Friday, January 24, 2014
Looking Through the Lens: How to Craft Your Story One Snapshot at a Time
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.
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..."