Writing advice blog: Zooming in, zooming out

Susie Helme

Photo by v2osk on Unsplash

The Reedsy blog How to Write a Closer (or More Distant) Point of View, is all about psychic or narrative distance, where the narrative (and therefore the reader) stands in relation to the character.

I was intrigued by the statement: ‘The furthest you’re going to go in terms of Point of View is the one you’re going to begin with. This is because it doesn’t make sense for the narrator to lose knowledge about the character as the narrative progresses. Beginning with Third Person Omniscient and Zooming In works; beginning with Stream of Consciousness and Zooming out doesn’t work.

The example the presenter, Shaelin Bishop, uses is:

  1. It is 2021 and a woman is walking down the street.
  2. Joan is walking to the grocery store.
  3. She needs to buy milk; she’s thinking of trying almond milk.
  4. I wonder how that will work in baking, she thinks.
  5. Probably disgusting, I don’t even like almonds.
  6. What are you thinking?[1]

In 1. the POV is Third Person Omniscient. We don’t even know her name yet. In 2. we learn her name, and in 3. we learn something about why she’s walking down the street. In 4. we hear her thoughts, but they are still related to us by the narrator. In 5. we hear what she’s thinking, but in 6. she is actually talking to herself. Each of these sentences narrows the distance between the reader and Joan as compared to the one before. The camera starts out high up in the sky, and zooms in until it’s inside Joan’s head.

If you try those same six sentences in reverse order, it simply doesn’t work at all. We wouldn’t have any reference for 6., and 1. would sound dull and meaningless once we’ve learned about Joan and her almond milk.

Far be it for me to contradict Shaelin, who presents fantastic and informative blogs. I watch every single one. However, I think Zooming In, then Zooming Out, then Zooming In again works best. It can be called the ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ technique. The reader is hooked by the zoomed in image—the matriarch meerkat scanning the horizon. The lens widens to view the whole savannah—little does she realise a lioness is tracking her. Zoom back in to see her head twitch as she hears the preditor.

My friend and fellow BGBW Rajes does this in her novel, The Banks of the River Thillai. The first scene is the protagonist Gowri listening to the sounds from her cousin’s house, where celebrations have begun for her puberty ceremony. Gowri wants to join the festivities but can’t go until she has finished her chores. Camera is zoomed in on Gowri. The POV moves to the puberty ceremony where we meet the rest of Gowri’s extended family and learn about their relationships to each other and the village in which they live. Camera zooms out to the family and village. Then, the focus shifts back to Gowri and her two cousins and the activities they have been wont to pursue throughout their childhood, which Gowri fears will cease once they all reach puberty. Camera zooms back in on the three cousins.

Here is another example, from Ernest Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants:

  1. The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station.
  2. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro.
  3. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains.
  4. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.
  5. “And we could have all this,” she said.
  6. “And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.”

In 1. the camera zooms in on the girl, but we know nothing about her yet. The camera zooms out in 2. to the wider setting and zooms out even further in 3. The camera moves back in again in 4., describing the effect of the distant setting on the near-distant setting, which we begin to see through the girl’s eyes. In 5., we hear her thoughts, but the dialogue tag (‘she said’) means we are still looking through the narrator’s point of view. 6. zooms in closest of all, when we hear the thought inside the girl’s head.

This can be a technique useful for exposition or imparting factual information. Hook the reader with a juicy image or detail. Then relay the fact. Then get back to how that fact impacts the detail.

  1. Tommy kicked angrily at the rocks in front of him as he walked to the little store up the road.
  2. The gravel road was quiet, with only the dust from his feet rising up from the ground.
  3. The Texas spring was hotter and drier than normal, causing a slight drought.
  4. Tommy wished he still had his bike, but he had broken the frame last fall when he and his friends did some trick rides.
  5. “Man, that was some fun, though!” he remembered with a smile.[2]

In 1. the camera zooms in on Tommy and we see his mood. 2. widens the picture to the road upon which he is kicking, and 3. tells us a fact about the setting. 4. zooms back in on Tommy, and 5. is inside Tommy’s head (as narrated by the Narrator).

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant sets the scene in an England after the Roman withdrawal:

  1. You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.
  2. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland.
  3. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness.[3]

In 1. the narrator addresses the reader in an impersonal, far-off way, inviting us to picture a winding land and tranquil meadow. 2. zooms out to picture an England in this period that was characterised by quite different landscapes, and 3. gives us the history of why that was the case.

My high school English teacher Mr Shohet used to say “ontogeny recapitulates philogeny”. This is a law of biogenetics stating that the development of the embryo (ontogeny) of an animal goes through the successive stages of its evolution from its ancestor (philogeny). It is also a technique used in literature. We examine a single spiral and move back to see that it is one arm of a larger spiral, which is in turn but one arm of a larger spiral. As we move back further and further, we see that the whole Mandelbrot set goes on and on, to infinity. We look at a picture of a girl holding a mirror, and in the mirror is the reflection of herself holding a mirror, in which is a reflection, etc. Each of our story’s characters is another example of Everyman.

Another similar concept is synecdochy, using a part to represent the whole, or the whole to represent a part. Or metonymy, replacing the word with a related word—eg the pen is mightier than the sword. (Pen represents writing.)

In Beowulf, the action is set in the mead-hall Heorot, yet we know that Heorot represents the entirety of Nordic warrior culture.

In ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes ‘The western wave was all aflame/The day was well nigh done’, using ‘the western wave’ to mean the whole horizon of the ocean at sunset. After this line, the camera shifts from looking at the whole sky, to zoom in on a ‘strange shape’ coming suddenly ‘betwixt us and the Sun’.

The ‘eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’ on the billboard in the Great Gatsby can be seen to represent God looking down judgmentally on the characters’ moral failings. Zoom in to the group passing the billboard on their way to meet Tom’s mistress, whom the narrator ‘has no desire to meet’ due to his disapproval of the situation.

True, you can’t shift your narrator backward from having knowledge of something not to having that knowledge, but a shifting of POV between zooming in and zooming out and zooming back in again, as we learn more about the characters and the story, can be very effective.

[1] Shaelin Bishop, How to Write a Closer (or More Distant) Point of View blog, Reedsy.

[2] https://literaryterms.net/exposition/

[3] Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (2015).

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