Writing With a Zoom Lens

The biggest delight of writing fiction, at least for me, is the joy of creating places, characters and events from pure imagination. But this act of world-building is only the first step in telling a story.

To compare fiction to film, this is like set dressing, costumes, and blocking. The final step, and in many cases the unsung hero, is the way the story is imparted to the audience. It’s the swivel and pan and zoom of the camera; the edit, or in the case of fiction, the words we use to describe those places, characters and events.

The Zoom Lens

A zoom lens lets the camera get intimately close for that first kiss, or pan way out to show the vast world that these lovers have somehow traversed to find each other. Good cinematographers understand how seeing a scene from different angles and distances can greatly affect how that scene is perceived.

The “zoom lens” of fiction is the level of detail you choose to employ for a given scene. The level of detail can change over the course of a single scene, or across scenes; the literary equivalent of zooming in and out.

Take a look at the opening of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to each other for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible, stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost forever.

But the story of this terrible, stupid Thursday, the story of its extraordinary consequences, and the story of how these consequences are inextricably intertwined with this remarkable book begins very simply.

It begins with a house.

This opening zooms steadily inward. It starts at the edge of the galaxy, then zooms in to earth. It encompasses the entire breadth of human evolution and the problems of the entire human species before centering on a specific time and place, and a single, unnamed girl. After settling for only a moment, it pans away again, finally leaving us with the house.

The house belongs to the book’s protagonist, Arthur Dent, and the book zooms in on him and his house in the following chapter.

Adams, being who he is, uses this introduction to throw in some silliness. But he’s also zooming in on a particular time and place while simultaneously reminding the reader that this story will be about bigger things: the wider galaxy, the vast span of time, and the entirety of human civilization.

Show and Tell

One of the first rules of style that young writers learn is “show, don’t tell.” This oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood rule warns of the dangers of saying what happened (“He got on the subway.”) rather than describing the action in detail (“He took the litter-strewn stairs two at a time down to the subway platform, jumping the turnstiles and slipping through the doors just before they closed.”)

As new writers gain experience, “show-don’t-tell” starts to chafe. Sometimes it feels perfectly reasonable to tell. Maybe there’s an uninteresting span of time that needs to be elided. Perhaps the reader needs to know that something happened, but not the details of how.

The truth is that the overly vague “show” and “tell” of this rule are really just different adjustments of the zoom lens. When deciding how much to show or tell, it all depends on the amount and type of detail.

Time, Pacing, and Emotional Distance

When the story is zoomed-out (i.e. told with less detail), time contracts. It takes fewer words to describe a wider span of time, and the reader might cross years or centuries in the span of a sentence. Zooming in means describing that time span with more words. The reader spends more time getting through that portion of the story, literally making time feel like it is passing more slowly.

This has a fundamental effect on the pacing of the story. If an action scene needs to feel fast and frenetic, the details are necessarily going to be limited. Imagine a kung-fu battle where each punch and kick is described with an entire paragraph of prose. It begins to feel like slow-motion. The same fight, described with multiple attacks and blocks in each sentence will feel fast and fluid.

For similar reasons, the level of zoom also affects the emotional distance between the characters and the reader. In the opening of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for these humans who misunderstand their unhappiness and try to fill their empty lives with money and digital watches. At a slightly tighter zoom, it’s a bit easier to feel some interest in the unnamed girl whose epiphany would solve the world’s problems. But it’s the following chapter, where the view is fully zoomed-in, that we can really sympathize with Arthur Dent as he discovers that he has to unexpectedly stop a construction crew that wants to knock down his house.

We experience the world at a personal pace, fully zoomed-in on our own viewpoint. Fiction allows us to zoom out to the edge of the galaxy, or traverse centuries in a sentence, but the closer the story comes to a character’s personal view of time and space, the easier it is for a reader to sympathize with the character and take an interest in what happens to them.

Revising With the Zoom Lens

The zoom lens is a great editing tool. Sometimes, a story that isn’t quite working just needs an adjustment to the zoom. If readers think that a chapter is boring, consider “zooming out” a little and trimming less important details. If a character feels a little flat, “zoom in” on their thoughts, dialogue or actions to give a better sense of what drives them.

There are many ways the writer’s zoom lens can be applied, but common applications are adjusting the pacing (less detail reads faster) and the emotional distance (more detail tends to get closer to the characters).

While characters, plotting, and world-building are popular topics for writers and important building blocks of the story, all of those things only reach the reader through the lens of individual words. So be your own cinematographer and pay attention to those lenses, and how they affect your story.

Author: Samuel Johnston

Professional software developer, unprofessional writer, and generally interested in almost everything.

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