Focusing the Camera on What Your Character Notices

While we’re looking at Full Shots (or Medium Shots), I’d like to share a great example in Leif Enger’s beautiful novel Peace like a River. Here we see eleven-year-old Reuben Land describe what happens in the bedroom he shares with his older brother, Davy. It’s late and the brothers are in bed, but trouble is brewing and has been for a while. Reuben startles at the sound of the floorboards creaking downstairs and trembles as he hears someone approaching their room. He realizes he’s waited too long to wake his brother. And then . . .

The steps came forward. They stopped at my door. I felt, more than heard, someone’s hand upon the knob.

Then Davy spoke from beside me—“Switch on the light”—his voice so soft he might’ve been talking in his sleep. But he wasn’t. He was talking to whoever stood incorporeal in the doorway. “Switch it on,” he commanded, and next thing we were all of us brightsoaked and blinking: me beneath my quilt, and Israel Finch standing in the door with a baseball bat in one hand and the other still of the switch, and poor stupid Tommy all asquint behind his shoulder. Davy was sitting up in bed in his T-shirt, hair askew. Somehow he was holding the little Winchester he’d carried in the timber that afternoon. And holding it comfortably: elbows at rest on his knees, his cheek against the stock, as if to plink tin cans off fence posts.

It is fair to say that Israel had no chance. I’m not saying he deserved one. He stood in the door with his pathetic club like primal man squinting at extinction. How confused he looked, how pinkeyed and sweaty! Then he lifted the bat, the knothead, and Davy fired, and Israel went backward into Tommy Basca, and Davy levered up a second round and fired again. . . .

The round made a bright black raindrop above and between his two eyebrows . . . Swede came flying from her room. She saw, besides Finch, Tommy Basca on his stomach with hands aquiver toward the door, and Davy stepping up behind him. . . . Tommy clawed the floor, bawling incomprehensibly, and his eyes rolled, and there was genuine terror inside his voice, and I knew with certainty he was seeing all the devils waiting for him . . . Standing above him, Davy levered up a third cartridge.

I ought’ve looked away, but I couldn’t.

He lowered the barrel to the base of Tommy Basca’s skull. For an instant my brother seemed very small—like a stranger seen at a clear distance. He showed no tremor. He fired. Tommy relaxed.

Note that Reuben is close enough to see both his brother and the two teens intent on harm. Close enough to catch the significant bits of action: the way Davy’s sitting with the gun and his quiet sleep-walking-sounding voice, the confusion in Israel’s eyes and his sweat, Tommy squinting, the blood appearing on his forehead from the bullet wound, his eyes rolling. All this is perfectly shown with a Medium Shot.

Color It Through the Lens of Your Character

I know—I say this a lot, but it bears repeating. Writers should always think about coloring their scenes by showing the world through their characters’ eyes. This means that although the “camera” is outside shooting the scene and recording what is happening, in a novel, you are in one character’s POV, in their head as they see, react, feel, emote, and act. With every camera shot (unless you are in omniscient POV), you want to have the character’s voice ring clear, and have the “camera” notice what they would notice—not what you, the writer, notices.

Enger is able to get in all the important details and nuances to make the scene alive, cinematic. Note, though, how well he colors the action through his protagonist’s eyes, showing what an eleven-year-old boy would notice in particular—like the words and noises uttered and the looks on the boys’ faces. This altercation surely is the high moment of this scene, and the way Enger almost pauses with the line “for an instant my brother seemed very small—like a stranger seen at a distance” places importance on this brief moment, in a sense blowing it up to be the pivotal few seconds of not only the scene but of perhaps the entire novel.

Interesting how Reuben, although fairly close to his brother, now sees him as if in a Long Shot, which Enger uses as metaphor. For, now, this brother of his is like a stranger he can barely make out, acting in ways never imagined, shooting holes into not just these boys and the lives of Reuben’s entire family but tearing into Reuben’s almost worshipful adoration of Davy. Beautifully done.

This week, work on one of your scenes in which you are using a Medium or Full Shot. Look at not just the details you are mentioning but how you are mentioning them. Are they colored by your POV character’s voice, personality, and age? Can you think of some words or phrases to add that will help tweak this scene to reveal more about your character through this shot? Take out anything that doesn’t reflect something about your character or serve the needs of the plot or the high moment for this scene. Remember that sometimes less is more.

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  1. Man, this novel writing if getting to be a lot like school. and it’s spring (well almost). Hope maybe some of it with take. Another good one c.s.–keep ’em coming.

    Debbie should read last years posts on the first page if she missed them.

  2. Interesting. My husband is a long time photographer. One of the questions he asks himself before taking a picture is “What story does it tell?”

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