Writing

Six Ways to Make Your Writing More Cinematic

If you are currently alive, there’s little doubt you’ve at some point heard a prose story referred to as “cinematic.” This means the story is in some way like a movie or television show, and it is the highest of compliments. Motion pictures, be they in theaters or on your TV screen, are the pinnacle of storytelling, and we should all endeavor to make our stories more like these celluloid* masterpieces. But how do you make your story more “cinematic?” Keep reading to find out.

1. Miscast Your Characters as Famous White Actors

Scarjo as the Major What is white washing, anyway?

Since you’re on a quest to make your story more like film and television, the first step is to write your characters like a cynical producer trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

When you’re crafting a character, be they protagonist or support, you normally write them to be whatever is appropriate for the story, right? That’s the advice you’ll find in every workshop out there, but it’s secretly a trap. If you want your work to be more cinematic, some characters will need to be vastly inappropriate for their role.  

Let’s say you’re working on a cyberpunk-dystopian novel set in Japan, and your protagonist is a badass officer in the local police force. Naturally, you’d make her Japanese, right? That was before you embarked on the journey to make your writing more cinematic. Instead, you should make her a white woman. Never mind how that’s stupid and racist; it’s what the Ghost in the Shell film is doing by casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi, and you want your writing to be more like a film.

You can also shoehorn in charismatic white men even if they don’t fit in the role. You think Tom Cruise was put in the Last Samurai because he was good for the narrative? Your story needs to imitate the star power of films, or you’ll never be cinematic. Oh, and be sure to change how a minor character looks sometimes, without any reason. This will simulate the occasional recasting of a character that movies and TV shows have to do, like what happened to James Rhodes between Iron Man and Iron Man II.

On a related note, if you have an older, heterosexual couple, make the woman much younger than her man. Young enough to be the man’s daughter if possible. Does that sound weird and a little gross? That’s how they do it in the cinema, and from now on, so shall you.

2. Delete Scenes That Resolve Storylines

Sorry, Talia, you were getting cool toward the end. Sorry, Talia, you were getting cool toward the end.

Television shows have a lot to consider besides what will make the best story, and that’s definitely how you should approach your writing. Even though you don’t have to contract actors or deal with a staff of writers with different ideas, your story should seem like you do.

Before your new foray into cinematic writing, if you penned a chapter where a side character departed on a dangerous mission, you’d eventually reveal what happened to them. Even if the character’s ending is a sad one, you owe the reader an explanation after something like that. That is, if you’re not properly devoted to making your work cinematic.

Sometimes, actors just don’t renew their contracts. In an episode of Babylon Five, the character Talia Winters has her mind scanned and archived by an alien ambassador. Later on, her personality is destroyed by a psychic attack, forcing her to leave the station. You’d expect that the ambassador would, at some point, use Talia’s archived mind-scan to restore her, but this never happened. The actress who played Talia quit the show, and there was no resolution.

Something similar happened in season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After thwarting the plans of some evil, mind-control bugs, our heroes discover a coded transmission aimed into deep space. As their last act, the bugs on Earth had sent out a distress signal, calling for reinforcements. That certainly implies they’d be back right? Nope. While that was the writer’s intent, no one else on staff liked the story very much, so they wouldn’t touch it.

In order to make your prose more like these cinematic masterpieces, you must create story hooks and then never follow up on them. Mention an important family heirloom at the beginning of the story, then have it go missing, but never reveal what happened to it. Have your protagonist manifest some kind of previously unknown power, but then never explain where it comes from. Your story will be so cinematic, the network will want to cancel it!

3. Flood the Narration With Unnecessary Sights and Sounds

Every single punch. Every single punch.

In movies and TV, the audience sees everything the camera deigns to show them, and the audience prioritizes what’s important for them to look at. You must apply the same technique to your prose, filling the page with every word possible. The reader will just choose the important words to read. What could go wrong?

Writing-advice books will often extol taking out anything that isn’t necessary. They’ll advise that you leave any extraneous description by the wayside and focus on what’s really important. What fools! 

The key is to drown your audience in detail. When the protagonist looks out their window, it’s not enough to spend a line or two saying there’s a city outside. In a movie, the audience could see every aspect of that city, and you must give your reader the same experience. How tall are the buildings? How many parks are there? How many cars on the streets? What are the people outside wearing? No detail is too minute for your story.

This is even more important in speculative fiction. When your characters arrive at an alien space station, it’s vital to include every curve and line. Be sure to mention all the strange appendages and nodules on the aliens themselves! You should repeat this description whenever characters return to a location. After all, movies don’t simply trust the audience to remember what something looks like, and neither should you!

Action sequences are where your cinematic writings will really shine. Readers should be able to see, hear, and possibly taste every vicious blow. Don’t be tempted to skip ahead to the hits that actually cause damage. The reader must see the fight exactly as it unfolds. As a benchmark, something like the showdown between Neo and Agent Smith should take about twenty pages, minimum.  

4. Leave the Imagery to Your Director

I Am Number Four Cropped

While over-saturating your prose is one way to make it more cinematic, another is to keep the details sparse. Really sparse. So sparse that an uninitiated editor might think you weren’t being descriptive enough. Pay no attention to them; they are but distractions.

Imagine your story as a film script.* Such a script would have little beyond dialogue and perhaps a few stage directions. This is important. As a writer, you don’t want to tell the director and actors how to interpret your words.

But who are the actors and directors in your prose story? Why, the readers, of course. Your story will inspire them to create a movie in their minds, and what right have you to dictate what that story should look like? Your dialogue is all the readers require, and anyone who says otherwise is jealous. In fact, you might not even need dialogue. Perhaps just a note reading “a cool spec fic story happens.”

An excellent example of this writing style can be found in I Am Number Four. The only problem with that book is that it doesn’t go far enough. It still features an adjective here and there, no doubt to appease the powers that be. While another blogger on this very site may have criticized I am Number Four for not being descriptive enough in narration, we all know it was actually a masterpiece to be emulated.*

5. Stay Within Your Visual Effects Budget

Such budget. Such budget.

In prose stories, action scenes and set pieces don’t cost anything except page space. Some take this to mean that prose should be the home of the fantastic, with stories not limited by the resources it would take to visually depict something. You’ll never make your work cinematic thinking like that.

Instead, whenever you’re writing something that would cost a lot of money to film, stop and consider the budget. Audiences are well known for loving it when a film has to leave out something cool because there wasn’t enough money. In the Deathly Hallows Part II, for example, several sections were cut from the book’s version of the Battle of Hogwarts. Nowhere do we see McGonagall leading the desks into battle or house-elves pouring out of the kitchen with carving knives in hand.

The Last Airbender film wasn’t based on a book, but it’s still a beautiful example. Throughout the film, we’re treated to bending effects that might have looked really cool on a bigger budget. The best part is probably when it takes half a dozen earthbenders working together to lift one mid-sized rock.

You should follow these excellent examples if you want your own writing to be truly cinematic. You might have planned out a scene where a martian marine in powered armor surfs into battle on a fusion-powered missile, but think of how expensive that would be to film. Instead, maybe just reference it occurring off screen, or tone down the action until it’s just a soldier in fatigues throwing a football. That’s the cinematic ticket.

6. Cut or Extend the Story to Fit Time Constraints  

We're gonna need at least a dozen anti-protons to fix this. We’re gonna need at least a dozen anti-protons to fix this.

Quick, how many words is your next story going to be? Chances are you don’t know, because planning out the exact number of words would be silly. You probably have some idea if it’ll be a short story, novella, or full novel, but even that length is flexible. If you need a few thousand more words to do a story justice, nothing’s stopping you from adding them. By the same token, you’re free to cut away at a story that has too much filler.

This will not do for the cinematic writer. Films must adhere to a narrow range of length, usually from 90-180 minutes. Television episodes are even more restrictive. In the United States, almost every TV show is either 22 or 42 minutes long, depending if it’s in an hour or half an hour time slot.* If the episode runs long, it must be mercilessly cut down no matter what important material might be lost. If the episode runs short, the writers need to create filler material no matter how unnecessary it might be to the story.

In one episode of Elementary,* Sherlock has a side plot where he tries to figure out if a new computer program is demonstrating true A.I. or not. This is very important to Sherlock, as it would represent something that might challenge his intellect. However, with a murder investigation eating up most of the episode’s time, this plot never resolves. There isn’t even a moment where it’s made clear Sherlock won’t get an answer. The episode just ends without addressing it.

On the other side of the coin, when an episode comes up short, you’ve got to add in something to fill that time. On Star Trek: Voyager, they would often use meaningless technobabble to pad out the script. While that might have angered some of the writers, it was certainly “cinematic,” and as such it is your duty to copy this technique.

So next time you’re writing a story, set yourself an exact word count. If you hit the cap and aren’t finished, too bad, your story is done. The readers probably didn’t need to know how it ended anyway. If you finish the story but aren’t at the count yet, add in a long ramble about something completely inconsequential. 


Now your story is 100% certified cinematic! Doesn’t it seem better than before? No? Well, that’s odd. It’s almost as if prose writing and cinema are different mediums with different strengths and weaknesses. In fact, I might even say that calling a written story “cinematic” is meaningless, because written stories aren’t movies.  

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Actually, many old novels make you drown in descriptions (The Princess Bride made fun of that, btw.), because then people wanted long books and a lot of details they couldn’t get any other way. Books were expensive and most people didn’t move more than 10 kilometers from their place of birth their entire lives. There were no photographs or pictures of other places or the newest dresses worn by nobility or all the other details you don’t need to describe today, because everyone can Google them.

    Today, however, you should only describe what is necessary.

  2. Hunter-Wolf

    ” I might even say that calling a written story “cinematic” is meaningless, because written stories aren’t movies”

    You are right, still i suppose some writers could write their books keeping in mind they might get turned into a movie at some point, or at least with the intention of turning them into a movie script later on .. i wonder how would that influence their writing.

    Comics to movies is also quite interesting since the visual aspect is already there .. examples like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and 300 are prime examples for studying comics to movies transition.

    So i wonder what are your most fav novel/book to movie adaption, or comic to movie adaption?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I firmly believe that Lord of the Rings makes a better movie than a book. The books overwhelm you with description, so much so that it’s difficult to get through. Maybe Tolkien had to do that back when he first published, because no one knew what an elven city looked like, or maybe he just didn’t know any better.

      Whatever the case, the reason most of the LoTR’s plot fits in the film trilogy is that huge sections of the book are taken up with descriptions that can be summed up with one panning shot.

      Other than that, I’m hard pressed to think of a situation where I think adapting a book into a movie improved the story. Maybe the Hunger Games. At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of movies that were based on books I hadn’t read, so many some of those.

      This works the other way, too. Novelizations of movies are almost always bad, but no one cares about those.

    • Chris Winkle

      Occasionally novels are improved by a lot of tightening, and movies force that to happen. I think Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a great example.

  3. Adam Reynolds

    As a film novelization, one that I genuinely liked was that for Star Wars episode 3. The rather flowery prose fit the Star Wars universe in a masterful fashion, with character interactions vastly better than what Lucas managed, even in the best of the prequels(though that isn’t saying much).

    Though there are a few examples of films that are better than books purely in the storytelling sense. If you count it as an adaptation of Moby Dick, The Wrath of Khan qualifies. More seriously, I would say that Starship Troopers also qualifies. While the book portrays the borderline fascism in a positive manner, the film satirizes it.

    Then there are cases of films that aren’t better, but are often just as good. Two examples that come to mind are Cloud Atlas and The Martian. They both managed to take rather complicated stories and turn them into films without watering it down. Cloud Atlas managed genuinely excellent editing, in which six completely different stories were told simultaneously. The Martian similarly took what was originally journal entries and turned them into video diaries, which both had a wonderfully irreverent style that made the story fun as opposed to drowning you in the weight of it.

    In general, films internalize emotions and externalize visuals. Books do the opposite. So films often do better with stories that require visuals. No book can match the wonder of seeing the Death Star or Mordor for the first time. This is why things like Jurassic Park, or comic books, do well as films. Reading about cloned dinosaurs is amusing, seeing them was amazing.

    Another story that is often better in film is a twist ending, because in that case, directly seeing the emotions requires outright lying to the audience. While there obviously have been books with twist endings, as Fight Club and Gone Girl were books before they were films, it is vastly easier to do this in film than in a book as the dishonesty can be more subtle. Film can also use an unreliable voice over as opposed to an unreliable narrator. In particular I don’t see how one could make The Usual Suspects a novel.

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