Writing Cinematically: 7 Tips for Better Storytelling


Some time ago I had a client who’d written a book and wanted my help polishing it up. As I looked it over, I quickly realized he had a great story to tell. But he had approached it like a college term paper:

First, state the theme; then list the pertinent events one by one, in chronological order; then summarize.

It was about as exciting as, well, a term paper.

I suggested that instead, he should think of his story like a movie. There are certain things we’ve all come to expect in a good film. Filmmakers use proven techniques to draw us in and keep our attention—usually without our awareness. If we’re smart we’ll learn from them.

Here are seven cinematic devices that also work for the written word:

  1. Start with action. Don’t explain. Just throw the viewers [readers] into the scene.
  2. Choose a scene so intriguing or emotionally compelling that they can’t pull away. Think of your favorite movies. They probably begin in a way that makes you want to keep watching. You simply must find out what happens next, even if you’ve already seen it a hundred times! And before you know it, you’ve sat through the whole thing.
  3. Enter the scene as late as possible. Skip the introductions, lead-ins, throat-clearing, and other distractions. (On that point, an old copywriter’s trick is to write a piece in the way that seems right—and then throw out the first paragraph or two. It will usually read better!)
  4. Show, don’t tell. Screenwriters do this by using images in place of dialog or exposition. You can do it too. Instead of writing, “Mary was nervous,” how about: “Mary smiled, but her hands were sweating as she gripped her briefcase a little tighter.”
  5. Provide some atmospherics. You can’t put music or sound effects into your written piece. But you can still describe the weather, the scenery, the background, and the action that’s happening around the subject. Paint a vivid picture for your readers.
  6. Move fast. Modern films tend to use short scenes and quick cuts. That’s what viewers are used to. Your writing will benefit from a similar approach. You don’t want your readers to get lost—but you don’t want to bore them either. Keep your narrative at a brisk pace.
  7. Think cyclical, not linear. Sometimes the best place to start a story is at the end—or in the middle. It’s okay to jump back and forth between present and past. Just make your transitions clear so you don’t lose your reader as you jump around.

Unless you’re writing a company’s policy handbook for new employees, chances are no one will be required to read your masterpiece. So, you have to make it interesting. Whether you’re writing a book, an email, a sales letter or a fundraising appeal, these approaches can improve your storytelling. People will be more inclined to keep reading—all the way to the end.

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