The Establishing Shot

An Establishing Shot Orients the Reader

An establishing shot is a technique used in film, but many novels benefit from having a strong opening scene that gives the reader a quick overview.

The camera zooms over the mountains and moves in for a closeup of a solitary woman, walking along a beach. Right away, we know the woman will be a central figure in the story. We know where the story will take place.

Not every novelist will want to start a book with an establishing shot. However, some kinds of stories just beg for that treatment.

Point of View

Writers working on their first books often find it’s easiest to find the voice of the story by using an “I,” or first person, point-of-view. A first person novel will be narrated or experienced through the eyes of a single character.

If you’d like my thoughts on novel openings, I’ve put together a free, downloadable pdf. QUICK TIPS ON NOVEL OPENINGS
lighthouse establishing shot of book

An establishing shot zooms across the landscape and helps orient readers to the world of a film or novel.

The “I” voice telling the story is either an observer (such as Nick in THE GREAT GATSBY) or the person who’s not an observer, but caught up in the midst of a struggle.

Writers can also focus on a single character using a technique called “close third.”

In both first person and third person stories, the author limits what the reader can know by allowing us to experience the world through the lens of our main character’s perceptions.

Jumping From Head to Head or “Head Hopping”

But, not all stories can be told or should be told from a single character’s perspective, whether that character is an observer or actively involved in the action. That’s why beginning writers often jump from one character’s head to another character’s. The writer’s vision of the story is that the tale can’t be confined to one person’s view of what’s happening.

Additionally, writers may want to take on the challenge of introducing us to several characters—a group of friends, a family, or a whole community. If that’s the novel you’re compelled to write, then take a tip from filmmakers. Use an “establishing shot.”

An Establishing Shot Sets the Scene

Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER grabs us from the start. On the surface, MYSTIC RIVER is a crime novel, but it is much more than that. It’s a story of community, of fathers and sons and values. To understand the community, we must understand the characters in it, their relationships to one another, and their relationships to Mystic, Connecticut, the place they live. Lehane hovers above the town, then zooms in.

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Lehane has a new book out, WORLD GONE BY, and that book uses the same kind of cinematic opening as his earlier novel.

Lehane uses an omniscient viewpoint that lets him move easily through time and space. He gives the characters lots of baggage, and he lays all this out in what screenwriters call the “establishing shot.”

Imagine A Camera

In Lehane’s “establishing shot,” nothing has happened YET. The instant “something happens,” the plot kicks in. But even at the beginning of this novel, the details warn us about a coming cataclysmic event that will kick off the action. It could be that the boys’ fathers will turn violent. It could be that the boy without a father will be unprotected. The kids with fathers do seem to hang out with their dads a lot, even if their dads are drinking. It could be that someone will be yanked up into space, like the soldiers who went off to Vietnam.

With an omniscient narrator, the reader can sometimes get vertigo. Just when you’re settling into one person’s emotions, the narrator yanks you away and plops you down in another mind or another set of circumstances. Note that Lehane doesn’t do that. He gives glimpses of how each character approaches the world, but not for long.

To keep the reader from feeling too far above the action, he piles on the “telling details.” That way, readers will feel they’re close enough to see what’s happening, emotionally and otherwise. And, in this book, the author wants to draw the reader close to the boys, so that we begin to worry about them.

Hint at the Book’s Theme in the Establishing Shot

The magic of MYSTIC RIVER is that Lehane gives readers the who, what, where, when, and why of the story-to-come. Lehane is a master storyteller. He lays it all out in his establishing shot.

When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of the car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert.

On Saturdays, Jimmy’s father would drop by the Devines’ to have a beer with Sean’s father. He’d bring Jimmy with him, and as one beer turned into six, plus two or three shots of Dewar’s, Jimmy and Sean would play in the backyard, sometimes with Dave Boyle, a kid with girl’s wrists and weak eyes who was always telling jokes he’d learned from his uncles. From the other side of the kitchen window screen, they could hear the hiss of the beer can pull-tabs, burst of hard, sudden laughter, and the heavy snap of Zippos as Mr. Devine and Mr. Marcus lit their Luckys.

Sean’s father, a foreman, had the better job. He was tall and fair and had a loose, easy smile that Sean had seen calm his mother’s anger more than a few times, just shut it down like a switch had been flicked off inside of her. Jimmy’s father loaded the trucks. He was small and his dark hair fell over his forehead in a tangle and something in his eyes seemed to buzz all the time. He had a way of moving too quickly; you’d blink and he was on the other side of the room. Dave Boyle didn’t have a father, just a lot of uncles, and the only reason he was usually there on those Saturdays was because he had this gift of attaching himself to Jimmy like lint; he’d see him leaving his house with his father, show up beside their car, half out of breath, going “What’s up, Jimmy?” with sad hopefulness.

They all lived in East Buckingham, just west of downtown, a neighborhood of cramped corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops where meat, still pink with blood, hung in the windows. The bars had Irish names and Dodge Darts by the curbs. Women wore handkerchiefs tied off at the backs of their skulls and carried mock leather snap purses for their cigarettes. Until a couple of years ago, older boys had been plucked from the streets, as if by spaceships, and sent to war. They came back hollow and sullen a year or so later, or they didn’t come back at all. Days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to the bars. You knew everyone; nobody except those older boys ever left.

–Dennis Lehane, MYSTIC RIVER (Harper Paperbacks, 2003)

The Secret Behind Learning from Other Writers: Read Slowly

When I read a book, I don’t just read for pleasure. I read to discover how a writer has made me eager to turn the pages. Here are the kinds of questions to help you look more closely at the text above. Even if you’re a reader, not a writer, I think you’ll gain a greater appreciation for Lehane’s skill in drawing you into the story.

What about the voice in this piece? There’s a narrator, isn’t there, who’s telling us all about the neighborhood, the people, and the setting.

  • Is this a “high style” voice, or are there moments that we know the voice matches the nitty-gritty neighborhood? Is the voice a man’s voice or a woman’s? Do you think this is a particular person who will eventually reveal his or her identity, or is the voice of the narrator?
  • What about the details? Which details tell you the most about the incomes, preoccupations, and daily lives of these people?
  • How much time will go by from the start of the novel to the end? Is Lehane narrating this novel from the future, looking back? Does the narrator have the capacity to see the sweep of events? Do readers anticipate what these events might be? Does he make us curious?
  • What kinds of people are the mothers and fathers?
  • How does the writer make us know Dave Boyle is likely to be a victim?
  • Does the narrator foreshadow what’s to come? Which sentences made you worry?
  • Does the setting make me feel safe? Is there an undercurrent of violence?

Writers often use an “establishing shot” at the beginning of a novel. This friendly orientation introduces readers to the setting, the conflicts, and the characters in the story-to-come.

For more on the subject, go to my blog post Storyboarding Your Novel.

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