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.

Learning from Great Hooks

The “hook” is the opening of a story: the handful of sentences where a reader is willing to completely suspend judgement and open themselves up to a new world. It’s called a hook because it’s the author’s opportunity to reel the reader in. To grab hold of them and refuse to let them go until the story is done.

Hooks are among the most daunting things to write. A hook needs to pull the reader in, but it’s also a promise of what’s to come. If the hook captures the reader’s interest, but does it in a way that’s at-odds with the rest of the story, it will feel like a betrayal. A bait-and-switch.

Today, I want to look at hooks from a few books I like and see what I can learn from them. How are they structured? As a reader, how do these introductory sentences pull me in? What do they promise about the story to come?

Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once. And the King, who by now had almost forgotten the old Queen and had scarcely looked at the baby, agreed and thought no more about it. And that would have been the end of that baby girl, but that her nurse, Matulli, came to hear of it. Now this nurse was from Finmark, and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time. So she turned herself into a black bear then and there, and picked up the baby in her mouth, blanket and all, and growled her way out of the Bower at the back of the King’s hall, and padded out through the light spring snow that had melted already hear the hall, and through the birch woods and the pine woods into the deep dark woods where the rest of the bears were waking up from their winter sleep.

This lovely rush of words is only five sentences. Most of them start with conjunctions, making it feel like one long, breathless run. So much is happening.

It’s clear from the first few words that this is going to be a fairy tale, and that’s further confirmed when we see that being able to turn into an animal is treated as no particularly impressive feat. We can also tell that this is no light and fluffy fairy tale. It begins with the almost casual cruelty of the king and queen.

This opening also makes it clear that this girl is the protagonist, and she will not be living a normal life. In this single paragraph, we see her lose her birthright, saved by a bear-woman and brought to live in the woods. It’s hard not to be curious about what will happen next.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, by Neil Gaiman

You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to have run away, perhaps to the city. During that year I forbade her name to be mentioned, and if her name entered my prayers when I prayed, it was to ask that she would one day learn the meaning of what she had done, of the dishonour that she had brought to my family, of the red that ringed her mother’s eyes.

I hate myself for that, and nothing will ease that, not even what happened that night, on the side of the mountain.

This opening starts in the second person, drawing the reader in by including them in what seems to be conversation in progress. A conversation with us.

We start with a few fragmented sentences, already waist-deep in mysteries. Where did you leave him? Who is he? What did you do? The daughter clearly didn’t run away to the city, so what happened to her?

The viewpoint character is already being defined here. He’s someone with strong emotions – a fierce temper that more or less caused him to disown his daughter, and his shame when he discovers this still unexplained truth of what really happened to her.

Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

“That’s what you said about the brother.”

“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”

“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

“Not if the other person is his enemy.”

“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”

“If we have to.”

“I thought you said you liked this kid.”

“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”

“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”

Starting with dialogue puts us in the action immediately. It also tells us that whoever these two disembodied voices are talking about is probably important to the story. Dialogue like this, without tags attributing it to a character, is a dangerous choice because it can be disorienting to the reader. In this case, it works because we don’t have to care about these two speakers, only the information they’re conveying really matters.

The first sentence sounds like standard Messiah fare, but it’s immediately subverted. We understand that the target of this discussion is being observed and tested (in a very invasive way), and his brother and sister were subjected to this treatment as well. These voices are willing to be cruel to him if it’s required to make him into this messianic figure and save the world. The stakes of the story are already being established on the first page.

There is a little mystery here as well. What are the buggers, and why does the world need to be saved?

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

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.

It goes on like this for another page and a half of prologue, which meanders right into the first chapter. I found it hard to pick a cut-off point.

To me, this is the most interesting example we’ll look at today. It doesn’t introduce any of the main characters, or anything about the situation or setting (beyond Earth in general).

It does tell us that it’s science fiction, it’s not going to take itself seriously, and it’s going to be looking at everything from a rather skewed and unexpected viewpoint. In fact, what it’s really introducing is the the author’s incredibly distinctive voice and tone. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you’ll know that his narrative voice is almost a character in its own right (even if it isn’t from an actual character’s perspective). This series includes plenty of chapter-length digressions and asides, and is undoubtedly better for it.

In short, the story can afford to wait a bit, because it’s so damn entertaining to just listen to what Adams has to say.

Give it a Try!

I’d encourage every writer to do this exercise with some favorite books. One of the wonderful things you’ll discover is the sheer variety of forms that a hook can take. You don’t need to feel forced into a formula — there are a plethora of ways to pull readers into a story. By analyzing the hooks of stories you love, you might discover some great ideas you can apply to your own stories.