Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2018

Directing the Film of Your Novel

It's your job as the writer of your novel to also do all the film direction for the book. What I mean is that you have to think of all the visual parts of the story that a film director would normally do. You stage all the sets. You dress all your characters. You block every scene. If you don't do this, your book will end up feeling incomplete or flat. I know. I used to write books that were mostly talking heads with action scenes.

Stage Descriptions

Then my editors had to come in and remind me that you can't just say "living room" and assume that's enough for the reader. Everyone's idea of a "normal" living room is different. No one idea is "the standard living room." There are always differences. What's on the walls? Photographs? Artwork? What kinds? Are the walls painted or wallpapered? What color is the paint? How old is the paint? Are there holes? What kind of holes? From old picture frames or from someone punching them? What is the couch made of? What shape is it in? What color is it? Does it match with the other décor? What about the carpet? Berber? Plush? What color is it? Who designed this room? When was the last time it was remodeled? How expensive do you think things were? How do the different colors work together? Does it look like a man's living room or a woman's? How cluttered it is? How recently has it been cleaned? Where are the windows? What kind of light comes in? Is there a television or just books?

You see what I'm getting at, right? No, you don't have to describe every tiny detail of the room. In most cases, you don't want to. Just a couple of sentences is sufficient. But remember, you're supposed to be doing the work of the camera and the set director with your words. You have to choose carefully to give a full sense of what the room means to your characters. Don't skimp too much.

And you have to do this not just for the living room, but for every location you stage a scene in. The backyard, the bedroom, the warehouse, the office, the school parking lot, the mountain hike, on and on. Consider all five senses: sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste.

Scene Blocking

One of the first things I learned about writing was that you have to think about your characters as actors in a stage play. That means you have to do all the work of designing a set for each scene in your book--and then you have to describe it. And whatever happens during a scene, or whatever conversation is going on, you have to think about the blocking that goes into each character talking.

If you're writing a scene where the characters just sit and talk and you don't think you need to worry about them doing anything while they're talking--you're wrong. Everyone does something. They fidget with a pencil. They play with their hair. They cross and uncross their legs. They glare. They roll their eyes. They snort. They shake their heads. They nod. You're the director of your novel, so you have to write all those parts in. A lot of the time, you'll try out some bit of blocking and then realize it doesn't work and you'll have to try something else out to see if it works better.

I'm not a super visual person. Dialog is easy for me to write. Blocking and description are much more difficult for me because I don't notice them in real life. But you have to notice them as a writer. No one walks around in a white room without furniture, and if they did, that would be really noticeable, and definitely something to write about.

Emotion Cues

It's not considered "good" writing these days for a writer to simply tell the reader, "Anne felt sad." Think about how emotion is show in film. You don't have to only use visual cues. Here are some choices:

  1. Action. A character can weep or run away from a situation.

  2. Physical symptoms. A character can experience emotions physically: a rapid heartbeat, a sick stomach, etc.

  3. Adverbs. These are not stylish at the moment, but a character can say something sadly, or passionately, or encouragingly.

  4. Facial expression. Raising eyebrows, clearing the throat, smiling, etc.

  5. Refusal to experience emotion. Pressing emotion down can be effective at describing the emotion in some cases.

  6. Descriptive passages. This is especially effective in a first-person narrative, but it can work in a third-person narrative as well. The character can see the world as echoing their emotions, even if it's not consciously done.

  7. Other characters can point out the character's emotion, especially if they know the character particularly well.

  8. Flashback. A character can dissociate from the present moment by reliving a past moment that elicits a similar--or a completely different--emotion.

  9. Smells or other senses can be a way to experience an emotion, and not just for those with synesthesia. Loud rushing noises, the sound of something dripping, the scent of apple pie baking, etc.

  10. Reaction scene where the character processes emotion after the fact.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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