Editor’s note: Today’s post is a guest post by C. S. Lakin, a multipublished best-selling novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Techniques to Supercharge Your Writing—is designed to help writers learn the secrets of cinematic technique. You can buy it here in print and as an ebook.
The famous writing instructor Sol Stein said in his book Stein on Writing: “Readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience . . . is increasingly visual.”
In this era of TV, movies, and video games, readers of novels have come to expect a dynamic, active form of scene structure. They want to “watch” a novel unfold, as if seeing it on a movie screen.
Such expectations beg the question for writers: Just how does one “show” a story play out in a visually powerful way that will engage, even rivet, the reader? The answer? By learning cinematic technique…
Today’s Great Novelists Use Cinematic Technique
More and more best-selling authors are using cinematic technique in their writing. They are showing the action of their characters in a more present way, in effect using different camera shots such as are used in filmmaking—zooming in close to hone in on important details, panning to follow characters as they act and react to events, and pulling back to reveal a bigger picture and setting. They add texture and sensory details to their scenes to transport the reader into their world, and resist excessive summarizing or narrating.
Consider a Deliberate Use of Color
The deliberate use of color is one important cinematic component that is often completely ignored by novelists—or used randomly without purpose—whereas filmmakers have to be keenly aware of the subtle and often subliminal effects of different colors. Every color has subtle emotional and subconscious impact on us, and it behooves writers to take the time to research colors and use them effectively.
Color is powerful and often completely ignored by novelists—or used randomly without purpose or just to make a fashion statement—whereas filmmakers have to be keenly aware of the subtle and often subliminal effects of different colors. Listen to what author Patti Bellantoni says in her book If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die:
Films as varied as Cabaret, Dick Tracy, and The Sixth Sense all use purple to foreshadow death . . . Both Gwyneth Paltrow’s bedspread in Shakespeare in Love and Nick Cage’s bedspread in Moonstruck are a hot orange-red, and they certainly accompanied lusty activity in those films . . . A strong color elicits a strong visceral response. This, in turn, can set up an audience to anticipate a particular action. . . .
My research suggests it is not we who decide what color can be . . . [but] I am convinced, whether we want it to or not, that it is color that can determine how we think and what we feel.
Filmmakers sometimes tone everything down except for one or two objects in the frame to make them stand out. A POV character can also perceive something similarly when one object appears to be brighter than anything else around it, or a glaring light shines on it, highlighting it in a symbolic way.
Novelists can infuse their scenes with color, whether vibrant or drab. When you have a character, in her POV, who sees the world around her as drained of color or in shades of gray, you indicate how she feels about her setting in that moment. Washed-out color could imply memory loss or fading emotions, or a disconnect to place or people.
If you, the novelist, have an understanding of the subtle effect of color, you can purposely put these colors in your scenes—either blatantly or subtly—to help enhance the mood of the reader. Many great novelists use color in a powerful way, such as found in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. In her novel the color blue is forefront in symbolism and theme.
So take some time to research the effects of various colors on the human psyche, and play around with ideas on how you can integrate specific colors symbolically into your novel.
Exploring the Perception of Sound
In the book Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll, we read this about sound: “Sound effects are as much the purview of the writer as are visual symbols. . . . Sound effects can also suggest an extended aural metaphor. Sound effects can be obvious or quite subtle. They can intentionally draw attention to themselves or manipulate with stealth. They can expose, disguise, suggest, establish, or reveal.”
Writers are encouraged to infuse their novels with sensory details to better immerse the reader in time and place, and sound is a powerful sense. Movie scores affect viewers powerfully, eliciting strong emotions that can make moviegoers cry and despair or feel their hearts soaring with joy. And although writers can’t add movie scores to their words, there are lots of ways to add in sounds in fiction for powerful effect.
Good writers will evoke the unique sense of place by inserting ordinary sounds, such as the clink of glasses, the tinkle of happy banter, the drip of a faucet in an abandoned building, the screech of tires from a car racing away from the scene of a crime. If you haven’t spent much time thinking about sounds and their potential effect on a scene, I would recommend you do so.
Sounds can be emblematic. The hum of a mosquito can be deafening and a recurring motif in an image system. Even the jangle of keys can be terrifying, as seen in the opening scene of the movie E. T. as the terrified little extraterrestrial runs from the men chasing him. You’ve probably watched movies in which all the sound is muted except for one isolated sound.
Novelists Can Do It Too
This isn’t all that hard for novelists to emulate. By describing just how a character perceives the sounds around her, a writer can essentially do the same. One sound out of many—such as a loud heartbeat—can be singled out, and that sound can even be symbolic or work as a metaphor.
Think of ways sounds can be used as symbols or motifs in your novel. A ringing bell can be part of a pastoral landscape coming from a church nearby, but it can also mark time, and symbolize time running out.
Asking questions like these will help you supercharge your novel with colors and sound:
- How much attention should be paid to sound and colors in my novel?
- What sounds and colors could I add that the characters would notice and that would enhance each scene?
- What colors could I place and mention strategically for a specific emotional or symbolic effect?
- Where in my novel can I mute all colors or sounds but one, to make that one stand out meaningfully?
Are there places where it would be appropriate for me to use enhanced, expressive, distorted, and/or surreal sounds to add tension?
Writing novels in a visually stirring way may be something new and foreign to you, and it can take some thought to structure or rework your scenes so that they are dynamic and textural. There are so many other cinematic tools writers can borrow from film that can supercharge a story, such as breaking scenes up into a string of “camera shots” or “staging” a scene so that it feels viewed from a specific angle. Infusing your novel with colors and sounds is just one of many way to utilize cinematic technique.
Adding cinematic tools to your writer’s toolbox will help you write visually exciting, riveting scenes—which is what today’s readers want.
Do any novels come to mind that you’ve read that emphasized certain colors or sounds? Which novels, and how were these elements used? Can you think of a way you can infuse your novel with an emblematic sound or color?
If so, share in the comments just how you might use these cinematic techniques in a powerful way. We’d love to hear from you!