Tuesday, March 1

Writers: Make it Cinematic

By Paige Owen, @PaigeOrwin

Part of the How They Do It Series

I love stories of all types, especially movies. While movies and novels are different mediums, we can learn a lot about great storytelling and how to develop a rich story world by watching how great filmmakers do it. Paige Orwin visits the lecture hall today to share some cinematic tips on "filming" our stories.

Paige’s debut novel, The Interminables, puts a new spin on the classic tale of an immortal mystery man teaming up with the ghost of a First World War surgeon to save what’s left of the world after the end of the world. It’s due to release this July from Angry Robot Books.

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Take it away Paige...

When I write, I pick up a camera.

It’s a wonderful device, this camera, one that can float wherever I need it and keep up with whatever I want it to, taking up no space at all, and paired with it I have an equally wonderful stage crew that can move props and scenery in an eyeblink and always provide the right lighting. My actors are supremely dedicated to their craft and they do all their own stunts. It takes some concentration--some alone time, some music--but once it’s all in place my primary job is figuring out how to translate what I’m ‘filming’ onto the written page.

I have never had any formal training in cinematography. I have, however, seen my share of motion pictures and played my share of video games and I can tell you that there is a lot that writers can learn from that visual language.

Here are some examples of co-opting it for your own use:

Atmospheric Design


Set pieces in the movies (and in games) are meticulously crafted and designed to emphasize or enable particular parts of the action. If there’s a window, it’s usually there to be looked through or to throw someone through, and if there’s a fire, it’s been set to burn specific places first. Environments are given details that say something about the story and the people occupying it: this is why villains hang out in castles with sharply-pointed turrets placed improbably just above a pit of lava.

Likewise, in writing, every detail of the environment should be there for a reason. There are relatively fewer details that can be jammed into a single scene, but choosing them carefully and describing them with precision has the same effect that a well-designed set-piece does in film: it anchors what’s going on around it, and the rest can be inferred by the reader (who notices all of the background details in a movie on the first run-through, anyway?).

Camera Work


It might seem that all the camera does is record what’s in front of it, but how it does that is just as important as what’s there. It may swoop high above the landscape. It may whirl past a battle, capturing a moment from a variety of angles. It may cut rapidly back and forth between two people in an argument. It may linger on a particular detail: someone’s face, a plant, a dropped key.

All of this can be imitated in writing, using cadence (long sentences swoop and linger; short ones zip and spin) and scope or scale: what is being described in what level of detail. Something that’s given more description is effectively the subject of a zoom-in, while something mentioned briefly gives the impression of the camera moving past it, on its way to something else.

Lens Filters


What you see in the final product isn’t always what’s really there. Filters can change all kinds of things: colors, lighting, quality. This affects the final mood of the piece and is another technique that can be replicated in writing. A ‘dour’ filter, for example, will drain the colors out of everything but mold and rust and punch up the harshness of shadows. It will use clinical, dry words. It will comment on details with little enthusiasm and emphasize the boring and mundane.

If this sounds much like a dour person’s outlook on life, that’s because the most common “lens filter” involves putting the camera directly inside a person’s brain and seeing how that affects what details that camera focuses on, how it moves, and where it can go. Regardless of what’s actually there, that character’s opinion modifies everything that comes through the lens. The filter can even change from character to character!

A Fast Example


Say you want a giant monster to bust up directly through the floor at your heroes. Exciting! But how to describe this in a suitably cinematic fashion?

Well, let’s consider the environment first. We’re inside (there IS a floor), but let’s make it a metal catwalk suspended over a mess of interesting machinery. That way, it can rattle around as the monster approaches, and the machinery can get busted up as the monster comes through. Let’s put in some lights that can break and spark, for good measure.

Next, the camera. Let’s put it where all the characters are, right where the monster is coming up, so no one sees it before it busts through. When it first shows up, we’ll use a single short sentence to emphasize how sudden it was: the floor just erupts, BAM. Then we’ll cut around and zoom in on some specific details (Steel teeth with serrations of glass! Sparks showering from broken bulbs! The roar that’s so loud it makes the air tremble!) because in an exciting situation no one has time to take in everything. Then, to indicate that the monster is huge and moving up in a smooth motion, we’ll have a longer sentence that covers that massive jaw crashing into the machinery crashing into the catwalk crashing up towards the ceiling, with our characters trying to book it out of there before they’re all squashed, and bits of the lighting clattering down and rolling off the now-bulging catwalk into the abyss below.

Finally, for the lens, let’s filter the scene through dapper mystery man Edmund Templeton: he’s seen monsters like this before and he can get away, but there are other people here who can’t do that as easily, which would be worrisome. So, he’s naturally going to focus on the huge monster suddenly busting through the floor--anyone would--but almost immediately he’s going to switch over to trying to watch out for the other characters in the scene (who can escape on their own? Who hasn’t been saved yet? Who looks like they might be in the most trouble?).

And there we go. SUDDENLY MONSTER.

In Sum


Storytelling is storytelling. Effective techniques can be translated into almost any medium, and have been many, many times. Steal and use them all.

Now pick up that camera and try a helicopter shot!

About The Interminables

Edmund Templeton is the Hour Thief, a debonair 1940s-era mystery man who has been thirty-five for seventy years. Istvan Czernin is the ghost of an Austro-Hungarian surgeon merged with the terrible power of the First World War.

It's 2020.

​Eight years earlier, a magical cataclysm shattered reality as we know it. Edmund and Istvan are the most powerful agents of the wizard's cabal that now tries to keep the peace on the US East Coast, and have been assigned to hunt down an arms smuggling ring that could blow up Massachusetts.

What they find is a shadow war waged since the breaking of the world.

Caught between two inhuman forces, torn between love and loyalty, and betrayed by their own memories, Edmund and Istvan must rely on each other to overcome a foe that offers perfect happiness... and that, if left unchecked, could smother all that remains of civilization.

Available July 2016  Website | Twitter

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