The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?

Passengers – Viewpoint and Structure


In the film Passengers, Chris Pratt is accidentally woken from hibernation early into a long space voyage and deliberately wakes Jennifer Lawrence so he won’t be alone. It’s not bad, but it struggles with a predictable arc, and its unresolved tension between ‘creepy guy thriller’ and ‘sci-fi romance’.

I stumbled on this video about it, which makes a good argument Passengers would be better from Lawrence’s perspective.

With the plot shifted to allow the viewer to take a more active role picking up on clues, and be surprised as the reveals come with increasing tension, the arc would be more engaging. With a change in viewpoint character and suitable adjustments to the closing act, the story could begin as a mysterious sci-fi romance with hints of something untoward and develop a darker tone – rather than its confused mish-mash.

From all this, I think writers can draw some helpful questions to ask themselves:

  • Is this being told from the right viewpoint?
  • How is the chosen viewpoint shaping audience sympathy, and does this support or conflict with the themes?
  • Is the plot structure predictable?
  • Does the plot structure encourage the audience to passively take in the story, or to actively pick up on hints and form interpretations? (Though, too much of the latter can also be frustrating.)
  • Would there be a benefit to revealing certain things later?

Franzen’s 10 Rules: You What, Mate?

Jonathan Franzen has suggested 10 rules for novelists. Some of his points are quite interesting, some are more questionable, and some seem to be from fortune cookies. Let’s take a look!

1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

OK. This sounds like a good perspective, letting readers have their reactions to the text without swooping in with NO WHAT I MEANT WAS or IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU’RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. It’s a bit vague though.

2) Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Well, getting outside comfort zones and exploring topics and styles is a good thing to do. But can we not reinforce the whole ‘starving artist’ thing? Poverty for the sake of art isn’t romantic. Unfortunately, people need cash.

3) Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Haha, no.

‘Then’ does have a subtly different meaning from ‘and’. ‘The character did this, then did that’ is actually distinct from ‘The character did this, and did that.’ The former places more emphasis on only one thing happening at a time, each being fully finished before starting the next; while with the latter the character could be multitasking.

I take the point that conjunctions can be misused to paper over awkwardness, perceived or real. The solution isn’t to ban certain conjunctions.

4) Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

The nugget of insight here is that a first-person narrative needs a strong voice to bring the character to life. However, POV can’t be reduced to a sentence.

Here’s a whole post I wrote on it. Here’s one by Michael James, K.M. Allan , Marcha,  M.L. Davis, and Meg Dowell.

5) When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

When I’m reading something that obviously had good research behind it, I don’t appreciate it less because the author used google. It would be impressive if they got their research by sneaking into the hidden catacombs under the Vatican, fighting off corrupt cardinals perverting the power of a fragment of the True Cross and the undead Templar knights raised using it… but it doesn’t make the actual book any better than if they got the same information online or in a library.

6) The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Some element of the writer is bound to come up in what they write, but this seems taken a bit far for the sake of a hot take. Probably some of Kafka’s thoughts and life experience are in there, but Anne Frank’s diary or Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is likely more autobiographical than a story about a dude turning into a giant beetle.

It is a cool story – you can read it here.

7) You see more sitting still than chasing after.

confused face meme

8) It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet can be procrastination, yes, but… luddite much? Also, ‘his workplace’. Huh. Either that second X chromosome has the useful ‘no, get off twitter you’re meant to be writing’ gene, or women don’t write, or something.

9) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I agree. Verbs pulled from a thesaurus can be a lazy way to try to give an event more pizzaz without actually presenting it differently. The important word here is ‘seldom’ – thinking back to Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions. So long as we don’t go mad here, this is solid advice.

10) You have to love before you can be relentless.


Choosing a Point of View

Point of view is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward – who’s telling the story? – but the more you look at it, the more complicated and interesting it all gets. There’s a very wide range of ways to handle it, and each one has its pros and cons.

POV has several factors. The first is person – who is telling the story. There are three options:

  • First person – one of the characters. ‘I did this.’

  • Second person – ‘You did this.’

  • Third person – a non-character narrator. ‘They did this.’

The second major factor is access – what the narrator can see and know, how many minds they can access. The three basic options are:

  • Omniscient – potentially knows everything and can report anyone’s thoughts and feelings.

  • Limited – limited to the knowledge and experience of one character.

  • Dramatic – like a camera showing action, dialogue and setting, without direct reporting of thoughts and experiences.

There are other things to consider: is your 3rd person narrator neutral, or do they take stances and have a distinct voice? Is your 1st person narrator the centre of the story, or a peripheral lens on someone else like Nick Carraway is to Gatsby? Is the POV ‘distant’ or ‘close’? There are things like frame narratives, and stream-of-consciousness, and other tools associated with POV.

The standard options

The most common choices are 1st person, limited 3rd person, and omniscient 3rd person.

A first person POV gives a very strong narrative voice, and lets you get very deep into this character. They’re the one telling the story, so the reader can get to know them intimately.

The narrator can’t access others (or can they?…), but they can often dip toward omniscience in the sense of accessing another to character to say ‘Jane was angry’, in the way people can tell these things about each other. They can sometimes tell stories about another person’s life as though they had omniscience, like Carraway does with Gatsby. Whether or not they’re right is another thing, and you can have an unreliable narrator with wild or deceitful speculations.

For the most part, though, if you choose first person you’re stuck inside one mind for a while. The advantages of deep access there correspond with the disadvantages of lack of access to anyone else. The narrator has to be interesting enough to spend the whole time with. If writing in the past tense it can be natural for them to reflect on past events or foreshadow future ones (before the time of writing); but flashbacks can be a crutch.

The narrator has to get information without it being a deus ex machina. Detective fiction is often first person so that the detective can find clues as we do, but readers feel cheated if the detective solves the case not because of being smart with the clues, but because some information materialises at the end.

Limited third person is similar to first person in that we’re getting the story through one person’s eyes, but it’s filtered through a separate narrator. This makes it easier to withhold information the character knows to generate tension or surprise (like in my story Earth’s Invasion), and also allows the narrator to give information the character knows but might not be inclined to say. It’s useful for showing where they’re lying or deluded, because the narration can contrast with the character.

LTP is something of a compromise between first person and omniscient third, giving other ways to manipulate the flow of information while restricting access to the main character.

A risk is accidentally veering into omniscience. As Michael James says: ‘You’re going to screw up and write something about your secondary characters that your MC has no way of knowing.’

That leaves omniscient third person. You can go anywhere, read any mind, know anything. This has the obvious advantages of being able to do those things. However, you have to be careful not to reveal too much or too little, and it’s important to have a handle on the narrative voice. If the narrator has their own distinct voice, then it has to be written well to be engaging, like in first person. You have to avoid the temptation to use the narrator as your mouthpiece, relying too heavily on telling rather than showing. If the narrator doesn’t have a distinct voice, otherwise emotional scenes can risk being blunted by the neutral camera. Also, a camera flitting from one place to another constantly can be jarring.

Out of the box

Second person tends to be awkward. It’s a bad idea for a novel, and even in a short story it’s weird for the reader to be told they did this and that as though they’re someone else. It could be interesting in something meta-fictional or dealing with memory, identity weirdness, etc, but it’s rarely used for good reason. I can’t think of any examples of second person really working, though perhaps it could if:

  • The word ‘you’ isn’t overused.

  • It really makes sense for this thing to be written to ‘you’, perhaps in a letter or as a note to yourself.

In practice, it’s rare to stick with one POV approach through a whole novel. It’s normal for the level of access, the distance between narrators and characters, and other factors to shift, although this needs to be handled smoothly. Person should generally stay the same. But it isn’t necessarily impossible to change person with good effect, so long as there are consistent rules.

I’ve occasionally used first person with more access than normal, such as telepathic narrators. A first person narrator with unlimited and constant omniscience would present problems: it’s important to keep consistent limits so the narrator can’t insta-win and you don’t give them a deus ex machina. You can have unique interactions between characters, switch neatly between first and third person, and other neat things it’s hard to do otherwise.

Dramatic third person POV is something I’ve found helpful as an exercise in show>tell. It can be limiting, or it can be a way to present strong, atmospheric feelings without the melodrama that depicting mental states directly sometimes risks.

First person dramatic is impossible as first person inherently accesses the narrator’s mind, but aside from that there’s a great deal of scope to experiment with applying different techniques and combinations.