Cinematic Perspective (Or, a brief digression about sensory engagement in movies, writing dialogue and narrative POV)

Photo by Nathan Engel on

You like movies?

I like movies. Some movies, anyway. Stories told through the medium of motion pictures tend to be memorable because they engage the senses of the person watching them.

Sight and sound, certainly. These are the two obvious senses engaged. But, I think I can make a case for the other senses as well.

If you’re watching a movie in a theater, and you’re eating popcorn or candy or drinking a soda, taste comes into play. You think that doesn’t count? Okay, then, what if you’re watching a character in the movie bite into a crusty piece of cherry pie or a vibrant red slice of watermelon? If you’ve ever tasted cherry pie or sweet, sweet watermelon, your mouth might water just a bit when you experience them vicariously.

Touch is similarly stimulated through sight and sound. Picture this: a pale feminine hand, fingers tipped with red nails, gently caressing what appears to be lustrous silk fabric. As the woman moves her hand across the silk, we hear a soft susurration that could be whispered words of love. I believe this evokes pleasant tactile memories.

Unpleasant tactile memories can be summoned as well. Seeing a character’s arm bend at some point other than wrist, elbow or shoulder, accompanied by the crunching and snapping sound effects created by Foley artists, always makes me wince in imagined pain. Having suffered broken bones in my actual life, this sort of thing usually makes me close my eyes or temporarily avert my gaze from the screen. I don’t feel actual pain, just the slightly disassociated memory of pain.

Your sense of balance is affected by several of your senses at once. Certainly the inner ear contributes, maybe more a tactile sensation than an auditory one, and vision plays a part as well. If you’ve ever walked down an interior corridor of a ship and felt slightly disoriented because your eyes and your sense of balance seem to be sending conflicting signals to your brain, you know what I mean. Camera movement during the filming of a movie replicates this effect.

Maybe you’ve tried out an indoor simulator ride at an amusement park. You know the type I mean. You sit in a special theater seat that vibrates or tilts in synch with a movie. It can be quite effective. I remember going to Kings Dominion theme park in Virginia, probably in the mid-1990s, and enjoying a simulator ride based on the movie Days of Thunder. It can be an exhilirating and disorienting experience. Honestly, though, I think I replicate some of the motion effects any time I watch an exciting action sequence, leaning in my seat ever-so-slightly to match the movements of the jet fighter, roller coaster, or spaceship on the screen. It’s completely involuntary. Like flinching when watching a 3-D movie and something seems to be flying at your face.

What about the sense of smell? If you see an overflowing dumpster with assorted, rotting garbage spilling out of torn plastic bags, and you see rats scurrying down the alley and hear the droning buzz of flies, you might associate a smell with that. Or if you see someone screw up their face and hold their nose while changing a baby’s diaper.

I’ve heard that the olfactory sense has a stronger link to memory and emotion than any of our other senses. I choose to believe this, even without validating the claims. It just sounds right. Even today, the smell of just-mowed grass instantly teleports me—mentally, at least—to the summers of my youth, when I mowed yards in the neighborhood for extra money for comic books and Space Invader. My goals in life were simpler then.

I can’t talk about the association of smells with movies without mentioning John Waters’s enhanced “Odorama” version of his film Polyester in 1982. The audience members were given a numbered scratch-and-sniff card and were instructed to smell the card as the corresponding number flashed on the screen. I’ve never experienced one of these cards—nor have I, in fact, ever seen Polyester or have the desire to do so. I’ve heard that it included such memorable smells as flatulence, skunk, and dirty shoes. So, no thank you.

That’s not really what I was talking about anyway, was it? I was talking about how motion pictures—even the non-3-D, non-indoor-simulator, non-”Odorama” motion pictures—use what you see and hear to also engage your other senses. Movies are indeed a very powerful medium.

And, I believe, an excellent tool to improve your writing.

Here’s where I confess that this post began as a freewriting exercise to explore my thoughts on writing dialogue. If I’m rewinding my train of thought properly, my central thesis was that reading screenplays is a good way to improve your own dialogue writing. A Tarantino or Sorkin screenplay is a veritable dialogue writing clinic. Also, the stage plays of Neil Simon. Or insert the names of any of your favorite screenwriters and playwrights.

It’s no accident that two of my favorite mystery-crime writers, Donald E. Westlake and Elmore Leonard, also wrote screenplays. Both of these late authors wrote some of the best fictional dialogue out there, in my opinion.

This particular avenue of thought led me to a brief meditation on how important dialogue is to modern fiction readers, because it allows us to “hear” a character’s voice. The image of tiny black symbols on the page strikes our eyes and is sent on back to be interpreted by our brains. Something as simple as quotation marks signals us to vividly imagine that we are hearing a character speak.

Lisa Cron, the author of the excellent Wired for Story, suggests that the same parts of our brains that light up when we’re having sex, driving a car really fast or listening to someone speak also light up when we read about these same activities, fiction or nonfiction. When we read dialogue, our brain participates in the willing suspension of disbelief required when enjoying fiction and pretends that we are actually hearing the character speak. When we read good dialogue, at least.

Thoughts about written language causing the reader to “hear” a character’s voice led to a further digression into the other senses, and whether written language evoked those as well. As you’ve read, I decided that this was the case.

And now . . . I’ve decided that I’ve said about all I can about dialogue in this post. No, I could write a lot more words about the subject, and I’ve got plenty of opinions about formats and basic mechanics and punctuation. But, that doesn’t interest me now.

When I was offering the advice to read stage and screenplays to improve your own dialgoue writing, it reminded me that there was a literary point-of-view that directly applies to this.

If you like to read about writing, as I do, then you’ve already read about point-of-view ad nauseum. We’re most familiar with First Person and Third Person POV, of course.

First Person is the POV we use when we speak to another person, when we’re relating a story about what we did earlier in the day. “I woke up this morning, jogged around the neighborhood, showered, shaved and went out for breakfast at IHOP . . .” The Sherlock Holmes stories are told in First Person, and the viewpoint character is John Watson. The character who tells the reader to “Call me Ishmael” is the First Person narrator of Moby Dick (most of it, at least: Melville was inconsistent – I’m not a fan).

Third Person is the other POV we’re most familiar with. There is no “I” identified in the story. We are being told a story by some nameless and faceless entity. This narrator could be omniscient, able to dive directly into the heads and thoughts of every character and know everything that is possible to know. My favored POV is Third Person Limited, where a scene or chapter is told by that unknowable narrator but centers on the thoughts and feelings of a single character rather than jumping around all nimbly-pimbly. This POV retains some intimacy while maintaining a certain distance at the same time.

There are other POVs, though they are less commonly used, and rarely used effectively when they are.

Second Person POV is used a lot in advertising. Have it Your Way. You’re in Good Hands. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires. Just Do It. You get the picture. To me, it is much like First Person in both impact and limitations. But, instead of “hearing” the “I” narrator tell the tale, the reader becomes an active participant in the story. The main character in fact. Fiction in Second Person POV is a story about “you.”

“You wake up, feeling disoriented. Where are you? What happened the night before? Your tongue is as dry as sandpaper and makes a whispery sound as it scrapes over your parched lips. There’s a slightly metallic, slightly acidic taste in your mouth, and you’re sure your breath smells rancid . . .”

I used present tense instead of past in the preceding example. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the correct choice to me. It would be difficult for me to maintain this POV for an entire story. When I’ve read examples in fiction, they were usually impressive, but always felt like a stunt, something manufactured, to me. I’m willing to bet most video game scripts look something like this, though.

I’m sure you could name a few examples where this point-of-view was effectively used in fiction. I’ve read that Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was written in this perspective. It seemed to do well, although I haven’t read it. Seems like it was a Michael J. Fox movie I watched on VHS a long, long time ago. I don’t remember it, really.

Which brings me back to movies . . .

In writing, the Cinematic Perspective, or POV, is a narrative point-of-view that simulates watching a motion picture. The author reports everything that the characters say or do, while describing everything that can be “seen,” as if the scene were being recorded by camera and sound equipment. The reader isn’t privvy to a character’s thoughts, except as expressed in dialogue or body language.

Attempting to write a story in this perspective is challenging. It will, however, force you to focus your own Writer’s Eye on what can be seen and heard, including dialogue. Along with reading or listening to dialogue written by others, attempting to tell a story using this method will no doubt improve your own dialogue writing.

It may also improve the chances of your fiction being adapted to other media. Like the movies. I like movies.

That was the point I was trying to make, I think.


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