Writing Cinematically

Listening to the radio the other day, I heard a presenter marvelling in an interview with a well-known film director and novelist at the fact that he referred to writing his novel in ‘scenes’. ‘You think like that because you’re a film director,’ he exclaimed.

Well, possibly. But I also think about my novel in scenes. And I’m definitely not a film director. This got me to thinking – why do I (and many other authors I’m sure…) think in scenes rather than just chapters?

Partly because a scene isn’t the same as a chapter. You could have two different scenes in one chapter or one scene running over two chapters.

And also –  as authors, we’re imagining events taking place before we can begin writing them. This involves all the senses, including the visual. We’re imagining the whole scene, if you like.

When we’re plotting a storyline, we’re creating a sequence of events. But when we’re deciding on certain questions about a small section of the story: where is this taking place? When is it taking place? Who is there? What is happening and why? Then, we’re creating a ‘scene’. (Please note I am avoiding the obvious joke here…)

An example from my current novel, From Venice with Love… Early on in the story, someone finds some old family letters. What she reads, piques her curiosity and sets her off on a pathway of trying to find out more about the writer of these letters, a watercolourist named Emmy.

So… It’s Q & A time. Who finds the letters? Joanna. Where might she find them? In the attic. What is she doing there? Looking for some old childhood memorabilia. Why is she looking? To entertain her eccentric and difficult mother.

So now I’m getting to know the scene. Joanna will be in the attic looking for childhood memorabilia when she comes across some old and mysterious letters in an ancient and dusty trunk.

This is the scene. I know who is in it and I know where she is and what she’s doing. I can add some atmosphere and some thoughts and emotions. Hopefully I am also adding an element of mystery along the way and progressing the story too.

This all sounds rather obvious. But crucially, as writers, at least if we are planners, this is how we might plot out every section of our novel in order to form a tight structure.

I remember PD James once saying that she preferred to write cinematically, and that she would choose to write first whichever scene of her novel was most drawing her at the time, regardless of chronological order. This was because the emotions would be the strongest. She was already emotionally invested in the scene.

I’ve done the same. If you feel confident enough, chronology can always be sorted out later. Writing cinematically allows the writer to visualise a scene and all the elements within it so that the emotions and thoughts can be explored and the story naturally progresses. Within each scene, there are other elements of structure to consider of course. For example – whose viewpoint are you writing in? How will you create tension? What senses do you wish to describe in order to develop more layers of interest in the story? How will you manage the pace?

But basically, IMO it’s a great idea to get the scene in your head first.

Perhaps then, inside all of us novelists is a frustrated film director just waiting to get out..?

© Rosanna Ley
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