Tips from C.S. Lakin on Cinematic Techniques for your Novel

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C.S. Lakin's terrific book, Shoot Your Novel: Cinematic Techniques to Supercharge Your Writing, is the latest addition to my desk. Note, I didn't say bookshelf. Overnight, Lakin's book has become a staple of my process that is quickly growing dog ears. This is no exageration: Every page of Shoot is jam-packed with suggestions for writing or re-writing the scenes in your books to advance the plot, reveal your character, and stir your readers' emotions. In short, Shoot is thorough. It covers so much on what it takes to enhance your novel that it is a great resource for all writers, beginners as well as experienced.

In this post we will touch on Lakin's approach to writing fiction, which is to view your story as a series of scenes as seen through the lense of a camera. For the full scope of what she has to offer, I highly recommend this book to be added to your own personal writer's toolbox. It could save you time and effort and give you a concrete way to reach your reader, ridding you of any guesswork. Sprinkled throughout Lakin's book are numerous passages from books and movies to illustrate her points. A handy list of them is included at the end.

Most important, there is much more to this book than is covered in this post, such as how to combine camera shots for the best outcome, how to use visual motifs and symbols, and more. I hope the post will spark your interest in reading it for yourself and reaping all it has to offer. Lakin has written three other books on writing and many fiction books. Next I want to study her book, Writing the Heart of your Story: A Guide to Crafting an Unforgettable Novel, which details scene construction (and dip a toe in one of her fiction books . . . just for fun, of course). 

Before you begin, you might want to make room in your closet for more hats other than the editor's, illustrator's, writer's, marketer's, etc., hats you already wear. To name a few, you might add chapeaus for cinematographer, production designer, and screenwriter. Save your fanciest topper for you as director, as you will be donning this hat to tell your story in a series of scenes as if it were a movie.

Lakin has handily narrowed down the types of camera shots to two: stationary and moving. Stationary shots are the most common shots in movies and on TV. "These essential shots define our world . . . We are not always moving . . . We see life most often [this way], whether close up . . . or far away."

"Moving shots mimic the way our eyes follow what's happening . . . The right choice of a moving shot will effect pacing and tension . . . Novelists have a wonderful medium in which to translate moving shots into powerful prose."

Lakin's Method
Begin by identifying the high moment of your scene--the moment of greatest impact. You will need to decide which camera shots to use leading up to the high moment, and then the best shots for whatever happens afterwards. Once you know the high moment and how your plot builds to it,
you can work backward and forward. Some basic shots Lakin describes:
  • Establishing Shot (ES): Each time the scene changes the time and place need to be established. In most cases, it is best to keep the ES short--move on to the main part of the scene. Omniscient POV is okay. Give just enough details, then move on.
  • Three Basic Distances:
  • The Close-Up or Two-Shot (CU): The CU is used when you want to zero in on a detail, such as an expression on a character's face or an object that is the point of the scene. The common two-shot shows two people in conversation or relating with one another. CU's tell the reader, "Pay attention here!" You can reveal a clue that is not explained until later to add tension and your reader's curiosity.
  • Full or Medium Shot (MS): Full shots can be full body shots or shots from the waist up, showing body language and facial expressions. MS shots can also show a small group of people, such as a family sitting at the dinner table eating and talking.
  • Long Shot (LS): LS's in novels are effective if showing something that might be coming or what might be happening such as a threatening tornado or hurricane off in the distance, which can add tension. LS's can add tension by drawing out a high moment. The example used is an excerpt from Predator by Terry Blackstock: "[Krista] has to wait (and so does the reader) agonizing moments until the body is pulled out and she can make out the shirt and hair--not the face because she's not close enough--" we've had to wait (and sit on the edge of our seat) for the final moment when she recognizes her sister.
More Helpful Tips
  • Every scene has a purpose in advancing the plot and every camera shot has a purpose.
  • Scenes need to be shown from the POV character's eyes and reveal her frame of mind.
  • Each scene needs to be planned out and the best shots chosen for greatest impact.
  • Scenes are a string of moments leading up to the high moment and may include movements, internal thoughts, gestures and expressions and dialog.
Some of the Ways I Plan to use this Book
  • View my scenes as camera shots and see if I can improve on how to show them.
  • Make a list of the scenes in my WIPs, identify the high moments and make sure I've done what I can to build to the high moment.
  • Consider shortening my ES's.
  • Make sure every scene has a purpose. Right now I can think of at least one part of a scene where I described my character waiting for her friends to sneak out of their house, and the night sounds she listened to. The description popped into my head as a part that could be eliminated unless I assign it a purpose other than simply listening to sleepy crickets crick.
  • Read the books and watch the movies used as illustrations, partly for fun--I'm always looking for good reads and shows, but mostly to take Lakin up on understanding these works' importance as seen through the authors' lenses.

    Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on  Facebook.


Unknown said...

Linda, I loved your post. I can't wait to dip into C.S. Lakin's book and learn more. These story-telling techniques are a fun way to create an engaging narrative.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Deb. Lakin's book has rounded out the edges for me. My teachers have come from so many different places, including quite a few fiction courses. Lakin's book is the icing on the cake! I hope it is as much of a help for you.

Heidiwriter said...

Fascinating! I know one can learn a lot from movies about writing novels. Thanks for sharing this!

Linda Wilson said...

You're welcome, Heidi. I hope you enjoy the book and discover yet another way to view your writing, as I did. Thanks for commenting.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Aha! I'm always telling writers of fiction (novels and short stories) that we can learn a lot from movies and you've helped me do that because I plan to social network this post!
Those interested in my tweeted movie reviews mostly aimed at writers' interests can find them on my hashtag page #MovieReviews. I see a good 80% of movies and walk out of 10%. (I don't do reviews of those!)
Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Multi Award-Winning Author of the HowToDoItFrugally series for writers including the second edition of The Frugal Book Promoter ( and the new paperback release of the second edition of The Frugal Editor (

Shirley Corder said...

Fascinating post, Linda. Thank you. I know when I read, I "see" the action in my mind like a movie--so why not write that way? I'm going to check out that book now!'

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Super--had been considering this so very pleased you have given it such a good review. Many thanks, Linda,. :-) Interestingly, however, I find books written directly from screenplays don't work well for me as a reader.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you for your terrific comments, Carolyn, Shirley and Annie. I do hope you enjoy the book. Annie, I don't think you'll find the ideas in this book related to books written from screenplays. Rather, Lakin offers camera shot techniques that transfer well from how a director "works" a movie to how a writer can benefit from using the same techniques in writing her novel.

Karen Cioffi said...

Wow! What a great post on how writers can improve their novels. I haven't read anything for writers from a cinematic viewpoint, but your review and tidbits has my interest peaked. I'm thinking of getting Lakin's book.

C. S. Lakin said...

Linda, thanks so much for sharing such a wonderful post about Shoot Your Novel. It's a technique I've been using my whole life because of being raised in the world of television, and I'm surprised no other writing instructors have ever taught this method of constructing scenes, although there are a few out there who use cinematic story structure.

I love teaching this as a workshop at conferences, and writers often tell me they are blown away with this new way of looking at scene creation. Thanks again so much for the shout out, and I hope you all end up writing terrific books as a result of this technique!

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you for writing, Ms. Lakin. I think I can speak of all of us that we are thrilled to learn about your book and the terrific techniques you shared with your readers. I'm looking forward to reading your other books and hope there are more to come.

C. S. Lakin said...

Thanks, Linda! Please just call me Susanne! I just released the book I feel is the most clear and comprehensive on novel construction, and I put hundreds of questions and prompts, as well as checklists, mind maps, and scene and character development sheets in the workbook. My aim is to make it as clear and straightforward as possible to write a novel, from idea to completion.

What the problem is with so many novel writing books is they tackle the massive project in pieces. I look at novel structure as a holistic endeavor, and liken it to the way a builder builds a house. I hope you all take a look at The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. Writers using the workbook have sent me emails saying they finally get it!

I will also be releasing another writing craft book in my Writer's Toolbox series later this year, which I think will be so helpful. It's about the Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing, and will have five editors tearing apart Before and After passages to show how to spot the flaws and then fix them. It's running in part on my blog right now (I will have to write the book and compile all this first!), so if you aren't following Live Write Thrive, be sure to subscribe to the posts, and sign up for my newsletter to get notified of special offers and new releases!

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Susanne! I will purchase your books and sign up for your blog and newsletter. Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about your newest additions. I'm looking forward to reading them and your fiction, too.

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