Storyville: Fiction As Film—Writing Scenes That Are Visual

When I write fiction, especially longer prose such as novels, I tend to use language that would be right at home on a movie set. I think about scenes, I imagine the way the camera tracks the action, I picture the “actors” in their environment, and I hear the narrator, as if in a voice-over, telling me what’s on his mind. Here are some ways to apply the knowledge we’ve all received from watching movies, the ways that directors and cinematographers capture the action, and elevate the drama. You might be surprised how similar literature and film really are.

SCOUTING FOR LOCATIONS

When you start writing a story—whether it’s a bit of flash fiction, a short story, or a novel—you need to understand where the story is going to take place. I try to tap into my own experiences whenever possible. So if I sit back and think about an “alley” what comes to mind? Well, maybe it’s the narrow bricked passageway outside of Excalibur, a nightclub here in Chicago where I was mugged. It doesn’t have to be real, but if you can imagine someplace that you’ve actually been, someplace you’ve spent a lot of time, it will definitely come across on the page. When I wrote my second novel, Disintegration, I set it in Wicker Park, because I thought the gritty backdrop would be appropriate, and I’d spent several years falling apart there myself. I must have walked up and down Milwaukee Avenue a million times, in every possible season, in the harsh daylight and the shadows of lost, drunken evenings. I knew it would be the perfect place to set the novel. I used my old apartment, as well as my neighbors, the alley behind my building, even my cat, Luscious, who lived there with me. I wrote about bars and clubs, tattoo parlors and grocery stores, because I knew that I could write about those details. Obviously, if your story is set on Mars, you’re going to have to rely on research involving real film, television, movies, comics, and books. But if you are writing a crime story set in the south, and you lived in Arkansas for a spell, use it. This is how you scout for a location—you just close your eyes and think of the places you’ve been, the places you know well, real or imagined, and set your story there. If you need to walk around your neighborhood and take pictures, or just hold your hands up as if framing the camera shot, do it! That’s good research.

CASTING YOUR FILM

When it comes to literature, there’s no reason you can’t use the techniques of filmmakers to add drama, tension, and movement to your writing.

I’ve heard of a lot of authors that will write up a whole profile of a character—age, sex, height, weight, job, hobbies, musical preferences, favorite television shows, you name it. I’ve never gone that far. But if you have a large ensemble in your story or novel, why not cast it with real world Hollywood actors and actresses? When I was writing my first novel, Transubstantiate, I have seven different first-person perspectives. It was hard to keep track of everyone. So I went online and looked around, trying to find people that fit the description of my characters. For Jacob, it was a balding, overweight man, who was a reluctant hero, a bit of a mess—Philip Seymour Hoffman. For Marcy, I wanted a woman that was a little bit rough around the edges, but still a bit of a sex kitten—Ali Larter, from Heroes. For Jimmy, the everyman, I wanted somebody that was personable, but still up for a fight—Hugh Jackman. For X, I wanted someone that was a bit exotic, so I cast Rodrigo Santoro, as I’d just seen the film 300. For Gordon, the assassin, I pictured Viggo Mortensen. For the computer, X, of course it had to be HAL. And for the teen filled with angst, the son of Marcy, it was a young Shia LaBeouf. I guess you can tell what movies I was watching back then, right? But the reason this works when you’re trying to keep track of your cast, your characters, is that you can immediately picture these people, and the way they might move, might speak, might handle a certain situation. If you can immediately pull up their mannerisms, it’ll help you to flesh them out.

DISTANCE

There are a lot of tricks that directors use to create emotion when filming a movie. If they zoom in tight on a couple that’s naked in a shower, it feels pretty intimate. If the camera pulls back and they’re on the couch, a shot of the entire room, not quite as much. What about the same couple, and now they’re across the street from each other, or what if they are on different sides of a cornfield, as the moon fills the darkness with an eerie glow? Use that camera—to follow the action, to zoom in on a top as it spins on a tabletop, spinning and spinning—will it ever topple over? Pull back to show the dry desert that stretches out all the way to the mountains in the distance, a sense of isolation and death scattered across the dirt and scrub brush. Whether it’s a close-up, or tracking across a room listening for that sound in the dead of night, use the camera to show your reader the world that they’re in, to create tension, and to reveal hints and clues of what’s to come.

VOICE-OVER

There are a lot of people that hate the voice-over work of Harrison Ford on Blade Runner, one of my favorite movies ever. But I kind of like it. We immediately get a sense of his weary world, how beaten down he is, and the dilemma he’s now in. It’s not as easy to do this in literature, to show us the background of a future city, possibly Tokyo, and the neon lights, the garbage, the airships speeding past, all while spilling the guts of your protagonist. You may have to work harder to give us narration and image at nearly the same time—alternating between voice and setting—but the authority still works.

FLASHBACKS

The ability to jump cut, to show us one story and then flip to another, that’s a product of contemporary filmmaking, right? A car goes off a cliff, and into a lake, and as it sinks, a woman flashes back to her childhood, and a terrible memory she has suppressed for a lifetime—a horror at camp, an uncle that touched her, a car accident she witnessed—it could be just about anything. Whether your flashbacks are slow and purposeful, with title cards spelling out the dates, or a quick jump triggered by something familiar, or violent, being able to capture that imagery and retain the plot, the character, the story—that’s tough, but it’s done well in film all the time. Study those moments, and see how to make them your own.

LIGHTING

How often have we put our characters in a room, all alone, a single light bulb hanging from a long, frayed cord, the empty space wrapped in shadows as the violence creeps into the scene? Can you picture that moment already? I can. We use lighting all the time to help set the stage, our little plays, our films—still words on the page, right? But it can be so much more. Does the light slice through the damaged blinds, or does it seep through a faded, sheer curtain? Is it a candle burning down as lovers writhe on a bed in the throes of passion, or the hot, blinding sun beating down on a lost child, wandering down a dirt road, approaching a house that is the only sign of life for miles? It’s mood, it’s emotion, and it’s just one more way that filmmakers manipulate you, the audience. So use it in your writing.

CONCLUSION

When it comes to literature, there’s no reason you can’t use the techniques of filmmakers to add drama, tension, and movement to your writing. Use the visuals in your head that you’ve stored up from a lifetime of experience, and hundreds of movies and television shows, to paint the backdrop for your stories. Use those real world details to add layers of character and emotion. Use the ways that cameras capture the action to make us feel things—intimacy or dread, heat or cold, peace or isolation. The next time you’re watching a movie and it impresses you, ask yourself, “Why?”  What are they doing, how are they getting this response out of you? And then put that into your writing.


This week, instead of books or short stories, I’m linking to some of my favorite movies ever. If you haven’t seen them already, then rent them when you get a second. They will certainly influence your writing, if you’ll let them. Blade Runner, The Machinist, Memento, American Beauty, Seven—all of these movies will be stuck in my head forever.

Image of Blade Runner (The Director's Cut)
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh
Rating: R (Restricted)
Image of Machinist
Director:
Starring:
Rating: NR - Not Rated
Image of Memento
Director:
Starring: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano
Rating: R (Restricted)
Image of American Beauty
Director: Various
Starring: Various
Rating: R (Restricted)
Image of Seven (Widescreen)
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Andrew Kevin Walker, Daniel Zacapa
Rating: R (Restricted)
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb September 25, 2013 - 11:27am

Love this column, and it's probably because I already do a lot of this stuff, especially the casting thing. I sometimes even pause movies on a particular shot of a character/actor while I'm writing so that I can describe my own character with that same likeness - although I do have one self imposed rule, and that's never actually mention the name of the actor/actress or the movie as the source. A subtle hint at it if I can think of an appropriate place for it, yes. 

As for the camera thing, I often think about where I'd put it if I were shooting my scene like a movie, but I find it hard to make the reader imagine exactly the same shot I am, so I tend to let it go. But when writing in the first person I usually use the narrator's eyes as the camera. (Or I like to think I achieve that effect.) The difference between a tracking shot and a pan shot comes in useful for that one, as does close up VS distance. 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 25, 2013 - 12:37pm

Thanks, Chacron. Wasn't sure if this would go over well. And I think as long as YOU know the shot, CU or pan or whatever, that's all that matters. The reader will just go along and think "cool" without knowing what you've done, most likely. :-)

Devon Robbins's picture
Devon Robbins from Utah is reading The Least Of My Scars by Stephen Graham Jones September 25, 2013 - 1:41pm

I've never watched Blade Runner, but the others are some of my favorite flicks. American Beauty is top 3 for sure.

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading Blindness by Jose Saramago September 26, 2013 - 3:03am

As always, your article is an education. Thanks for your dedication to the craft.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading Zombie Bake Off by Stephen Graham Jones September 26, 2013 - 5:03am

Yeah I do this. A lot of things I write play out as scenes in my head (usually when I am nowhere near my lap top) The voices, tones, narration, expressions, angles and lighting ~ it's all very visual. Kind of like filming and editing in your head.

I've never purposely cast anyone in my stories but sure people do fall into roles subconsciously, then again I've never written anything as long as a novel.

What you may find interesting is I have been kind of imagining my work in progress novella as a TV series (specific influences: Breaking Bad) Starting with a hook and rolling back round full circle into that opening hook. Sections become episodes with specific reveals and character developments/subversions. The point I'm at now which could be half way (or it might be only a third, I'm not sure yet) almost feels like the end of season one.

So yeah, I think film and TV are a huge influence on writing.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading Notes From a Necrophobe by T.C. Armstrong September 26, 2013 - 5:07am

I tried doing the character profile thing for a while, and it just didn't work for me. The problem was I'd build these profiles and then forget what was in them. So I'd finish a story and realize the character on the page conflicted with the character profile I'd built.

So I started casting people from my favorite movies and shows. You can even do it with people you know, but that can be dangerous. It just feels so much more natural because, instead of creating someone with points of data, you're using more of a physical canvas to say, this guy, he's sort of like Daniel Craig as James Bond. Of course, you don't say that in your story, and you don't write the character exactly as Daniel Craig as James Bond. You use that as a jumping-off point because people aren't just a combination of physical traits and personal history. They're more organic than that. Of course, as writers, it's our job to make the reader feel like our characters are organic, but this can help us feel it.

Thanks, Richard, again for a great column. I've certainly embraced this method of storytelling, and there's some good tips in here to help me build that out even more.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 26, 2013 - 7:03am

thanks, everyone. hope it helps.