When I was much younger, in one of my first English classes, my teacher taught a lesson on different narrative perspectives in fiction.
“First person,” I remember her instructing us, “uses the ‘I’ perspective—how you would talk about yourself. ‘I went to the store. I did the laundry. I pet the man-eating alligator.’
“And third person,” she went on, “uses a ‘he, she, or they’ perspective—how you might talk about somebody else. ‘He went to the store. She did the laundry. They pet the man-eating alligator.’”
And she said something that really stuck with me—even though I utterly disagree with it today:
“Think of third person as the way things happen in a movie.”
Now, that might be a handy way to simplify things for a grade-school student, but in the modern world of fiction, things are a little more complex than that. While a third-person viewpoint might not be nearly as intimate as first-person perspective, it can still convey loads more information than a film or television show can.
Specifically, the written word can capture interiority, or the experience inside one’s own head, to a degree that the cold eye of a movie camera simply can’t.
First person can describe what a character is feeling simply by having her describe her emotions directly to the reader, but even third person can use simile, metaphor, or other artful language to hint at what a character is going through—or just use he thought/she thought narration.
Books aren’t movies, after all, so it’s only natural that they tell their stories in distinctly different ways.
What Is the Cinematic Viewpoint?
However, the line between screenwriting and book-writing is not always so well-defined.
Cinematic perspective, as its name suggests, is a narrative point of view meant to simulate the experience of watching a movie. Think of it like this: your book is a camera and boom mic trained on your characters, reporting everything they say and do—but not what they think.
This unusual viewpoint crops up most in thrillers or political dramas with multiple simultaneous storylines, globe-hopping plots, big set-piece action scenes, or tons and tons of characters… essentially, stories with “cinematic” scope. Having one POV character follow the bead of the action all over the place might seem jarring for your reader, but with a cinematic perspective, catching up on what’s going on is as simple as moving the “camera” to a new location.
This style of narration is largely a product of our modern age. Now that movies and long-running, plot-heavy television series like Game of Thrones are the gold standard for absorbing storytelling, some novelists have taken to this “top-down” style of writing to better ape the competition.
And because adapting bestselling novels into blockbuster movies is such big business these days, it’s only natural to assume that writing your book like a movie would make it easier for it to make the jump to the big screen.
The Problem with Cinematic Perspective
But don’t think that the cinematic viewpoint is a silver bullet that will magically make your political thriller read just like a Robert Redford movie. Like any other literary technique, cinematic perspective is a tool, and tools can be abused.
In the past, we’ve discussed the “head-hopping perspective” and how many publishers simply won’t touch a manuscript that attempts it. The same goes for the cinematic viewpoint: like head-hopping, it affects your book at a structural level and is extraordinarily difficult to edit out or correct. Therefore, most acquisitions editors opt to ditch “cinematic” manuscripts rather than put in the long hours necessary to fix them…assuming the authors are willing and able to do that kind of intense revision in the first place.
But that’s not all! Before you write another word in that globe-trotting epic you’ve been penning, let’s take a look at the top 3 reasons the cinematic viewpoint might not be right for your project:
1. Missing Interiority
Remember that fancy “interiority” word we used a few paragraphs ago?
Well, if you use the cinematic viewpoint, you can kiss it goodbye.
A movie camera never hears the inner thoughts of the characters it films, so neither can third-person cinematic perspective. Instead of a rich drama about the interplay of actions, reactions, and the complex emotions of your narrative’s players, your book becomes a flat, impersonal report of a series of near-anonymous events.
True cinematic perspective is robotic in tone and cold in its appraisal of the events it reports—and can therefore alienate your readers by creating considerable distance between them and the action. If they can’t hear your characters’ thoughts, they can’t empathize with their situations…and might very well abandon your story for something else.
2. Heavy Exposition
So if cinematic perspective tosses interiority out a fifth-story window, what takes its place?
By its very nature, the cinematic perspective lends itself to delivering huge whonks of exposition, which are already narrative poison. Even if your story demands a ton of world-building, it’s not a great idea to dump all your explaining and backstory construction in one spot. If you do, you’re not telling a story, you’re delivering a lecture.
But that’s not all. Because of third-person cinematic’s naturally expressionless style, even proper scenes can end up reading like exposition.
Because you’re not following any one character through the events of the narrative, you miss out on the subjectivity their perspective might lend the narration. Without that, the scene can come off like your narrator is merely summarizing the events instead of actually telling a story.
Your readers may read with journalistic interest, but they’ll never be truly invested in your narrative.
3. Lack of Focus
This brings us to our final strike against the cinematic viewpoint.
Despite its name, cinematic perspective isn’t really a perspective at all. “Perspective” implies so much that only human characters can provide: differing opinions, unique outlooks, limited or subjective perceptions of the world around them.
But while the cinematic viewpoint is omnipresent, it’s not omniscient. The invisible floating cameraman recording your narrative sees all, but can only report the events of the plot exactly as they happen, without an opinion of his own.
And what’s more, because a cinematic perspective is so prone to location-hopping or jumping between multiple storylines, yet never “zooms in” on the viewpoint of any one character, this can leave your narrative feeling remarkably scattered or unfocused, draining tension from even the most high-pressure of scenes.
This only leaves your reader with unanswered questions: Who’s the protagonist of the story? Who should I be rooting for? Where’s the center of the action?
Without a true perspective to ground or “tether” readers’ attention, they might get lost in the chaos of a huge story—and quickly lose interest as well.
BONUS ROUND: The Montage
But despite the many difficulties the cinematic viewpoint can create for your storytelling, there is one instance where a more filmic perspective can actually enhance your narrative instead of damaging it.
The style does lend itself to exposition, and while we’ve railed against info-dumps already, we do have to admit that sometimes there’s just no getting around it. The fact is, sometimes you’ve got to summarize a long series of events in order to get back to the meat of the story.
Say your character is an actor who’s finally starred in a successful movie. He’s thrust into the glitzy world of fame and parties and tempting opportunities—and remains there for several years of his life. Unless your novel is less plot-driven and more of a character study, you won’t want to dwell too long on this phase of his life… but you don’t want to skip it entirely, either.
The compromise? Use a montage!
The hour’s approaching, just give it your best
And you’ve got to reach your prime.
That’s when you need to put yourself to the test
And show us a passage of time…
We’re gonna need a Montage!
– Team America: World Police
You’ve seen them in cheesy ’80s movies: training sequences, shopping montages, and every “getting-the-team-back-together” compilation ever put to film. Montage is a technique in film editing in which a series of short clips are edited together into a sequence meant to condense space, time, or information.
They might seem cliché now—if only because sports movies like the Rocky franchise have run them into the ground—but they are highly effective ways of summarizing long periods of time in a visually interesting manner. And the cinematic viewpoint allows you to insert these sequences in your story to bridge long spans of “down time” without losing readers’ interest.
Herman Melville does this to great effect in Moby-Dick to describe life on the ship when the titular white whale isn’t on screen; Chuck Palahniuk uses it similarly to describe the creation of Fight Club and, later, Project Mayhem.
Here’s my point: the cinematic viewpoint might be a particularly fiddly literary device to use, but it can be wielded to great effect if the opportunity presents itself. However, using it as a shorthand for a “cinematic” experience or as an excuse to not get too chummy with your characters can seriously harm your story—and send your manuscript straight to the slush pile.
Be warned, and be careful.
And if you’re looking for other ways to add interest or intrigue to your fiction, you’ve come to just the right place:
- Is Explicit or Edgy Content Okay in Young Adult Books?
- NOW HEAR THIS!!! 3 Mistakes You’re Making When Writing Emphasis
- Found Dialogue: Use the Art of Eavesdropping for Better Fiction