I am not an expert. I don’t have a bundle of best sellers under my belt. I’m not going to tell you that I have all the answers. But I like to read. I like to read books and like I watch films. I started my career as a video editor. I’ve made short films. I’ve seen how the medium has become democratized by digital equipment, and I have seen how that has made story more important than Hollywood budgets. I’ve also seen self-publishing democratize fiction writing in much the same way. So I married those two ideas together, and this is where we’re left: a few insights on how to write your book like a filmmaker.
Writing Scenes That Matter
I hate scenes that don’t go anywhere. Watching scenes in a film that don’t bear any importance to the overall plot are stupid. You end up with a bloated film or a self-important arthouse film. People don’t like to watch these unless, of course, they are snobs. We don’t reader snobs. Those are the minority of readers.
Write scenes that build on the plots, characters, or theme. If a scene is just in the book to be funny, or it’s one of your darlings… lose it. Save it for something else, or make it work into one of those three categories.
I like the film Reservoir Dogs, but the opening scene with its long dialogue – which isn’t really related to any characters, plot, or theme – drives me crazy. You could cut the scene out, and we’d still understand the rest of the film. If you can cut a scene out, and there is no confusion or meaning taken away from your story, then it probably shouldn’t have been
there to begin with. If you can cut the scene but don’t, then what you’re left with is something bordering on a masturbatory act. You are in it for the pleasure of your own writing; to hear your own voice. If the purpose of writing a book is to hear your own voice, then just don’t. Keep it locked away in your archives to read yourself to sleep. Don’t write me to sleep with extraneous prose.
The ‘Cold Open’ Prologue
I enjoy the ‘Cold Open’. It’s that moment before the story truly starts. Before the opening credits hit. It’s the intrigue before the plot engages. It’s the pull. The cold open is like a spider’s web; it’s meant to trap the reader.
If you can, write an opening that hints to the larger problem or goal of the story, then throw the reader into the midst of the characters. Entice them with a titillating premise. Then leave them wanting more as the story begins and your main character is in search of their goal.
Describe the Setting
Give the pieces of setting that matter. Don’t wear out your welcome with words. Painting pictures is more important than filling in all the gaps. The mind will do that just fine on its own. You may show me exactly where I’m at, what’s in the room, how it got there, the significance of its presence, and I’ll forget what the scene was supposed to be about or why the main character was there to begin with.
Think of setting description like an establishing shot in your favorite film. Give us a taste for the theatrical. Allude to the important parts, then get out of the way and let the characters play. Nobody cares about fifteen establishing shots sans people. People read stories for the characters DOING things.
Prose is not just a problem of description. It can be a huge burden on your dialogue. A block paragraph of speech is just begging to be skipped or skimmed. Two characters shooting back and forth at each other – in a way that can be easily followed (that’s key) – is snappy, fun, and driving your reader into a conversation that is enjoyable.
An overly verbose monologue-er is just dead weight, a corpse being dragged through a swamp of self-important drivel. Maybe you write beautiful prose that flows elegantly. But your probably aren’t; and that’s okay, but don’t be someone who thinks their the former and their product shows they’re the latter.
Action Related to Theme
Explosions for explosions’s sakes is akin to a wet fart. Just ask Michael Bay’s audience after leaving a Transformers film. Action should ALWAYS be related to the theme of your work. If it isn’t, it’s just fluff. When I was a kid people used to play this game called chubby bunny. They would take wads of giant marshmallows, and, one-by-one, insert them into their mouth and shout, “Chubby Bunny!” as best they could. They stopped playing this game because it was a massive choking hazard. Extraneous action scenes are the marshmallows, and your reader is swallowing them one by one. Don’t make them choke on something that wasn’t even necessary.
Keeping it Simple
Throw your work at beta readers. Let them decide how much is too much. They can help you keep things simple. They may see what’s boring or bloated before you (or an editor) will. Don’t be afraid to let your darlings (those prose-tinted glassed ideas) ruin your audience’s fun with something you’ve truly devoted a craft to.
Yes, it’s hard, and, yes, you may not see much glory for it. But it could be worse: you could’ve been born a caveman without the written word at all. So… go type.