Resources for Writers
How to Write Cinematically by Philip Elliott
If people say anything about my comedic L.A. noir novel Nobody Move, it’s that the book is “like a movie.” And for a novel that references film frequently, it’s a nice thing to hear. But what does it mean, exactly, for a novel to be “like a movie”? Why are some novels more like movies than others?
Let’s answer those questions by thinking about the experience of watching a movie: The lights are dimmed, sound up high, salty popcorn on our laps, as we watch characters do things and interact with one another on screen, as we listen to the words they speak and the sounds of the world around them. That’s really all there is to it. It’s remarkable how such a simple experience is so immensely popular; indeed, it could be said by a cinephile like me that in these increasingly agnostic times we live in cinema has become the alter at which we worship. It’s certainly true that cinema is by far the most popular form of entertainment on Earth. Therefore, us novelists and short story writers stand to learn a thing or two about what makes the experience of watching a story unfold on screen so infinitely rewarding.
Cinema is so incredibly popular because as an art form it has mastered the writer’s golden rule of “show vs. tell.” There’s a wealth of information about this rule on the internet, but the basic explanation is that “showing” is communicating information to the reader subtly through the events occurring and words spoken in the scene, while “telling” is exactly what it sounds like: outright explaining information to the reader through exposition or characters’ inner monologues.
Let’s imagine a scenario: We’re writing a scene in which we have a man and woman, both middle-aged, sitting across from each other in a booth inside a diner. We want the audience to know that these characters have recently divorced each other. How do we do it? Well, we can “show” or we can “tell.” If we choose the latter, it would be as simple as writing “Frank sits across from Anne, the woman who only a few weeks ago he could call ‘wife.’” But that’s heavy-handed and boring. In fact, the reader might not even remember it, it’s too plain and factual, and, crucially, it doesn’t reveal anything about our characters’ personalities—it doesn’t show us who they are.
“Showing” it is then. And it’s through this the fun of writing fiction shows itself (bad pun intended). Because the possibilities are endless. Let’s say we have Frank declare “I never should have signed those papers” while twirling the index finger and thumb of his right hand around a pale band of skin on the index finger of his otherwise tan left hand. Now we have something—the spark that sets off the curiosity in readers’ minds. That curiosity is your best friend; it’s why your readers are readers at all—they want a mystery to solve, and in a good story every scene becomes a mini-mystery to solve, providing as many new questions as it answers older ones. We don’t want our readers to outright and immediately know that these two characters were once married; we want our readers to come to their own conclusions by interpreting for themselves the action and dialogue as it occurs. We want our readers to feed their insatiable hunger for mysteries to solve by making them wonder about the relationship between these two characters—why the characters’ body language is the way it is, their conversation so restrained, their silences so long, why there is subtle but obvious tension between them. All of this says so much more than simply telling your readers information ever could. Added to this is the fact that every action and word of dialogue characterizes our characters. For example, by changing Frank’s sentence to “I never should have signed those f***ing papers” before he slams his hand on the table, we have altered Frank’s characterization—how the reader will perceive Frank as a person—while the basic information communicated to the reader is exactly the same. Scene after scene, this is what film does so well, and why it is so effective at pulling its audience into the story.
It can be difficult for writers to understand this difference between showing and telling in the context of the page, but the distinction becomes abundantly clear on the screen. Imagine we’re writing the above scene as part of a screenplay this time—a movie. We know how we can “show” the information we want to communicate to the audience, because that doesn’t change. But how would we “tell” that information? We’d have only one option: a narrator’s voice booming over the screen like God to declare suddenly “Frank and Anne divorced six months ago. Frank regrets this.” Yeah. That’s why movies are almost never narrated.
So, if you want your stories to play out effortlessly in readers’ minds like movies, maximize the action and dialogue and tangible elements of the story world, and minimize exposition and characters’ inner monologues. Make your scenes even more vivid through selective use of sensory description (an advantage we have over the screenwriters). There’s more we can learn from film and apply to our fiction, such as cinema’s love of contrast, visual cues, framing scenes, foreshadowing, and so much more. Watch movies frequently and learn from them—they are stories, too, after all. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse to put your feet up.
(c) Philip Elliott
About Nobody Move:
Winner: Indie Author Project Ontario • Shortlisted: Millennium Book Award • Shortlisted: Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Award • Longlisted: Blue Pencil First Novel Award
“Elliott has a real feel for comedic noir in the Elmore Leonard vein, and his debut novel screams cult classic” —Booklist
Eddie Vegas made a terrible mistake. Now he has to pay the price. After a botched debt collection turned double murder, Eddie splits, desperate to avoid his employer, notorious L.A. crime boss Saul Benedict, and his men (and Eddie’s ex-partners), Floyd and Sawyer, as well as the police. Soon he becomes entangled with the clever and beautiful Dakota, a Native American woman fresh in the City of Angels to find her missing friend—someone Eddie might know something about. Meanwhile in Texas, ex-assassin Rufus, seeking vengeance for his murdered brother, takes up his beloved daggers one final time and begins the long drive to L.A. When the bodies begin to mount, Detective Alison Lockley’s hunt for the killers becomes increasingly urgent. As paths cross, confusion ensues, and no one’s entirely sure who’s after who. But one thing is clear: They’re not all getting out of this alive.
“A multifaceted series opener by a promising new voice in hardboiled crime fiction. Fans of Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson will find much to savor”
“a new spin on the genre”
—San Francisco Book Review
“makes reading fun again”
—US Review of Books
“impossible to put down”
—Kevin Wilson, NYT bestselling author of Nothing to See Here
“fast-paced and chock full of interesting characters [and] chillingly delicious evil”
“first class neo-noir”
—Murder, Mayhem & More
“not a single dull moment”
—Online Book Club
“like Tarantino on the page . . . rushes at you from page one”
—Dietrich Kalteis, award-winning author of Poughkeepsie Shuffle
Order your copy online here.