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Why Do Some Thriller Books Read Like Movies? PART II

rob samborn cinematic writing

Having written three thrillers now, I’m always on the lookout for authors who would like to speak about them. Writing thrillers requires a special subset of writing skills–those that would make the readers’ hearts pound even as they are transported to a different setting.

A year ago, Rob Samborn joined me on Daily (w)rite to discuss the importance of cinematic writing in keeping your audience hooked, especially when it comes to the art of writing thrillers.

I’m delighted to welcome Rob and his writing expertise back to the blog, bringing more useful advice for writing an action-packed novel. Rob Samborn is a novelist, screenwriter, and script doctor. He’s the author of the historical thriller books, The Prisoner of Paradise, Painter of the Damned (TouchPoint Press) and The Swordsman of Venice (Ramirez and Clark). He’s represented by Brower Literary & Management. 

(As well, congratulations are in order for Rob, because today is the BOOK BIRTHDAY of Master of the Abyssthe concluding book of the Painted Souls series!)


There’s a reason why we’re inundated with sequels and series, whether it’s books, TV shows or movies. Publishing and show business are just that—businesses. Of course, you should be passionate about your work, but if you want to make money from it, treat it like a business. And with that in mind, when I spoke to Damyanti about a new blog article, we decided I should write a sequel to my popular post, “Why Do Some Thriller Books Read Like Movies?”

Many successful thriller authors use a cinematic writing style, and doing so plays a major factor in their popularity. What are some methods to make writing cinematic?

In my first article, I focused on three techniques:

  1. Use an active voice.
  2. Show, don’t tell.
  3. End chapters and section breaks with mini cliffhangers.

 

Thriller books are known for their intense suspense and fast-paced action, making them a popular genre among readers who love a good adrenaline rush. In this article, we’ll explore four additional reasons why a cinematic writing style appeals to readers:

  1. Visual storytelling
  2. Sensory details
  3. Perspective
  4. Use an active voice!                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

1. Visual Storytelling

To create a cinematic style of writing, many thriller authors incorporate vivid descriptions and sensory details to create a scene that plays out like a film in the reader’s mind. They often use short, punchy sentences to create a fast-paced, action-packed narrative that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end.

For example, consider this passage from Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series:

“He stepped out into the bright sunlight. He had a gun in his hand, but he didn’t need it. He was the weapon.”

In just two sentences, Child creates a vivid image of Jack Reacher’s personality; he’s a tough and confident character who doesn’t need a weapon to protect himself. The scene is described in a way that is both cinematic and action-packed, making the reader feel like they are watching a scene from a movie. Granted, the last two sentences are a bit more telling than showing, but I think we can give Child a pass. These sentences are short and simplistic and that’s exactly the point. With just a few words, Child hooks the reader. We know Reacher is about to kick some ass, but we still want to find out what happens.

2. Sensory Details

It’s not enough to simply pack a scene with fast-paced action. In a movie, a good actor will convey emotion so that the audience feels it. An author has the same job, but through the written word, describing the physical sensations of the characters.

For example, a fight scene might include the specific sound of a punch, the sickening sight of a bullet piercing human flesh, or the rush of adrenaline that a character feels in a chase. This technique creates a visceral experience for the reader and helps to create a sense of urgency and danger that propels the story.

3. Perspective

Thriller books often use a multiple third-person limited POV to give the reader a more comprehensive view of the story. This technique allows the reader to see the story from different angles and gain insight into the thoughts and motivations of different characters.

In film, perspective is achieved through characters in scene and camera angles. In books, this is done by changing the point of view between chapters or sections (not within). This technique keeps the reader engaged in the plot. Important—this is very different from a third-person omniscient perspective, in which a reader will get lost in head hopping. Make sure to stick to one POV for each chapter or section.

4. Use an Active Voice!

I included this in my first article, and yes, it’s that important to mention it a second time. Above all, if you want to create page-turners, visually compelling imagery, and for readers to feel what your characters feel, use lush, active prose. Show, don’t tell!

Writing a novel with active prose is an essential element that will take your writing to the next level. Active prose helps create an engaging story that immerses readers in the world you’ve created. In an active sentence construction, the subject performs the verb, rather than the inverse. Additionally, active prose focuses on using strong verbs, descriptive language, and sensory details. It emphasizes showing rather than telling, which means that instead of simply explaining what’s happening, the writer shows the action through the character’s senses.

A passive example:

He could hear the sound of the dogs drawing closer.

While the subject is performing the verb in this case, it’s passive because it’s the wrong subject, the wrong verb, and worse, the writer is telling the reader what the character hears. If we’re in the character’s head, we can eliminate the words ‘could’ and ‘hear.’ Generally speaking, with a few exceptions, all sense verbs in a manuscript can be eliminated when used in context with the perspective character.

Active:

The sound of the dogs drew closer.

By cutting three words, we immediately elevate this sentence to active by changing the subject to the sound, and by writing the sentence in a limited POV. The shorter sentence also heightens the sense of urgency.

But we can improve this with better imagery. Everyone knows what sound a dog makes. In fact, the character may not have seen dogs yet.

Improved active:

Furious barking drew closer.

We’ve now crafted this sentence using active prose with a deeper perspective, along with visual, sensory words that further illustrate the scene’s tension. And by doing so, we’re writing in a cinematic style that captivates the reader. And if you want to write a page turner, end the chapter right on this line to create a cliffhanger.

Conclusion

Thriller books that read like movies are popular because they offer a visceral and immersive experience that keeps the reader engaged in the story. The use of active voice, visual storytelling, multiple perspectives, cliffhangers, fast-paced action, and engaging dialogue all contribute to the cinematic style.

Cinematic writing painted souls


Are you a thriller fan? Do you enjoy a good adrenaline rush? Books or movies — or both? Are Rob’s cinematic writing tips helpful to you? Have you read books from the Painted Souls series?


My literary crime novels, The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon are on Kindle Unlimited now. Add to Goodreads or snag a copy to make my day ! And if you’d like to read a book outside the series, you can check out You Beneath Your Skin.  Find all info about my books on my Amazon page or Linktree.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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4 Comments

  • Excellent post, Damyanti!

  • Swati Khatri says:

    You explained it so nicely 🙂

  • Christine E. Robinson says:

    Damyanti, a great blog post. The cinematic writing style can be applied to other genres too. I attempt to make historical fiction stories active with emotional cliffhangers. No one is physically on the edge to jump as in a thriller. It’s more blinded by fear. I love reading thriller, investigative stories though. 📚🎶 Christine

    • DamyantiB says:

      Thank you, Christine! I love to hear how one writing style can work for so many genres and authors. Emotional cliffhangers always leave me wanting more, and the anticipation built by having to wait for a continuation to the story makes it even more impactful!