Cinematic Writing: Avoid or Embrace?

My second beta round draws mostly to a close today with…mixed success. 1 beta fully read the book and responded within the initial window, and with incredibly thoughtful comments (thank you Millie Ho!). 1 dropped out due to disliking the style (more on that in a bit). 1 got back to me last night after having read half of it.

The way things have gone, I think I can expect No Response from 4/11 of my chosen betas. Eek. Maybe I should have written a better book?

However, what I want to discuss today is a feature of my writing that all 3 of the responders – including the one who dropped out – mentioned. It’s something I’ve heard all my life, it’s something the readers of Beta Round One mentioned, and it’s something I find myself in a mental war over: my book feels like a movie.

I used to embrace this without a second thought. I am a filmmaker. I love film just as much as I love the written word – perhaps even more. I have been fascinated by movies and the moviemaking process since childhood. I am in love with non-linear editing in particular, and I will defend the merit of film to pretentious literary types until I’m hoarse. So, I used to think this was a good thing because it’s a reflection of who I am.

And others, throughout my life, have seemed to feel similarly. The beta I spoke to last night said, “I liked that it read like a movie; it was very visual.” Millie commented a lot about the visual storytelling in her critique, and that she could tell I had a cinematic mind. But on the flipside, the beta who dropped out did so because “it read like a script for an anime” and he couldn’t get past 10% before having to give up. My father, last year, also critiqued it for being cinematic, saying “it’s a book, not a movie. Write it like one.”

Now I have pause. Maybe Dad is right? People go into books expecting books, right? Sure, you can’t please everyone. But maybe I’ve been pleasing the wrong people.

So I’m on a quest to discover what makes my writing cinematic, and if that’s a good thing. Most writing purists would say “no.” They think that literature should not resemble film, that film is a lesser art form, that fiction should envelop all five senses instead of just your sight. These people usually say “the book is always better” when confronted with any movie adaptation simply because books have more details (which I have entirely separate rant about, by the way.) I do think there’s something to be said for this – literature allows us to look into a character’s head and experience things beyond a mere picture. Characters are undoubtedly easier to understand and relate to in print.

But let’s give pictures their due: the adage “a picture is worth 1000 words” is true, and there are plenty of things in Paradisa that would be much easier to establish if I only had a camera, some editing software, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I imagine Paradisa as a movie in my head, with full production value – and putting it on the page always feels like a shade of what I’m really imagining. I have to emulate “background music” in other ways – describing the general mood and emotion that my intended music actually pulls out of me. The psychic camera can be manipulated by choosing what to describe – start with an “establishing shot” of setting description, a close shot of our character’s exterior description, then an extreme close-up of his actual thoughts. And so on.

There are two features of my writing which are easy to pinpoint as cinematic though, and they are scene breaks and present tense. The present tense provokes a reader’s visual mind a bit more naturally. (I have no fancy, deep reason why I write in present tense aside from my dislike of the word “had”). Scene breaks are somewhat unusual, as most novels follow characters in a nonstop, single shot with a few “the next day, I…” or “I went to sleep and woke up a few hours later…” transition sentences to establish a new scene. I love scene breaks though, because they’re a great way to build momentum. Each scene break can end in a bit of a cliffhanger, or a note of resonance. If you do it all in one take, your resonance can only really appear at the end of a chapter. Also, I have 2+ POV characters in the book, who require new scenes to establish that we’re in THEIR head.

But is there something more to my writing than two stylistic choices? Is there something inherently cinematic about the pacing, or the action? Is there something inherently cinematic about beautiful fantasy settings? Is it how I think of my characters like a cast of actors that I am only here to direct, rather than to control? Or the story being told itself – its themes, its characters, its plot and climax? The scene breaks have to stay, but I am considering converting my book to the past tense in order to make it more marketable – would this ruin the cinematic appeal that so many have complimented? Or would it still be cinematic in past tense; I would have just made my book infinitely more marketable without detracting any of its positive aspects.

Or, on the other side of the coin, should I embrace the destruction of my cinematics? Should I embrace making my book more like a traditional novel? Surely that will help it sell better. And that’s all I really want, of course. I’m of the mindset that most agents have the same taste – as most of them give the same advice – and that becomes even more true when you zoom into a particular genre. If most say “don’t write like a movie,” that might as well be all of them. No use playing roulette looking for the one agent out of 1000 with unpopular tastes that match yours. The stars would have to align to find both an agent and an editor/publisher who would all see eye to eye with me, the author.

I’m wondering what game to play here, because “being true to yourself” is not always the right answer. There is a difference between an artistic choice and bad writing. And I’m starting to wonder if my cinematic roots result in what most informed gatekeepers would call bad writing. It would hurt like hell to change my entire style to fit the norm. I’m not even sure I could do it aside from giving up novels altogether and writing screenplays instead. But as they say, “kill your darlings,” right? Maybe this is one of those times.

Any thoughts? Are there merits to this writing style, or is it kind of amateur? Should I try to be more marketable or hedge my bets with what I’ve already written?

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7 thoughts on “Cinematic Writing: Avoid or Embrace?

  1. I don’t have any experience or knowledge about writing for the screen vs. writing for books. I imagine my style reflects the latter because those are the majority of books I read. On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of novels where I think, “This would make a great movie.”

    So I guess I don’t have any advice, but as far as scene breaks, those are valid in any book. They’re a great way to escalate tension, and, as you point out, are necessary when switching between POV characters. So I don’t think scene breaks necessarily make a book more like a film, unless I guess they happened very frequently.

    • I’ve read a bit of both. I think recently I usually read more bookish stuff, but I’m about to read Omega Days, which is supposedly cinematic. I find the Artemis Fowl series very cinematic as well, and I’m deeply inspired by it. I do not, however, like books that are mostly dialogue and few descriptions. There is a difference between a scriptlike book and a cinematic book and I do not like scriptlike.

      I’m glad someone agrees about scene breaks! I thought you used them very cleverly in Eating Bull because your chapters were all short and it was pretty much one scene per chapter. Your chapter breaks pretty much aligned with scene breaks. Unfortunately that wouldn’t work for Paradisa, as some scenes are half a page and others are 10 pages. Still, I’ll be keeping them. For this sort of book it works.

  2. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cinematic style. Evocative language that places the reader within the scene can be the difference between a great book and a squandered idea. I just finished reading a novella with an amazing premise, but I simply could not get into it because of a lack of concrete descriptive language for scene and setting.

    As for present tense, I would be wary of book-length works in that style. I’ve found that while it can give a unique flavor to shorter pieces, at book-length it can sometimes be something of a brain-strain. Now, in one series of books I’ve been reading, while most of the story is told from 3rd person omniscient, when focusing on one particular villain, the style changes to 1st person present from that character’s perspective. It makes for an interesting effect.

    If you have a chance, I highly recommend you check out Norman Spinrad’s “Riding the Torch”. One of the ideas played with is a fabricated theatre of the mind experience that has replaced movies. These are similar to films but sensed with all senses through a sort of auteur’s cut-up of human emotions, memories, visuals, etc. to maximum empathetic effect. The language Spinrad uses to convey these experiences is really something.

    • A lot of awesome commentary here. I do try to establish a sense of place everywhere my characters go. I do not like books that are flimsy on description and are mostly dialogue – that, to me, is scriptlike. And it’s a sign that a screenwriter doesn’t know how to write prose. I don’t think I write like a screenwriter so much as I write like a cinematographer, at least.

      I’ve never really understood the aversion to present tense, but that’s probably because I’m so used to it by now. It might be worth noting that my book is in limited third, because present first does read much differently than present third. I do get inside my characters when needed but I do not write in full DEEP POV. (Mostly because I find it overwritten and distracting. Would the narrator really think as eloquently as the author is making him? Hard to suspend disbelief there). So perhaps my psychic distance makes it a bit cinematic.

      What a lovely recommendation :) I greatly enjoy experimental fiction; words used in unique ways. New and original forms. That sounds very unique. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Scott brought back the book to me today with his sincere apologies. I know he had started it but real life caught up with him. I know he felt bad about it. So I’m going to try and read it this weekend!

    • That’s cool – I figured he got busy. It’s nice to know where he stands. Two people have been totally silent!

      Feel free to read it. It’s a ton different so you should still hopefully enjoy it. Andrew Dahir has literally been giving me page by page commentary – like Dad levels of detail but Andrew and I are actually on the same page and he really embraces it – so that alone has been worth the round.

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