Thursday, February 17, 2011

Fill the Frame With People

Ever notice the number of photos snapped at a picnic, a family vacation or the Christmas party that show a giant, gaping backdrop but small, badly framed figures?

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
What's the deal here?

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.
There'll probably be enough collateral in and around my friends and family members' faces for me to remember and say, "Oh yeah! That was us rafting at the grand canyon in 2011!" If I want a unique, earth-shattering image of the Grand Canyon, I probably shouldn't turn to my point-and-click for it...and probably wouldn't need my little sister and her boyfriend in the shot.

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. 


  1. Yes, this is why I always say that you are brilliant. You prove here once again. :)

  2. You're brilliant, Jason—there's consensus on that. And I do understand your point—it's something you're good at.

    But I beg to offer a somewhat different POV.

    Both as a reader and I writer, I tend toward the cinematic. I don't want a radio play—or even a stage play—where characters are confined to voices in a room. I want to transport and be transported!

    I want the location to be a character. Convince and be convinced that we are really there in Communist Berlin or 19th century Paris or the highest reaches of the Rocky Mountains. I want the setting to be almost tangible.

    Sure, it's what's in the characters' heads that drives the story. But unless your characters live in some alternate reality that exists only inside their heads, then it's their milieu that sets the tone for what happens to them.

    "It was a dark and stormy night" is insufficient to make it so. Describe a snowstorm on a remote ranch on the high desert, the cloud-obscured sun having set behind the Three Sisters at 4:20 in the afternoon, on the other hand, and I begin to feel the chill and foreboding. I know the place.

    Describe a place I recognize, and do it accurately, and I'll be standing right alongside the character, seeing it for myself!

  3. Darcia and Marty (byathreadthebook)! Thanks for your comments. At least I know today is not one of those days where I'm talking to an empty room! (See my Facebook page if you don't know what the heck I'm talking about).

    Marty, I concur with much of what you are saying. A period piece or a unique situation or setting will require more to lay out, more to explain and share with the reader/audience. Everything's a balancing act, right? To badly paraphrase Kenny Rogers, we need to now when to hold 'em and know when to show 'em.

    You've read some of my work so you know that I spend some time building mood and explaining the sound the wind makes in the trees. I get off on this stuff and you might agree that I can have a cinematic lens on my stories. After all, I'm a visual person and I 'see' the scenes, events and people as I write about them. But most of my writing (so far) takes place in a world that's at least vaguely familiar to much of the readership. It's North America some time in the last two or three years or maybe two or three years from now. It might not be exactly what you know, but it's familiar.

    So, I can get away with ignoring some detail. Or, at the very least, being specific with which details to share.

    I've got some work coming up that breaks this tradition and I'll be writing some unique settings, some historical stuff. It should be fun to step further out of my comfort zone because I'm always trying to do that and stay afloat.

    However, I think a historical fiction piece also needs to be selective. I'd get bored reading or writing about all the different parts of a flintlock pistol and how one works. (I've seen this done so I'm not pulling this one out of thin air) Unless you're using the parts of the pistol to relate your audience to the fine intricacies of a particularly detail-oriented gun maker in the old west, it's probably best to avoid such a level of detail. It would likely bog things down.

    Part of what I'm saying is, I feel my way through these details, these 'extra parts' if you will. I try to conjoin the character to the other pieces if the other pieces need to be there. I would like to see Communist Berlin through the eyes of a hungry rebel. Or, show me 19th century Paris from the standpoint of a spoiled bourgeois teenager. Let me see the sights and sounds and architectural details as they do and filtered through what they might be going through, either inside or out.

    The best writers tell the most interesting stories when they marry the extra parts with the character parts. And when they do it seamlessly, I often can't even tell I've been had.

  4. I think what you are talking about is the difference between detail and significant detail. Incredibly important to all writing I believe.

    I also have a pet peeve when someone artfully spends three pages describing a woman folding her clothes and putting them in a suitcase but we never find out why this is important. For me, details should elicit feeling in the reader.

    I tend to approach a character's words & actions, as well as their surroundings from a psychological point of view. From your words above I take it you do something similar. Sitting in a room with green walls means nothing unless I know my character's father was obsessed with money, or perhaps spent years sick in a hospital whose walls had a similar shade, or the shade seems familiar then she realizes the day they pulled her brother's lifeless body from the river he was that exact shade of green etc etc. Whoops, sorry, got a bit maudlin there for a moment. Anyway, you get my point.

    Interesting post, I really enjoyed it. Thanks.

  5. Heidi, thanks for your comment. Your examples of green walls and the varying things they could mean to your character help to illustrate my point very well.

    I'm good with significant layers of detail and lots of it, but only if it's done well and is connected in some way. Maybe the writer intended for the suitcase to be important and then, whoops!, turns out it wasn't. In that case, subsequent revisions should probably uncover this and ensure it gets the axe -- no matter how much the writer enjoyed writing the sequence.

    In the right setting, the right story, it's my opinion that showing significant detail can add so much depth to the characters and even to the meaning of the characters' actions and reactions. If done well, it can make so much bloom for me as a reader.

    But you're right: that level of detail has to speak to something bigger and, thus, inform the reader of something important about character or plot. If it doesn't, maybe it shouldn't be there.


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