I get irritated when someone emails or sends a hard copy of a picture from their trip to the local fishing hole and there's this giant background of some blurry water and then, in the mid-ground there are two people with grainy faces holding up a fish. Or a shot from the Christmas party. They've taken pains to get the whole christmas tree in the shot, but the people are tiny and miniscule. One of them has his eyes closed.
|I guess we can sorta make out Bill's expression. |
Don's profile is hard to read though...
And I think Beverly is smiling
I know that these photos are taken by amateur folks with amateur cameras. I'm not asking them to be an auteur when it comes to snapping simple family shots intended to capture a moment in their lives and share it with their loved ones.
That's fine. No problem.
But I approach writing a story about people the same way I approach taking pictures of people: fill the frame with people.
When it comes to photographs of the people I love, I try to fill the allowable space of the shot with as much cheek, forehead, hair, eyes, nose, smile and personality of the subject as I can. In twenty years, I won't much care what shade of blue-green the lake water was. In five years, I'll only have a passing glance at the decorations on the Christmas tree. I'll want to remember how Lily's hair looked or what she was wearing. I'll want to know that she was happy that time we went to the Grand Canyon on summer holiday.
|Look at the joy. |
You won't necessarily know that they were rafting
at the canyon, but you might not care because
it's a great and happy moment.
Likewise, when I read a short story or a novel, I want to know about the people. Sure, backdrop is important. We need to know where they live and what the weather is like, but do we need three paragraphs about what they're wearing in each scene? Do we need a page and a half explaining how Diane got from the train station to her office tower? Unless she met a member of an alien race at the hot dog stand halfway between point A and point B, probably not.
What I want to know is: What was Diane worried about on the walk to work. Is she tired? Does she like her job? Did she have a good time last night at the party? Or was her ex-boyfriend there, effectively ruining the fun time she thought she'd have? Now, are there tulips poking their heads up in the flower boxes outside her building? And do they remind her of the ones that grow outside the apartment she once shared with that ex boyfriend?
There's a basis for a scene.
When I write, I try the same approach. I've been guilty of using three paragraphs to describe a winter scene in uptown Toronto but I do this kind of thing with character always at the forefront. It has to either advance the plot or inform who the characters are. I ask the questions to make sure that the point is character driven. In other words, what does the winter scene mean to the characters? How congruous with the overall point of the characters is the description of a big city conjoined with a small one, the big one grey and imposing, the small one, flat and colourful. In this case, I used it to draw comparisons between an overbearing father and his timid son. For me, it worked. And when I read the descriptors, I see the boy and his dad.
Focus on the people, who they are and why the do what they do. They're the most important part of the story and, without them, we probably won't give two hoots how pretty the Grand Canyon looks.
My writing advice? Give your details, set the stage.
But then, make sure you fill the frame with the people.