Writing Cinematically: 10 Movie Techniques to Apply to Your Novel

by Deborah Raney

If I’d known my first novel—a story about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease—would be made into a movie, I would have written it very differently. But when I got my first glimpse of the script, I understood immediately why the screenwriters had changed so many elements from my novel. Too many of my scenes took place in a character’s head—in his memories or her internal dialogue. I’m so grateful it was my first novel that made it to the silver screen because the experience of seeing my story turned into a script changed the way I wrote my next thirty novels.
Since learning more about screenwriting, I’ve discovered methods of applying film techniques to my writing in a way that makes my novels more visually vivid, more “cinematic,” and hopefully more likely to be turned into movies in the future! Here are ten techniques that translate particularly well to books:

1. Cliffhanger 

Books are often labeled as cliffhangers, but the word originated as a film term. Regardless, ending every scene or chapter on a cliffhanger—leaving your character in imminent danger, or at least with an urgent text message pinging—is a good way to keep your reader turning pages. Don’t wrap everything in a tidy bow at the close of a chapter. Instead, end each scene in the middle of the action. Force the reader to turn the page to find out whether your character will survive or not. Just be certain you show that cliffhanger instead of telling your reader about it.

Don’t say: Little did he know it would be their last night together.

Instead: The doorbell made him jump. He flipped off the hallway light and pushed back the curtain. A police cruiser idled on the snowy driveway, the exhaust forming eerie clouds in the chill night air. The emergency lights strobed, then dimmed, and a paunchy officer stepped out of the driver’s seat.

Don’t reveal why that officer is there until the next chapter… or maybe two. (But also, don’t frustrate your reader by making them wait too long for answers.)

2. Establishing shot

In film, an establishing shot is a long or wide-angle shot opening a scene to show the audience the locale/setting (or era, weather, time of day… whatever is most important for them to know as the scene begins). In writing, sometimes this type of opening is written in omniscient point of view, and the author then zooms in on a more specific point in the setting—inside a house, for instance. This is a great way to paint the big picture. Just remember: today’s readers don’t have patience for more than a paragraph or two of description. And omniscient is a tricky point of view to write, so you likely will want to get quickly into the head of your protagonist. Here’s how I accomplished that in my RITA award-winning novel Beneath a Southern Sky.


The thin trail of smoke slithered toward the clouds like a cobra charmed by the music of the coming rain. Though it was hard to tell how far in the distance the fire was, it worried Daria. It seemed more than a bonfire. And hours too early for that besides

She turned back to the flatbread she was making, slapping the coarse dough hard with the heel of her hand, forming a thin disc that would fry crisp in a pan of grease over the coals.

3. Jump cuts and fade outs

Don’t feel you must have a distinct beginning and ending for every scene. You don’t always need a formal introduction or a good-bye to the phone call. It’s usually far more effective to jump into a scene in the middle of action already in progress (without knowing what route your character took, or what kind of car she drove to get there). It’s also fine—even preferred—to end a scene in the middle of the action and simply jump to the next scene. Just be sure the opening of that scene conveys to the reader clearly and early on where the setting has moved to and how much time has passed.

4. Dissolve

In a similar way, you can end one scene and transition gradually to the next by taking a visual element from the first scene and using it in the next. In the movies, a dissolve is a film editing technique where the final image of one scene slowly morphs into the opening image of the next scene on screen. Often one element in the image will stay constant in both scenes. For example, in the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the camera might zoom in on the deadly apple as the wicked stepmother poisons it, then the image gradually changes to the next scene with an close-up of the apple in Snow White’s hand as she brings it to her mouth.

Literary “dissolves” work especially well in comedy where a character says, “Oh, Harvey would never do that.” And of course, the next scene opens with Harvey doing exactly that.

5. Zooms

If the movie camera zooms in on an object, you can bet that object will play a significant role in the story later. By zooming your writer’s “camera” in and describing a close-up view of an object or action, you give it the same importance as an object zoomed in on by a cinematographer. Just don’t forget to complete the circle and come back to that object you highlighted.

6. Lighting
Describing the light in your scene—bright and sunny, hazy, moonlit, etc.—not only gives the reader a visual image to picture, but also sets the mood, or creates a metaphor for good/evil, happiness/depression, etc. The beauty of using lighting in your novel is that it can be done with just a handful of ordinary, but well-chosen words. Here’s how Robin Lee Hatcher did it in her novel Whenever You Come Around (Thomas Nelson).

It didn’t take long to pull on jeans, T-shirt, and boots. Then he headed for the back door. The night air was cool, and the moon had risen, casting a soft white glow over the valley.

7. Magic Hour

Speaking of lighting, camera crews spend endless hours waiting for the warm but fleeting glow of sunrise or the clear blue light of evening, just before dark. Writers have the luxury of being able to capture that “magic hour” any time they choose. But it’s about so much more than what the eye can see. Setting numerous scenes in that mystical, ephemeral light can have the effect of giving your novel a surreal and magical mood. This is especially true if you write fantasy or romance, or employ elements of magical realism.

8. Soundtrack/Score
You can also create a wonderful mood for your scene by helping the reader hear the music that would be the soundtrack if your novel were a movie. Before “my” movie was released, the director sent me a rough cut—before the musical score had been added. When my husband and I were able to attend the movie premiere in Hollywood a few months later, and I saw the completed film for the first time, I was astonished at the difference music made.

Don’t make the mistake of sending your book into the world before the soundtrack is laid! Give your character a musical instrument to play. Have him always singing or humming or whistling. Have music from a grocery store waft to her ears. The reader will “hear” those songs, and your story will be so much richer for it. And don’t forget that rain, wind, whispering leaves, ocean waves, etc. make a music all their own.

It would take a big chunk of your advance to quote too many words of a song’s lyrics, but you can cite titles to your heart’s content. Here’s how I evoked a soundtrack for A Nest of Sparrows (WaterBrook Press/Random House) and my country music-loving hero Wade Sullivan.

Wade flipped on the radio and cranked up the volume. Garth Brooks’s voice carried over the wind. The lyrics wove a story from the old cliché, blood is thicker than water. But it was the last line of the song that caused his throat to tighten and a knot to form in his gut. But love is thicker than blood. Wade hoped a certain judge at the Coyote County courthouse believed that.

And later, a different kind of music:

Wade listened to the everyday sounds of his house—the patter of the kids’ bare feet on the hardwood floors, the creaking of the house’s old pipes as the kids turned the water off and on, the lilt of their thin voices wafting downstairs. He’d taken it all for granted. Too late, he recognized it as music. A melodic air that had changed keys and been transposed to a dirge before he’d made time to appreciate the happy tune.

9. Crosscut

In cinema, crosscut is the technique of interweaving clips of multiple scenes, usually chronologically, to show simultaneous events (or sometimes to emphasize themes). In writing, this can be especially effective in a thriller or suspense novel when the clock is ticking and many things are happening at once, and the reader needs to be aware of them all. These might be short scenes comprising a chapter, or consecutive chapters of only two or three pages each. Robert Parker’s novels are nearly 100 chapters long, although some of those chapters are mere paragraphs long. But they keep his novels moving at a nice clip (and his sales, too!)

10. Product Placement

Alas, a novelist doesn’t usually get paid to use the name or logo of a trademarked product in his book, but that doesn’t mean product placement can’t be used to great advantage. Bill Higgs in his debut novel Eden Hill (Tyndale House), plopped his readers firmly into 1963 with his clever (but well-integrated) mentions of a Philco radio, two-tone Nash Metropolitan automobile, Brownie camera, Oxydol detergent, and Hostess Twinkies. You probably don’t want to kill a character with a poisoned Twinkie, but you can certainly use namebrand products in a positive way to create visual images or evoke an era in your reader’s mind.

These are only a few of the film techniques that can be adapted to novel writing and thus bring your story to the reader in living color. There are no doubt others that could be translated for literary use, but for now, that’s a wrap!

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DEBORAH RANEY’
s first novel, A Vow to Cherish, inspired the World Wide Pictures film of the same title and launched her writing career after twenty happy years as a stay-at-home mom. She has since written over 30 books, including novels for Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Harlequin. Deb is on the board of the 2600-member American Christian Fiction Writers, and teaches at writers conferences around the country. Deb and husband, Ken Raney, traded small-town life in Kansas––the setting of many of Deb’s novels––for life in the friendly city of Wichita. They love traveling to visit four children and a growing brood of grandchildren who all live much too far away. Visit Deb on the Web at www.deborahraney.com.

Book Blurb for Home at Last:

Why did their differences matter so much?


Link Whitman has settled into the role of bachelor without ever intending to. Now he’s stuck in a dead-end job and, as the next Whitman wedding fast approaches, he is the last one standing. The pressure from his sisters’ efforts to play matchmaker is getting hard to bear as Link pulls extra shifts at work, and helps his parents at the Chicory Inn.

All her life, Shayla Michaels has felt as if she straddled two worlds. Her mother’s white family labeled her African American father with names Shayla didn’t repeat in polite–well, in any company. Her father’s family disapproved as well, though they eventually embraced Shayla as their own. After the death of her mother, and her brother Jerry’s incarceration, life has left Shayla’s father bitter, her niece, Portia, an orphan, and Shayla responsible for them all. She knows God loves them all, but why couldn’t people accept each other for what was on the inside? For their hearts?

Everything changes one icy morning when a child runs into the street and Link nearly hits her with his pickup. Soon he is falling in love with the little girl’s aunt, Shayla, the beautiful woman who runs Coffee’s On, the bakery in Langhorne. Can Shayla and Link overcome society’s view of their differences and find true love? Is there hope of changing the sometimes-ugly world around them into something better for them all?