Lights, Camera, Action: or how movies can make you a better novelist (and revisions less painful)

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: she’s just looking for an excuse to watch The Holiday while she should be working.

Well… okay, it may be true that a movie a little like that is running in the background while I type this, but it’s for a good reason and if you’ll bear with me, I’ll explain.

A week or so ago, I was meditating on the extraordinary power a movie’s music has to evoke emotion, meaning and even a sense of place in the audience.*

So then I got to thinking about all the other clever people who are involved in creating the experience we have when we go to the cinema.

It’s not just the actors, although they get most of the glory (when there’s glory to be had).  There’s the cinematographer and the director who frame the shots and decide what we actually see on the screen.  There are the production and set designers and builders who create the world of the movie and provide so many subtle cues about the characters and what’s important.  There are costume designers, who quite literally ‘make’ the characters, if the old saying about clothes is true.  There are sound and lighting and cgi people and foley artists and props people and casting agents and editors and… you get the idea.

When you consider all that talent, all those people who make up the team and bring you the movie, one starts to wonder what the writer brings.

The answer is both simple and profound.  The writer brings the spine that holds it all together – the story.  In a movie script, that means the action and the dialogue.

I can hear you saying, ‘what about the characters’? Bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain.  Of course, characters are central to any story.  The reason I have expressed it as action and dialogue is that a screenwriter creates a character almost exclusively through what they say and what they do.  The writer can give the actors and director notes about what the characters look like and where they come from (literally and metaphorically) but they can’t give those cues directly to the end audience.  Not usually, anyway.  Sure, there’s voice-over and similar techniques, but for the most part, in movies, the way the writer influences the presentation of character is in their words and their actions.

This isn’t the case in a novel.  A novelist has both more freedom and more responsibility than a screenwriter.

When you write a novel, you are responsible for all those jobs normally spread over tens, dozens or hundreds of other people.  You decide how the characters dress, where they live, what they look like, what experiences they had in their childhood and how much of that to show, both in each ‘shot’ and overall.

In some ways its wonderful.  For instance, a novelist doesn’t have to worry about budgetary constraints.  If we want an army to swoop down over the hill riding fell-beasts, we can have them, as our readers will supply the cgi free of charge.  If we want our readers to know what a character is thinking, we can just go inside the character’s head and let them see.  We can decide on the characters’ looks and wardrobe and living quarters without any reference to what’s available to be filmed. That’s a freedom denied to screenwriters.

But in other ways, it can be a trap.

We’ve ll seen them.  Movies that look amazing, that have had the artistry of all those movie magicians lavished on them to an extraordinary degree, but which somehow still manage to be boring.  Movies that you feel you should like, because the performances were good, or the lighting magnificent, but which you forget almost before you leave the theatre.

That can happen to our novels too, if we get too caught up in the ‘other’ jobs and don’t focus on the spine of the story – what our characters say and do.

With novelists it’s not usually big special effects that trip us up (although if you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, I suppose it could be the written equivalent).  It’s more likely to be backstory, or too much talking about personality and not enough showing it through choices.  The characters might be great in our heads, but if we don’t show enough of that in their actions and words to make the reader care about them, the novel will fall over as surely as a movie without a good spine.

I think this is why screenwriting teachers have become popular among novelists as teachers of story.  We have so much to work with when shaping a novel that we can get dazzled by the details and lose sight of our story’s spine.  Stripping it back to what the characters do and say can help us to keep the shape and structure of the story strong.

But structure isn’t always the problem.  If you are a natural plotter, it may be that your structure is already strong.  If you are the kind of writer who can break your story into ‘beats’ without breaking a sweat, you might not need that kind of help (although you might have a side-career in teaching others, just sayin’ 😉 ).  That’s when considering the ‘other’ jobs on a movie might help you – and be some serious fun.

If you have a story that you think needs more depth, more colour, more oomph or just more fun, it’s an excuse to let your imagination off the leash and play pretend.

Let yourself be a costume designer or a set designer for a day.  Put yourself in your character’s shoes and take yourself out shopping.  Where would they go? Would they choose their sofa from a boutique made-to-order place, Ikea, or the op shop?  Would they buy their clothes in the retro-funk part of town, or in a buttoned-down department store? Or do they hate shopping and have to be dragged out to do it by a friend?

When you’re revising your scene, don’t just look at what happens, but make yourself your own cinematographer.  Have a look around the (imaginary) room your characters are in.  What’s the best angle for the shot?  Is it a wide shot or a close-up? What else can you see around your people? What do those things say?

Close your eyes and listen to the scene.  What can you hear? What would your foley people need to add to make it seem real? Do the shoes squeak? Does the wine slide or gulp down? Does the door slam? Do the birds cry in the distance?

Take another day and hire or buy some of your favourite movies and watch them again.  But this time, look not just at the pretty people and what they say and do, but how the actors and director and so on have supported those words and actions.  Listen to the director’s commentaries and watch the extras on the DVD for insight into how the process works.

When a movie is well-made, we get caught up in the story and think that we are seeing ‘what happened’.  But in fact, everything on the screen is a decision.

The same is true of a well-crafted novel, of course, but as novelists, sometimes it’s hard to know what to put in and leave out because we are one person making all the decisions.  (This is partly what editors are for, of course, but we have to be our own first editors.)

If we break down those decisions into a team effort, it can make them easier.  By separating and externalising each part of our revisions, we can give ourselves some distance and perspective and have fun with a process that can sometimes feel like opening a vein.  We already have voices in our heads that talk to us. What’s a few more between friends?  (The only risk is that your movie-team personas will start developing personalities and demanding stories of their own. My cinematographer already has a name…)

When I first started writing fiction, thinking about breaking anything down to its component parts would have freaked me out.  If I thought too much about any part of the process I would have been too intimidated to start, much less finish.  If you’re just starting out, don’t worry about any of this.  Just finish the story.

But if you are looking for a way to freshen up your novel, or just a new way of making revisions more fun, maybe it’s time to look to the movies…


Once again, the photos on this page are courtesy of the lovely folks at

10 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Action: or how movies can make you a better novelist (and revisions less painful)

  1. A great post, Imelda. I was taking a break from the WIP to read my blogs and this totally resonated. I don’t watch a lot of TV and go to less movies. This was really brought home to me during the Alexandra Sokoloff workshop at RWAus conference. So I think I can now justify kicking back and watching a few DVDS. Thanks!

    • Um, that’s not really surprising, since I got the idea from you! 🙂 of course, I write contemporary, so I was thinking that way, but period would be an excuse to haunt art galleries and bookshops and history recreation groups, I imagine! Enthusiasts are fabulous research resources for writers, as they put much more time and effort into their research than someone who has to charge for their time can afford.

        • You are sooo sweet! Also, you open an area I could yak for hours on. Yes,, I have used Civil War re-enactors to help with the Civil War aspects of a film I did. Paintings, writings etc. all paint a picture of what the clothes look like. Still, I must articulate specific characters. So I think things like “Does he live with his widowed mother and does she take great care in the washing and mending of his clothes?” “Or does he live with his wife and five children and his are the last she worries about?” I love thinking on the wealthy with their servants tatting fine laces, embroidering hemlines and wearing washed white kidd until they’ve dried.”
          I often think about Mrs. Crachit’s twice turned dress.

          • Hehe. I knew you meant gloves! I actually have some white kidd gloves somewhere. They were my Grandmother’s. I didn’t know you could wash them, but that makes perfect sense, the wearing until they dried, now that you mention it. See? That’s the kind of detail that is great and that you don’t get from grand histories. That’s where the reconstruction guys are great because they actuall wear the things so even if they can’t find it in books, they work it out for themselves. And I one turned a sheet ‘sides to middle’ just to see how it worked. Of course, I cheated and used a sewing machine, but still…

    • Thanks again for the mention! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I am fascinated by the process of movie-making. We got the extended Lord of the Rings DVDs and they included hours and hours of extras about the making process. I am in awe of the skills of all the people involved and even more of the organising minds that keep them all working together and to budget. I suppose as novelists we do the same thing, but we can tell the props dept to shut up and wait their turn. I don’t think that would go down so well on a set. I’m good at logistics but the logistical task of co-ordinating something like that shoot staggers me.

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