The Zoom and the Pan in Descriptive Writing

Today is the last day of projects at my house. The crew replacing many of my windows have been here since 10 am and are now attempting to replace the glass on the sliding glass door where my darling dog, Poppy, left hundreds of tiny scratches. Since the door is open, rather than air condition the back yard, I have turned off the central cooling unit and now sit at my kitchen nook in sticky solitude at a balmy 85 degrees.

In my letter from my editor, one of the (many) helpful things she recommended was for me to consider how I draw my scenes. “We need the zoom and pan,” she said. I think it’s relatively easy to tell what is zoom and pan in visual media. In literature, it’s a bit more tricky.

In this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s description of the countryside has this panning camera feel as he guides the reader through the village, the river, the plain, and the war.

In this excerpt, we (slowly) zoom in on the scene, taking in some sculptures, the chair, the cap, frescoes, and the lovely but doomed Catherine Barkley.

In each of these examples, Hemingway has guided the reader through the description, and it has a fluid, kinetic quality, much like the active panning and zooming of a camera. In writing, this movement feels more explicit since it’s words that must guide the reader through the scene. Frankly, it’s hard to put into words how this pan/zoom thing is different in words versus visual. Maybe it’s the same. The only difference is the difference between words and space and time. In other words, the medium. (Duh).

But like many things done well, if you don’t look for the pieces, you won’t notice them. It’s interesting to see what draws in the reader through Hemingway’s lengthy descriptions. Now for some reverse-engineering, here is a screenshot example from a favorite cinematography technique from Breaking Bad. One of the show’s trademarks shots is the use of what they call near/far, like this kettle that’s in the foreground, and the bokeh dramatic action in the background. How would words convey this or something like this? I’m searching for literary examples.

How to Handle Minor Characters and Groups in Fiction

As I work on my re-write of my manuscript, a bunch of things are clicking that hadn’t before, which is very encouraging for me! I think I have figured out how to hack into my main characters’ made-up souls to make them believable and interesting. Of course, one thing is sketching them out on my spreadsheet, and another is presenting who they are in some clever way in the story itself. (!)

One area that continues to elude me is how to handle minor characters and groups in fiction. I consistently fumbled this in my manuscript, losing my editor along the way, not making it clear who she was supposed to focus on, and who was unimportant.

Last night Steve and I watched Twilight (I know. I know.), and though I’ve never read the books, I know Stephenie Meyer had to create these high school cliques for Bella to blow off in favor of her vampire boyfriend. In visual media, perhaps showing minor characters and groups is less tricky, because you can simply put them in the background of whatever the main activity is (like Bella in the cafeteria first noticing the Cullens) and it doesn’t distract from where the audience is supposed to focus. In the movie, when Bella first notices the Cullens, she’s physically surrounded by other teens and the Cullens slow-motion walk to their table in the corner of the cafeteria. Here is the book excerpt of this scene setting up this moment from Twilight.

In this excerpt, we have two people, Bella mentions by name and one girl who she is talking to but is not named (since Bella quickly forgets her name). We get the sense that the cafeteria is full of teenagers. We know that Bella is surrounded by other people at the table (“several of her friends”), and is generally feeling like the new kid in school.

Looking at this closely, I notice a few things that Meyer has done.

  1. Each minor character Meyer introduces gets his or her little paragraph.
  2. The “group” in paragraph two has its own little paragraph.
  3. The scenery of groups and individuals is finally painted in the last paragraph.

My take-away from this little analysis is that it takes more words than I thought to develop minor characters. Also, it’s still necessary to develop minor characters and groups by citing some characteristic or behavior, to orient the reader and build the scene.

All that doesn’t seem too hard, does it?!