The important lesson that stayed with me after graduating from the Producing Program at The American Film Institute was that the filmmaker must always “photograph the moment of decision”. It seems obvious, but it is baffling how often movie-goers or the reader of fiction suddenly realizes that a decision has already been made, leaving them feeling deprived of witnessing it.

Having completed my new thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud, that dictum holds true for me now as a writer, and is an essential story tool to show the reader the motivation of the characters. In Atone, I dedicate an entire chapter—each—for both my heroine and hero to make a decision that will change the course of their lives. And this is no less important for the villain of the story.

In addition, the filmmaker must always consider the point of view of the camera and the cinematographer must ensure that each point of view is obvious. Whose story is it, in that moment? Similarly, there are pivotal scenes in Atone that I repeat from each character’s point of view, so the reader can understand what’s going on from their perspective. I write from three points of view, and the reader always knows whose story is unfolding because every chapter is only one point of view. This avoids the problem of confusing the reader by “head-hopping”.

But I choose to think that the real art of cinematography lies in the framing. At its most basic this is about the focus of the story. On a feature production shoot where I was assisting the director, I watched the cinematographer painstakingly work with a focus puller, getting the speed of focus change—the soft start and end—just right. His selection of lenses, filters and lighting was dictated by story, and the director. When I watched the movie all I realized was that an aspect of the story had changed and in doing so, had seamlessly moved the plot along. I compare this business of focus to the decisions the writer must make regarding focus; whether to show the outer emotional beat in action, or tell the reader about what the character is thinking in interior dialog. Both have their place in storytelling.

Every scene has a backdrop that I think of as subtext. Whether the story is intimate and “small” or broadly epic depends on the cinematic eye of the director. In The Dead Poet’s Society, when Peter Weir cuts to a field of grass waving in the wind he is showing us the subtext of the changing emotions of the schoolboys. I often use this technique in my writing and even personify inanimate aspects, as in, “When the crowd indulged his indiscreet confessions, her mother’s close friend, a tall, resolute woman, sighed, then sat cross-legged on the forgiving grass and stared into her lap.”

With the Sundance Film Festival in full swing this week, executives will be on the lookout for cinematic stories. It is reassuring to know that if a studio exec happens upon a thriller such as Atone for the Ivory Cloud, or Eric Haggman’s The Apology, they will see the cinematography in the writing.

Geoffrey Wells is author of Atone for the Ivory Cloud. To learn more, please visit,