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MBM: Writing the Movie in Your Head by Gerald N. Lund

Welcome to the eleventh day of MARCH BOOK MADNESS! (Full explanation and schedule here.) 

Today, my favorite author of all time is here. Gerald N. Lund is my favorite for many reasons, but foremost, because he’s my dad. 🙂

His books include fiction, non-fiction, dystopian, contemporary YA, and doctrinal discourses. He’s best known for his religious historical fiction including The Work and the Glory series (which have had a few movies made based on them). His current series, Fire and Steel, is set during WWI and WWII, and chronicles the lives of two families, one from Germany and one from rural Utah.  He’s won several awards, sold millions of books, yet he’s just the nicest, sweetest, smartest man.

If you couldn’t tell, I love him to pieces. 🙂

1 Typewriter used to write first Lund novels given to Rebecca Belliston

My dad gave me the typewriter he wrote his first book with

SIDE NOTE: He also writes lyrics and I write music (like my mom), so the two of us recently worked on a choral song which was just published by Jackman Music. The song is called “Come and Be With Me,” based on Frederic Chopin’s Etude in E. It’s available in SATB with vocal solos coming soon.

Today my dad is here to talk about writing the movie in our mind.


Gerald N. Lund: One of the occupational hazards of being a writer of fiction is this persistent and lingering dream hovering in the background of your mind. It has three stages:

  1. STAGE 1: The phone rings. “Hello. Mr. Lund? Yes. This is Steven Spielberg (Or Jerry Bruckheimer, or J. J. Abrams, etc.). We’re interested in acquiring all rights to your latest novel. Would a price in the seven to eight figure range be agreeable with you?”

  2. STAGE 2: Writing is writing. I’ll write the screenplay myself, then shop it around. Price will be negotiable.

  3. STAGE 3: Screenplays are definitely a lesser art form, and I’m not about to sell out my artistic integrity. I’m sticking to novels.

Many years ago, I undertook to transform my novel The Alliance into a screenplay. Fed up with Hollywood’s literary myopia, I bought several books on screenplays–Screen Writing for Novelists Who Think They Can Write a Screenplay; What You Always Wanted to Know About Screen Writing But Were Too Dumb to Ask; and Thirty-Eight Easy Steps to Writing and Selling Your Screenplay–and then I set to work.

One of the first things I learned in my quest was the basic rule of screen writing:

With few exceptions, one page of a screenplay equals about one minute of screen time.

About three months later, I submitted my first ever screenplay to a friend of mine who produced and marketed family films. In print, The Alliance is 329 pages long. After three revisions and sweating a lot of blood, I had managed to trim my screenplay down to. . .uh. . .302 pages. I remember his first words when we got back together.

“Jerry, I need to teach you the first rule about writing screenplays.” Two more major revisions and I finally got it down to 120 pages. Before he could say anything, I hurriedly said, “If it’s good enough, then they’ll make it into a two-hour movie.”

Then came the lesson, which, to my surprise, turned out to be as valuable a lesson about writing fiction as it was about writing screenplays.

He said, “Writing for the screen is a very different medium than writing for the printed page. If it’s showing on the screen, you don’t have to describe it.”

Pretty obvious, but also a profound concept. In other words, you can reduce a four hundred page novel down to a ninety page screenplay because you don’t have to describe any of the following for the viewer:

  1. If it’s day or night, spring or winter. Raining or sunny.

  2. If your characters are on a beach or climbing Mt. Everest.

  3. What color hair, eyes, and skin and fingernails your characters have; if he or she is tall or short, fat or slender, handsome or plain, skin texture, nose shape and size, lip movements, height and approximate weight.

  4. Their body language, quirky habits, psychological hangups.

  5. Their movements.

  6. Facial expressions.

  7. Their tone and pitch of voice.

  8. How they say “I love you,” e.g., “I love you,” he crooned. “I love you,” she snarled. “I love you,” she giggled. “I love you,” he said, trying hard not to gag.

  9. What they see.

  10. Who else is in the room.

When you think about all of that, it’s a wonder that screenplays are not written on one side of a three-by-five card.

The Movie in Your Head

Hopefully, you caught the implication of the above list for novel writers. You DON’T have the luxury of showing the reader your work on screen, which means that you, as the author, have to describe those things above.

After my fiasco with The Alliance, I gave up screen writing and went back to the printed word. But one day, some years later as I was writing, a thought hit me out of the blue:

“When I am writing, I have this motion picture going on in my head.”

I’m not taking about literally seeing images, but they are visual concepts are in my head. And these are not just still images. They have action and movement and relationships. And then came the second stunner:

“When I write, all I’m really doing is describing what I am seeing in my mind.”

For example, let’s use movie terminology: Is my main character sitting in the living room? Yes. Then I take on the role of PRODUCTION DESIGNER, who, in the movie world, is the one responsible for the visual appearance of the movie. So I ask myself questions like:

  1. How big is the room?

  2. What is the furniture like?

  3. Are there lamp tables? A fireplace? If yes, is it brick or stone or glass? A rug in front of the fireplace?

And then I tell my readers what I see, not always in that much detail, but a lot.

Next I bring people into the room and now my role becomes that of the DIRECTOR. I “tell” my characters where to sit, what to do, what to say, and how to interact with each other.

At the same time, I also become the CINEMATOGRAPHER–the camera man–whose job is to record the scene on film and transfer it to the big screen.

That is how I write, and it took me that long to realize it.

Writing the Movie in Your Head by Gerald N. Lund

How it actually works

Edie is the lead female character in my novel, Only the Brave. In one scene I have Edie come into the living room. She sits on the sofa. She has a book in her hands, but she sets it on the lamp table. Obviously she’s come to read, but she’s a little upset. So how do I convey that to my readers without just saying, “Edie is upset”? Her face is strained, her eyes are glistening, and she keeps wringing her hands together. Is there anyone else in the room there with her? Yes, Mitch, her husband. He too is agitated, pacing back and forth. He starts to speak, then he hesitates. Judging by the furrowed brow, this is some kind of bad news and he’s worried about upsetting her even more than she is.

And bingo! The novel is writing itself.

All I’m doing is recording what I’m seeing in a way that conveys visual images. I’m not saying that’s how everyone writes. Writing is an intensely personal experience. But that’s how I do it, and it works for me.

It’s all Right to cheat a little: Google it

A few years ago, after speaking at a writer’s conference, a young aspiring writer came up and asked me: “I love to write, but I hate writing description. Do you have any suggestions?” I had two, but both were flippant and not a worthy way to answer a good question.

If I were asked that same question today, I would tell her this: “First you must get the visual images into your head. You have to, or your descriptions won’t be crisp, and enlivened. If you can’t do that on your own, then cheat. Google it!”

Writing a murder mystery and trying to describe this old Gothic mansion that has a creepy feel about it? Google “Gothic mansions images,” and in .46 seconds you have 652,000 results. Pick one and describe to me what you’re seeing.

That’s not always as simple as it sounds, but it works.

Recently, a woman reader told me that she loved my description of a dress I had Edie wear to a dance. This was in the 1890’s. “I would love a dress like that, even today. How did you ever learn to write about women’s clothing?” Translation: “Surely a man couldn’t describe as woman’s dress so well. So who wrote that for you?”

Google “Women’s Fashions 1890 America” and you’ll see the picture that I used to describe the dress.

Womens Fashion 1890

It’s also important that my main characters “look” like the kind of people I want them to be. So let’s say I’m developing a new female character. Once I get her personality and character firmly in my mind, I try to start picturing how she looks. That doesn’t come easy for me. Sometimes I think about women I know–friends, relatives, ward members, etc., but more often now, I go to Google, type in, “Images women’s faces” and instantly, I have hundreds upon hundreds of faces to sort through until I find “the one.” Then, I study her face and decide what it is I like about it. Then, I try to describe it so my readers can begin to picture it too. Round face. Perky, upturned nose. Large almond-shaped eyes. High cheekbones.

Stuck on how to describe a unique landscape, a piece of period furniture, a storefront, a yacht, a van Gogh? Google it.

Help the reader create their own Movie in their heads. Or not!

Now, this is not as simple as it sounds or more people would be successful writers. Often, even highly successful writers forget simple concepts.

Though they may not appear at first seem to be related to the idea of a movie in the reader’s mind, I think they are and I’ll try to show you why.

The Intrusive Writer

Have you ever read a book where you find yourself asking the author questions, sometimes even out loud, or expressing your frustrations with him or her? “How much time has passed since we last saw this character? Who is he again?” Or, “Aw, come on! She’s such a strong character, and you have her fall madly in love with this absolute jerk just because he’s a hunk?” Or, “Who is speaking here?”

After experiencing this phenomenon in more books than I want to count (many of which I never finished) I decided that there should be an inflexible rule for writers of fiction:

  1. Never, never, ever pull your readers out of the story by doing something that calls attention to yourself.

I call that “writer intrusion,” because it interrupts the movie going on in my head.

The All-Seeing Eye

Recently I was reading a spy novel by a national best seller who ended one of his chapter like this: “As Robert turned and walked away, he had no inkling that he had just made a deeply tragic mistake that would haunt him for the rest of his life.”

My reaction? “Of course he had no inkling, because he can’t see into the future. This is you talking, Mr. Author. This is your inkling, not his.”

In my opinion, it’s a cheap way to try to insert a “hook” into the writing so as to hold the reader’s attention.

Can you imagine watching a movie and suddenly the screen freezes and a text box pops up on screen: “Note: Robert’s decision to walk away from this situation will eventually lead him into tragedy. Watch for this later in the movie.”

Forgettable Names, Forgettable Characters

I am currently listening to a national best seller on Audible. The book is creative, thought-provoking, and gripping. But over and over the writer keeps intruding himself into my consciousness with another common writer’s mistake. He doesn’t describe his characters in a way that sticks in my mind. (FYI, I am going to try to disguise this enough that you won’t be able to guess what book I’m talking about.)

Early in the book, the writer introduces a group of people thrown together by a major crisis. They are common people, so he gives them common names like Roy, Tom, Charlie, John, Bob, Carl, Mary, Jane, and so on. Which is fine, but he only gave me a brief description of each in the first chapter or two. Now, three weeks and three hundred pages into it, that’s all he ever tells me about them–their first names. So I keep finding myself asking questions like this. “Who is Roy again? Was he the snotty guy in chapter two, or the one that got shot in chapter four?”

It is a relatively simple fix. Give me some verbal/visual tags that make each person more memorable.

  1. Give Bob a scar on his forehead from an auto accident

  2. Give Mary freckles

  3. John gets a nervous tic when he’s agitated

  4. Jane slips into a deep Southern accent when she wants to hide just how bright she really is.

Then, from time to time, give me those tags again to help me remember and visualize who they are. E.g., “Mary blushed as she spoke, and her freckles stood out like pebbles on a beach.”

I call these verbal/visual tags because though they are written words, they bring images into our minds.

Don’t forget the Sound Track

I like the word authenticity. It’s a complement to me when a reader says, “You’re writing feels authentic to me,” or “Your characters feel authentic to me.”

In a movie, we typically don’t pay much attention to ambient sounds, unless they’re put in specifically to move the plot along, such as the squeak of a footstep on the stairs in a horror movie. But other sounds give a feel of authenticity to the movie because in real life our world is filled with sounds. If the real world has a soundtrack, then so should the world you’re creating in your novel.

  1. A baby crying from a bedroom

  2. The sounds of kids playing a sandlot baseball game down the street

  3. The soft drone of jet engines high overhead

  4. The hum of a computer

  5. The screech of brakes

  6. The howling of a blizzard

  7. The rumble of a passing truck

But there is another application of using a “sound track” in your writing, and that is with your dialogue. Someone once noted that the problem with writing dialogue that sounds authentic, is that it can’t really be authentic.” Weird, but it’s true.

Here is realistic, actual day-to-day dialogue:

Bob: (entering the room). Hi, Dan. Dan: Oh, hi Bob. Bob: How are things? Dan: Not bad. And with you?” Bob: About the same. Dan: Where ya been? Bob: Went to lunch. Dan: Oh. Whaddya have? Bob: A pastrami sandwich on rye. Dan: Ugh. I don’t like rye bread. Bob: Really. I love rye bread.

Put that in a book and it’s pure chloroform.

Striking the balance between real and believable dialogue is a skill, and whole essays have been written on the subject.

Here’s one simple trick that really helps me to turn monotonous dialogue into something that sparkles–sometimes even crackles. I learned it from another author, and since then I have learned since that a lot of authors do it too.

Read your dialogue out loud to yourself.

Isn’t that what movies do? We hear the dialogue, we don’t read it on screen (except in foreign language movies with subtitles, which do not do well at the box office).

That’s how it is in real life too. By reading it aloud, and trying to include such things as voice inflection, pacing, volume, emotions, etc., I begin to feel what’s working and what’s not. Then I go back and delete, polish, tighten, or expand.

NOTE: I live alone now since my wife died, so I can get away with this. But the other day, I didn’t realize that one of my granddaughters had come in right in the middle of me “playing my dialogue soundtrack.” She came into my office looking quite concerned. “Grandpa, are you all right? Who were you talking to?” 

Don’t forget the “Popcorn”

Okay, I don’t really write popcorn into my books, but as I thought about the analogy of having a movie in my mind, I also thought about why we like going to the theater to see movies rather than wait until they come out on DVD. And I realized that it’s not just the movies themselves which we enjoy, it’s the experience. And part of that is the popcorn–still the number one concession sold at movie theaters.

So think about that in terms of our writing.

We like to have a pleasant reading experience too. Part of that is finding stuff that lifts the spirit, makes us laugh, or just gives us a good chuckle. It may be something as simple as a droll comment by a secretary that puts her arrogant and insufferable boss in his place.

Some movies put in visual “gags” that make us smile. Even in serious movies, we appreciate when something happens that momentarily makes us laugh, relieves the monotony of life, and helps us reflect on life. And it feels good. Like a handful of hot, buttered popcorn.

Can you name which part of the newspaper is read by old and young alike? Which feature is for many people the one thing they will read even if there is no time to read anything else? That’s right. The comics. That should tell us something.

When I’m reading a novel, let me have some popcorn with it.

Such is what I’ve learned from trying to turn a novel into a screenplay.

REBECCA’S THOUGHTS: Wonderful tips, Dad. This is definitely one of your strengths as a writer, making scenes and characters memorable. It’s great seeing how you make that work.

Anytime I stop to visualize a scene, actually closing my eyes and letting it play out before me, the writing comes so much easier. Descriptions, too. If I’m stuck on a scene, that’s the fastest way to push through it–stopping to visualize it like an actual movie. And I can’t imagine writing without Google. It is any writer’s best friend, but you wrote for years without it. Not really sure how (well, actually I remember lots of hours you spent on research; lots and lots and lots of hours). Thanks again for these tips!

What about you? Do you ever try to visualize your story like a movie in your mind? How do you make your stories come to life? Comment here.


Gerald N. Lund received his B.A. and M.S. degrees in sociology from Brigham Young University. He served for thirty-five years in the Church Educational System, and he served as a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 2002 to 2008. He is a prolific and bestselling author of both fiction and nonfiction and is best known for his historical novels, including The Work and the Glory series, Fire of the Covenant, The Kingdom and the Crown series, and The Undaunted. He and his late wife, Lynn, are the parents of seven children.



all Books1


Work and the Glory Movies

Check back Tuesday for author Chantele Sedgwick talking about balancing writing time and family. See you then!



(Subscribe here to have posts delivered to your inbox)

  1. Tue, Mar 1: Playing Fair: Good Guys vs. Bad Guys by Rebecca Belliston

  2. Wed, Mar 2: How to Self-Edit Your Work by J.J. Lyon

  3. Thu, Mar 3: 6  Ways to Choose Great Character Names by A.L. Sowards

  4. Tue, Mar 8: How to Energize Your Writing by Charissa Stastny

  5. Wed, Mar 9: 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Wishes You Knew by Sarah Belliston

  6. Thu, Mar 10: Creativity: A Process, Not a Product by Teresa Hirst

  7. Tue, Mar 15: 6 Tips to Avoid Author Burnout by Danyelle Ferguson

  8. Thu, Mar 17, How Book Clubs Can Help Authors by Charity Bradford

  9. Tue, Mar 22, The Writing Formula: Success in Any Genre by Jen Johnson

  10. Wed, Mar 23, Rejection & a Broken Muse by Ranee` S. Clark

  11. Thu, Mar 24, Writing the Movie in Your Head by Gerald N. Lund

  12. Tue, Mar 29, Writing vs. Family: How to Choose Which to Focus on by Chantele Sedgwick

  13. Wed, Mar 30, Intuitive Grammar by Julie L. Casey






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