Quickie Writing Tips: Establishing Shots

In  movies, it’s common for scenes to start with an establishing shot: a second or two that shows the audience where the scene will take place.

For example, if a scene is going to take place in the kitchen of a suburban house, the movie often doesn’t go there directly. Instead, the movie might start by showing an external view of the surrounding suburbs. Then when the movie cuts to the kitchen a few seconds later, you understand that the kitchen is inside a house that’s in the suburbs. Otherwise, one kitchen looks a lot like any other (at least if we’re talking modern day), so viewers may not be able to tell if it’s in a city, the country, in a desert, on the coast, wherever. The establishing shot orients the audience so that they have a better appreciation of where and when this is happening.

In fiction, quick establishing shots are also useful…but typically what you want to establish isn’t just where and when but who. Who is the viewpoint character whose experience you’re going to read about?

People connect to people. It’s as simple as that. You connect your reader to a story by connecting the reader to a character. Once in a long while, the character can be a persona assumed by the writer. When I think of writers assuming a persona, I always think of Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett. Both have a habit of opening their books with little preambles, where the author directly addresses the reader. They basically send the message, “Sit down and let me tell you a story…”

But usually the viewpoint character is someone who actually takes part in the story. Whether the story is written in first-person or third, it’s almost always desirable to give the reader an immediate sense of who the viewpoint character is and what that person is like. Some simple examples:

  • I was nursing my third cup of coffee, trying to avoid going into the office because I expected I was going to be fired. This gives you an immediate feeling for what kind of person is telling the tale. You don’t know name, sex, or other particulars, but you already have a sense of personality. A connection has begun.
  • John Ling always hated trying to get the blood out afterward. In this case, you have a name, a probable sex (indicated by “John”), and a sense that this is someone who often experiences violence. Again, there’s the start of a connection—you don’t yet know if John is a “good guy” or “bad guy”, and you probably don’t have a lot of experience with bloodshed, but you can still sympathize with a guy who gets stuck with lousy jobs.By the way, it may be a cliche, but starting the very first sentence of a scene with the viewpoint character’s name is a damned useful technique. Hiding the character’s name seldom buys you anything. Even if you’re writing in the first person, it’s a good idea to reveal the character’s name as soon as possible.

Contrast the above openings with something like this:

It was a rainy night in Los Angeles. The headlights of cars reflected on the wet streets, occasionally accented by flashes of lightning and… 

<Snore…> This is the sort of establishing shot you might see in a movie—it shows the place and time—but it doesn’t connect the reader with a person. It doesn’t even present an interesting situation. Yet so many novice writers write this kind of opening. Maybe they do it because they’re used to seeing it in movies, but books and stories work differently.

People connect with people, not weather. Unless you’ve got a hell of a good reason, give the reader a person to connect with in the very first sentence. Better yet, give us a interesting person doing something interesting. That’s what makes a good establishing shot.

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