By Kay Springsteen
To continue our comparison of the art form of writing to the art of photography, today I’m talking about focus.
Your story may have many elements, main plot, subplot, red herrings, detours, symbols. And as you’re writing, you need to take the reader on a journey that focuses on exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.
Let’s say your story has two characters, each with his/her own internal tension. You want to tell their individual stories, explain their tension as you introduce them, and also show how that tension can possibly relate to each other, and ultimately how it all fits together into a single story. You do this with focus. With two characters and two points of view, you have the ability to focus on the individuals separately, then show them together but still with an individual focus, and then, as the story progresses, to show the overall picture and how they fit into it.
Take these pictures. In the first one, you see a young woman balancing herself on a rock. She could be doing anything from just sitting down to contemplate the universe, to just getting up after eating a snack, to falling and landing on her behind. You have only this part of the story, whatever it turns out to be: a young woman on a rock. Next, you see a young man from the rear with a camera and a backpack. He’s near some bushes and it looks like he might be leaning or hanging onto something. He could be wilderness trekking and taking pictures, walking a skinny trail, climbing a mountain. But all you really know is, you see a young man near a bush with a backpack and a camera.
Now, moving back to the young woman’s point of view, we can zoom out just a little bit and we see the young woman appears to be sliding off the rock into some water. Zoom out on the young man, and you see that he’s also standing on a rock, and that little bit at the bottom of the picture is probably wet, too. We’re getting closer to having them in the same scene—with same goals, motivation, and conflict.
Zooming out completely, but keeping the focus on the young woman, we see the couple are in the same space at the same time, but their story hasn’t exactly meshed yet. We have only her point of view, the information she knows. She doesn’t yet know his story, his intentions, or his motivations, and neither does the reader. Shift the focus over to the young man, and we can see that he has a story, a focus, but he doesn’t yet know her story; the focus is still on him.
But expand the focus by creative storytelling, so the reader knows the stories of both characters, and you have given the reader the entire picture. In this case, a young woman is trying to cross some rocks near/in a creek and the young man is giving her directions, and is also in a position to probably give her a hand to keep from falling into the creek.
As you tell your stories, this is how you want to do it. Focus and tell, shift focus and tell, expand focus and tell, shift and expand again, and so on, until the story is complete and the reader has all the pieces. By presenting the story a little at a time and offering a shifting focus, the story expands with a relatively even flow outward.
The thing to avoid is retelling, which is at best stalling the story and at worst actually running backward. In our story with the young woman on the rocks, we see from her pov that she is climbing on some rocks and possibly slipping into the water. We experience from her pov the way the slippery rock feels beneath her feet, the panic she feels when her feet slide. Having experienced that from a firsthand pov, there is no need to then shift to the man’s pov and repeat the slip on the rocks. In his case, he got close to her just as her feet slid out from under her and she landed on her behind. So he pointed to a dry rock and guided her closer and then held out a hand to help her the rest of the way along the rocks. We can feel the rock wall under his hands, the brush of leaves against his arms. If we repeated her fall as seen through his eyes, we would be taking the reader on a backward journey.
Now, last week, I discussed the rule of thirds—three parts of the basic story – beginning, middle, and end. That rule still applies with the focus and shift and expand. But you must focus, shift, and expand inside of each section of the story. For instance, in this two-character model, you would show the two characters in their individual roles in the opening or introduction of characters and elements. You would also show a bit of the conflict but not necessarily how it relates to either of the two main characters. In this case, the elements are introduced as a female lead, a male lead, and a creek.
In the second part of the rule of thirds, typically the longer part of the story, where you show the conflict, you would zoom out to show two individuals, and tension, conflict, or dilemma, but not necessarily how these characters are going to solve this tension together. You might even see them in the same setting, but the focus is not yet on any kind of working together.
In the third part, with the climax, we zoom out, initially with individual focus but then applying focus to the entire picture. This is where the action takes place, the pace is fast and the loose ends are effectively tied up. The entire picture emerges and the dilemma is solved. The young woman avoids a dunk into the stream because the young man helps her out of her precarious predicament.
In this way—focus, expand, shift—stories are built from the ground up until readers have the entire picture and the story is complete.