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Monday, May 30, 2011

Using a Cinematic Lens in Writing a Novel ~ Part 1

We just covered a few sessions on first scene structure, and there is so much more to that. However, since I'm gearing up to start teaching workshops at conferences this summer and fall on screenwriting-related topics, I thought I'd share some of the techniques I'll be teaching on. In particular, how to utilize camera direction in your novel to make it dynamic and physically "moving" as opposed to static, which is often the case in scene structure.

Having been raised by a prominent screenwriter/TV producer, I was surrounded by piles of scripts in my house. Even though I read a lot of books as a kid, I probably read just as many screenplays. My mother was often story editor on TV shows (like Mod Squad) or the principal writer/producer/creator (The Rookies, Flamingo Road, The Doctors, Peyton Place, and the list could fill a page). My first job at age ten was collating my mother's Doctors' scripts, which required my pulling out the messy sheets of carbon papers from between the typewritten (yes, using a manual typewriter) pages of script. Each half-hour episode would be about thirty pages, and I had to put the four final copies together for five shows a week, month after month, for my mother to mail to NY from CA.

The first proposal I submitted was at about age twelve, with a story pitch for the show called The Woman from U.N.C.L.E. I still have the rejection letter from the producer--my first of many to come over the years. Although I worked on projects with my mother in developing ideas for TV Movies-of-the-Week MOW) and series "Bibles" (6-12 months' plotting for the show) for which I actually got paid, I never did write a script that sold. My brother went on to become one of Hollywood's top TV screenwriters and will go down in infamy as the man who "shot JR" the years he produced and wrote for Dallas. (Yes, he came up with the idea and wrote the script, never thinking it would become such hot stuff.)

I say all this as a preface to the following material. When you are raised on TV sets and reading scripts your whole life, your writing is greatly influenced by this visual medium. I once had my high school English teacher tell me, "If you can visualize what you are writing as a movie, you will write well." Sol Stein says in his book On Writing: “Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes."

So, writers today are being told "show, don't tell." Those long pages of narrative we used to see in best-selling novels are a thing of the past. You will still see some impressive narration in literary novels today, and a terrific writer can paint evocative and gripping images that tells rather than shows, but for most writers, their books are going to flop if they cannot create scenes that are visually stirring, visceral, emotive, and dynamic. One of the main ways to achieve this is by using camera techniques in your writing.

Since I've used up quite a bit of space just in the intro here, I won't go too deep in this first post about camera technique, but what I plan to do is explore some of the camera angles used in film and show how you can translate that into your novel in a visual way. We are going to look at stationary angles like close-up (CU) shots, establishing shots (ES), Insert, montage, series of shots, and long shots (LS). We are also going to look at moving camera directives such as zoom, pan, angle on, follow, find, and pull back. Once you learn to see your scenes as if you are the director and you specifically choose camera angles and techniques to play out your scene, you will have a whole new perspective on writing.

I often have people say to me, "I could just picture your book as a movie the whole time I was reading it." That doesn't necessarily mean it's a great book when someone says that. But for me, it validates the way I write and the deliberateness of how I write. Before I write every scene, I picture the different camera angles I might use in order to achieve the specific result I want--to make the reader notice what I want her to see, and at the pace I want her to see it.

Once you learn about these techniques, when you read a novel you will be stuck by how many writers write scenes that are flat, have no movement, and feel as if they are being shot from across a room without any dynamism.You will often see two people in conversation in a close up where the camera never moves. The reader often ends up bored without knowing why.

I'm hoping to shake up your world a little with this material, to get you to see how to see your scenes in a new way. I believe once you start practicing these techniques, you will find yourself getting excited and innovated by your burgeoning imagination as you start to see how you can make your scenes much more powerful and evocative. So we'll dig in next time. And if you have a hankering to come to the Kentucky Christian Writers' Conference June 24-25 in Elizabethtown, you can take the complete workshop on this topic. Hope to see you there!

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