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.

Sharing: Third-Person to First

I’ve been reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, in which he suggests that writers and artists should share information about their creative process.

I’ve decided to do just that. At the end of every day, I intend to tweet about what writing I did. From time to time, I’ll also write blog posts. So consider this the first installment of an ongoing feature.

First, some background. On November 7, my next novel comes out: ALL THOSE EXPLOSIONS WERE SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. In it, four students at the University of Waterloo gain superpowers. My plan has always been to make a four-book series, with each book centering on one of the students.

The first book is told by Kim Lam in first-person, past tense. The second book, THEY PROMISED THE GUN WASN’T LOADED, is told by Jools Walsh in first-person, present tense. I turned in that book to my editor in August. Afterward, I took some time to work on short stories and other projects, but I started Book 3 around the start of October.

My original plan was to write Book 3 in third-person past tense, and Book 4 in third-person present tense. That way, each of the four books would have a very different feel. So I started Book 3 and wrote about 2000 words. Then I started again with a different approach and wrote about 4000 words. Then I started again and got to 8000. Each version described the same events but with a different flavor and tone of voice.

This is standard procedure for me. I try different ways to get into a story, with different tones of voice and ways of opening up the action. Sooner or later, something clicks and I can proceed to get into the meat of the story.

But my attempts to use third-person, past tense just weren’t working. They were too distant. I originally thought this would be okay, because Book 3 centers on the character of Miranda, and she’s quite a private person. In fact, I could easily believe that if Miranda sat down to tell this story herself, she’d write it in the third-person to impose a sense of separation.

But I didn’t like the effect. For one thing, it wasn’t as funny as the first two books; third-person wasn’t personal enough to allow wry comments and turns of phrase. It also wasn’t as energetic as Miranda herself. She’s a strong quirky character. That wasn’t coming across.

So a few days ago, I decided to start again. A phrase popped into my head: Dear [Redacted]…. (I’ve omitted the name because I think there’s a good chance I’ll change my mind on who it is, and I don’t want to set up false expectations.) The idea is that Miranda is writing a letter to someone she met in the course of the adventure, and telling them how everything worked out.

I find this idea interesting; I think it will work. So I’ve started another iteration, this time writing in first-person past tense, the way you’d write a letter. I think this will make the voice sufficiently different from the first two books that Book 3 will sound like it comes from a brand new narrator. The epistolary format also justifies certain kinds of exposition: the person Redacted isn’t familiar with a lot of the world’s background, so there’s an excuse for Miranda to fill in backstory while she’s telling the tale.

I have high hopes for this approach. So far I like the chemistry. I’ve got about 4000 words in the new tone of voice and another 4000 to go before I match what I’ve already got. After that, we’ll see what happens when I finish revising existing material and start something new. Wish me luck!

Writing References

On Friday, October 13, I led a writing workshop for Can-Con in Ottawa. To make life easier for me at the workshop, and also to share a useful list for any writers out there, here are some books that I’ve found useful as references.

(Since the workshop is in Ottawa, all book links are to Amazon Canada. This is simply for my own convenience; if you want to buy a copy of any of these, visit your favorite bookstore or web site.)

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
A quirky but useful general introduction to writing science fiction and/or fantasy
Into the Woods, by John Yorke
One of my favorite books on story structure and plot
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the few books that deals with the nitty-gritty of actually telling
stories, down to the word and sentence level. It’s not a beginner book, but it’s a book to read when you’re ready to get serious about prose.
A First Page Checklist by Ray Rhamey (PDF)
Since the workshop I’m doing is specifically on openings, this is a useful set of points to consider, even if you decide to let some slide

As time goes on, I may add more to this list. I’ve just begun working on the start of the third book in the “Dark vs. Spark” series, and as part of the process, I’ve picked up a number of other writing books that have been recommended to me. For the moment, however, the books above are a great place to start.

While I’m at it, let me add that all writers should carry something that they can immediately use to make notes. Your phone doesn’t count if you won’t actually use it, nor does it count if you don’t review those notes within a day of making them and then store them in a searchable format.

For years, I’ve been using normal 3×5 index cards; I put 3 or 4 in the back pocket of my pants where they lie nice and flat but are immediately available for writing. After writing on a card, I leave it by my computer so I can transcribe it ASAP, either into a text file, Evernote, or Scrivener. The nice thing about index cards is that they’re cheap, and if they get crushed, or wet with rain, or whatever, I can just throw them out and grab another handful. It’s like a notepad that never runs out of pages!