Cinematic Descriptions

A common trait I’ve noticed in many stories written by many people who’ve never written before (and I wasn’t exempt, I wrote my share of these)–cinematic descriptions. Movies have an advantage in a certain way: you get descriptions for free. In just a moment you can show a scene that would take pages and pages to describe adequately in words. The stories I like the best use the narration as a filter to see through the eyes of the protagonist.

I think the reason many beginners try to write that way is that they want to describe the scene exactly as they see it, to make sure the reader sees exactly what they do. But a reader doesn’t HAVE to see the same things as the writer. Each reader brings a little something of their own when reading the story. It’s sort of like never stepping in the same river twice.

Trying to imitate cinema in prose rarely works very well, IMO. Prose can never imitate cinema well in this respect, and concentrating on this weakens the other aspects that prose can be better at. Cinema allows you to watch amazing events happen, but well-written prose allows you to experience it. Instead of describing every detail of a scene, describe only those details that the protagonist would actually notice. Several birds with one stone that way, characterization and description, as well as pacing. A person walks into a building they’ve never been in before–what do they see? A warrior might note the number of guards and their weapons, their level of alertness, and so on, in order to judge the military preparedness of the castle as a whole. A thief might note the number of windows, count the candlesticks, shadowy corners. An aristocrat would notice the material and cut of other people’s clothing, to judge their relative social worth, might note the furnishings as a measure of status but would be very unlikely to note the servants at all. A peasant who’d never been in a castle at all would be overwhelmed, noting fragments of everything but not quite understanding the relative importance of one versus another. If all of these things were described by the same person, then you 1. probably spent so much time describing it all that the pace has been totally killed. 2. have lost an opportunity at characterization, because describing everything is as bad for differentiating character as describing nothing.

Also, using the amount of description for pacing is a useful tool. A thief running from guards in hot pursuit is going to notice much less than a thief casing a potential target. This might seem obvious, but I’ve critiqued a lot of stories that halt in the middle of an epic battle to describe a scene or describe backstory, so when this happens I picture the character standing in one place and staring into the depths of his memory. Oddly, these stories never end with his reverie being interrupted by a sword through the gut.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David also writes articles here and edits the fiction. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on Twitter for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

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