How to Frame Scenes Like a Filmmaker
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Have you ever thought about writing fiction with filmmaking in mind?
This certainly isn’t a concept I originated. Rather, I recently rediscovered it after reading Diana Gabaldon’s I Give You My Body, her guide to writing intimate scenes, in which she discusses framing the scenes in her books as though she were shooting a film.
Having taken a few communications classes in my day—all of which involved a good bit of camera work—the idea of framing scenes with filmmaking in mind is advice that I not only find interesting, but believe may be vastly helpful to many writers looking to improve their craft. Sound like something you’d enjoy? Let’s kick off today’s discussion!
Why should writers think like filmmakers?
Whether named or omniscient, the authors of pre-20th century novels often made use of external narrators as the means by which to tell their stories. Why was this the case?
For millennia, stories were told in the oral tradition. What stories were written or performed still largely depended on this tradition, making use of narrators to convey what often could not be actively “seen” as part of the narrative: backstory, scene changes, passages of time, thought processes, and so on.
Then, everything changed with the rise of cinema in the 20th century. Suddenly, storytellers were no longer limited by the confines of paper or the stage. What previously couldn’t be explained without an external narrator could now be shown via handy work both behind the camera and within the editing room. Just like that, storytelling became visual.
The more consumers grew to love cinema and television, the more they craved a new narrative style in their literature. They wanted to strip away the narrator, to blast through that last veil between themselves and the story’s characters, and to see and experience stories through the characters’ eyes—much as they did when viewing their favorite flick.
To meet this demand, writers began utilizing techniques derived from their new storytelling cousins: filmmakers. Techniques such as Deep Point-of-View, which we discussed in-depth on the blog here, and—as we’ll discuss today—framing scenes to be seen “visually” by readers.
What does “framing a scene” actually mean?
When I speak of framing a scene in written fiction, I’m talking about the way you compose a scene so that its subjects and settings can be imagined viscerally and visually by readers. This can be done both through descriptions of the scene’s setting and through narrative additions that fill out the dialogue and/or action of the scene.
The most important thing to keep in mind? Framing is power. The way you compose your scenes has a major impact on how each scene is perceived (the same goes for framing scenes in filmmaking). How the characters are composed in a shot can prompt viewers—or, in our case, readers—to feel the specific emotions and dynamics we're working to convey.
Confused? Here’s the good news: it’s highly likely that you’re already framing your scenes as you write, whether you realize it or not. But let’s not leave the composition of our stories up to chance and happenstance, shall we?
Let’s work with purpose and power instead by taking the time to learn how to apply these principles of filmmaking to our stories, beginning with the four most common types of shots you can use when framing your scenes (note: the examples included below are from my current work-in-progress, Lady Legacy):
1. The Establishing Shot.
This shot is aptly named, as it establishes the setting of a scene by indicating the location and time of day or year. It may also hint at the scene’s tone.
“They could see the city from the river, gleaming bright in the warm yellow light of the Rodain sun.”
“Beyond lay the Serenault, its silvery waters surging as snow slithered from the mountainside.”
2. The Wide-Shot.
This composition “shows” one or more characters from head to toe and is often used to establish a character’s location at the beginning of a scene. It implies a distance of several paces between the point-of-view character and the subject or object at hand.
“She paused at the threshold. He was there, on the balcony, sitting in solitude as white-capped waves churned in the sea beyond.”
“A few paces ahead, Coster rode with an arrow-straight spine, his dark eyes sweeping the street for any sign of danger.”
3. The Medium Shot.
This popular shot indicates that its subject is seen or observing something from a casual distance, often while maintaining some of the scene’s surrounding environment. In other words, the reader is not made to feel that the subject or object being discussed is very near or very far away from its point-of-view character.
“The Lord Master leaned forward in his chair, a devilish smile playing at his lips.”
“She studied the canopy above, where shadows writhed against the glow of the candlelight.”
4. The Close-Up.
Another frequently used shot, the Close-Up can indicate the POV character’s nearness to the subject or object at hand or emphasize the importance of a specific detail. Close-Ups are used more frequently in more personal or intimate scenes.
“The dark splotches beneath each eye made him look halfway through death’s door.”
“She could smell the salt on him, and something darker, the hearth fire and ink, the sweat of the day.”
As you can see from that last example, the words used to frame a shot don't always need to be visual. If the point-of-view character is close enough to pick up certain details via touch, taste, smell, or hearing, those senses can also serve to establish the shot in fiction.
When composing your scenes, pay special attention to what your shots convey. For example, you can use a wide-shot to show that your characters are attending a party. You can then "push-in" with a medium shot to show that the protagonist and their love interest are much more interested in talking to one another than they are in dancing.
As their conversation turns personal, you can push in once more and use close-ups to indicate the love and attraction growing between your characters. Does someone interrupt their near-kiss? Another wide-shot can immediately break the romantic tension that was building. Clever, eh?
How to Practice Angling for Emotion
See how common those four types of “shots” are in prose? Chances are that you’re already utilizing them, whether you realize it or not, right? But those four shots aren’t the only ways you can frame your scenes.
Let’s go pro by tapping into three additional shots that can really liven up your prose. These shots specify the angles from which you compose your scenes and can work wonders for conveying the dynamics and emotions you’re looking to evoke.
1. At Eye-Level.
Though often assumed rather than explicitly stated, this type of shot frames subjects or observations at eye level, indicating a sense of ease or equality among characters and their environment.
“She tried to memorize Sarenne’s face. The soft wrinkles around her eyes, the way she sucked in her cheeks, mouth set, as she practiced patience on the most trying of days and with the most trying of people—her own stubborn student included.”
2. The High Angle.
By having the POV character view others or their environment from above eye-level, you can establish feelings of dominance, awe, contemplation, or isolation, depending on the tone of your scene.
“Soon, the horizon began to climb. They chased it, the donkey huffing wearily, until they crested the rolling hill and watched in awe as the orchards of Brenmere unfurled before them. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight.”
3. The Low Angle.
By having the POV character view others or their environment from below eye-level, you can establish feelings of fear, inadequacy, wonder, or sorrow, again depending on the tone of your scene.
“A woman stood above her, not too much older than herself, looking down with eyes narrowed against the rising sun. ‘You’ve never done this before, have ye?’ she said.”
See how powerful it is to frame your scenes around how your POV character is feeling and experiencing the world around them? This is again where Deep POV comes to play. Many readers crave the immediacy of experiencing a story from the main character’s point-of-view. So why not do everything in your power to take them there?
Is thinking like a filmmaker the best way to write?
The answer here is simple: there is no right way to write!
Not every story is best told through the limited point-of-view of a subjective narrative (a.k.a in Deep POV). Some stories demand narrators, while others are told as legends or through an epistolary framework. Unsure of the storytelling style that would work best for your novel? Check out this article on novel frameworks today.
But if you are writing in Deep POV and you are a largely visual thinker, writing with these filmmaking techniques in mind may be a great way to take the nebulous, often overwhelming task of framing your scenes and turn it into a more purposeful and organized process.
And yes. That’s right, my friend. Framing scenes like a filmmaker does mean that you can now officially watch movies as part of your storytelling research. Just make sure to do so with a critical eye in mind, okay? I’ll bring the popcorn!