How to Make Your Book Play Out Like a Movie

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Recently I received a reader email that said this: "My friend gave me The Doctor's Lady and I devoured it in two days . . . The scenes play out like a movie in my head, and I felt the characters were all real people!”

The scenes play out like a movie.

The comment was interesting and pushed me to analyze some of the techniques that I utilize to bring the book to the big screen of the reader’s mind. Because ultimately, we want to bring our story to life in such a way that the reader feels they are there experiencing the story right along with our characters.

So how do we make our books play out in the reader’s mind like a movie? Here are just a few things I do:

1. Choose scenes strategically.

In the most recent book I wrote (which I recently turned in to my publisher), I had approximately 40-45 scenes. How did I choose what scenes to include and which ones to leave out?

Part of the decision-making will have to do with genre expectations. Romance readers want to see the developing love-relationship between the hero and heroine. So we usually need to play out the key relationship-changing moments (dates, conflicts, important meetings, etc.). Readers will be disappointed if those kinds of scenes happen off-screen. Other genres will have reader expectations as well (that’s why it’s important to study our genres!).

I also try only to display scenes that move quickly and have the most tension, conflict, and action—scenes that could truly play out on a movie screen. I eliminate having a bunch of slower-paced, smaller, static scenes with little happening in them. Instead, I economize by finding ways to slip minor but necessary details into my conflict-laden scenes.

2. Eliminate unnecessary transitions.

Obviously we can’t include everything that happens to our characters spanning many months. So we’ll summarize what happens between scenes (often called a sequel). I like to think of those summaries as transitions—a way to get from one important scene to the next critical happening.

Yes, transitions are sometimes necessary—especially when we want to skim over a large passing of time. However, movies have very few transitional scenes. Instead they jump-cut from one important point to the next, leaving it to the viewers’ imagination and intelligence to piece together what’s happened in the interim.

We can use that technique in our books too. Our readers are just as intelligent as movie-goers and don’t need to know anything other than what’s truly important to the story itself. If we must fill them in with the between-time happenings, we can often do so by dropping the information into the current scene in quick bites or subtle ways.

3. Craft the setting carefully.

We want the setting to become so vivid that our readers visualize, smell, hear, taste, touch, and are immersed into the scene right along with the characters. On the other hand, we don't want our readers to realize we’re describing things. Too much portrayal (or describing unnecessary or unimportant details) will bog the reader down.

So how can we make a setting seem movie-screen real without overpowering our readers? Like with other story elements, we'll need to be strategic in what we choose to describe and where we place those descriptions. Often we do a good job of grounding the reader in the setting at the beginning of the scene, but then we allow our characters to act in a blank vortex for the remainder. The key is to look for ways to intentionally thread the setting details throughout the entire scene.

4. Breathe life into characters.

Bringing our characters to life is one the most challenging aspects of writing. We can pick the dramatic scenes to “film,” eliminate pesky transitions that slow down the story, and give the setting a makeover. But then we often fail to breathe life into our characters and instead populate the page with stick-figures.

One way to make our characters three-dimensional, is to get inside her their heads. We need to see what they’re thinking. If all we do is “show” them acting, but never take the time to move into the character’s mind to hear their reactions, then we risk having flat characters. We need to know their intense joys, deep pains, and heart-wrenching conflicts—and we can do this by giving the reader glimpses into the character’s internal struggles and thoughts.

In getting the reader into a character’s head, we help them see the story through the character’s eyes. The book plays out even more like a movie because now the reader has “become” the main character.

Have you read any books lately that felt as if you were watching a movie? What helps bring a book to life for you?

P.S. If you missed voting on the cover options for my next book, there's still time. Head over to this post or to my Facebook Page to pick your favorite cover!


  1. Hi, Jody!

    Great post. I know what you mean about intertwining details into the scenes - especially in historical writing. My genre is historical mysteries, and it needs a delicate touch to make sure it's done seamlessly. I have to be careful not to go off on a scholarly tangent about 19th century women's fashions, LOL.

    I'll have to count my scenes to see what I've got...would you say 40-45 is a typical number generally speaking?


    1. Hi Kathy,

      No, I don't think there is a typical number. My books are usually about 100K, and about 20-25 chapters. So I often have about 2 scenes per chapter (and often switch POV for each scene). But of course, it's not set in stone and I could go a whole chapter in one POV and one scene. I honestly think, everyone is going to be different, and each book will vary. But overall, I do think it's good for us to look at our scenes a little more carefully. While we want the book to play seamlessly for our readers, we as writers should see the distinctions in scenes.

    2. I love how you take the pie and break it down for us. Thank you for the great advice!

  2. I can't recall any recent novels that played out like a movie, but details about the setting definitely bring me into a story and help scenes come to life in my imagination. I recall one novel where it described a dog entering into the kitchen, and its little nails were tapping on the floor. Somehow, that one seemingly insignificant detail conjured up a whole comfy-cozy kitchen scene for me. It's strange how the littlest details can do that.

    This is a random question Jody, but sort of parallel to your post... Do you think you would ever want your book(s) made into movies? Just curious.

    1. Your question made me smile, Barb! I'm sure most authors secretly dream of that possibility, at least I know I have! But, the longer I'm in this business, the more I realize how difficult such a possibility really is. I was just reading a post the other day about how even when books are "optioned" for movies, a very small percentage actually make it. So while getting an "option" is a big deal. It's still a tough and competitive market for movies just as it is for books. But, hey! We can still always dream, right? :-)

  3. For me, engaging dialogue is key. And that, of course, requires it to sound real and be witty. The last book I read was The Hunger Games and it definitely read like a movie...and a movie is coming out this spring, so I guess others agree. Lol.

    Great post, as always!

  4. Interesting question, Jody. My gut reaction is to say that all novels play out like a movie in my head. Some just more vividly than others, for the reasons you've stated. I'd say those books that include too much static description or not enough character development to make me care deeply about the characters are movies in my head interrupted by periods of gray static or blurred focus, or a DP who's let the camera wander over to the extras lounging around craft service. Those are the points I usually put the book down and turn off the light for the night.

  5. I agree with Lori -- I always "get into" my books. Real life fades away as I become part of the story. One thing that tends to really interrupt the motion for me is when the writer doesn't give me enough credit -- it's one thing to get into a character's head to see what he or she is thinking. It's another altogether where the author must tell me why he or she is thinking that. I'm reading one book right now that has a great storyline and interesting characters, and I really want to know how it ends ... but I hesitate to pick it up because I'm tired of skimming over sections where the author explains the reasons behind the thinking or action to me.

  6. Great post. I recently wrote a crime thriller & tried to think through a lot of these steps. Thanks for the advice. As writers, we can only get better with time!

  7. This post is really helpful while I'm working on revisions and deciding what to keep and what to cut. Thank you!

    The book I'm reading right now plays like a movie in my head. I see it as I'm reading it. It's "If Jack's in Love" by Stephen Wetta.

  8. Love your additional suggestions! Yes, I agree with the dialogue needing to be larger than life! Great point!

  9. You dole out such great advice!! Thanks!!

  10. You dole out such great advice!! Thanks!!

  11. As per usual, you have written a great post! You certainly know how to get people thinking...

    One book (series) that always plays out in my head is The Goddess of Partholon series by P.C Cast! :-)

  12. Have you been conspiring with my crit partner, Jody? LOL. She's been getting on my case about #2, and I've had trouble parting with a transition scene. But I know it's necessary, so I'll listen to you both and start chopping. :)

  13. Great advice. Over explaining a scene, motivations, etc. can really kill pacing, and kick the reader right out.

    Someone else (I forget who) noted that when choosing scenes to write, we should only do the ones that fire us up. The reader will feel our enthusiasm in our writing. If we're bored...well, then, the reader will be too.

    Write on!

  14. This is all great advice, especially the part about not letting the relationship-changing moments happen off-screen. I read a book once that I really didn't like, partly because it kept building up to supposedly important scenes/plot points, and then the narrator just glossed over it in the end or one of the other characters briefly discussed what happened. And like you said, I was disappointed, because it made the previous buildup seem pointless.

  15. Very timely post as I dive into book 2, Jody.
    I know I can always count on worthwhile information at your blog!

  16. great post!! Yes, I can see most of my favorite books as movies, and sometimes wish they'd be made into a movie. Great advice for writing scenes: would this be interesting in a movie or not? Something to really think about.

  17. I love this post. This is exactly how I try to make my scenes flow. I visualise everything as if it were a movie in my mind before starting to write and try to capture that feeling. Being told that my book read like a movie would be one of the best compliments I could receive.

  18. Great, concise post. You are so right on you point about not giving the reader credit and over explaining. I will put a book down and move on if my interest is not grabbed, and held, from the first page. I don't have time for books I have to slog through. Thanks for the writing tips.

  19. Yes! One of my goals as a writer is to present my story in a way that allows readers to "see" it in their heads. I’ve shied away from providing a lot of scene description (although I admit sometimes I worry about not offering enough), and I've had good luck with using my dialogue to (hopefully) bring it to life on those mind-made movie screens.

    I know as a reader, if I'm "seeing" the story in my head, the author has definitely pulled me in and keeps me turning those pages.

    Thanks for your post. Happy Friday!

  20. Jody, good points, and I like what your commenters have to say too.

    It's interesting that you include "getting inside the character's head." I agree that this is essential to creating the world of the novel, but at the same time, it is the most novelistic and least cinematic of the tools at our disposal. So we use our accesss to consciousness to create reality through unvoiced thought, which movies can't do. And yet, you're right that it's one of the techniques that paradoxically makes it "like a movie."

  21. Goodness I love your blog. I also try to write the fastest-paced, conflict-ridden scenes that I can; that's how I want to read, so I assume that's what readers will want.

    But weaving the little, crucial details into those scenes is something I never thought about. I know that on some level I've been doing that, but hearing it voiced (err...typed?) makes me more aware of it for the future. Thanks!

  22. Rosslyn,

    Yes, I know it does seem somewhat odd to think that we can make our books read like a movie by going inside a character's head. Because, ultimately, as you said, that's what makes reading so enjoyable (vs. watching a movie), because as readers we get to know more of the character's thoughts than are possible otherwise.

    But . . . as I thought about what makes books seem more "real," I realized the books that spring to life the most are the ones where I BECOME the character I'm reading about. The book turns into a living experience when I'm able to get into the character's head.

    When I thought about books that fall flat, they're usually the ones that don't take me deep enough into the character's emotions and thoughts, so that all I see are people walking about on the page, but they aren't really alive.

    Hope that makes sense!

  23. Hi Jody,

    Just wanted to say that I, too, read 'The Doctor's Lady' in about two days.
    What an awesome book! I loved the characters, especially Eli.
    Yummy! Definitely movie potential.

    Can't wait for your next one!


  24. Like a movie? Yes, two of them: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, and Bleedover by Curtis Hox. Both are great books in their respective genres—romance and science fiction—and both stories play out very cinematically.

  25. Susan, So glad you enjoyed my book too! Thank you for your encouraging words! That's so sweet of you!

  26. You're always so good to share your knowledge, process, tips and thoughts.

  27. Love this advice, Jody. Thanks so much! I think I am bookmarking this page. :)

    The Doctor's Lady, of course, played out this way for me. Another recent one was Cathy Gohlke's Promise Me This.

  28. Thanks for sharing. Well done. Timely for me. I'm revising my manuscript and will pay more attention to my scenes.

  29. I'm revisitng and rewriting my fifth novel right now. I'm especially interested in your transitions point since I've been ADDING transitions to smooth out some rough choppy patches. Now I'm going back to the beginning to study this more closely. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  30. I wonder if you have more advices to do the perfect presentation!

  31. Transitions can doom a book so easily! what a nice advice ! thank you!

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