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Posted, Oct. 20, 2004
Updated, Oct. 20, 2004

QuickLink: A72080

Writing Tool #28: Writing Cinematically
Authors have long understood how to shift their focus to capture both landscape and character.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Turn your notebook into a camera.

Before there was cinema, writers wrote cinematically. Influenced by the visual arts -- by portraits and tapestries -- authors have long understood how to shift their focus back and forth to capture both landscape and character.

Many authors now write books with movies in mind. But cinematic techniques can be traced to the earliest expression of English literature. A thousand years ago, the unnamed poet who wrote the epic "Beowulf" knew how to write cinematically. He could pull back the lens to establish heroic settings of land and sea; and he could move in close to see the jeweled fingers of the queen or the demonic light in a monster's eyes.


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In 2004 the Beowulf poet has been replaced by the likes of New York Times reporter  C.J. Chivers, who writes a narrative account of the terrorist occupation and bombing of a school in war-torn Belsan, Russia.

When the first tremendous explosion shook the air, sending a blast wave through the neighborhood around Middle School No. 1, the crowd of women near the southern police barricades buckled over. An old woman's eyes welled instantly with tears. She began to pound her head with her fists. Another woman wailed.

"Nayyyyyyyyyy!" she screamed, and collapsed to her knees.

In two short paragraphs, the writer shows us the event from three distinct camera angles, moving from an almost aerial view of the explosion, to an establishing shot where we see the crowd, to an extreme close-up where we see the tears in the old woman's eyes.

I learned the technique of reporting cinematically from my friend David Finkel, who covered the war in Kosovo in 1999 for the Washington Post. Finkel creates a kind of journalistic cinema in describing refugees so needy that the act of helping them turns into a kind of warfare:

One of the volunteers picks up a loaf of bread and tosses it blindly. There is no chance it will hit the ground. There are too many people watching its flight, packed too tightly. Out goes another loaf, and another, and hundreds of arms suddenly stretch skyward, fingers extended and waving.

In this paragraph, Finkel begins with a close shot of one worker and then moves the camera back so we can see hundreds of arms. The crowd grows out of control, and Finkel focuses his lens on one woman.

"For children.  For children," a woman is shouting, arms out, trying to reach the cart. She is wearing earrings, a headband and a sweater, and when she can't reach the cart she brings her hands to her head and covers her ears because behind her is her daughter, perhaps 8, holding on to her, getting crushed, screaming.

And behind her is another girl, 10 perhaps, wearing a pink jacket decorated with drawings of cats and stars and flowers and, now mud. She has red hair. There is mud in her hair.

Some simple descriptions of standard camera angles should help writers imagine how to use their "cameras" to create a variety of effects:

tool 28
George Mejat/Fox-Movietone News
Pictures by Georges Mejat of the procession of Yugoslavia's King Alexander, show the news event from a variety of camera angles and distances. Fox-Movietone News in the book "Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them," by John Faber. Click here for larger image.
1. Aerial view: The writer looks down upon the world, as if he were standing atop a skyscraper or viewing the ground from a blimp: Example: "Hundreds and hundreds of black South African voters stood for hours on long, sandy serpentine lines waiting to cast their ballots for the first time."

2. Establishing shot: The writer stands back to capture the setting in which the action will take place, describing the world that the reader is about to enter, sometimes creating a mood for the story: "Within seconds, as dusty clouds rose over the school grounds, their great widths suggesting blasts of terrifying force, bursts of rifle fire began to sound, quickly building to a sustained and rolling roar."

3. Middle distance: The camera moves closer to the action, close enough to see the key players and their interaction. This is the common distance for most stories written for the newspaper. "Scores of hostages survived, staggering from the school even as intense gunfire sputtered and grenades exploded around them. Many were barely dressed, their faces strained with fear and exhaustion, their bodies bloodied by shrapnel and gunshots."

4. Close-up: The camera gets in the face of the subject, close enough to detect anger, fear, dread, sorrow, irony, the full range of human emotions. "His brow furrowed and the crow's feet deepened as he struggled to understand…The man pulled at the waistband of his beige work pants and scratched his sun-aged face. He stared at her, stalling for time as he tried to understand, but afraid to say he didn't."

5. Extreme close-up: This writer focuses on an important detail that would be invisible from a distance: The pinky ring on the mobster's finger, the date circled on the wall calendar, the can of beer in the cop's hand: "The hand of the cancer-care nurse scooped the dead angel fish out of the office aquarium. Patients at this clinic had enough on their minds. They didn't need another reminder of mortality."

Years ago I attended an outdoor concert in which the punk band, The Ramones, performed in a courtyard adjacent to a Florida retirement hotel. It was quite a scene. Down below were young fans sporting turquoise Mohawk haircuts. Up above, staring out of windows, were blue-haired ladies thinking the world had come to an end. I watched the young writer who had been sent to review the concert stand in one place for two hours with his notebook in his pocket. He should have been exploring the territory like a photographer, seeing the event from down in the mosh pit and then up on the roof-top.

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1. Read selections of your own recent work, paying special attention to the distance between the writer and the story subjects. Look for your tendencies. Do you move the camera around? Or do you settle for a safe middle distance?

2. Changing camera distance and angle is at the heart of cinematic art. Watch one of your favorite movies with a friend, paying special attention to the camera work. Discuss how you would describe certain scenes if you had to write them in print form.

3. Take a disposable camera with you to your next story assignment. Your goal is not to take publishable photos. It is to keep your eyes opened and your mind attentive. Be sure to take photos from different distances and angles. Review these before your write your story.

4. The next time you write about an event, make a special effort to change the vantage point of your reporting. If possible view the event from close up and far back, from in front of the stage and behind it.  

A previous version of this story placed Middle School No. 1 in Chechnya. The school is in Beslan, Russia.

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