In the beginning, cinema took its inspiration from older forms of narrative including literature. But even in the 19th-century, realist writers were comparing their work to photography, and during the 20th-century many prose authors, including Wyndham Lewis and Christopher Isherwood, took inspiration from film. Published in 1960, John Updike’s present-tense novel Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie”, and he was explicit that “The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.” From what I’ve seen, the cinematic mode of narration often dominates Creative Writing classrooms. But what is it? What are its limitations? And what are our alternatives?
It seems to me that Creative Writing workshops are dominated by what I call ‘the cinematic mode of narration.’ It’s possible that John Updike coined the phrase when he discussed his present tense novel Rabbit, Run, but the influence of cinema can be felt in past tense pieces, as well as present tense pieces, and it can be seen in first person and third-person subjective narratives as well as in pieces written in the third-person objective. For me, what defines the cinematic mode of narration is its adherence to mimesis – overwhelmingly, the story is presented in dramatic scenes; it is shown to us rather than recounted.
A movie may involve montage sequences, freeze frames, and voice-overs, but cinema is dominated by the presentation of dramatic scenes located in a specific time and space, presented in real time. For many writers, an approximation of this becomes their default mode of writing – sometimes their only way of writing.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing in dramatic scenes, and most writers will find that such scenes make up a large percentage of their novels and stories. But prose has so much more to offer. Writers who are over-reliant, or exclusively-reliant, on dramatic scenes are imposing limits on their work.
What I present here is a look at just 30 of the many alternatives we have to writing in the cinematic mode of narration. Of course, your options are to an extent determined by whether you’re writing in the first person or the third person, and whether you’re writing in the past tense or the present tense – you have more freedom if you’re writing in the third-person-subjective past tense than if you’re writing in the first-person present tense. However, the cinematic mode of narration can exist with different points of view and different tenses, and so can most of the alternatives.
First, here’s an example of cinematic narration:
It’s 8am. The knob on the cupboard door is missing and he prises the cupboard open with his fingertips. He reaches up for the cornflakes, pulls them down. The box is light. He sets it on the table and reaches for a chipped bowl that lies on the drainage tray. The bowl isn’t quite clean, he sees, but it will do. He empties the box into the bowl and scrunches the box into the rubbish bin. When he opens it, the fridge smells like damp clothes. He finds the milk and sniffs it: it’s all psychological, he thinks. He splashes it onto the cereal. Small drops land on the table and then disappear, like snow that melts on the ground. He sticks two slices of bread in the toaster, knowing he’ll forget, knowing that the clunk will startle him, and then he sits at the table to eat. He is irritated that the newspaper has not arrived. Suddenly, he hears a terrifying crash. He jolts backwards, drops his spoon. “Police! Police, freeze!” A second later, the toast pops.
Now, here are some variations:
- Declarative overview (Often used as an introduction to a section or story – very under-used!): In the morning, he was raided by the police.
- Simple summary (in which narrative time is less than story time): It’s 8am. He prepares a breakfast of cornflakes and toast. He is still eating when the police arrive.
- Reported speech (a form of simple summary in which you describe a conversation instead of quoting the exact words used): Later, at the police station, they asked whether he knew this guy and that guy, and where he’d been on this day and that day, and sometimes he knew the answer and sometimes he didn’t. They asked whether he had debts, whether he took drugs. They asked about his ex-wife. “Look,” he said, once the interview started to go in circles. “I’m trying to help you guys. I really am.”
- Descriptive pause (in which there is narrative time but no story time): He sets it on the table and reaches for a chipped bowl that lies on the drainage tray. The bowl isn’t quite clean, he sees: it is flecked with three or four stubborn dots of grain. It is a chipped bowl with a sun-yellow rim, and its outside is embossed with a faded pattern of sunflowers. On its inside the bowl has been scratched in grey lines that remind him of a diagram from science. The bowl is the last thing he sees before the police enforcer smashes his front door.
- Ellipsis (in which there is story time but no narrative time): In the morning, the police arrived.
- Montage summary (where a montage of specific examples gives an impression of what happened over a period of time): At breakfast, the cupboard door is broken, his bowl is chipped, his fridge smells, and he is startled by the clunk of his own toaster. It is a dismal way to spend his last morning of freedom.
- Continuous (in which rather than describing something that’s true in one instant – e.g. he dislikes his bowl of cornflakes – you describe something that is a constant): He doesn’t like cornflakes and eats them only because they are what his wife used to buy. His fridge smells and he always holds his breath when he opens it.
- Regular/ reoccurring (in which rather than describing a one-off action, you describe something that happens repeatedly): Every morning he eats breakfast at 8am, and whenever he eats cornflakes, he eats them from the same chipped bowl.
- Prolepsis/ foreshadowing (in which you present information in advance of chronological order): There was no way I could have known that this would be the last time I’d eat breakfast in my own home.
- Proustian Analepsis/ flash-back (in which some quale triggers a memory): The cornflakes remind him of his grandmother and the breakfasts she served when he was a little boy. His grandmother had lived in…
- Explicatory Analepsis/ flash-back (in which you refer to an earlier event to explain some fact you’ve stated about the present): The knob on the cupboard door is missing and he prises it open with his fingertips. The knob broke off when his ex-wife threw the kettle at it during one of their many arguments.
- Speculative (in which you or the protagonist considers the possibility of actions that haven’t occurred): He could try to run, but where would he go? He has no money and he cannot think of a single person who would shelter him. If he ran from his home then he would spend some days hiding in shadows, sleeping in doorways, eating from bins. When he was finally arrested, he would look even more guilty.
- Memory filter (in which the experience is shaped by the vagaries of memory): He tries to recall that morning. He thinks he might have eaten cornflakes. He has a memory of the fridge smelling. He thinks he might have eaten toast but then recalls that his wife took the toaster when she left. Or was he still married then? Out of nowhere comes an image of a chipped bowl decorated with a pattern of faded sunflowers.
- Reflective (in which the character interprets their prior experience from a later time): Looking back now, it seems preposterous that on that morning I sat down to eat my breakfast as usual. It was my habit to eat cornflakes and toast, and I suppose that’s what I had. It’s now impossible for me to imagine what I was thinking or feeling, or what I expected to happen.
- Future Reflective (in which we hypothesise about how things would have played had the character had future-sight): Had he known that this would be his last breakfast as a free man, he would have caressed that chipped bowl lovingly. He would have held the fridge door open and inhaled its sour smell. He would have saluted the morning sun and beat his chest and said aloud, “I am free!”
- Cognitive analysis (in which you shape the narrative focus with reference to a character’s psychology): When a person has been through an intense experience, the things they remember can be surprising. He doesn’t remember what the police looked like. He doesn’t remember whether he was handcuffed or by whom. But he remembers that he ate cornflakes. He remembers that his bowl was chipped. He remembers that his fridge smelled.
- Personality analysis (in which you shape the narrative focus with reference to the character’s personality): He is the sort of person who has, since a young age, learned to notice faults. He doesn’t notice that the sun is shining; he notices that the knob is missing from the cupboard door, that the fridge smells, that his cereal bowl is chipped.
- Hypothetical (in which the narrator – or sometimes the author – acknowledges her lack of information but imagines the scene anyway. This is usually a tactic deployed by first-person narrators, but it can be used metafictionally as in Laurent Binet’s HHhH): I cannot know what Jim did that morning, but I like to imagine that he ate his cornflakes as usual. So let us picture him pouring his cereal, inspecting his milk, waiting for the toaster to clunk, quite oblivious to the gathering storm.
- Question form (in which the narrator – or sometimes the author – acknowledges his lack of information and asks us to consider possibilities. This is usually a tactic deployed by first-person narrators, but it can be used metafictionally as in Laurent Binet’s HHhH): What did Jim do that morning? Did he eat his breakfast as usual? Did his hand shake as he reached for his cornflakes? Did he notice whether the milk was stale, whether his bowl was chipped? Was he, in fact, completely oblivious to how his life was about to change?
- Simple objective (in which you present a statement that is independent of the character’s immediate situation): Burton-Under-Trop was not the sort of place where the police made morning arrests. It was a neighbourhood full of families who breakfasted on flax and chia seeds, where parents commuted to work in BMWs and children left for private schools carrying clarinet cases. And yet, no sooner had I eaten my cornflakes, than the police broke down my door.
- Man on the Clapham omnibus (in which you invoke an everyman through whose eyes we can witness the scene): Were a stranger to have entered his kitchen then they would within minutes have discerned that here lived a man alone, and that said lonely man was chronically unhappy. The stranger would have noted the one chipped bowl, the unfixed cupboard door, and the meagre stock of food. Were the stranger to have opened the fridge, they would have recoiled at the sourish smell.
- Universalisation (in which you espouse some supposedly universal human truth): Breakfast is not a time for conversation. Nobody wants to make small talk while still mourning lost sleep. In any case, Jim has nobody to talk to. It’s 8am and he’s alone.
- Localised universalisation (in which you espouse some human truth that’s supposedly shared within a particular area or group): All across suburbia, people are sitting down to eat breakfast, slurping their cornflakes, and being startled by the clunk of toasters that they themselves only recently set.
- Appeal to shared experience (in which you refer to the reader’s own experience of what the character is doing or feeling): Once you add the milk to your cornflakes, you’re in a race against time to eat them before they go soggy. (Or, more formally: Once one adds milk to one’s cornflakes, one faces a race against time to eat them before they go soggy.)
- Stereotyping (in which you generalise about a type of person): Men of a certain age who live alone like to read at breakfast. They distract themselves from their loneliness with the newspaper, if they have one to hand, with their phones, if they can work them, or with the cereal packet if nothing else presents itself.
- Second person address (in which you address the reader directly): You probably don’t want to hear about what I ate for breakfast, but since I’m committed to detail, please indulge me.
- Second person imperative (in which you tell the reader what to think or how to behave): Listen. Don’t think that when the police gathered on Church Street Jim made a panicked call to his lawyer or thought about climbing from the bathroom window. Believe me, he didn’t. No, he ate his cornflakes as usual.
- Metafictional (in which you refer to the story’s status as a story and/or piece of writing): When telling a story it can be difficult to account for the dull moments in a person’s life, but sometimes the dull moments can be the most important. If I describe in detail the breakfast I ate, it’s not only to add some verisimilitude, but also because, later, in prison, I will think of this breakfast so often.
- Implied reader (in which you refer to an imagined reader): As an earnest reader of literary fiction, your breakfasts probably consist of chia porridge with flaxseed and maybe agave syrup. Jim made do with cornflakes and toast.
- Postmodern (in which you contrast or compare the character’s experience with the hyperreality of television, film, etc.): In commercials for breakfast cereals, everyone is always smiling. They are grinning their white teeth at nothing in particular. Jim pours his cornflakes and parodies a smile, a gesture that will be seen by nobody.
And these are only 30 options. There are loads more. For instance, one of my favourite short story endings is in Denis Johnson’s ‘Work’:
The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’ You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.
What do we get at the end there? A speculative, hypothetical, targeted second-person something or other. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s brilliant.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Diego David Garcia. It is covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/despedidairene/