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Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar


By ROB GOODMAN posted at 6:00 am on March 4, 2011
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Think of the long list of visual cues we take for granted. How do we know, without struggling to process the fact, that a scene shot from three angles by three cameras is the same scene? How can we tell the difference in emotional register between a series of rapid-fire cuts and a single, slow, agonizing take?
ROB GOODMAN is a speechwriter in Washington, DC. He's written on sports for The Atlantic's website, on religion for Killing the Buddha, on video games for The Millions and on cognition-enhancing drugs for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. He is co-writing a book on Cato the Younger and the Roman Republic, which is expected in 2011.
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1. Maybe youre young enough to remember Blues Clues, or old enough to have a little one hanging on the mystery-solving adventures of Steve and Blue as you read this. If, by any chance, Blues Clues happens to be on in the background, try this experiment: watch and see how long the camera holds on a single shot. You will, by design, be waiting a long time. The child psychologists who helped create Blue discovered that young viewers dont know what to do with cuts and edits; they understand them as a new scene, not the same scene shot from a different angle, and theyre soon too confused to keep up. So the Blues Clues camera almost always holds steady, in a series of long and deliberate takes. On the grown-up channels, the camera can do morebut only because weve already learned the complicated visual grammar that makes the camera make sense. Think of the long list of visual cues we take for granted. How do we know, without struggling to process the fact, that a scene shot from three angles by three cameras is the same scene? How can we tell the difference in emotional register between a series of rapid-fire cuts and a single, slow, agonizing take? Who says that a series of short shots often indicates the passage of time? As much as we may take these conventions for granted, as natural as their emotional associations might seem to us, they make sense largely because weve had practice. Who invented this visual grammar? A film historian might look to pioneering pictures like

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

Battleship Potemkin or Birth of a Nation; but before there was such a thing as a movie camera, it was a writers job to juxtapose and jump between imagesfrom a battlefield to Mount Olympus, from medias res to the far past, with resources limited only by imagination and the price of ink. In college, I was lucky enough to take an English class with the novelist Reynolds Price, before he died in Januaryand one of his most striking arguments was that John Milton, with his instant transitions from Hell to Earth to Heaven, was one of the inventors of the cinematic jumpcut. It was a throwaway comment, but it led me to think that we ought to pay more attention to writers tricks of editing: not in the usual sense of revision, but in the cinematic sense of transitions from image to image and from scene to scene. Ive come to believe that writers, as much as filmmakers, are responsible for our visual grammarthat their imaginary jumps, and the thematic use theyve made of those jumps, have laid the groundwork we take for granted today whenever we watch anything more demanding than Blues Clues. If the camera goes somewhere special, the chances are good that a writers imagined camera has gone there beforeand shaped not just filmmakers sense of whats possible, but the expectations we bring to the screen. We can consider the influence of the writers camera by looking at one of the most dramatic edits available: zooming out. What can a writer accomplish by playing tricks with distance and scale, sometimes pulling away from the action, leaving the characters neglected in place as the viewpoint pulls back to take in the landscape, or even the whole planet? Weve all seen dramatic zooms used for effectbut what exactly is the effect, and have writers helped shaped it? I want to start to answer those questions by examining three importantand movinginstances of literary zooming out. I dont claim that these three authors are responsible cinematic zooming out, but I do think they helped create a lasting set of conventions that give it its power and its emotional meanings. Zooming out relies for that power on the tension between human smallness and human dignity on the possibility that putting us in cold, Gods-eye-view perspective can, against expectations, make us more important. 2. Lets start, naturally enough, with Milton: the blind poet who, perhaps because he was cut off from the visual world for so long, came up with some of the most inventive and unexpected edits in poetry. Among these, the most stunningcenturies before we had cameras to take the picture or satellites to send it backis one of the earliest images of Earth seen from space.
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The place is Book II of Paradise Lost, and the scene is Chaos: not exactly outer space in our sense, but certainly the great trackless void between worlds, a dark / Illimitable Ocean without bound, without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth / And time and place are lost. Satan has escaped the gates of Hell and traversed this blind wilderness on his mission to infect our world; and as he reaches the border between Chaos and the created world, he pauses to take stock by the first beams of visible light. The camera turns and scans the distance, leaving Satan behind. Farr off is Heaven with its jeweled towersbut still so enormous that we cant tell, from this distance, whether its border is a straight line or an arc. A little further on, the light by which we and Satan see passes on to Earth: hanging in a golden Chain This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr Of smallest magnitude close by the Moon. Later, Milton will catalogue this worlds creation in microscopic detailbut the first time he shows it to us in Paradise Lost, it is small enough to be blocked out by a finger. The sense of insignificancenext to the massive Heaven, next to Chaosis overpowering. So is the sense of danger: the pendant world is literally hanging in the balance. It and all its life, which are set to be corrupted, look like a fragile toy from this distance. And what about Satan? Though the camera seems to have pulled back from him, hes still the closest object to our viewpoint. Next to Heaven, he is tiny, a nuisance, a perpetual underdog, but he towers over Earththe theology of the whole poem summed up in an image. But weve also just seen Satan at his most courageous, a voyage through Chaos that sees Milton explicitly compare him to the Greek epic heroes. The image of him brooding over Earth from afar is one of our first introductions in the poem to Satanic glamoura glamour that Milton will whittle down over the course of his epic, but one that reaches its seductive high point here. Its no surprise that the image of a hovering hero watching over Earth would resurface much later in an entirely positive lightas the iconic image of Superman. Between Earth and Satan, distance and closeness, where does Milton mean for our sympathies to

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

lie? On one hand, we are down there: our home and (by the poems theology) our ancestors are on that shadowed speck, and surely we can be expected to feel some of its danger. On the other hand, we are also here: our viewpoint is not there on Earth, but alongside Satans, and we wouldnt be human if we didnt share some of his exhilaration at this moment. That, too, is part of Miltons point. 3. Either way, its a moment of high dramabut what happens when a writer uses a zoom to pull away from drama, at its climactic point? Whats the point of deliberately trading conflict for calm? Toward the end of his huge novel Bleak House, Charles Dickens gives us a long and languid zoom out by night, over London, over the English countryside, and all the way to the sea. But its not an exercise in scene-setting, or in picturesqueness for its own sake. Its a calculated, and almost infuriating, distraction from one of the novels turning-points: the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn, an attorney who has spent hundreds of pages building an elaborate scheme of blackmail, which he has almost seen through to success. Tulkinghorn, coldly self-satisfied as usual, has just returned home after issuing a decisive ultimatum to his blackmail target. On the way in, hes distracted by the sight of the moon and so is the story itself, which leaves Earth and zooms into a lyrical passage tracing the progress of the moon across the sky and leaving Tulkinghorn almost forgotten below: He looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! A quiet night, too. A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds rich in corn-field, windmill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this strangers wilderness of London there is some rest. Whats that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it? When the gun goes off in that staccato burstWhats that?we arent there with Tulkinghorn to take the bullet. Were still in the folds of a lazily sweeping 206-word sentence that takes us from London to the coast and back, everything frozen and watching. Theres far too much effort in those 206 words for them to be a plot contrivance. Yes, the identity of the murderer is supposed to be a mystery; but if that were the only consideration, Dickens only had to narrate the scene from Tulkinghorns perspective or keep the killer conveniently in the shadows. Dickenss transition to the landscape is doing much more work here. For one, it builds the shock of the murder. The long sentence takes us so far away from the action of the story, and is so full of motionless calm, that it almost lulls us into putting Tulkinghorn out of minduntil the shot, heard but not seen, snaps us instantly back. Its a fitting end for a man who, like this impeccably controlled and cunning lawyer, considers himself untouchable. Instead, he is wrenched out of his reverie in the most violent way possibleand so, in a way, are we. At the same time, is our surprise really as total as his? The long zoom out over the landscape is an investment in surprise, but it also seems designed to build suspense, even dreadbased on a nagging sense that the landscape doesnt belong here, is out of place for a reason we cant identify until we hear the shots. It is, in other words, an early instance of Its quiettoo quiet. In film, in fact, a long shot at a climactic moment is a cue to worry, not to relax; think of the fishing-boat murder of Fredo in The Godfather II, which is interspersed with lake scenery and shots of his brother watching the killing he ordered from a distance. Mr. Tulkinghorns sudden death seems like a distant ancestor of that scene. Should any of this change our thoughts for the victim? In one sense, no: Tulkinghorn was a manipulative and double-dealing man in lifeand while no one deserves a pistol-shot between the

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

eyes, few readers have shed a tear for him. But Dickens could also deal out far more grisly and humiliating deaths: one minor character in Bleak House spontaneously combusts. Here, instead, zooming out turns the end elegiac, and if we cant be moved to feel any injustice over a bad mans death, maybe we can feel the injustice of a beautiful scene cut off too soon. The stillness attends; woods and steeples and ship seem to be waiting for something, and though they cannot possibly know what is about to happen in a London courtyard, Dickens makes us feel that they canthat the local death of a single lawyer, placed in such a wide setting, has much more than a local significance. Finally, remember that we begin the scene by following Tulkinghorns gaze up to the sky; his eyes dont sweep as far as the camera, but at the moment he dies, he is looking at the same moon as we are. For us, the wide world of that 206-word sentence is cut off by a line break; for him, it is cut off permanently. Entirely hateable characters rarely die with that kind of pathos. As much as a death with dignity is possible, Dickens gives one to Tulkinghornand he dignifies him by zooming out. 4. Its this tension between dignity and dwarfing scale that is tackled most directly by the last example I want to look at: the novel Star Maker, by the British writer Olaf Stapledon. Written in 1937, its not as well-known as the two other works Ive looked at, but its influence has arguably been just as strong. It was a landmark work of serious science fiction and held up as an inspiration by writers like H.G. Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, and Arthur C. Clarke, and even physicists like Freeman Dyson; it is an ancestor of science fiction movies and literature that play out across star systems and galaxies. It is, in effect, one booklength, cosmic-scale zooming out: it is the story of a Londoner who finds himself leaving his body, and then floating above the Earth, and then in interstellar space. Throughout this strange novel, our narrator does nothing but observe, searching out traces of intelligence wherever he can find it; slowly he comes across and joins forces with alien minds that have become disembodied in the same way, and as this snowball of consciousness accumulates and rolls through galaxies, the book comes to be narrated by we, not I. Immaterial and unfixed in time, they watch the histories of entire planets unfold: some are Earthlike, some utterly alien; some pass whole through the stage of world crisis, while some destroy themselves. Ultimately planets and galaxies build collective consciousnesses and absorb our narrator; as the end of history approaches, the universe itself becomes self-conscious and takes over the narrationI again. Finally, the universe comes face-to-face with the Creatoronly to find that its maker is not a loving God, but something of an uncompromising artist, who discards the universe as imperfect and begins again. Across the universe, intelligence winks out, cold and entropy set in, and our original narrator wakes up on Earth again, lying on a hill. And this is, to my mind, the most interesting part of the book. How can you go on after a vision like thatnot a vision of warm, mystical comfort, but a vision of unimaginable smallness and rejection? What could the point possibly be, when you have literally seen Earth die? The narrator gathers himself up and zooms out againbut only in imagination this time, and only as far as the circuit of his own planet. He can look at Earth now with the otherworldly objectivity of a man who has lived many lives on many alien worlds, and yet at each stop he is jarred by human suffering, by events that ought to seem trivial, but cannot: In the stars view, no doubt, these creatures were mere vermin; but each to itself, and sometimes one to another, was more real than all the stars. His view sweeps past England to Europe, where the Spanish night was ablaze with the murder of cities, to Germany and its young men ranked together in thousands, exalted, possessed, saluting the flood-lit Fhrer, on to Siberia, where the iron-hard Arctic oppressed the exiles in their camps, east to Japan, which spilled over Asia a flood of armies and trade, south to Africa, where Dutch and English profit by the Negro millionsand then the Americas, where the descendants of Europe long ago mastered the descendants of Asia, through priority in the use of guns, and the arrogance that guns breed. Even though he has learned to think of his home with an aliens detachment, the features that capture his attention are more than those that can be seen from space. They are the tiny events that pass across the landscape: war, trade, politics. And as the story ends, he believes, or chooses to believe, that he is watching the same crisis through which every world has to struggle, the universal story in miniatureand that everything he sees on Earth is dignified in that light. He looks down the hill to the light from his home, and up to the light from the stars, and concludes: Two lights for guidance. The first, our little glowing atom of community, with all that it signifies. The second, the cold light of the starswith its crystal ecstasy. Strange that in this light, in which even the dearest love is frostily assessed, and even the possible defeat of our

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

half-waking world is contemplated without remission of praise, the human crisis does not lose but gains significance. Strange, that it seems more, not less urgent to play some part in this struggle, this brief effort of animalcules striving to win for their race some increase of lucidity before the ultimate darkness. C.S. Lewiswho would go on to write his own series of science fiction novels as a rebuttal, in part, to Stapledonwas shocked enough by Star Makers unorthodoxies to call it sheer devil worship. But its conclusion, as an attempt to hold in one thought our smallness and our importance, reminds me of nothing so much as some lines Lewis would have immediately recognized, which cut between the human and the galactic scale as effortlessly as any of the passages Ive considered here: When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?

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18 RESPO NSES T O Z OOMI NG OU T: HO W WRITERS CREA TE O UR VI SU AL G R AMMAR

S.M. Carrire
AT 12:34 PM ON MARCH 4, 2011

This was a great article well thought out and intriguing. It has certainly given me a lot to think on. Thank-you. Matt
AT 1:21 PM ON MARCH 4, 2011

That was one of the things that hit me when I first read Paradise Lost, just the zooming quality of it. Theres a whole Scar/Triumph of the Will thing when Satan ascends his Hell throne, and then that ridiculously breathtaking pull in when the serpent goes into Eden. What we also should consider, is that now theres a language of film, how have writers reacted to that, how has that influenced film, and how has it come back around to writing? in Gravitys Rainbow, Pynchon seems to operate with a Bunel vision, but undoubtedly some of the zips and blips and jumps in his prose have gone on to influence filmmakers, like Danny Boyle and David Fincher. (Read it, youll see.) Rob Goodman
AT 3:49 PM ON MARCH 4, 2011

Matt Interesting idea. Maybe theres an analogy between the way books have changed post-movies, and the way painting changed post-photographynow that another art form can do what you used to

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

do more vividly (jump instantaneously between scenes, or produce naturalistic images), how can you change to stay relevant? I dont know enough Pynchon to tackle your point, but you or someone else should write about it. Joshua Korn
AT 1:38 PM ON MARCH 6, 2011

Very interesting article. I cant help but picture Satan hovering over the earth with a Superman cape on! I think you are right, Rob, that writers have influenced filmmakers, but it seems to me that in the post-cinema world this goes the other way as well. I thought of Sembene Ousmane, the writer/filmmaker whose novels read like screenplays at times (I mean that in a good way, Gods Bits of Wood is great), and even *gulp* of James Frey and his fiction-factory: http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/69474/ Also Blues Clues was awesome! Penina Zussman
AT 3:55 AM ON MARCH 7, 2011

Fabulous piece. Its truly incredible how skilled writers can conduct our imaginations the way they do. Charles Dickens in particular is such a master of that ability. But as you pointed out, this is far from a modern skill. Even Psalms uses this technique-lyrically and often. Good Reading: March 7, 2011 | Frustrated Fiction
AT 2:29 PM ON MARCH 7, 2011

[...] Mr. Morris we head over to The Millions, where I found this fascinating piece on writing, my favorite [...] Albert Brown
AT 5:42 PM ON MARCH 7, 2011

Interesting analysis. It reminds me of G.E.Lessing, the 18th c. German dramatist, and his Laokoon: On the boundaries of painting and poetry. Plastic arts exist statically (then) in space, whereas the poetic arts are sequential sounds in time. Thus the sculptor depicts the pregnant point in a story, which suggests what came before and whats to come. The writer works in time, not space, so he must show action in progress. Hence Homer doesnt just describe Achilles shield, he depicts Hephaestus forging it. Im sure this is what the three writers in this article are up to. In our age, of course, the boundary between static and dynamic images is much hazier that in Lessings day. Wendy Orr
AT 8:50 PM ON MARCH 7, 2011

Thank you for a brilliant article and analysis. I happened upon it a couple of hours after Id been asked to deliver a conference lecture on book to film and the differences between them. Youve got me thinking on some different angles than Ive discussed before, and Im very grateful! Tammela
AT 9:19 AM ON MARCH 8, 2011

Great piece thanks. I like the term visual grammar, and its definitely an interesting way to read literature. Reminds me of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth finally confesses her love for Darcy. How cinematically pre-cinema Austen writes this one paragraph: Lizzies looks, Darcys face, their words without dialogue: The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heart-felt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable. This essay focuses on literary zooming out, but one could easily read plenty of literature for its other visual grammar. Im drawn to this idea as a film- and literature-lover it ties in with (or maybe is inseparable from) point-of-view and narrative choices that writers make. And film adaptations are another direction this kind of study could go how filmmakers interpret authors visual grammar. Im reminded of the zoom out at the end of James Joyces short story The Dead, which, despite the awkwardness of the voice-over, is beautifully rendered in the film

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The Millions : Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar

version. What were reading: death in all its guises Nieman Storyboard - A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard
AT 1:21 PM ON MARCH 8, 2011

[...] Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared? this entry was written by Andrea Pitzer, posted on March 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm, filed under words and tagged Amy Wallace, Chris Jones, Esquire, Gangrey, Greg Jaffe, Joel Johnson, longreads, Rob Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle, Steve Rubenstein, The Browser, The Millions, The Washington Post, Wired. bookmark the permalink. follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. post a comment or leave a trackback: trackback URL. Mac McClelland on scenes, narrative and sexual assault in post-quake Haiti [...] On the Camera in Fiction | english322
AT 10:06 AM ON MARCH 9, 2011

[...] about fiction through the lens of film and editing. This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and tagged craft, process, scene. Bookmark [...] Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar Readersforum's Blog
AT 12:42 PM ON MARCH 9, 2011

[...] read more Leave a Comment LikeBe the first to like this post.Leave a Comment [...] How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar Movie City News
AT 1:59 PM ON MARCH 9, 2011

[...] How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar [...] OA Gorrin


AT 11:12 AM ON MARCH 13, 2011

Einsenstein wrote an indispensable essay on how Griffith took the concept of montage (parallel action) from Dickens. I was able to find an extract here: http://www.room301.org/page2/page4/files/griffith-dickensFH.pdf Unfortunately, it cuts short just as the going gets interesting. In the essay, Einsenstein goes on to illustrate his point with examples of transitions from Dickens and Griffiths work. It is worth noting that Einsenstein is referring to silent film throughout, the period when when film narration was in its purest state and most distant from literature. Satan = Superman Other People's Ideas
AT 3:52 PM ON MARCH 13, 2011

[...] Heres a super piece from The Millions about how elements of the visual language of cinema were foreshadowed by techniques of perspective and timeline shifting in literature. It uses examples from Milton, Dickens and the science fiction author Olaf Stapledon to show how authors had invented such cinematic staples as the jump-cut and the long zoom well before the invention of video cameras. This is part of the discussion of Paradise Lost: [...] Monday Snax | Little Stories
AT 10:10 AM ON MARCH 14, 2011

[...] Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar. This analysis by Rob Goodman claims that great authorshe cites examples from Milton and Dickens, and closes with a few lines from Psalm 8are responsible for the first true cinematic jump-cuts. The article is very well-written and fascinating. I like the notion of a visual grammar, of the keen and yet oft-unnoticed importance that grammar and syntax possess over our visual understanding of a narrative. (The Millions) [...] ghazi
AT 4:12 PM ON MARCH 18, 2011

ok i wanna know More short story Other People's Ideas


AT 8:34 PM ON MARCH 28, 2011

[...] reminded of that discussion from The Millions about authors control of perspective; this is one of those sudden zoom-out moments like when [...]
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