How To Make Your Readers Feel Like They’re Watching A Movie
“Excellence of style consists in being clear and not commonplace… Authors should compose without being noticed and should seem to speak not artificially but naturally. The latter is persuasive, the former is not; for if artifice is obvious, people become resentful, as if at someone plotting against them, just as they do against those who adulterate wines.” — Aristotle.
When you’re reading and you feel like you’re watching a movie—that is the classic writing style at work. The classic style uses words to project a movie into the reader’s mind.
When we write with the classic style, we make the abstract concrete, the confusing clear, and the unseen seen. We transform chaos into order. To understand something we need more than abstract notions—we require real-world descriptions. That clarity helps us understand.
Before I go on, I’d better clarify something. My writing feels less like watching a blockbuster movie in 3D and more like watching daytime TV in Spanish. Don’t blame the classic writing style. Blame my lack of skill applying it. You can take confidence in the classic style as it comes from the great seventeenth-century writer Descartes. Today it dominates the New York Times bestseller list. Furthermore, the ideas in this post are from best-selling writer and Harvard linguistic professor Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.
We can see what brilliant classic style writing looks like, or rather feels like, in the opening lines of Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Dawkins describes a complex idea, but he makes it easy to visualise like watching a film. It’s easy to understand. He clarifies complexity.
To clarify complexity, we must recognise that our reader doesn’t know what we know. Transcribing our thoughts as they occur to us won’t resonate with our reader. Instead, we must write from our reader’s perspective. Rather than describing the mental image of an idea we have in our mind, we write to build that image into our reader’s mind. It’s a subtle difference, but significant.
Consider the Empire State Building. It grew from an architect’s concept into one of the most visited buildings in the world. As a writer, you want readers to see your idea as clearly as they can see the Empire State Building. You want to build your idea in your reader’s visual cortex.
The key is in the construction. Without engineers and builders transforming the architects’ idea there is no Empire State Building. It is the same with your writing. Without clear descriptions and concrete examples, readers will not be able to visualise your idea. Classic style is as much built as it is written.
While an academic journal is difficult to read and makes the writer sound smart, classic style writing is easy to understand and makes the reader feel intelligent. And that’s why classic style writing dominates popular books, blogs, and magazines, while the average academic article is read just seven times.
Yet while the classic style aims to be easier to understand than academic journals, it has the same goal. To communicate truth. So perhaps more than making our reader feel like they’re watching a movie, classic style makes them feel like they’re watching a documentary. Because documentaries are movies that are true.
Classic style is not the truth itself. Imagine yourself in a dark room. You see nothing. Suddenly, a light turns on. You can see everything around you; a painting, a couch, and a plant. The light didn’t create what you can now see, the painting, couch and plant, it merely illuminated them. Classic style writing is the same. It doesn’t create the truth, it shines a light on the truth so the reader can see it.
When the classic style shines a light on something true you know it. You feel it. It is not about scientists reaching consensus on an idea before deciding it is true. It is that feeling that goes straight to your core, and you don’t say “I think that’s true”, you simply say “That’s true”. The classic style isn’t peer reviewed or statistically significant, but the truths it illuminates should feel as real as the chair you are sitting on.
And for it to feel true, the writer and reader must be in conversation. There must be a balance. A yin and yang working together. Many people mistakenly believe writing involves the writer dictating to the reader how things are. That is false. Writing is created by both the writer and reader. Yes, the writer puts down the words, but they are influenced by what the reader will be thinking as they read (even before the reader actually thinks those thoughts).
The order that thoughts occur to the writer, is rarely if ever the best order for them to be presented to the reader. So the writer rewrites, in order to better suit the reader. By the writer imagining what the reader is thinking, the reader’s thoughts influence the writer—long before the reader actually thinks them.
Below are seven techniques that help us engineer our writing and make our readers feel intelligent so it feels more like watching a movie, or rather, a documentary.
1. Active Sentences Attract Readers
“The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.” — William Strunk, Jr.
The classic style is loved because it’s easy to understand.
Consider how brains process language. Readers understand ‘The dog’s chasing the car,’ faster than ‘The car was chased by the dog.’ They mean the same, but it’s easier to picture the object (dog) before the action (chasing). The first sentence is active, the second is a passive.
The difference between an active and a passive sentence is the difference between focusing on someone doing something or someone having something done to them.
Here’s another example;
The ball is being kicked by Lionel Messi.
The action (kicking) is before the object (Messi)—the effect precedes the cause. We can’t visualise what happens until we read the entire sentence. It’s passive.
In contrast, active sentences put the object before the action. This allows us to visualise what is happening as it occurs. Let’s arrange the above example into an active construction by placing the object (Messi) before the action (kicking);
Lionel Messi is kicking the ball.
As we begin reading the sentence we see Lionel Messi, we continue reading, and see him kick the ball. We are visualising the sentence as we read it.
If you’re a football fan, you will recognise the active sentence is how commentators would describe the scene. That is a good thing because the essence of the classic style is a writer and reader visualising the real world together, as a commentator and football fan visualise a football match together.
To help you remember this principle of classic style, think of your sentences like your body—they’re more attractive when they’re active.
2. Avoid Abstractions… Kind Of
“I am trying to make, before I get through, a picture of the whole world—or as much of it as I have seen. Boiling it down always, rather than spreading it thin,” — Ernest Hemingway.
Abstract ideas exist as a concept, but don’t have a concrete existence that can be physically touched, seen, or heard. Some abstract ideas are justice, beauty, and freedom.
For example, dogs as man’s best friend is an abstract concept about the love and loyalty of dogs. The idea cannot be seen or touched. But that abstract idea can be shown with a concrete imagery. Hachiko, a dog in Japan, waited at the local train station every day to greet his owner when he returned from work. One day, his owner suddenly died and did not return to the train station. Yet Hachiko returned to the station to wait for his owner every day, until his death, nine years later.
When writing with classic style, we use concrete imagery to explain abstract ideas.
Here’s another example. The Pareto principle states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. That abstract concept must be transformed into concrete imagery. Thankfully, Vilfredo Pareto (who discovered the principle) wasn’t only a masterful economist, he illustrated his principle with classic writing style—20% of the peapods in his garden contain 80% of the peas. The peapods transform the abstract principle into a concrete example we can visualise.
Like Pareto’s illustration, classic writing is decisive and confident. Direct and clear. While we recognise uncertainty exists in life, in our writing we edit out the uncertainty.
So even though classic style sounds like fact, it is often only an opinion. But why make opinions sound like facts? Effectiveness beats correctiveness (okay, I made that word up, but it shows you don’t have to be 100% correct to communicate an idea). A classic writer understands that reality is more complex than what we write, but we hide our uncertainty to improve clarity.
One way to hide uncertainty and improve clarity is with declarative statements—sentences that state a fact or argument. For example, here’s a declarative statement; “Writers who use the classic style are more persuasive.” In contrast, here’s an uncertain statement, “It’s possible that the classic writing style can be more persuasive.”
Readers can hold onto a declarative statement like holding a stick while an uncertain statement is like trying to hold onto smoke. A declarative statement is less correct but more useful.
So it follows that while a reader should always find that classic prose communicated an idea clearly, it is fine for them to conclude the idea was completely wrong.
3. Me, Myself, and You
“I’m not an impersonator. I’ve only got one voice and only do one guy and his first-person essays.” — Tom Bodett.
It’s natural to use first and second person pronouns such as I, me, and you. It’s how we talk with our friends.
I, me and you are easier to keep track of in our short-term memory. Recalling who he, she or they are can get messy because they can refer to many people. In contrast, I, me and you are always obvious—the reader is always aware of both the writer (I, me) and themselves (you).
While I, me and you refer to the reader and writer separately, we can also refer to them together by using first-person plural pronouns such as we, us and our. This is powerful because it transforms our writing from something the writer is telling the reader, to an idea that the reader and writer are exploring together. And we like our tutor more than our lecturer.
For example, here’s a line from Mastery, written by Robert Greene, “It is hard for us to imagine now, but our earliest human ancestors who ventured out onto the grasslands of East Africa some six million years ago were remarkably weak and vulnerable creatures.”
Greene is sharing his knowledge, and by using us and our, it becomes more like a conversation than a lecture.
4. Hedging is Weak
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” — William Strunk, Jr.
The classic style has survived for hundreds of years because it is strong. We say something. We declare a truth. We’d rather be wrong than weak.
A hedge is a mitigating word that decreases the impact of a statement, such as mostly, sort of, kinda, to some extent, apparently, partially, relatively, and to a certain degree. Hedging weakens our point.
For example, “The Cookie Monster apparently stole a cookie,” is not as powerful as “The Cookie Monster stole a cookie.” Or if I changed the subheading from “Hedging is Weak,” to “Hedging is Fairly Weak,” you wouldn’t be reading this sentence right now.
Hedges have no place in classic style as a weak link has no place in a strong chain. In classic style we write from a place of confidence, not fear. Be diligent in your research, so you can be confident in your words.
5. When Do We Use Signposting?
“The trouble with our age is that it is all signpost and no destination.” — Louis Kronenberger.
Signposting is saying what you’re going to say before saying it. For example, it’s saying to a waiter, “I’m going to tell you which drink I would like. I’d like a merlot.” That’s ridiculous. You’d simply say, “I’d like a merlot.”
The problem with signposting in our writing is it creates unnecessary work for the reader. Excessive signposting is like driving down a highway and even though there is no intersection—there is a traffic light holding you up.
Instead of signposting, our writing should anticipate where readers expect to go next and meet their expectations with a natural progression—a narrative or logical sequence. As we make a statement, it provokes a question in our reader’s brain. Then instead of telling them we’re about to answer their questions, we answer it.
It’s not that we never use signposts, it’s that we must not overuse them. Like in our conversations, some direction can aid clarity, but too much and it distracts from what we’re saying.
We must signpost succinctly—using a question, a visual, or a collective pronoun (we). For example, let’s transform weak signposts into stronger signposts:
- Transform signposts using a QUESTION
Weak: This point discusses when a classic writer should use a question when signposting.
Stronger: When do we use questions to signpost?
- Transform signposts using a VISUAL
Weak: This point will show that we should use a visual instead of metadiscourse to signpost.
Stronger: As we can see, a visual is clearer than metadiscourse.
- Transform signposts using “WE”
Weak: This section is going to encourage the use of “we” as a technique to signpost.
Stronger: Now that we want to engage with the reader, let’s include them using “we”.
6. The Counterintuitiveness of Intensifiers
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.” — Stephen King.
Intensifiers are adverbs that give force to a sentence. For example, “My karaoke performance was extremely amazing”. Words like amazing, highly, extremely, completely and very weaken our statements. We want people to think we are certain, but using those intensifiers make them doubt us.
Why? Intensifiers take an absolute statement and make it relative. For example, “John is honest,” sounds absolute like John always tells the truth. In contrast, “John is very honest,” sounds like John is honest 95% of the time, but not when it matters.
Convincing statements do not use intensifiers.
7. Avoid Cliches Like the Plague
“Attempting to get at truth means rejecting stereotypes and cliches.” — Harold Evans.
Cliches are weasel words and nothing to write home about.
The value of classic style is that concrete imagery allows readers to visualise your story. When you feed readers a cliche—they will not convert it to an image.
For example, when we hear the cliche “The grass is always greener on the other side,” we don’t imagine ourselves peering into our neighbour’s lawn with jealousy. Instead we process the abstract idea that the things we don’t possess are more appealing than the things we possess. Our words are wasted.
When we find we have used a cliche in our writing, we have two options. We can adapt the existing cliche or create an entirely new metaphor.
One way to adapt “The grass is always greener…” is to look up its origin. The cliche comes from a poem written by Ovid in 2 A.D., where he used the expression “The harvest is always richer in another man’s field.” By using the original meaning, the adaption is fresh for our readers. Or we could create a new metaphor that explains the principle, such as “The meal our friend ordered always looks tastier.”
Avoiding cliches keeps your writing fresh and your readers engaged.
“Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” — Charles Darwin.
Unlike talking and seeing, writing does not come naturally. Writing is unnatural. In recognising this, the use of classic writing style makes our writing sound like talking, so our readers feel like they’re seeing. It feels natural. In other words, the classic writing style feels like telling a friend a story that enters through their ears and projects a documentary into the visual cortex of their brain.
This article draws directly from Harvard University’s linguistic professor Steven Pinker‘s’ ideas in his book; The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.