As you sit and write your novel, do you imagine the action unfolding as clearly as if you were watching a movie?
That’s the kind of writer I am. Images and words are inextricably joined, inseparable until The End. I tend to visualize the action, the characters, the scenes, mulling them over and “watching” them interact and unfold, then take mad notes when I “see” something that works. The notes turn into manuscript pages and the pages into chapters.
Although novel-writing and screenwriting are two completely different animals, I have picked up more than one pointer from the film makers. By far, the most useful tip I’ve taken is the use of the establishing shot.
Think about how many times we are chided to start in media res—in the middle of things—so that our first pages hook the reader. Those first 250 words are crucial if we want to catch the attention of an agent or editor. We can’t let readers fall asleep on the first page, can we?
However, that doesn’t mean there is no longer a place for an “establishing shot” in our books. You don’t need a lengthy scene set up to run as long as opening credits to an eighties romantic comedy but you do need a way to anchor the reader in each scene in order for them to become submerged in the story. Even in the case of the more modern action opener, the reader gets a strong sense of who and where when you establish the scene.
The Establishing Shot and Your Novel
You may only need a few sentences to establish each scene, using vivid imagery and well-crafted showing. Place your characters in the scene, and let the dialog and action take it from there.
Establishing your scene at the very beginning allows you to set the stage—and forget it. The story moves forward in the space you’ve created.
And believe me, you must establish the scene before diving into action or dialog. Otherwise, it’s all just too far out there for a reader to grasp. Have you ever read a section, turning pages and having no clue who is speaking, where they are, or anything of a truly grounding nature? Readers crave substance in a story. Settings are part of that substance.
Consider fantasy literature, with its extensive world-building. Because the writer may have to create a setting from the ground up, the establishing shots can get pretty lengthy if not handled properly. One of my favorite set of first lines does brilliant work with its “establishing shot”:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)
Tolkien had a lot of work ahead of him, what with the creation of Middle Earth and all. He developed that hobbit-hole, then Hobbiton, then Middle Earth itself little by little as the story unfolded. Pretty soon we were imagining pretty near what Peter Jackson tossed up on the screen. But it was those first lines—that “establishing shot”—that put us there at the very beginning.
(And I love the back-loading he used—the placement of a powerful word at the very end of the sentence. Comfort. It’s a personal word that calls up our own definitions, thereby further investing ourselves in that hobbit-hole.)
Each subsequent scene you write will need its own “establishing shot”, too, even if it’s not quite as brilliant or elaborate as Tolkien’s. Time, location, participants, concept—every scene needs to relay those elements or you risk losing the reader. Good use of “establishing shots” will take your reader from one setting to another without letting them get lost on the way.
Open your current manuscript to the first page and read until you reach your “establishing shot”. How close to the beginning is it? Even stories that begin with the full-out action hook need establishing shots in order to anchor the action.
If you do not set the scene up at the very beginning, you need to work thrice as hard to keep readers engaged until you provide them with story legs to stand on. How can you set the scene earlier?
The good news is that you may be a champion “establishing shot” writer without ever having had to think about it very hard. If that’s the case, your work will be to ensure that every scene has its set-up and that you don’t waste pages doing it. Set up a scene in a country mansion in Georgia with a lush establishing shot--then illustrate the details of the party and the wedding cake and the jilted lover one by one as you move the story along. You don’t have to mention the mansion in Georgia over and over because it’s been established.
The plot moves unimpeded by unnecessary words, while the reader always knows where the story is happening. By paying attention to your “establishing shots” you can be sure to keep the reader engaged. Not only will the setting be established but the reader’s involvement in the story will be established, as well.
And that makes for a happy reader.
Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press) as well as the paranormal romance Words That Bind (Wild Rose Press). Ash is also a contributing editor at the QueryTracker blog.