To Keep Reader Interest, Zoom In

I spent this weekend on a “staycation” with my family. We drove a few hours away from our house to explore the Colorado wilds, including Great Sand Dune National Park and trekking on winding mountain roads in search of fall colors.

It was glorious. Quality family time, and I had a great excuse to not edit.

*clears throat*

Anyway, since we did touristy stuff, I took pictures. At the dunes, I took these:

dunes
But this was the most popular one on social media:

During the leaf exploration, I took these:
But after considering the response to the dune pics, I shared only this one:


Why did I think the last pic would be the favorite?

It has a narrow focus.

Consider the popular dune pic. In it, I focused on three things: the footprints, the person (my husband), and the sky. Easy to see and understand.

In the other pics, there really wasn’t a focus. The dunes are freaking huge and I wanted to relay that. Problem is, well…

The dunes are freaking huge.

There’s no way to capture their enormity in a photograph. Even the best, most professional photograph wouldn’t do justice to actually being there.

By narrowing the focus, I allowed my friends to experience what I did on a scale that could be captured with a picture.

Same with the leaves. Aspen groves on mountain sides are awesome and worth taking a drive to see. But again, in a picture, they’re…meh.

But capture a few on the side of the road, contrasted with green ones on the other side – well, now you have something people can relate to.

By now you’re probably wondering why I put “reader interest” in the title, seeing as I haven’t talked about books or reading or writing at all. I made you wait because while I had some understanding of keeping the story close to the characters, I didn’t really “get it” until the photograph experience. Therefore, you had to start there, too.

Generally, people are pretty bad at understanding large-scale scenarios. Let’s consider something truly huge: the Vietnam War. I wasn’t alive then, so what I know about it came from history class, but there was one photograph that stuck out in my mind: that of a nine-year-old girl, naked and running away from her village after a napalm attack.

The photographer captured the horror of war with only a girl, a road, and a burning village in the background. It was a zoomed in piece of something much, much larger. That photograph has become an iconic image of an entire war.

How does all this apply to writing?

Some writers, especially fantasy and sci-fi writers, have whole worlds to create. While it’s tempting to embellish every little detail of rooms, towns, cities, or countries, what the trees look like and how the tribes interact, I offer this advice: zoom in.

How do those things relate to your character?

Readers need to see how the story relates to them without even realizing it. This happens with characterization and close setting. While it might be fun to describe what the land looks like from an airplane, and your prose may be so eloquent that readers will go along for the ride, that’s not where the meat of the story will be. That’s not the part readers will talk about with their friends. They’ll talk about interactions and close events that changed the course of the story for the character.

The principle applies to the stakes as well (pay attention, query and blurb writers). While it may be tempting to say your character must “save the world”, that’s hard for us to conceptualize. But put the character’s mom into the population he’s saving – zoom in an personalize it – well, now we care.

The world is big. War and space and pandemics and global warming are big. Too big.

Humanity is nearby. Our lives and memories, the things we hold on to, are small moments. Small stories. They’re zoomed in pieces of a bigger picture.

It’s the same for your story. Zoom in on the smaller pieces, because those are what readers will understand and remember.

9 thoughts on “To Keep Reader Interest, Zoom In

  1. I can’t say what it is about the best pictures that makes me think they’re the best. But they are.

    You have a good eye, that’s part of it.

    Colorful stuff is more interesting than not-colorful stuff…

    Contrasts are interesting…

    I’m going to go with you have a good eye. An artist’s eye. This had shown itself to be true in other things, as well. Art you do for your mom, choosing your book cover, and the grandfather tree cover, and also the ads you did for The Fourth Descendant. Some people just have an eye!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny, because when I was earning my teaching degree I was forced to take an art class. Yes, forced. I hated it. Felt like a giant waste of time to me. In one assignment, we were to draw nine large-ish circles (like if you traced the bottom of a coffee mug) and fill the space somehow. I was so grouchy about it I literally put two small, curved lines in one, like eyelashes, and moved on to the next. The next day, the teacher went on and on about how my eyelash circle was simple yet completely balanced. LOL
      Anyway, I guess that goes with the eye thing you’re talking about. Thanks for the compliments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was kinda forced to study engineering for a while and I HATED it, but when it came time to build a house I designed the whole thing myself and even made a scale model doll house of it for my wife out of paper so she could visualize it better. Odd how things work sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful photos. I do like the last one the best though…it really puts you right in the scene and I just love colorful trees anyway. It isn’t hard imaging myself walking down that road and enjoying what nature has to offer.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: To Keep Reader Interest, Zoom In (a reblog) | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

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