Writing Fiction: A Book is a Movie – Shots and Scenes
We’ve all been brought up with movies. And movies have evolved entertainment. Between them and TV, pulp fiction had to move to paperback publishing and short stories had to move to novels.
But movies always had to sell well, and among other technical aspects, the movies that sold well mirrored the way we look at life.
Ray Bradbury haunted me with a single phrase, buried deep in one of his essays inside “Zen in the Art of Writing.” He wrote screenplays later in life, and was a movie buff as a kid. So this section tells a lot about his writing:
“I’ve been lecturing at the University of Southern California cinema department for twenty-two years—I go down there a couple of times a year—and various students have come up to me and said, ‘Can we make films of your short stories?’ I say, ‘Sure, take them. Do it. But there’s one restriction I put on you. Shoot the whole story. Just read what I’ve done and line up the shots by the paragraphs. All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot.’ So, by God, those students, with their little cameras and $500, have shot better films than the big productions I’ve had, because they’ve followed the story.
“All my stories are cinematic. The Illustrated Man over at Warner Brothers a couple of years ago (1969) didn’t work because they didn’t read the short stories. I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.
“When I first talked to Sam Peckinpah years ago about directing ‘Something Wicked’, I said to him, ‘How are you going to shoot the film if we do it?’ He said, ‘Tear the pages out of the book and stuff them into the camera.’ I said, ‘Right.'”
That’s the tag that stuck: “Each paragraph is a shot.”
I was going through my stack of books recently (shoveling them out, pulling quotes from those worth anything) and came across a book “Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Techniques to Supercharge Your Writing” by C. S. Lakin. It turns out that she was brought up with a mother who worked as a scriptwriter, and so found herself on movie and TV sets watching these get made. And she read a lot of screenplays as her mother had stacks of them around her house.
The book is a decent one, and is on my short list of books to recommend (since I read more than scanned of it.) She points out how you can write your book using various camera shots.
The reason this works is as she point out:
“Movies are made up of a string of shot sequences—don’t confuse these with whole scenes. In creating a shot sequence, the aim of using a camera is to imitate the way the human mind uses the eyes. Our minds will not let our eyes stay fixed on any one subject for more than four or five seconds. Our eyes are constantly moving and focusing on different subjects.”
And so our movies tend to reflect our minds, and how we like to look at things. Lakin also noted that screenplays and their films have changed over the years.
You can use this in your own reading. Those books you like. Notice what imagery they turn up. Are you concentrated in a close-up, or taking a broad view (long shot) of things? Do you notice the the whole bar as you pan down the bar-room, or just the wood grain of the mahogany counter-top as a close up? Why does the author think that is important?
Read some more modern scripts (dailyscript.com) and you’ll see what shots you picture in your mind’s eye as it rolls through.
Now, make each shot a paragraph. Include only the details the reader needs to get immersed in the story and that will be necessary to move the plot forward or develop the character. (Again, you can come back to add in details if you start using something later that hasn’t been introduced. Authors do this all the time. You only read the finished version.)
The recurring point: read what you like, and if you want to write in a certain genre, then find some writers you like who sell well there. Then dissect the ones you really like, using Dorothea Brande’s “Becoming A Writer” approach in her Chapter 9 (book | course).
You also do this with movies that you really like. Watch them on your computer (where you can stop them with a keystroke) and note what shots they use. Dissect a few of these and you’ll see how they can be translated into text.
Bradbury was immersed in movies as a kid:
“I’m an automatic screenwriter; I always have been. I’ve always belonged to films. I’m a child of movies. I’ve seen every film ever made, starting when I was two. I’m just chock-full. When I was seventeen, I was seeing as many as twelve to fourteen movies a week. Well, that’s a hell of a lot of movies. That means I’ve seen everything, and that means all the crap. But that’s good. It’s a way of learning. You’ve got to learn how not to do things. Just seeing excellent films doesn’t educate you at all, because they’re mysterious. A great film is mysterious. There’s no way of solving it. Why does Citizen Kane work? Well, it just does. It’s brilliant on every level, and there’s no way of putting your finger on any one thing that’s right. It’s just all right. But a bad film is immediately evident, and it can teach you more: ‘I’ll never do that, and I’ll never do that, and I’ll never do that.’
“(But) you look at a thing like Lawrence of Arabia: some of the greatest scenes there are non-dialogue scenes. The whole scene where Lawrence goes back into the desert to rescue the camel driver: there’s not a line of dialogue. It goes on for five minutes, and it’s all image. When Lawrence comes out of the desert, after everyone’s waited for him for those minutes of beating sun and violent temperature—the music rises and your heart rises with you. That’s the sort of thing you’re looking for.”
The point here is to start using cinematic shots as your text. Because you already are, inside your own mind. More people think with and in images than not. Even partial images. Or images without visuals, but all the other senses. Where people have been watching movies, there unconscious is filled with exactly how stories should be told. Studying films then starts educating your conscious mind on how to use these and refine what your unconscious gives you.
How Long Should Your Paragraphs Be
The short answer is, only as long as they need to be. A longer answer is based on what pacing you need in order to keep the reader involved and creating the story for themselves.
Larin pointed out, “Television producers follow a basic rule that no shot should last more than thirty seconds, and no scene should last longer than three minutes. This is the 30-3 Rule. This is the basic idea of how shot sequences are made. You take one long scene and break it down into a variety of short shots.”
That gives us a rough rule of thumb that you have 6 paragraphs per scene. Of course, you’re going to break that rule all by itself, especially something fast-paced. However consider writing a few short stories and editing them down to just that rule. It would be quite an exercise.
You have to work it backward from the character and the change he/she wants to make. And if you want to leave the action’s result as a cliffhanger for the next scene, or show the emotional result of his/her action right then and there. (And then use the emotional cliffhanger?)
How Bradbury Kept His Stories In Line
There is a final inspiration Bradbury leaves us with in this particular interview:
I’m accustomed, you see, to getting up every morning, running to the typewriter, and in an hour I’ve created a world. I don’t have to wait for anyone. I don’t have to criticize anyone. It’s done. All I need is an hour, and I’m ahead of everyone. The rest of the day I can goof off. I’ve already done a thousand words this morning; so if I want to have a two or three-hour lunch, I can have it, because I’ve already beat everyone.
But a director says, “Oh, God, my spirits are up. Now, I wonder if I can get everyone else’s up.” What if my leading lady isn’t feeling well today? What if my leading man is cantankerous?
How do I handle it?
Your characters never present those problems?
Never. I never put up with anything from my ideas.
You just slap them into place?
As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you. If you try to approach a cat and pick it up, hell, it won’t let you do it. You’ve got to say, “Well, to hell with you.” And the cat says, “Wait a minute. He’s not behaving the way most humans do.” Then the cat follows you out of curiosity: “Well, what’s wrong with you that you don’t love me?”
Well, that’s what an idea is. See? You just say, “Well, hell, I don’t need depression. I don’t need worry. I don’t need to push.”
The ideas will follow me. When they’re off-guard, and ready to be born, I’ll turn around and grab them.
There you have it.
You learn and improve as a writer by lots of writing and lots of reading. You pay your bills by lots of promoting and publishing.
This article just gives you another metaphor and maybe some tools you can use to improve on what you already have.
At least, there is where I’m headed with all this.
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Also published on Medium.