Stealing from Cinema

The shot is the basic building block of film. From your point of view as spectator, the shot is a unit of uninterrupted flow of imagery.”

Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream (65)

Let’s get a little academic for a minute. But afterwards, go watch your favorite movie; steal something from it. Pay attention to the movement within scenes, the camera’s eye. And if you haven’t read it (and re-read it) already, jump online and order this book:

Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream [1] includes a chapter entitled “Cinema of the Mind” from which the above is quoted. In the chapter, Butler describes stealing cinematic techniques and applying them to written narratives. He goes beyond discussion of long shots, medium shots, and close-ups into other techniques that can convey the speed of time, but let’s stick with the aforementioned shots—which are also employed to mark the passing of time.

For concrete examples, I’m looking at Kate Chopin’s The Awakening [2], which uses the three shots to illuminate routine and the passing of time and also to provide distinct levels of description of setting. (Again, if you haven’t read The Awakening …)

Brief lesson, here we go:

The Pontelliers possessed a very charming home on Esplanada Street in New Orleans. It was a large, double cottage, with a broad front veranda, whose round, fluted columns supported the sloping roof. (Chopin 47 – 48)

This passage goes on to describe the rest of the outside of the house and grounds and then moves inside. This is the long shot.

Then the camera moves inside the house.

Within doors the appointments were perfect after the conventional type. The softest carpets and rugs covered the floors; rich and tasteful draperies hung at the doors and windows. (48)

And then we see Mr. Pontellier in the house in a medium shot:

Mr. Pontellier was very fond of walking about his house examining its various appointments and details, to see that nothing was amiss. (48)

The reader has been taken from out of doors, into the home, and then into the life of one of the characters and his routine. Then the narrative continues to another medium shot but is more specific in time:

On Tuesday afternoons—Tuesday being Mrs. Pontellier’s reception day—there was a constant stream of callers—women who came in carriages or in the street cars, or walked when the air was soft and distance permitted. (48)

And then, nearing the end of the first full page of the chapter, the lens is focused on the present, specific scene. And in relation to the descriptions that come before, we can label this a close-up (though not an extreme close-up).

He and his wife seated themselves at table on Tuesday evening, a few weeks after their return from Grand Isle. (48)

While this particular sequence moves from outer to inner, depending on the effect you’re striving for you could flip this and move from inner to outer.

Chopin constructs the reverse on p. 75 more abstractly. She moves from a close-up to a long shot to show the passage of time and routine.

He responded at once by presenting himself at her home with all his disarming naïveté. And then there was scarcely a day which followed that she did not see him or was not reminded of him.

In two sentences, she describes a specific incident and then moves into the second sentence with a general, routine behavior, that in cinematic terms would be the montage.

The challenge that I have had in creating long shots and close-ups is in finding the balance between summary description and jumping in-scene. Like any literary technique, any device, it takes practice. Finding opportunities to practice with long shots and close-ups and establish routine in order to break it with specific incidents is something you can do in revision. Look at your scenes: where can you use this cinematic technique to add depth to character and place, to allude to the passing of time?

[1]           Butler, Robert O. and Janet Burroway. From Where You Dream: The Process of

Writing Fiction. New York: Grove Press, 2005. Print.

[2]           Chopin, Kate, and Margaret Culley. The Awakening: An Authoritative Text,

Contexts, Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1976. Print.