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When thinking about scenes and story ideas, I can't help but picture something playing out as a movie. It's so much easier to picture someone moving and doing things than to actually describe what they are doing and write about it. I understand that this would make it easier for me to grasp what is happening in the story but my reader will not see what I see.

How can I stop viewing my writing as a film or how can I put the scene I picture in my head into words that make sense on a page?

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A key feature of written fiction is that we're not limited to two senses (sight and sound) the way film is. We writers can give the reader access to three additional senses, plus the internal experience of the viewpoint characters.

So practice writing all five senses, and practice writing viewpoint characters' internal experience. Thoughts, feelings, interpretations, internal conflicts and debates, and so on.

Here are some great ways to practice:

  • Observe something, and write what you observe. Focus on the five senses. If a thing you're observing doesn't offer all five senses, that's okay. Later you can find something for those senses, and describe that.
  • Observe something that you feel some internal reaction to. It need not be a strong reaction, but try a variety of reactions. Write what you're observing, and your reactions.
  • After you've read something that you really enjoy, go back and make notes about how the writer gave you insight into the characters' experiences through their senses and internal reactions.
  • Bring all of that to your fiction. When you write, in addition to whatever you would normally write, also write what the viewpoint characters see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. Write their reactions and opinions of those things.
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I want to suggest a different approach.

Cinematic writing, sometimes called cinematic narration, has been a conscious technique in literature since the invention of photography. Writers of nineteenth century poetic realism such as Theodor Storm have attempted to emulate the photographic gaze in their novels and created a style that is called pré cinéma, because it anticipated cinematic patterns of perception before cinema was invented. Writers of the 1920s Spanish avant-garde such as Azorín and writers of the French post-avant-garde such as Patrick Deville or Jean-Philippe Toussaint have used the "eye of the camera" with its outside view of characters and its objective gaze, the hard cuts of film editing, and other filmic elements as a stylistic device in their writing.

Maybe, instead of seeing your cinematic imagination as an obstacle to your writing, you can use it to create your own, distinct style of writing?


If you want to write "non-cinematically", what may help you is to be in your story.

If you see your story unfold like a movie, then you have something of a detached, outside view of events. You look on while things happen to someone else. What you can do is try to imagine that it is you, who is acting or who things are happening to.

When I draw, there is a simple technique that better helps me grasp the anatomy of a pose: I get into the pose myself. That may seem counter-intuitive, as I need to see to know how to draw a figure, but that is not true. To draw a person in a certain pose, I need to understand that pose. And there is no better way to understand it than to take up that pose yourself. If I do, I can feel how the different parts of my body relate to each other, and in some way that I cannot explain I then know what it looks like and how I need to draw it.

Maybe writing is not exactly similar, and you certainly cannot jump in front of a car to know what it means to get hit by one, but you can mentally aproximate that experience. The first thing I do is move. When I walk, or even stand, I can better think with my body. The memory of my physical experiences is activated, when my body is active, while it is often unreachable when I just sit there and think. The second thing is speaking, even subvocally, the dialog that is being said, and, as best as I can and my circumstances allow, to act out what my characters do. I write in the university library, and sometimes one of the students glances at me strangely because I make grimaces as if I had Tourette, but it helps. Sometimes I get up and do what looks like Tai Chi in the staircase. But even if you cannot physically act out what happens in your novel, you can try to the best of your ability to imagine what it would be like if you were there. Draw on your past experiences. Everyone has been afraid, jumped from something, felt the rain, and so on. Translate and exaggerate that to terror, falling from a roof, drowning in a storm.

In short, take your time with every scene and, before you write it, try to mentally be in that place and feel what being there would be like. Pause your movie, if you want, until you are in it, and then play it in slow motion. Be aware, with all your senses, what being in the movie is like.

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    "Maybe, instead of seeing your cinematic imagination as an obstacle to your writing, you can use it to create your own, distinct style of writing?" I agree wholeheartedly and often write the same way--after clearly visualizing a scene or an action. – Lew Jan 24 '17 at 15:06
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    So glad that it's not just me who will get up from my desk and assume poses around the room to get a feel for how they work. – anaximander Jan 25 '17 at 9:47
  • @anaximander With 8 billion people on Earth, no one is ever the only one doing anything. – user5645 Jan 25 '17 at 16:15
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I do the same thing, picturing how the scenes in my novel will progress as if it were through the lens of a camera. This means that when it comes to actually write the story, much of what goes onto the page is entirely different.

The thing that I always keep in my mind is that a movie director is very much like a writer: they are telling a story, they just have a different medium with which to tell it. Nothing ends up on their camera by accident, just as nothing ends up on the page by accident.

So when you're picturing the story developing in your mind as if it's on a screen, try to think what it is exactly that you're trying to portray on that screen. Then rather than describing the actions as you imagined them, write down how to get that same message across. It might be completely different to how you imagined it initially, but it will probably work better than simply describing what would be on a screen.

It's also important to remember that filming something is much easier to do "show, don't tell" than in writing, for the obvious reason that they are literally showing what is happening. However, writing has the advantage of not needing to give all of the exposition or motivation through dialogue.

So try to write to the strengths of the written format, whilst keeping in mind that you don't have the luxury of being able to describe everything in detail without boring your reader or overloading them with description. Just as every detail on a screen has a specific purpose, so does every word.

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Conveying your ideas through written words is like carrying on a dialogue with someone through old-fashioned letters, or through email. Notice that the classic big authors received and wrote a lot of letters. You can get quick feedback about the understandability and impact of your written words through individual correspondence with people and through online discussions, for example at StackExchange. All of this will give you practice and training. It will convince you in a visceral way that putting together your words in a thoughtful way makes a difference.

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