Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

How to write a story so it reads like a movie in your head

I’ve written about writing a few times now, including Writing’s 3 Essential Skills (Jul. 2013) and How to Create an Imaginary, Believable World (Aug. 2010), the last one being a particularly popular post. Also, I taught a creative writing course in 2009 and have given a couple of talks on the subject, but never intentionally to provide advice on how to make a story read like a movie in your head.

This post has arisen from a conversation I had when I realised I had effectively taught myself how to do this. It’s not something that I deliberately set out to do but I believe I achieved it inadvertently and comments from some readers appear to confirm this. At YABooksCentral, a teenage reviewer has made the point specifically, and many others have said that my book (Elvene) would make a good movie, including a filmmaker. Many have said that they ‘could see everything’ in their mind’s eye.

Very early in my writing career (though it’s never been my day job) I took some screenwriting courses and even wrote a screenplay. I found that this subconsciously influenced my prose writing in ways that I never foresaw and that I will now explain. The formatting of a screenplay doesn’t lend itself to fluidity, with separate headings for every scene and dialogue in blocks interspersed with occasional brief descriptive passages. Yet a well written screenplay lets you see the movie in your mind’s eye and you should write it as you’d imagine it appearing on a screen. However, contrary to what you might think, this is not the way to write a novel. Do not write a novel as if watching a movie. Have I confused you? Well, bear this in mind and hopefully it will all make sense before the end.

Significantly, a screenplay needs to be written in ‘real time’, which means descriptions are minimalistic and exposition non-existent (although screenwriters routinely smuggle exposition into their dialogue). Also, all the characterisation is in the dialogue and the action – you don’t need physical descriptions of a character, including their attire, unless it’s significant; just gender, generic age and ethnicity (if it’s important). It was this minimalistic approach that I subconsciously imported into my prose fiction.

There is one major difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel and the two subsequent methods require different states of mind. In writing a screenplay you can only write what is seen and heard on the screen, whereas a novel can be written entirely (though not necessarily) from inside a character’s head. I hope this clarifies the point I made earlier. Now, as someone once pointed out to me (fellow blogger, Eli Horowitz) movies can take you into a character’s head through voiceover, flashbacks and dream sequences. But, even so, the screenplay would only record what is seen and heard on the screen, and these are exceptions, not the norm. Whereas, in a novel, getting inside a character’s head is the norm.

To finally address the question implicit in my heading, there are really only 2 ‘tricks’ for want of a better term: write the story in real time and always from some character’s point of view. Even description can be given through a character’s eyes, and the reader subconsciously becomes an actor. By inhabiting a character’s mind, the reader becomes fully immersed in the story.

Now I need to say something about scenes, because, contrary to popular belief, scenes are the smallest component of a story, not words or sentences or paragraphs. It’s best to think of the words on the page like the notes on a musical score. When you listen to a piece of music, the written score is irrelevant, and, even if you read the score, you wouldn’t hear the music anyway (unless, perhaps, if you’re a musician or a composer). Similarly, the story takes place in the reader’s mind where the words on the page conjure up images and emotions without conscious effort.

In a screenplay a scene has a specific definition, defined by a change in location or time. I use the same definition when writing prose. There are subtle methods for expanding and contracting time psychologically in a movie, and those can also be applied to prose fiction. I’ve made the point before that the language of story is the language of dreams, and in dreams, as in stories, sudden changes in location and time are not aberrant. In fact, I would argue that if we didn’t dream, stories wouldn’t work because our minds would continuously and subconsciously struggle with the logic.

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