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December 18, 2018

5 Ways to Create Movie Magic in Your Writing — Guest: J. E. Martin

View of mountain and reflection in still water with text: Creating "Movie Magic" for Our Readers

Ever notice how some stories transport you more immersively into the story world? Or how some settings feel alive, like another character?

The fact is that some stories or styles of writing are better at creating movies in the minds’ of readers (unless we have aphantasia). As someone who loves becoming immersed in stories when I read, I wanted to learn more about how to reach that level in our writing.

Luckily, we have author coach J. E. Martin here to help. She’s sharing her 5-step plan to help our writing create a cinematic experience for our readers.

Please welcome J. E. Martin! *smile*

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5 Ways to Boost Your Writing With Movie Magic

By J. E. Martin

When you think of movies, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sweeping camera shots of gorgeous scenery? The swells and fades of dramatic music? Some movies seem to leap out of the screen at you and hit you with every sense, so real you can feel them on every level.

Wondering why I’m waxing poetic about movies when you’re here for the writing?

Oh, writer friend, I’ve got you!

One comment I often get about my work is that it has a cinematic feel. I’ll admit, I adore this feedback!

I’ve always been an extremely visual person. When I’m writing, it absolutely feels like I’m watching a movie play out in my mind. It’s pretty cool to be told I’m translating that onto paper.

I didn’t set out to write that way, though — and I promise that’s not a humble brag. I didn’t recognize it was something I did until I began getting that remark over and over. Then, of course, I got super self-conscious and started paying attention!

Cinematic writing (let’s call it that for ease) is something any writer can achieve. It’s also a great way to improve your writing, even if you’ve already got more natural talent than any of the rest of us can shake a stick at. Wait — why are we shaking sticks? This got weird…but I digress…

Why Use A Cinematic Approach?

What if I said you could have more fun while also creating work that compels your readers to dive deeper into your stories? Sounds pretty fabulous, right? We all want to enjoy the journey — and we want our readers to have a rich experience, too.

Cinematic writing is an excellent step in the right direction, and the best thing is, you’re probably already doing it, at least a little. So now, all you need is to train your brain to focus in the right way so you can do more of it!

Benefits of Cinematic Writing

In case you need further convincing, here are some benefits of writing for a cinematic feel:

  • Cinematic writing works for every genre, and you can use it in fiction and nonfiction.

It’s easy to see how it could help a fantasy author or boost a dramatic, romantic scene. For a nonfiction book, though, it might be more difficult to guess how cinematic writing can shine.

Let me point you to a familiar visual form: the documentary. Even if you don’t care for documentaries in general, you likely know about them. Documentaries — not to be confused with their counterparts documentary fiction and docu-comedy — are nonfiction. Their stories are built from real events.

Every documentary has a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes they tell a story so well, they hold people rapt. Do you know any avid Shark Week viewers? Maybe you have a friend or coworker who binge-watched The Staircase or Wild Wild Country on Netflix.

There’s a reason documentaries can be so compelling. Just like fiction, they pose a question that begs to be answered. They present you with good guys and bad guys. Even Nat Geo pits the lion against the wildebeest. So, keep documentaries in mind as your example for nonfiction when I’m explaining the tips below.

  • Using a cinematic approach in your writing enriches the world of a story.

It changes how the characters — and readers — interact with it. It’s a simple switch, but it’s like the moment the view through binoculars comes into focus. Suddenly, you realize there are so many fantastic things you couldn’t see until you looked through those special lenses.

  • Cinematic writing benefits a broader audience, too.

It helps paint more vivid imagery for everyone who consumes your work. Even better, it can be a great way to reach those who need (or want) to use TTS apps and audiobooks. It forces you to pay attention to finer details. This helps you build deeper, more intimate layers into your stories, which can welcome in a whole new readership.

  • It’s more fun. Full stop.

The What and How of Cinematic Writing

What cinematic writing comes down to is mood. Your goal is to create an atmosphere that draws readers in and immerses them in the world you’ve created.

We all want to keep our readers engaged in our books. When readers see you as an expert at bringing mesmerizing worlds to life, they’ll come back for more.

Okay. Now you know why you’d want to aim for cinematic writing. By the end of this post, I’m hoping you can pick up your favorite pen or sit down at your computer and put these simple tips into practice right away. Let’s get on to how you do it!

5 Steps to Create Cinematic Writing

Step 1: Take Mental Photos

One of the best parts about writing is the worldbuilding. You might love creating governing bodies or describing architecture. Maybe you get into rounding out the fashion in your world. Do you enjoy creating out-of-this-universe characters?

There’s bound to be some part of worldbuilding that floats your boat in a big, big way.

Lucky you, as architect of the world you’re writing in, you have an all-access pass! That’s how you’re going to succeed with this first tip.

  1. Visualize one of your scenes. Hopefully, you’ve got at least one that’s been swimming around in your mind.
    If not, try to come up with one now. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to marry the idea. You just need a space you can play in for now.
  2. In your mind, put yourself in the scene — you’re a part of it, but only as an unseen bystander. In your hand, you’ve got a camera you’re comfortable with.
  3. Explore the scene with your camera. Frame candid photographs of everything that catches your interest.
    You can go where you please, point your camera wherever you wish, and shoot as many pictures as you desire. No one pays any attention. They keep up their conversations, their actions.
    What draws your attention? Snap a photo.
    (Writing nonfiction? Become the documentarian. Focus on the essential bits you need to catalog and remember.)
  4. Then, mentally thumb back through the gallery of images you’ve captured. What stands out? Who or what is most in focus?
    What do you notice in the background that you didn’t see while you were in the scene? Where does it take place? How many dents are in the metal trash bins outside that door? What is the light like in that dusty foyer? Is anyone lurking in the shadows — maybe someone you didn’t notice at first?

In movies and TV, because of the visuals, we likely notice something different every time we watch. My husband and I have been watching Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House. About halfway through our first viewing, we began to notice creepy figures in the backgrounds of many scenes. Now we’re paying attention to the finer details of each shot!

What’s fascinating to me is that simply knowing ghosties might be hiding out back there is enough to ramp up the fear factor and give me spine tingles. Mood = intensified!

Write like your goal is to bring your mental photographs of the scene to life. Focus not only on the things you see but also the things you feel.

A picture can create a tone and mood for you. That mood is what you want to relay to your reader.

Step 2: Watch It Back Like a Movie & Create a Shot List

What do you pay attention to when you watch movies? The lighting? The drama? The action? Call on your own interests to inform you in this next tip.

  1. Go back through your scene. This time, rather than taking pictures, watch it play out in your mind like a movie.
  2. Pay close attention to everything that draws your focus and excites you. What makes your gut tingle with that, “Yes! So perfect!” feeling? Those are the moments you want to emphasize, so hang on to them.
  3. Once you’ve played as much of the scene out in your mind as you want to, take a few minutes to plan out your “shot list”. This doesn’t have to be long and involved. Just jot down some quick notes.

Here’s what should go on your shot list:

  • the most significant moments you need to be sure to capture
  • the mood you want to evoke

Pay attention to the lighting you see. What do you smell? Is there background noise? Briefly note as many details as you can.

Want your readers to laugh or cry? What about the scene makes you want to laugh or cry?

This famous Robert Frost quote often plays on repeat in my head like a mantra: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

Cling to the moments that are powerful for you and plan them out, exactly how you see them playing out in your head. That planning will naturally guide the focus of your writing.

Step 3: Think Like a Director and Camera Operator

There’s a technique in stage theater called “throwing focus”. This is an extremely effective way to subtly and silently guide the audience’s attention. It’s accomplished through setting, lighting, and with where the actors themselves focus.

How can we create a movie in our readers' minds? @jemartinbooks shares her 5 step plan Click To TweetThe same is true of film, though the object of attention is usually clear. Who is featured in the frame? Ahh, that’s likely where we’re meant to look. Unless, of course, we’re talking horror or mystery. Then, we should always peek at the background, too!

There are loads of camera moves you probably recognize, even if you don’t know the names. The pan, tilt, and zoom are great examples, and you can find video illustrations of all these movements on YouTube.

But you don’t need to become an expert in camera operation to use the concept in your writing. Instead, you can guide the story in the same way by using action.

Say a crash comes from the right, behind a closed door. The sound might cause your characters to swing their heads to look toward that closed door.

You can build urgency with action. If the characters presumed that room to be empty, they might jump and run out of fear. Foolhardier characters might storm across the room and yank the door open.

When you mentally set up your “shots”, consider these points:

  • Who needs the focus in your scene? (Hint: this is often the one who has the most to teach or the one who has the most to lose.)
  • How should you focus on them? What actions will set the tone and clue your reader in on the mood?

You’re the director of your reader’s focus, and you guide that focus through descriptive action. If you want readers to see — up close and personal — the single tear rolling down your heroine’s cheek, make it happen with your words.

Throw the focus where you want your readers to pay attention. Your narrator, whoever that may be, becomes the lens and gives the cues to the audience.

Step 4: Set It To Music

I don’t necessarily mean literally. However, if you’re a sense-driven writer and music helps you write, by all means, go for it! Create a playlist that fits your mood the same way a soundtrack supplements a movie or TV show.

I can’t listen to music while I write, but I often do when I’m outlining, and I definitely do in the rest of my time. My poor husband hears the same songs for months on end while I’m deep in a project.

How can we create a mood with our writing? @jemartinbooks shares her tips Click To TweetReally, though, I’m talking more about the cadence of your writing than music outside of your work. It’s helpful to consider how sound and music create atmosphere in film. Think about the epic soundtracks of high fantasy and the light, loping music of transition scenes in a romantic comedy.

Those things tell you, without telling you, how you should feel. There’s that mood concept again!

Music also helps set the pace of a story. Ever felt your heart rate pick up at a high-tension scene in a movie? Have you paid attention to the music in the background?

It’s often faster paced, with deeper sounds that sweep into higher crescendos. That’s an educated choice, and you can do the same thing with your words.

  • Demonstrating urgency? Use short words. Sharp movements.
  • Showcase languid scenes with slower words and drawn-out actions that plod and meander to give the sense that it’s the journey that matters now, rather than the destination.
  • Vary the rhythm and pacing of your words, sentences, and paragraphs. This creates a soundtrack readers will feel without even realizing they’re feeling it.

Step 5: Focus on the Details

Let’s call this your final cut. You’ve shot all the film you think you need for your scene. Now you’ve got to figure out how to fine-tune it to present the right story to the audience.

Still working with that mood concept, take a hard look at the atmosphere you’ve created with your scene.

  • Does it evoke in you the feelings you want to evoke in the reader? It should. If it doesn’t, play around with revisions until it gets closer.
  • If you find your scene falling flat, check yourself with the five senses. Do you give the reader something to stimulate them all? How about at least three? Can you work in any more?

Flat scenes usually lack atmosphere or detail. That missing piece might be in your environment or in your characters. You can address both, at least in part, by checking the five senses.

So, to Recap…

  1. Take mental images to capture the most exciting and vital parts of your scene
  2. Channel your mental movie onto paper with a shot list
  3. Direct the focus of each scene by using actions that match the intensity you want readers to feel
  4. Vary the rhythm and pacing of your words to intensify the mood for readers
  5. Revise your scenes until they feel full and engrossing

By shifting the way we already think as writers, we can breathe a new level of life and movement into our work. Cinematic writing is a fabulous way to embolden our writing and reach new audiences.

The more mesmerizing a world you present to readers, the deeper you’ll draw them in. If you want them to take a stroll with you down a dark alleyway, make sure you give them an atmosphere they’ll be itching to explore. After all, the alleyway is just an alleyway until you set the mood.

Cheers and happy writing!

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J. E. Martin has been telling stories for as long as she can remember. As a child, she wrote and illustrated a magnificent two-page graphic novel about gerbils. She won her first writing award when she was ten years old. (It wasn’t for the gerbil thing.)

Her background is in theater as an actor and director, and she enjoys some small-town fame as a radio personality. She also loves music, graphic design, the ocean, animals, traveling, and—not surprisingly—reading.

She spends her days writing steamy paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Connect with her online:

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Pinterest | Amazon | Email

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You can find also find her coaching authors and offering publishing services in her side gig at Reverie Press, where you can reach out to her directly at jane@reveriepress.com.

Reverie Press offers coaching + support + publishing assistance for new & aspiring authors. We’re seeking passionate storytellers who are ready to bring their books to life. At Reverie Press, we’re devoted to helping you every step of the way — from writing your first draft to publishing the book of your dreams, we’ve got you covered.

Fabulous readers of Jami Gold’s blog can receive 25% off first-time Reverie Press services with jane by using coupon code CINEMA in a message on the contact form on reveriepress.com or in an email to jane@reveriepress.com.

25% off coupon for publishing services with code: CINEMA

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Thank you, jane! The qualities of writing that create a cinematic effect in our minds feels very intangible, but you’ve shared some fantastic, tangible tips that we can apply to our writing process.

I love how J. E. makes a point of emphasizing that this skill is about mood. Mood is all about emotion, so including the mood—the emotion—in all aspects of our worldbuilding keeps the details of our settings or situations from feeling flat, just a room or conversation without meaning.

Creating a sense of mood can also be a big part of our voice and overall storytelling style. I’m thinking back to the excellent The Fifth Season story by N.K. Jemisin that I discussed last week and how the strength of her voice was very much about creating a mood, which helped her break so many “writing rules.” I also remember writing scenes for my own stories that felt strongest when I was dialed into the mood.

Obviously, mood is an important skill to learn how to portray in our writing, yet it’s a hard thing to teach. I hope these tangible tips from J. E. help us all add more mood, emotion, and a cinematic feel to our writing. *smile*

Have you read stories with a cinematic feel before? What created that sense for you? Have you attempted to create that sense in your writing? Will J. E.’s tips help you get to the emotional essence of your settings and scenes to create a stronger sense of mood? Do you have any questions for jane?

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Rhoda Baxter

This is great. Just what I needed to think about at this stage of my WIP. Thank you!

J. E. Martin

So glad you found it helpful! Let me know how the tips work for you if you test them out. Happy writing!

Larry Keeton
Larry Keeton

Terrific Post!!! When I’m writing my scenes, I can see them, but not to the detail suggested here. These are excellent tips! Thanks for sharing.

J. E. Martin

Thank you so much! I hope you’re able to find even greater depth in your scenes. Cheers!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thank you! Some scenes are so big they need to be written this way.

J. E. Martin

I agree – and breaking those big scenes down into smaller elements (like with mental photos and/or a shot list) can help you tackle them in nice, bite-sized pieces. Much easier to handle – and your depth of mood benefits. Win-win 🙂

Sieran

When you asked the question: What comes to mind when you think of movies? The first thing that came to my mind were witty dialogues and funny jibes between the characters. Lol! I am not a visual person, though I work well with visual metaphors. My visual memory and imagination are both awful, though. I can barely imagine more than one item at once, and they are like crude splashes of color and vague shapes in my head. No wonder I tend to be impatient with setting descriptions, which usually include tons of detailed visual objects here and there, which are hard for me to keep track of or remember, unless it was an especially emotional or vivid image. (E.g. A lonely tree beside the house that reminded the character of a dying friend. You see why I loved “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. His settings are visual but also so steeped in emotion, that it’s much easier for my brain to process and retain them. Maybe for this reason, I have always been fond of pathetic fallacy.) In contrast, I’m more patient with tactile descriptions, since my sense of touch is the strongest when it comes to my memory and imagination. All the more important to extend our writing to the five senses, not just the sense of sight. But I like your step by step list of what to do to make our writing cinematic. I especially liked the zoom-in example of…  — Read More »

J. E. Martin

Thank you so much for sharing from your perspective of having a stronger sense of touch for memory and imagination!
This is a great reminder that not everyone works on the same plane.
Just like in movies, where the focus may be the emotion and mood built from close-ups of interpersonal interaction (rather than lush settings or vivid detail of every room), your writing can take the focus that works best for you (and/or your genre).
That tip in Step 5 about checking in with your senses is a perfect place to play with the focus on tactile descriptions you mentioned. If that resonates most strongly with you, chances are you’re naturally gifted at conveying that in a deeper way to your readers (versus someone who tends to *sees* things visually).
I’d love to hear if and how you’re able to adjust the tips to fit the way you connect with your own work. Thanks again for sharing!

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