Writing Advice #18: Cinematic Prose

OK, here’s where a bunch of stuff comes together. Not a lot of words this week, but this is sort of the bow that wraps up a lot of the discussions of the past few months.

Cinematic prose. You’ve seen me refer to it in previous blogs. But what is it? And why don’t I like it?

Quite simply, when issues of POV“telling, not showing,”  overwriting, and blocking conflate, a tendency develops that I call “cinematic prose.” I am guilty of it as well. Many modern writers are, and it’s something to struggle with.

Cinematic prose is when you find yourself using words to emulate a movie.

It’s a natural thing to do because most of us have seen enough movies that we’ve internalized their vocabulary, pacing, framing, and style. We have been affected at a visceral level by movie images and we attempt to translate that to the page.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work.

You might think it’s a good idea. You might think that using words to evoke movies makes your audience more likely to keep reading. Or, better yet, makes it more likely that Hollywood will come calling and hand you the big bucks to make a movie out of your book.

No, no, and no.

Look, when people say, “Wow, that book was just like a movie!” they aren’t saying that it was written to evoke a movie. What they’re saying is that the language was so rich, so detailed, and so immaculate that they could “see” the story with their mind’s eye. That’s not cinematic prose. That’s just good writing.

But you’ve seen examples of cinematic prose over the previous weeks as I’ve discussed other issues. It’s when you try todescribe the action in such a way as to mimic a movie on the page…and in the process, more often than not, end up bleeding the scene of emotion and boring the living hell out of your reader.

Take a moment and think about this: In a movie, a director can communicate something with the slightest bit of motion. Clint Eastwood stares into the camera. Then, almost imperceptibly, his eyes narrow. We all get chills down our spines. We know what this means. We feel it and we think, “Wow! What economy! What tension!” And then we go to our keyboards and we think of a scene in our books that is similar and we type, “Bill stared at her. He narrowed his eyes.” And we think it works.

It doesn’t. For all the reasons discussed in the sections on POV, dialogue, and overwriting, cinematic prose just doesn’t work. And for a whole slew of new reasons, too! Movies… Movies are wonderful, but they have a whole range of possibilities and tools that we just don’t have in prose writing…or that we have, but don’t work properly, like driving a nail with your screwdriver. You can do it, but it’s a pain in the ass, it takes longer, you’ll probably hurt yourself, and you’ll most likely break the damn screwdriver.

Think about the tools movies bring to the table, the aspects that your book cannot, does not, and will not have: Sound. Motion. The almost magical connection between the actor and the viewer on a nearly subconscious level.

There will be no background music and sound effects in your book when Bill narrows his eyes, unlike the subtle piano tinkle backdropping Clint that helps clue in the viewer as to what he or she sees. More than that — YOU DON’T HAVE CLINT EASTWOOD! Clint is unique. (Every actor is unique, in a way, because no two people are identical, but you get my point.) He was cast to play that role up on the screen because of who he is, how he looks, and what he communicates with his camera presence.

Guess what? Your character looks like NOTHING. Your character is a vague notion in the reader’s head, a mish-mash of whatever details you’ve decided to toss the reader’s way and whatever imaginative predisposition your reader brings to the table.

No sound track. No selection of film stocks. No background noises. No familiar (or unfamiliar) faces. No special effects. No concrete image.

You have black text on white paper, man. And that’s IT.

Trying to write “cinematically,” in this scenario, is a losing proposition.

Again, it’s a natural tendency for modern writers, but it doesn’t make for good storytelling. In a way, it’s tough to identify cinematic prose because it seems counter-intuitive; it seems like we’re reverting to telling, not showing. After all, it seems logical that if you say “Bill gritted his teeth. He stared at Lisa.” that this is showing, while saying “Bill was mad.” is telling. But reread the previous blogs. You’ll see that it’s possible to show without showing everything. Details matter, but not everydetail matters. You will need to learn to cut little details and bits of business. Often, you will be cutting material that was fine from a technical standpoint, except for the fact that it was cinematic — watching it on a movie screen would be fine, but in text it just slowed everything down.

Movies and writing have this in common — they are both about telling stories, about communicating narrative. But one’s a hammer and one’s a screwdriver. Try to pound in a screw with a hammer, and you’re in for a lot of disappointment. Use the appropriate tool for the job at hand. Yes, they both fit in your palm just fine, but only one will do the job right.

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