If exploding books aren’t in your budget, then at least make them out of the shoddiest materials possible. I know that mass-market paperbacks aren’t known for their structural quality at the best of times, but you’ll need to push the envelope. The pages should be bound together with Post-it-Note–level adhesive, and the paper should crumble at the reader’s touch like an ancient manuscript from the Age of Legends. Maybe coat the book in something that termites think is delicious. If the reader isn’t afraid that your book will disintegrate when they put it down, you’re not delivering a true cinematic experience!
That should about do it. Follow these steps and your work will be praised as cinematic in no time! Alternatively, I suppose you could embrace the strengths of prose as a medium and write a story that’s enjoyable on its own terms, without the pipe dream of one day turning it into a movie. But I don’t want to get too extreme here.
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