Here’s an easy way to learn to write next-level fiction—and you can do it in your jammies: watch movies like a writer. Zap some popcorn, grab the remote and get comfy—from this point on, you’ll never watch movies the same way as before.
To begin, let’s look at the six easy steps necessary for creating Cinematic Camera Shots.
Movies often open with a vista or panorama—that is, the camera starts with a wide-angle shot and slowly either pans the landscape or moves closer. This technique helps to set the scene—audiences learn the general area (setting), time period, and other details, sometimes even before a character is on stage. For instance, in the film classic “Doctor Zhivago,” we see the wide Russian expanse.
Jump Cut, Fade Out, Dissolve
In film, the camera can speed the pace or introduce new scenes that move the story forward by using jump cuts, fade outs, dissolves and zooms. A jump cut might be used to go back and forth between scenes, and a fade out might leave a scene more ambiguous and thus more interesting and artful than a pat ending. Dissolves and fade outs are similar, but with a dissolve, often one object stays the same in both scenes. Think of Snow White as she confronts the poisoned apple. The scene dissolves with the apple staying in both scenes while Snow White morphs into the wicked queen.
A cliffhanger is also a great way to keep readers turning pages, but the technique originated in cinema. You lead your reader to a point of danger, an unexpected or unfamiliar event and then abruptly cut off the scene at the point of highest tension. Readers will have to keep reading to learn the outcome or what the event means to the story.
Zooming in heightens tension and/or emotions and quickens the story pace. In writing, zoom-in translates to a closeup with short or fragmented sentences, heightened alertness or emotion, or it highlights a brief but important moment in the story. If you “zoom in” on something early in the story, you’re telling your reader: Remember me! I’m important. If you don’t come back to that close-up subject or it plays no significant role in the story, readers will be at best confused and at worst irritated.
In movies, events that are summarized are often put into slo-mo or montages. A montage bridges long stretches of time or developments; the couple running toward each other in slow motion gives the feeling of completion or resolution. In fiction, we can use narrative summary rather than act out a scene for these effects.
Think of several cowboys seated around a poker table. The camera reframes to show different players speaking and may combine close-ups with wide angle shots. This is useful in scenes with more than two people.
Characters matter, especially your POV Character.
Your POV Character must be passionate and must want something. In movies, the lead character is often unforgettable: Dirty Harry, Rambo, Erin Brockovich, or Wonder Woman. Give your character larger-than-life qualities such as generosity, forgiveness, or determination. Most great movie heroes and heroines have a clear sense of right and wrong, yet are flawed too.
Alone on Stage.
Scenes fall flat if the writer keeps the character alone on stage. Think of the movie “Cast Away”—why did Tom Hanks’ character need Wilson? To talk to, of course! If the character can’t use dialogue and interact with others, that character is forced inside his own head—to think. A similar problem arises if you set too many scenes around a table—action is limited and readers see characters passively sitting.
Music and Lighting
In movies, lighting establishes mood and tone. Description of light in a written scene reflects your character’s mindset, mood or emotions. Dark scenes inspire dark or hidden emotions; bright airy scenes can evoke ease or openness. Highlighting a scene’s quality of light elevates setting to a character. Music in films is used in much the same way—to communicate or stress emotions.
To write better fiction, watch movies like a writer.
Pause, rewind or fast forward scenes to make notes at your own pace.
- Watch a film straight-through, for enjoyment.
- Replay, look for camera shots, character qualities and lighting.
- Take notes and compare to your story.
- Add pacing, plot points and pinch points to the list of comparisons.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Ready? Lights, camera, action!
Linda S. Clare is the author or co-author of six books, including Five Editors Tackle the Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing; The Fence My Father Built and A Sky Without Stars. She serves as “Expert Writing Advisor” at George Fox University. She lives in Oregon with her family, three cats, a bunny and a chameleon named Rainbow Brite.