What Photography Teaches Us About Writing
Before a photographer takes a photo, a lot of considerations run through her mind: composition, metering, white balance, light sensitivity, aperture size. She does this because she knows it will make a better photo – more than that, it will make a photo that says something, that conveys a message or a mood to the viewer. What about writers? Having settled on an idea – padded out with a synopsis, character profiles, and worldbuilding – how many of us have simply knuckled down to word-churning without further thought? In a novel, or even a short story, each chapter and scene performs an important purpose in advancing plot or character, presenting an idea or conjuring a mood. Just as a better photo can be captured by considering the technicalities beforehand, some fore-thought can go a long way in writing a more powerful scene that resonates with the reader.
Composing the Elements
Before the photographer places his trigger finger anywhere near the shutter release, he needs to consider what he wants the photo to capture – the basic elements that make up the picture, whether landscape features, still life, people or anything else. Thinking about how these elements are placed can produce a more interesting and balanced photo.
Before we go steaming ahead with writing that chapter, then, first consider: what are the main story elements being used? Elements can broadly be summarised as description, action, dialogue, and exposition. Next, consider how they are going to be used. Which characters are being placed front and centre, and which ones can be relegated to the background? Is there going to be suspense, climax, revelations? Consider the role of setting – the scene’s physical location, and where we will be going within it. What about dialogue – will it be saying something about plot progression or should it focus on character development? Can it include both?
Depending on your scene, you may identify more specific story elements than those mentioned – that’s fine, as long as they provide a clear sense of what you’re hoping to achieve within the chapter and its desired effect upon the reader. Thinking about how you balance these elements in your scene ensures none are dominating or overlooked. You’re already poised to evoke the right mood before you’ve put fingers to keyboard.
Judging the Angle
A photographer may know exactly what she wants to shoot, but she may not know the best way to shoot it. Shooting from different angles can bring out distinct aspects of each picture element. Zooming in on the subject or framing it within a wide angle can vastly change the nature of the photograph and what it conveys.
Writers can approach their scene in a similar manner. First of all, consider the narrative perspective. A different approach to what you’ve used so far might be the perfect way to emphasise the otherness of a scene right from the start. It can also be used to reveal or hide something relevant to the reader purely through its chosen angle of view. When used carefully this can be very effective, because the reader knows too well that the entire revelation or obfuscation rests on a single perspective, independent of any other contrivance. Simple, yet powerful.
Secondly, consider the bearer of the point of view itself. Which character has the best view of the scene? Who has the worst? What does one character notice that another won’t – do they zoom in on the details, or are they more concerned by the bigger picture? Which point of view will be more effective in conveying the scene for the reader – and will it be revealing, or obscuring?
You may already have these things set in stone before even starting the story – a third person narrative from x and y point-of-view characters, for example. But allowing yourself the flexibility to experiment with different angles can open up new areas of scene, character, or setting that perhaps you didn’t realise were there.
Most photographs have a clear subject – the key element in the shot that ties everything else together. It might be a house amongst folded hills, a person on a street corner, or the eyes in a portrait. It’s the element that stands out and it usually helps to be in sharp focus.
When writing a big scene it’s easy to spread the focus too thinly so that the scene becomes bogged down in details. A well-focussed scene is one that maintains a steady beat and can handle suspense or rising action at a page-turning rate without being distracted by other elements. What other elements? All of them can potentially detract from the pace of a scene, especially when a lot of description is involved. Often these can be the infamous ‘darlings’ of the writer’s craft – elements we’ve enjoyed putting together and left in for that very reason, but that detract from the focus of the story. (You don’t have to kill your darlings, by the way, it’s just that this isn’t the place for them – save them for later, earlier, or even for another story entirely.) A writer maintaining good focus is maintaining good pace, and knows the difference between keeping a crucial detail and discarding a less important one.
Motion Capture and Depth of Field
A competent photographer rarely uses the auto mode. Using the creative tools of the camera puts a personal imprint on a shot – it shows the photographer has thought through the best way of capturing the image. Motion capture can be used to freeze movement at a vital point, or blur it to create a sensation of dynamism or abstraction. Depth of field either blurs out fore- and background, creating depth, or brings out more details, flattening the image.
For writers, adjusting voice is one of the subtlest and most effective ways of conveying the significance of a scene to the reader. By artificially slowing down or speeding up reading speed, you can affect emotional response. Short, sharp sentences can create suspense. Long, alliterative ones can accelerate the reader into an anticipation of action, increasing heartbeat. More measured paragraphs can slow reading speed, offering the reader a chance to reflect on your writing. A good writer knows when these structural forms are best deployed, making sure their voice complements the unfolding events.
Similarly, narrowing the focus of your descriptions can provide insight into character or place. By blurring out unimportant details and allowing a single element to come to the fore, the significance of the moment becomes much more apparent – use this to distinguish a pivotal moment in your scene, or to end a chapter with a moment you want to linger. By contrast, letting in more details contextualises the moment more solidly in time and place – drawing attention to sights, sounds, smells, textures, time of day, season, and other aspects that emphasise the setting. Use this to open a chapter and sink the reader within your world.
At some point the photographer needs to commit to the shot and hope their considerations have done enough to ensure a good exposure. For writers, putting words onto the page can be a huge and intimidating act of faith. But by thinking through the processes of what makes the scene – its elements, its focus, and the means by which these are best conveyed – you can ground your approach in something more tangible. So instead of rushing into a chapter, determined to get as many words down as possible, stop. Think. What would a photographer do?