Improve Your Authorial Voice Not By Writing, But By Watching

Since Writer Unboxed is focusing on voice this month, I thought I’d add an unconventional riff to the awesome contributions already put forth.

I love reading prose fiction — but in my heart of hearts, I’m a movie junkie. It’s a brilliant way to economically tell stories, and I enjoy the creative constraints the medium has: running time, MPAA ratings, budget. The mission? To cram as much narrative — both spoken and unspoken — into the frame as possible.

Notice that I said “unspoken.” That’s key. I believe prose fiction writers can easily learn about voice by watching and studying movies — especially when they pay attention to those unspoken bits.

Writing great books and short stories hinges greatly on your authorial voice — but always remember that your voice requires tonal flexibility. This can be defined by a character’s point of view, the pacing of a scene, or what’s happening in that scene. Thoughtful characters and slower-paced scenes can permit a more lyrical authorial voice; peppy characters and action sequences often demand something else.

Now I can’t tell you how to craft your voice; like Barbara, I believe your personal world view defines most of that. I also believe that the best authorial voices don’t attract attention to themselves. But if you’re looking for ways to appropriately use your voice for characters and scenes, I suggest popping in a DVD, muting the volume, and watching what unfolds.

Don’t watch the actors. Try to ignore the blitz-cut editing. Forget trying to decipher what’s being said. Instead, look for what’s happening in the frame overall — mostly the use of colors, color saturation and lighting. In the hands of filmmaking masters, these techniques represent the invisible art of cinema: the ability to wordlessly evoke emotion. To me, they represent the “voice” of the overall film, or a particular scene.

I think there’s wisdom there … and if you look for patterns, you’ll find them. For instance, most films these days depict workplace interiors — no matter how much sunshine is streaming through the locale’s windows — as cold, emotionless, antiseptic places. Filmmakers achieve this by clever lighting, or by processing the film (or digital footage) in such a way to suck the color from the moving images. The result is often a gray- or blue-tinged scene, with its characters looking as happy as a herd of zombies.

This is an immediate, visually tonal manipulation of the story. A word of dialogue may never be uttered, and yet we’re emotionally steered in a particular direction. Our brains “get it,” even if we as viewers never consciously get it.

Contrast that with movie scenes that take place in a happy home. There’s often lots of lush, warm-colored wood, and amber, creamy tones in the frame. Subconsciously, our brains do the math: our society associates this palate of colors with warmth and comfort. Again, the “voice” of the unfolding narrative invisibly connects the overall setting with how the audience should be feeling.

We’ve all seen the original Star Wars movie. Contrast the earthy, oil-stained interior of heroic Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship with the spartan hallways of the villains’ Death Star battle station. This visual information alone conveys everything we need to know: the good guys are scrappy, underfunded ragamuffins … and the bad guys are (literally) as imperious as it gets.

If you can make the esoteric leap from the visual voice of cinema to the narrative voice of prose fiction, you’ll notice ways to appropriately use your authorial voice when handling specific characters, scenes or events within a scene. Just as oil stains would be forbidden in the halls of the Death Star, certain words and writerly observations would appear incongruous in particular scenes.

Is a violence-packed action sequence best served by lyrical, multisyllabic flowery prose? Probably not. Does a contemplative scene work best with clipped, one- or two-word paragraphs? Probably not. Using creative flexibility in your narrative’s tone, vocabulary and sentence structure is absolutely critical to capturing the emotional core of your story. You may have a distinctive authorial voice, but be sure to tweak it as needed, depending on what’s happening in your tale.

If you can do that, you’ll control the invisible — yet critical — art of emotionally moving people.

So pop in a few DVDs, and dial down the volume. See what fimmaking maestros do with color, set design and other visual cues, and try applying those tonal techniques to your own writing voice.


About J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.


  1. says

    I loved this unique take on voice, and I love watching movies for color. Moulin Rouge with its play on reds and blues is fascinating.

    Coincidentally, someone I know admitted to me the other day that he’d never seen Star Wars. When I asked why, he said that if the public loves something, he won’t. He doesn’t, however, deprive himself of chocolate. Just saying.

    Thanks, J.C.!

  2. says

    What an interesting idea!

    Somewhat related, I’ve found that my (limited) training in screenwriting really helps me when I’m thinking about plot and scenes. In fact, I’ve been told that my writing style (at least in one longer work) is very much like that of a screenwriter.

    Anyway, I’ll have to try your watch-on-mute idea. I think I’d enjoy it very much, and learn a lot!
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..I can has world? =-.

  3. Linda Pennell says

    Thank you for this post, as well as the others, on voice. It is something that has been on my mind a great deal. Critique groups are very helpful, but they can sometimes distract a writer from his/her true voice. These posts are a wonderful reminder of its nature and genesis. Very helpful!

  4. says

    A few friends and I were discussing this as it pertained to directors, not fiction writing, but this post relates very well to what we talked about.

    Good examples: Scorsese movies look and feel like Scorsese movies. As do Stone and Tarantino. Even with different writers, genres, and DPs.

    Most directors will either lean heavily on visual storytelling, like Argento and Lynch, while others focus on writing/dialog.

    I think this applies to fiction writers as well. There are those who can write sweeping prose and paint the entire scenery around the characters, including how they look, what they smell, etc. Others are better with what the character says and conveying what they feel. While both are valuable, striking a balance will be very beneficial to creating a good work of fiction.

    So when picking a movie to watch on mute, just make sure you don’t pick one that relies more on dialog. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Or maybe do, and see how relying more on dialog affects how the story is told…
    .-= Jessika´s last blog ..Writing prompt 1: Cybernetics =-.

  5. says

    I live this lesson. As a deaf individual to me life is almost like watching a silent movie unfold in front of me. My eyes look for details. (Hugs)Indigo
    .-= Indigo´s last blog ..Rainy Day Muse =-.

  6. says

    I find movies incredibly inspiring for all the reasons you mentioned. It can be such a challenge to create the emotional fullness of a movie scene with just words – but what a challenge! For this reason, I often make music playlists that accompany a piece I’m writing. I find that having another medium – and one that is already created – that reverberates with the emotions I am trying to weave into my story is very helpful.
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Craft Cheese =-.

  7. says

    I’m a little in love with this post. I also watched the Simpsons with the sound off, and I could basically read their lips or I was interpreting the animated tonal techniques to help me read their “lips”. Lots to think about here.

  8. says

    For a movie with a beautiful color palette and loads of nonverbals — and about a writer to boot with many great one-liners about the writing life I wanted to write down and post on my mirror — check out Starting Out in the Evening. I watched this last weekend, and I think I might now go back and watch it with the mute button applied.
    .-= Julie Kibler´s last blog ..Setting as Character =-.

  9. says

    I’m not much of a movie buff, but I am very hard of hearing, and I know that when I watch TV or a movie, I depend as much or more on the color and the texture of the pictures as I do the dialog.

    I have been working on improving my narrative voice. There’s a lot to chew on in this post.

    This is great stuff: thanks.
    .-= Meredith´s last blog ..1000 Words Before Breakfast =-.