How close should the camera be?
Do me a favor and close your eyes.
Okay, maybe that was a bad idea. Now you can’t read this post.
So, do me a favor and imagine that your eyes are closed. I want you to picture the scene that I describe, rather than the glowing screen of whatever internet-connected device you are reading.
The scene opens with the wide vista of a camera sweeping over jagged, snow-capped mountains beneath an azure sky before dropping down in a slow pan that reveals the rolling green landscape below. Only as the view hurtles down the mountainside, skimming across boulders and darting between the twisted trunks of scrub pines, does it begin to creep upwards to reveal the horror of what lies at the center of the valley. It is revealed first in the plumes of black smoke, rising up in roiling pillars that spread out as they ascend, turning the sky dark ahead. The view draws closer beneath the darkening sky until it sweeps over the waving field of grass and, rising up over a low hill, reveals the battle raging beneath the cloud of smoke.
Got it? Now blink a few times until your mind’s eye is cleared.
Take a look at this now.
A wizard named Reynard raised his arms and twirled his fingers in a complicated pattern, drawing forth a crackling webwork of purple lightning from the aether. He squinted in the dim light of a sun that hardly pierced the cloud of smoke hanging above the battlefield. It took a moment for him to spot the bright flash of his enemy’s red hair through the melee of clanging swords, shivered spears, and heaving bodies, but then Reynard spotted her. He muttered the release command and allowed a grin to creep across his face as the ray of electricity shot out to strike the commander.
I don’t know if fantasy is your thing, but allow me to implant one more vision in your mind before you give up. Hopefully you’re starting to see the progression here.
Cynthia rammed her sword through the neck of the daemon, unleashing a torrent of black, sulfurous smoke as the monster’s head flew from its body. The scent of its death brought to mind the day when she had fled her family home, tears streaking her soot-stained face, pursued by the same beasts that had murdered her family. Cynthia blinked, pushed back the sweaty mop of her short red hair with the back of her scarred forearm, then scanned the battlefield for her next target. A flash of purple light caught her eye and she squinted through the smoke and dim light. Before she could shout a warning to her troops, a crackling sphere of arcane energy blasted through the melee and slammed into her. Everything went black.
Still with me? Good.
When you’re writing a scene, a chapter, a whole novel, you have a lot of important decisions to make. One of the most important is what “narrative mode” you will use. Don’t worry. I might be an English major, teacher, and story geek, but I’m not going to get too wordy here. The essential thing you need to understand is that when you’re writing a story, you are the person who holds the camera on the scene. You are not only the writer. You are the director. You are the camera operator. You are the inner monologue within the mind of each and every character.
It’s a big responsibility, but you can handle it if you’re careful.
All three of the scenes above were written in the third person point of view, but all of them have a distinctly different feel.
In the first scene, the narrative never enters the mind of the characters. It remains aloof and describes the scene from a distance, giving your reader a broad image of the setting and helping them understand the context of the battle. This can be very useful in small doses, just as the wide establishing shot can be useful in a big-budget hollywood epic. Unfortunately, as many summer popcorn flops have taught us, such grand perspectives can quickly grow boring as the human conflict is reduced to nothing more than a pile of ants crawling over one another.
In the second scene, the narrative pulls closer and drops down to the level of the individual, like a camera framing the villain as he prepares to attack the action hero. This is a great point of view for describing the actions of minor characters. You need to make your stories personal and bring your characters to life, but you also don’t want to overwhelm your reader by stuffing them inside the brain of every single character. This point of view is also useful when you’re describing a tense scene and don’t want to bog down the action with constant flashbacks to your main character’s childhood.
The third scene is about as personal as you can get in the third person. It’s like that moment in a movie when the action slows, the camera drifts from the violence to the face of the star, and a subtle whisper of dialogue from an earlier scene plays over the swelling score. If done correctly, this point of view connects your readers to the characters on an emotional level and makes them understand who they are and why they act. But please, for the love of literature, don’t over do this. If you use this point of view too often, or for too many characters, or keep the musing going for too long, the effect will be like one of those bad direct-to-video movies that always cuts back to a soft-lit memory scene at the most awkward moment.
Alright, I can hear you asking, “But, Andrew, what point of view should I use?”
The answer is, “All of them, in the right pieces.”
Like a perfectly directed movie, your story should walk a balance between wide establishing shots, more narrow frames of supporting characters, and perfectly timed closeups for your major characters. It isn’t easy to hit that balance, but if you pay careful attention to both the books and movies that you enjoy you will begin noticing how each scene is constructed.