Recently I received a reader email that said this: "My friend gave me one of your books 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, allowing 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 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 characters' minds to hear their reactions, emotions, and struggles, 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 characters' 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?