Focal Points in Photography and Fiction Writing

Ask any real photographer. There’s more to good photography than pointing the camera at something and clicking the shutter. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do much more than that. If the subject matter is interesting and the lighting is right, I may be fortunate in catching a photo worth keeping. More often than not, however, I discard 90% of my efforts.

One thing I’ve learned by trial and error is that a good photo has a focal point – one single thing that captures the viewer’s attention. However subtle it is, it’s going to be the whole reason for the photo. Wherever the eye wanders, it will continually be drawn back to that one feature.

I’m convinced that’s as true in writing as it is in photography. Every chapter – indeed, every scene – should have a focal point. If the reader wanders into the scene, wallows there a while, and moves on without receiving a significant benefit, it’s likely that scene is superfluous to the story.

What’s meant to capture the reader’s attention? What’s the purpose of the scene? If there isn’t one you can point to, why is it there at all? I ask myself that question about a lot of the photographs I take. It’s the reason I throw so many of them away! It’s why I recently deleted over nine thousand words from my latest w.i.p., too.

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Do you agree with me, or do you think there’s a place for ‘transitional’ scenes in stories? I’d like to hear your opinion.

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 “I pay close attention to the variety of shapes and sizes, and place the objects so that the lines and edges create a rhythm that guides the viewer’s eye around the image and into the focal point.”

Sergei Forostovskii

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“If Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be,
and He did die on a cross at a point of time in history,
then, for all history past and all history future
it is relevant because that is the very focal point
for forgiveness and redemption.” 

Josh McDowell

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5 thoughts on “Focal Points in Photography and Fiction Writing

  1. joylene says:

    Sure, transitional chapters are important, (I just wrote one in a 1st draft) but you’re so right, there still needs to be a focal point. You guessed it, I think there’s room for the chapter to be both. Which means that even in transitional chapters something significant has to be revealed or has to happen, even if it’s not apparent until much later. Transitional chapters are great places to lay set pieces that aren’t the focal point of the chapter.

    Okay, enough said from the girl who always seems to have something else to do rather than writing.

  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    The idea of a focal point in fiction is quite intriguing. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but focal points might be my favorite scenes or moments in books: the points where something is revealed, or something we’ve been waiting for finally happens (or doesn’t). I want to think about this more!

  3. Carol says:

    Joylene and Jenn, I’m happy to find you here today and to get your feedback on the concept of scene or chapter focal points. I think of transitional scenes as ‘do nothing’ ones, necessary as connectors, but I like Joylene’s idea that even those that don’t appear to have significance should serve a purpose.

  4. Shari Green says:

    I was just thinking about something similar — loglines, which, if we write a good one, can serve to keep us focused through the whole novel. ;) Thanks for the reminder that each scene needs a focal point. Sometimes when I’m revising I’ll read a scene and realize it really doesn’t add anything (ugh). I suspect lack of focus is the problem.

    • Carol says:

      Shari, using loglines to keep us on track is a great idea. I always think of them as just what I spout to someone who asks what I’m writing about, but I guess they would make good directional guides, too.

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