Monday, June 11, 2007

Description: The Establishing Shot

Establishing shots. They're not just for movies anymore. When you see an aerial shot of a particular location in a film, then a closer shot of the main character, it's pretty easy to assume that the character is somewhere in the area depicted in the earlier aerial shot. These wide shots are known as establishing shots and are used to give the viewer a sense of where the action of the film is taking place. Even in films or television shows that don't utilize the wider establishing shot, e.g., "Lost" in which a jungle surrounds the characters, it's still easy to see the context of where things are happening.

For the viewer to comprehend what's going on in the story, filmmakers must show their viewers where it's going on. Authors need to provide the same courtesy to their readers. They need to put the location of each scene in context so that readers can see, just as easily as the viewer of the film can see, where the scene is occurring. Readers need to know where the action is taking place so they can adequately understand what is taking place. If the author tells the reader that two characters are carrying on a conversation "outside," is it on a foggy day in London or a hot, humid day in Mississippi? The difference in context can make a huge difference in how readers perceive your story.

Even without an establishing shot in a movie, the audience can still see bits and pieces of the characters' surroundings behind them to give a clue as to where the scene is taking place. In fiction, readers can't immediately see what's surrounding the characters. It's the author's job to provide that information. Authors need to provide readers the establishing shot by giving a description of what the locale looks like, how many people are there and their relation to each other, what they're wearing, what they're doing, etc. By doing so readers can understand where the characters are and what they're doing. Failing to do so can cause readers become confused and leave the story. Provide a brief description of what the location is like, who's present there and what they're doing within the first page after introducing a new location. Tell readers early on where your characters are and they'll easily be able to understand what's going on and stay in your story.


Blogger Melissa Marsh said...

I had never heard of that term before. You're right - establishing where your characters are is vital. And it doesn't have to be paragraphs and paragraphs of description, either - just a few details here and there will sometimes accomplish the job.

3:10 PM  

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