Using Close-Up Shots to Give Sensory Detail

Back in my first post kicking off this year-long course of supercharging your novel using cinematic technique, I told a short (bad) joke. I’ll share it again here, since I’m going to use it as an example of how you can take a basic scene idea and use Close-Up Shots to highlight details you want the reader to notice.

Using specific camera shots is all about getting the reader to pay attention to what you, the writer, want them to notice. The fine details we reveal with a Close-Up shot add flavor and nuance and texture to our scenes, and that’s why they’re the often the best and most commonly used shot.

Here’s the joke again:

A man walks into a bar, accompanied by a large piece of asphalt. He goes up to the bartender and says, “I’ll have a whiskey.” He nods at his friend and adds, “Oh, and one for the road.”

To give a demonstration, I took the joke and wrote it out as a brief scene using, predominately, a Close-Up shot. I have a couple of places where I Pan or Follow my character, but the purpose of doing this is to show how small close-up details can help make the scene come alive. Sensory details (touch, taste, sounds, sights, smells) are the most effective ways to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind, and in a Close Shot you can have your character experience things that bring intimacy to the fore.

Close-Up Shots in Novels Are Evocative

Here’s where a novelist can sometimes achieve a stronger effect than a screenwriter or filmmaker. Novelists can evoke smells and sensations in a way a movie can’t. Sure, a movie can show a plate of mouthwatering pizza, and that visual can set out stomach growling.

Yet, a novelist can express from the character’s POV how that pizza smells and looks and makes her feel. If done well, our mouths will water as well while we read the passage, and we may even need to get up and raid the refrigerator.

If you read the book Chocolat by Joanne Harris and you didn’t go scrounging the house for something chocolate, something must be wrong with you.

So take a look at the close-up bits my character notices as he goes into the bar to get a drink. Think about how a handful of small sensory details can enhance a scene and help you get to know the character better.

The man rested a trembling hand on the burnished brass handle of the splintered wood door. He stepped into the dim room and let his eyes adjust, then walked across the room, his boots clacking on the wood planking. He heard his friend sigh and looked at his face.

The giant piece of asphalt looked haggard and parched—as if a thousand tires had just driven over his body and left him flattened and beat up. He nudged his friend as they came up to the bar and pulled a couple of crinkled bills from his pants pocket. He laid the bills on the water-stained mahogany counter and cleared his throat. He caught the bartender’s attention.

The crusty old barkeep came over reeking of sweat and the sour odor of stale cigar smoke. The man’s eyes caught on the long scar running under the barkeep’s lip, but the glint in the old man’s eye told him he’d better not mention it.

“Uh, I’ll have a whiskey,” he said, noticing some shady-looking characters in the recesses of the dark room. Three men pushed back their chairs and started heading his way. He gulped and wished he hadn’t chosen to stop at this hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere. But he knew they couldn’t have traveled much further, and the next town was nearly fifty miles away.

He should have listened to his mother’s warnings not to take this highway. He’d been impatient, wanting to get to Las Vegas as quickly as possible. He needed cash, and that stolen watch was burning a hole in his pocket. He knew if he could just pawn it and play the tables, he’d get the money he needed and pay off his debt before those thugs came back.

The bartender paid him no mind, but pulled out a rag and mindlessly circled over the imbedded water stains in the wood as if he had nothing better to do.

“I said, I’ll have a whiskey,” the man announced in a loud voice. He glanced over at the piece of asphalt, whose eyes now showed fear. The man’s mouth tightened. His pal was a chicken, always let people roll all over him. He surely wouldn’t be one bit of help in a bar fight. It was time to hightail out of there before those men shook him down and discovered that watch.

He finally caught the bartender’s attention. He gestured at his friend and said, “And one for the road. Make it snappy.”

So when you are in close to your characters to reveal their personalities, goals, and needs, be sure to add sensory details that will bring intimacy and breathe life into your story. Novelists can evoke some emotions like smell and touch sometimes more powerfully than a film can.

Why? Because instead of showing from a camera’s POV, you are in your character’s head and he is reacting firsthand and personally to what he’s experiencing.

This week, take one or more of your scenes in which you are close up to one or more characters. Think how you can add sensory bits of smell, taste, touch, and hearing. If you only have one sense being conveyed, add at least one or two more.

Think also of minute details your character might notice that will help reveal something about her personality—something she can only see if she’s up close.

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  1. Excellent advice and it would surely make the reader sit up an take notice. Remembering a particular scene from a sort story or novel. We really do need to bring all our senses into play when creatively writing. I’m particularly interested in te so called sixth sense that animals are said to possess and which may be lurking undiscovered in all of us.

  2. One of the problems I have is that I’m very poor with details. I just don’t see them or connect to them emotionally. Meaning, if a writer gives me a lot of details and no big picture to pull them together, but expects me to get the story, I will end up going, “Huh?”

    To get them into the story, I have to work at it in a backward sort of way. I have to ask questions about what I think the reader will be expecting and then put them in. I also have to study pictures for a long time until I grab one detail, then add it to description, go back to the picture for another one, etc. Very time consuming, and a lot of it is guesswork. Sometimes I guess really wrong by using the wrong word because I’m not experiencing the emotional connection.

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