by Kat Zhang
Hi guys! Wow, it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve done a real post here! I’ve missed you guys 🙂 ❤
I’d like to start this post off by showing you two pictures. First, this one:
Not exactly a great picture, right? In fact, you could say it was downright bad. The lighting is awkward. The focus is all wrong. You’re not quick sure what you’re supposed to be looking at, and nothing looks particularly good.
Now let’s look at this picture:
Now, I’m not saying it’s award winning or anything, but it’s a whole lot better, right? The flower in the foreground is clearly the subject. It’s clear and properly lighted, while the background is blurred slightly, giving the viewer the idea of something being there, but nothing too distracting.
The above two pictures are of the exact same flower, and all that changed to make one picture rather terrible and the other pretty good was the focus (I’m not really talking in concrete photography terms here, so I’m including lighting in there).
The same goes for writing. A scene can pop so much more if you adjust your “lens” correctly and take the perfect shot. The subject itself doesn’t have to change. At the heart, it’s the same scene. But you draw out different elements and present them to the reader while keeping the rest in the background, just like how the second photograph drew the closer flower into focus while blurring the ones behind it.
Let’s start with an easy example. Say you’re writing a fight scene. Focus is especially important in action scenes because you want your prose to move quickly. You need to get the sense of tension and motion and adrenaline to your readers. Every line of description slows this action down. Remember that. But you can’t just turn the fight into: “Jim hit Drake and Drake slugged him back. Jim fell down. Drake jumped on top of him.” That’s boring, and your characters are floating in a vacuum. You do need a certain amount of background. The second picture doesn’t have a blank canvas behind the flower, it has a blurred scene. Paint a background in broad strokes, but keep the details tied to the action.
This isn’t only important, however, in action scenes. Any scene can be weighed down by a scattered focus, by too much description of unimportant things. Yes, it’s very important to situate your readers, to make sure your characters aren’t floating in a vacuum, but always keep in mind: 1) what are my characters paying attention to? This is especially important in 1st person and close 3rd. If your character is in mortal danger, she is most likely not going to be going into great lengths detailing her attacker’s fashion. 2) what do you want your reader to be paying attention to? Often, 1 and 2 are the same. But sometimes it’s not, especially if you’re trying to drop clues for the reader about something that the main character doesn’t know yet.
If you’re itching to describe something that neither falls under 1 or 2, that’s fine. But consider the length. Remember, every line is slowing down the action, the forward momentum. Sometimes you want to slow down the momentum. Other times, you need things to be going along as quickly as possible, and that is when you really need to start paying attention to focus.
Pictures above were taken by yours truly at the Botanic Garden in Madrid.
Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID (currently undergoing a title change) is about a girl with two souls. It recently sold in a three-book deal to HarperTeen. You can read more about her writing process, travels, and books at her blog.