I have always been a visual writer. When formulating a scene, I have to envision each moment in exacting detail. As such, a good deal of my editing process involves scaling back, sharpening key images and finding short cuts to capture the feel of a moment with fewer words. Even so, I strive not to strip away all of my cinematic leanings. For me the set pieces of a scene are often as vital as crafting dialog, advancing plot points, or even developing character. For this reason, I am drawn to novelists who paint engaging worlds, those with a talent for evoking not only a sweeping backdrop for their stories but also details to bring their imagined settings to life. I revel in imagining the furnishings of an imposing home at the center of a family drama, or visualizing the mountain forest above a protagonist’s homestead, or learning of the businesses that line the main street of a fictional community. Unsurprisingly, given my interest in such matters, I am similarly drawn to stories on film which do the same.
My latest obsession in the latter realm is the surprise Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, which has taken the world by storm. In a production environment increasingly reliant on overly complex, multi-dimensional storylines, producer Allan Scott and writer / director Scott Frank have released a straight-forward narrative, trusting that a single compelling through-line of a tale is all that is needed to hold the attention of a modern audience.
They were right! Beth Harmon, the young chess prodigy protagonist, captivates from the start. Her meteoric rise to the top echelon of the chess world while struggling with the demons of a traumatic childhood provides more than enough dramatic tension to propel the seven-episode arc to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. But while many ingredients contribute to the show’s success, including top-notch acting from a talented cast, what stands out for me is the clear devotion given to ensure that each scene was stage-crafted to perfection, with every component – from lighting to color tone to camera movement – designed to reinforce the mood of the moment and underscore the emotional forces at work.
You may ask: “What does any of this have to do with writing?” After all, most writers have no training in set design or cinematography; and a novel is literally a black-and-white medium. There is no musical score, nor a smidgen of live action to be found.
I would argue that writers should absolutely evaluate their stories from a cinematic perspective. For while motion pictures are clearly a different format, the best written works are undeniably visual in nature. Indeed, the magic of writing is the intricate dance by which an author provides just enough imagery to allow a reader to flesh out an entire world, and then to place themselves in the midst of the described action. It is this alchemy which triggers an emotional response, thereby expanding the consciousness of the reader.
Thus, the question in my opinion is not whether a writer should strive to inject more stagecraft into their scenes, but how to do so. How does one elevate visual imagery within scenes in a meaningful way? And what techniques can one employ to give a story a more cinematic feel? Below are a few ideas for doing so.