Thoughts on Writing – How Studying Movie Scenes Can Help With Writing Book Scenes

I’ve been thinking about how movies pace their scenes and use various shots to draw a viewer in. This started after watching an episode of Film Theorists (they’re a Youtube Channel): which talked about where some of the common elements of movies got their beginnings.

We can learn a lot about writing scenes in a book by studying the methods used in film. I’m mostly going to take a look at three primary shots used in movies and TV shows: the wide shot, the medium shot, and the close-up. There are several others, though, which can also be incorporated.

For today’s examples, I’m mostly going to be talking about dinosaurs. I recently made some edits to the Multiverse Chronicles story my husband and I are working on (Dragons and dinosaurs and dirigibles, oh my!) And since we watched Jurassic World a week or two ago, that movie is still on my mind. Enjoyable movie, though the deaths didn’t quite hit it right for us.

And I kept wanting to call Owen, ‘Starlord of the Dinosaurs…’

*Ahem.* I digress. Here’s the three primary types of shots we see in movies, as well as my version of shots from Jurassic World (No spoilers, don’t worry).

Wide Shot / Long Shot: When a movie or TV show moves to a new area, they often pan over a larger scene. We get the setting details as to where the movie is taking place. (For example: A plane glides over the ocean and approaches a dense jungle island. (wide shot) Dark green, bushy trees rush underneath the plane (could be a medium shot) and in the distance, a tall pyramid breaks through the foliage, surrounded by a bustling theme park. (wide shot))

Medium shot: After the setting has been established, the movie closes in a bit more on the setting. Not too much, but enough to show who or what the particular scene is about. (For example: (Not related to previous example) Inside a posh, two-story home (a wide-shot), a mother hurries to collect her son from his room (medium shot). The room is a mess of toys, and it’s filled with posters of dinosaurs (medium moving on close-up shot). A curly haired boy sits by his desk with a View-Master in hand. (medium shot))

Close-up: Alternative to a wide shot, you might start with a close-up, then pull back to slowly reveal the surroundings, especially if mystery and tension can be built. (For example: Small cracks form on an alabaster egg. A tiny claw breaks through. It peels back the shell. A slitted, reptillian eye peers out. (All of these were close-ups. As the shot moves out of close-up to a medium shot , we see this:)Behind the dinosaur egg, several scientists wander past the white table, clipboards in hand. (medium shot) They walk around the pristine laboratory, unobservant to the tiny dinosaur. (medium-going-on-wide))

Let’s take a look at the (rough) intro for the Multiverse Chronicles story my husband and I are writing.

Four pterosaurs glided over the cliff-lined coast of Britannia in fingertip formation. Their tawny green backs glistened in the spotty sunlight that filtered through the clouds. The lead drake dipped its wings, following the mental call of its master, and landed on an outcrop of rock just offshore. The other three pterosaurs dropped through the warm, misty air and perched behind it.

As the scene starts, we see the pterosaurs gliding over a cliff-lined coast. A wide shot, to give us a feel of placement. Then we see a medium shot following the appearance of the pterosaurs with their tawny green backs, and finally, a close-up as the lead drake dips its wings. Consider how your mind visualized the image as you read the scene. Does how you visualized the scene follow this kind of sequence?

If you know how a scene looks in terms of the various shots, you can draw a reader’s focus to a particular detail and make it seem more important than before. If a detail is only mentioned in passing, it won’t stand out as much as if you spend a lot of time describing it.

An example from the manuscript of book two of our Distant Horizon series (No dinosaurs here, sorry).

Snow dusted the Community’s long, paved roads, swirling past two-story buildings and pelting my bare face. I wished I’d brought a heavier coat. Lance, my best friend and current partner in crime, tucked his hands under his armpits and grumbled about the wind. Though everything we wore was grey or white, same as the heavy parkas and thick hoods of the people hurrying to work, we had only the lighter jackets we’d left the Community with.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was bundled in a knee-length jacket and scarf, with fitted gloves. He kept his back straight and chin high. A passing security guard only tipped his hat and said, “The Community is safe.”

Pops inclined his head, lips twisted in a smile. “It is our duty,” he replied.

I shuddered and pulled my arms closer, careful not to squish the vines underneath my jacket. Everything I used to believe about the Community… half of it was a well-formed lie even high-ranking officials believed.

We stopped in front of a diner, where blue efficiency lights illuminated the snow outside the window and gave the gray world a little bit of color. “Ready, Jenna?” Pops asked, laying his hands across the top of his cane. His breath came out in short puffs.

Might as well be; we were here.

A blast of warm air whooshed past me, along with the smell of coffee, toast, and freshly scrambled eggs. The diner hadn’t changed much. Same pale colors, swept floors and mended chairs. Pops chose a seat at a round table next to the door, uncomfortably close to the security guards at the table beside us.

The first sentence gives us a feel for the world and setting. It’s snowing outside and cold, and we’ve got a vision of a town with two-story buildings and paved roads. A wide shot. Later, it describes the grandfather as being ‘bundled in a knee-length jacket and scarf, with fitted gloves.’ A medium shot. We see the grandfather and get a feel for his character. Then, ‘He kept his back straight and chin high.’ A close-up, conveying a special detail about him. Later, the characters stop in front of the diner, ‘where blue efficiency lights illuminated the snow outside the window and gave the gray world a little bit of color.’ Personally, I think this straddles the line between medium shot and wide shot, since it shows where the characters are without giving us the full scope of where we’re at. But when we get to ‘A blast of warm air whooshed past me, along with the smell of coffee, toast, and freshly scrambled eggs,’ I’d consider this a close-up, because we’re focusing on particular details. When Pops chooses a seat at a round table, and then we see the security guards at the table next to them, it’s two medium shots side-by-side (or one medium shot that pans across the scene).

That’s my interpretation of the different shots, but I’m not an expert, by any means. These are just my observations. There are several other types of shots and angles that movies employ, and I found several good examples at this site here, if you’re curious:

By keeping these various shots in mind, you can choose how and when to add emphasis in your own scenes.

Other things to consider is where the focus is placed in a movie. Often, based on depth of field, our eye and attention will follow exactly what the director wants us to watch, even if there’s action happening in the background. A sharper focus on the main character of the scene, while the other characters are blurry, leads our eye to the sharper character. In a story, this happens when a writer gives us more detail about what one character is doing, while maybe only mentioning that another character is there.

This happens in the example, when I mention the people hurrying to work. They’re present in the scene, but they’re not the main focus, so I only briefly allude to them before moving on to the next ‘shot,’ the description of the grandfather. You don’t have as good of a view of them.

If you mention something in your story, the reader ‘sees’ it. Pay attention to this, especially in deep points of view. If you’re writing really close to the main character, and they don’t see something, the reader shouldn’t, either. Now, if you present clues that the character dismisses, but the readers can piece together, that’s a bit different. It links back to my earlier post I wrote about foreshadowing.

Another trick you can employ from movies is evoking the sense of slow-motion. This happens by paying attention to several particular details in a sequential action. One of my favorite examples of this is in Brandon Sanderson’s Steelheart. I don’t want to spoil the scene itself, so I’m not going to give all the details, but during the scene a gun is fired, and due to his description of each of the little details (the trigger being pulled, the hammer striking, the movement of the bullet), it felt like the scene was moving in slow motion, much like a movie sequence.

There’s a lot you can do with description to create pacing and enhance the world, and by choosing which details to focus on, you can employ cinematic effects in your writing.

Knowing how to employ these shots might also prove useful when creating book trailers.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and let me know what you think. 🙂

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4 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – How Studying Movie Scenes Can Help With Writing Book Scenes

  1. Thinking of scene openers as camera shots, oh, I’m going to have fun with this one.

    • Glad I could help. 😉 It’s fun to think about. I don’t use the trick all the time, but it might be a good way to flesh out a trouble scene… or just to envision the story in general. 🙂

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