The Importance of Focus

21 Jun

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 ๐Ÿ™‚ โค

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.ย 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.ย 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 bookย HYBRIDย (currently undergoing a title change) isย 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 herย blog.

13 Responses to “The Importance of Focus”

  1. Andrea June 21, 2011 at 5:34 AM #

    This is a great reminder. I think it’s very important to mentally put yourself in the character’s shoes and think about what they’d be noticing and thinking.

    • Kat Zhang June 21, 2011 at 8:38 AM #

      Thanks, Andrea ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. hyalineblue June 21, 2011 at 8:36 AM #

    Hi Kat! *Waving enthusiastically* Love this post–so true that crisp, clear images with a crisp, clear point bring the reader in more than popcorn images and thoughts. It’s the difference between real life and art–real life is scattered and lacks focus, but with any art–writing, photography, sculpture–real life is edited so that only the elements the artist wants you to see are present.

    Madrid botanical gardens? Awesome!

    • Kat Zhang June 21, 2011 at 8:40 AM #

      *waves back!!*

      So glad you liked the post ๐Ÿ˜€ And that’s very true that this is one of the big differences between real life and art.

      The gardens were lovely ๐Ÿ™‚ I need to go visit the royal gardens, too!

  3. Mac_V June 21, 2011 at 11:12 AM #

    Great Post! This is so true and it’s hard to do. Usually when I see that a scene isn’t working its because I’m not focusing on what I should be focusing on. I’m wandering off describing this cool little house that I think is awesome but has absolutely nothing to really do with the scene or my character’s development. It is so important to find focus, but it can be hard, too. This is definitely good advice! THANKS! ๐Ÿ˜€


    • Kat Zhang June 21, 2011 at 6:55 PM #

      Glad you liked it, Mac! ๐Ÿ˜€ I spend a lot of my revising time filling in description that needs to be there and take out what shouldn’t be!

  4. Kerrie June 21, 2011 at 12:14 PM #

    Ironic. : ) This is what my cowriter and I have been really working on the past couple of weeks, in what I like to call ‘miniedits’ – every 10,000 words – we go over and make sure we’re focusing on the right things, just so it’s a little easier to splice and dice scenes later on.

    I’ve found it’s the biggest thing when you’re (general you, of course) balancing actions with thoughts. Pulling out which ones are more important than the others at any given time for developing whatever it is you’re developing. And, of course, when you’re dealing with more than three characters at a time…
    Focus occurs on so many different levels. Technical, character, and plot. โค

    LOVE the pictures metaphor!!

    • Kat Zhang June 21, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

      Haha, then it’s great timing, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Dealing with a large number of characters in one scene well is very hard to pull off. I have so much respect for those writers who can do it.

      Glad you liked the post!!

  5. Myra June 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM #

    Kat! You’re a Spoken Word poet? THAT IS SO COOL!!! *flails* Sorry, but I’m obsessed with spoken word, it is just so awesome. It’s just my kind of poetry, because when I try my hand at poetry, it never flows. But when I just speak in poetrt… it flows. I love it. ๐Ÿ˜€

    Great post! It’s something we all need to be reminded of sometimes. My scenes can easily slide from interaction to introspection since I’m writing a first person POV. Gotta stay focused. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Kat Zhang June 21, 2011 at 7:01 PM #

      Yes, I am! And thanks!! I LOVE spoken word. I’m so glad you do, too ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for reading!

  6. PW Creighton June 23, 2011 at 12:54 PM #

    Great post and good comparison to photography. I really enjoy drawing comparisons between writing and other art-forms. The same techniques used in any art can be applied to writing on a meta-level. Kudos for inventive perspective.

    • Kat Zhang June 25, 2011 at 11:57 AM #

      I love those sort of comparisons as well! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thank you!


  1. The Importance of Focus (via Let The Words Flow) | Of a Writerly Sort - June 21, 2011

    […] 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 โค 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 … Read More […]

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