Friday, January 24, 2014

Looking Through the Lens: How to Craft Your Story One Snapshot at a Time

Writing a novel is a daunting task. Facing the enormity of what you are setting out to do can cause you, the writer, to lose yourself in the midst of your story, or to abandon it altogether. Let's face it, the blank page is a scary place, a snow-covered field with not a single footprint to disturb it. We take our first few steps, chin up, shoulders squared, eager to blaze our way across the expanse... but there are a LOT of blank pages between us and that final sentence of our novel.

I think that many writers get caught up in pre-determining their story acts, or plot points, or where chapter breaks are, or parts, or even if you are a scene writer, where those scenes fit into the mechanical construction of your novel as a whole. It's easy to slip into a macro view, where you have one foot in the scene and one foot ready to step into the next. Sure, it's important to know how scenes link, and to be aware of transitions and arcs, but I contend that the writer who recognizes and writes the quintessence of each scene will find his story does this naturally.

There's a moment in the new Ben Stiller movie, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," where elusive freelance photographer, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) is camped out on the side of the Himalayas. He's waiting to take a picture of a snow leopard, what he calls a "ghost cat" (due to its seemingly innate ability to avoid being seen or captured on film). Sean is sitting there, has been sitting there (for days maybe), watching, waiting, observing a particular spot through his telescopic camera lens. When the cat finally appears, Sean just watches it. He doesn't take the picture. He captures it in his mind's eye. When Walter asks him if he's going to take the picture, the conversation goes like this:

Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

(Dialogue courtesy of IMDB)

In this movie, Walter is trying to find one misplaced negative. Number 25. The quintessence of life. One shot that captures the perfect embodiment of Life Magazine. Ok, so what does this have to do with writing? It struck me that I could approach writing the same way. If I could approach each scene as a complete stand alone snapshot, a truly encapsulated moment, without the distraction of the rest of the moving parts, I could put together a novel that ensures every part of the story has been written with my absolute best approach. If you allow yourself to focus in on only that one scene, study it, appreciate it, find the quintessence in it, the beauty, the emotional resonance, then you can put together a novel. In order to write a good story, a story that will impact your readers, leave it lingering in their heads and hearts, you have to be emotionally attached in some way. You have to invest a piece of yourself in the story. Like Sean O'Connell, you have to write for you first, personally. Why are YOU writing THIS story. If you can write each scene, each glimpse through the lens for you, first, you'll give your readers something worth reading.

So, make yourself a list of potential shots. Camp out on the side of the mountain and watch your scene.
Spend time with it and truly understand the quintessence of what you are looking for, what you are looking at. Do this with each scene, each "shot." And then, at the risk of total mixed metaphors, you'll have a series of polished pearls that, together, will string into a complete necklace: your novel.

One snapshot at a time. One moment that leaves its mark on you. One scene, in a series of eventual scenes, that says, "I am Number 25."

To echo Sean O'Connell, find that moment, be in it, and "I trust you'll get it where it needs to go..."


  1. Excellent post!

    I haven't read it, but apparently The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was originally a short story by James Thurber that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1939. It's been adapted more than once.

    Anyway, as to your point, I love thinking of scenes as snapshots. It was actually something I struggled with when first starting out as a writer. I would write a whole story, chronologically, including almost every moment. I soon learned that was obviously unnecessary.

    1. And it's so liberating to get away from that, isn't it?

  2. This is a great insight into novel writing, and particularly helpful to me right now as I struggle with a very difficult story. I will attempt the "one scene focus approach."

    P.s. I think the most important question a novelist can ask him/herself at the outset is the one you mention: Why are YOU writing THIS story?

    1. Let me know how it works out for you, Michael!

  3. I've gotten lost in the big picture before. Thank you for such a thoughtful post!

  4. Great post, Joseph! That is excellent advice and really well delivered.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!