Writing Cinematically

Here is the post that was meant to appear at BVC a few days ago …

This recent post at Paradox World about the first sentence of one of my recent books, Tuyo, focuses on the visual aspect of writing prose — about writing prose that has a cinematic quality, prose that carries the reader into the visual scene, as though watching a movie. Here is Anna’s analysis of this sentence:

The first sentence of Rachel Neumeier’s novel, Tuyo, widens the view before narrowing it again: “Beside the coals of the dying fire, within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp, surrounded by the great forest of the winter country, I waited for a terrible death.” 

This is a sentence almost like a camera trick. First, we have a narrow focus: “Beside the coals of a dying fire.” Then, we back out to a slightly wider view: “within the trampled borders of our abandoned camp.” A campfire is a small circle. The borders of a camp is a larger one. Next, we zoom to a very high altitude view: “surrounded by the great forest of the winter country.” We’d need to move to a mountain top or a bird’s eye to see an entire forest or an entire country. Suddenly, the focus is very tight again: “I” – one person, one face. And last, “waited for a terrible death,” prepares us for a final fade to black. Neumeier has written a truly cinematic sentence. 

I did not, of course, have any of that in mind when I wrote the sentence. I just wrote it. I’m not at all analytical when I write; I write by feel, as I suppose most writers probably do. But this is a fascinating topic — writing prose cinematically. It’s something I notice and enjoy.

There are a bunch of ways — endless ways, no doubt — to write prose in a way that is evokes the view for the reader. One way is to do it the way I did in the sentence above, by providing a string of introductory clauses in front of the actual sentence. Close view, midrange, wide focus, and here is the subject-verb-object right at the end.

Another is to do it with a lot of vivid adjectives and verbs, like this:

The alpine valley ended as sharply as though sheared away, leaving in its place a chasm falling in shattered steps into blackness before the land leaped up again in the distance, and up further to the head of a massive peak to the northwest. Flat sunlight struck the shoulders of the peak, flaring from snow and ice fields; it seemed in that moment that another world had opened before Kieve, one so new that the colors had not yet been added.

The verbs in particular create a sense of drama here. This is from Marta Randall’s novel Mapping Winter, which is on the magic-free end of the spectrum for secondary world fantasy and therefore feels a lot like a historical novel. This is also a particularly interesting novel as Randall, left unsatisfied by the version of the book that was traditionally published in 1983, revised it heavily and brought it out again with the new title in 2019. I liked the first version, but the new version is truly excellent and I highly recommend it. One of the reasons I love this book is the author’s gift for cinematic description. (Amazon’s page for the book contains a “from the author” note from Marta Randall, describing why she wasn’t satisfied by the first version of this book and why she decided to revise it, which is also interesting to read, if not relevant to the topic here.)

Again, the scenery is presented long before the character steps into the paragraph: valley, chasm, land that leaps up, sunlight flaring, and here at last is Kieve, stunned by the view. Not that there’s any particular magic to presenting the scenery before anyone steps into the paragraph to view that scenery, but scenery-scenery-scenery-character can help pause the scene for the reader even though the verbs are active.

To achieve a perfect stop-action effect, there’s a different technique. Let’s pause for a look at one specific scene from Dickens’ Great Expectations:

…”Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“Oh, don’t cut my throat, sir

Look at that! From threat to response would be, what, a microsecond? But rather than going straight from threat directly to response, Dickens stops the action to show us Abel Magwitch through Pip’s eyes. That whole paragraph is free of action verbs until right at the end when Magwitch seizes Pip by the chin and the action suddenly starts up again.

This is one great function of sentence fragments in fiction: Fragments stop the action and produce a moment when nothing is happening except perception. This is an extraordinarily visual technique. Again, it’s visual, visual, and then at the end of the paragraph, character, action, and back into the story.

Here’s another example. This is the opening paragraph from The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith:

An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azaliea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or five miles. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy.

You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o’clock and can’t keep still, can’t even bear to sit down in my Lake Claire house, it’s because I see again the first body I hadn’t killed.

Visual. Visual. Finally, here is the subject and her action, walking. The second paragraph sets the hook with indications of past action, not with current action, which would be risky for a less-skilled writer. Griffith pulls it off, or at least she hooked me.

This was, I think, the first book of Griffith’s I read. I still remember the immediate feeling of satisfaction when I started this book. I read those very first lines and knew, not that I would love the book, but that I would love the writing. I did love the book, and the whole series, and highly recommend them. They aren’t SFF; they’re thrillers. Well, they’re actually a character study disguised as thrillers. Aud Torvingen, the protagonist, is a wonderful example, maybe the best example I’ve ever seen, of a character who is a sensualist. I don’t mean specifically in a sexual sense. I mean a voluptuary — a hedonist — I mean that Aud is focused on sensory experience and perceives the world through her senses to a remarkable degree. This is therefore a novel, or series of novels, where the focus is very much on writing that evokes the sensual world.

But it wasn’t any of that which hooked me first. It was the visual impact of those fragments in the first paragraph.

So, by leaving out verbs, particularly action verbs, fragments provide a stop-action shot and a strong visual moment in prose. This is interesting to notice partly because of common advice to emphasize action verbs, so let me take a moment to look at a beautiful paragraph that uses plenty of verbs, but almost no action verbs. This is from Annie Dillard’s eclipse essay in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

Annie Dillard’s writing is just lovely. It’s like reading poetry disguised as prose. If you would like to read that whole essay, it’s online here. But let’s pause and look at her use of “be” verbs in the above paragraph:

It was going. The sun was going. The world was wrong. The grasses were wrong. They were platinum. The hues were metallic. Their finish was matte. The hillside was a faded photograph. The people are dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. The grasses were metal. I was watching. I was standing. I was standing.

“Be” verbs can feel weak. Repetitive sentence structure can grate like fingernails on a blackboard. But in this case, the repetitive sentence structure, this was that, falls into a cadence, like a litany. Dillard emphasizes that even more by repeating going and wrong and standing and platinum and metal — all this repetition also serves to make this paragraph read like a litany. This serves not only to pause the action, but to ratchet up tension in the scene as the reader waits for the resolution. It comes in the last sentence, as Dillard provides the emotional climax of the sentence, the feeling of removal from everything normal and the real light of day.

While we’re thinking of photographs and unreal hues and so on, let me just share a photo of one of my dogs. I placed this beautiful, sweet dog of mine in a pet home this summer because I couldn’t breed her without risk to her health and wanted her to be in a home where she could be the center of attention. She’s very happy, the people are delighted with her, and the husband of the couple happens to be a photographer. Here’s Kimmie:

This is why photographers continue to work with monochromatic photos; because sometimes those pictures capture something that can be missing from true-to-life color. In this case, I think the monochromatic image lends this photo a timeless feeling — a bit like the feeling evoked by Annie Dillard’s description of the eclipse.

Visual images are inherently powerful. It’s a lot more of a trick to evoke visual images in prose. If you’ve found yourself thinking of an author or a work particularly skilled at cinematic writing, by all means drop suggestions in the comments!

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