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Journaling for Creativity.

Journaling word games: Varying the focal length

This post forms part of a serialisation eventually building into a complete reference on Journaling for Creativity and the writer's notebook. One that will demonstrate how to journal in order to improve creativity and effectiveness of artists, writers or anyone needing to be creative.

Introduction Contents Techniques About Method Games for Creative Development Varying the focal length


The game

Journaling for Creativity: Altering the Foacal Length Today’s game borrows a technique from the photographic arts. In this game we attempt to either draw in or distance our reader from the action, by considered use of viewpoint.

The game involves rewriting the same scene as observed from different physical perspectives, in the same way that a photographer will subtly vary a composition by adjusting the focal length when taking a photograph.


About focal length

Photographers change how we receive a photograph by changing various attributes of the lens and distance from the subject.

We have all seen a racing car in perfect focus against a blurred background or the wedding photo with the couple circled in a mist of soft focus. In these cases, the eye is captured by the only thing that is in focus and the surrounding effects provide us with the feeling of speed or romance.

Another subtle technique photographers often use is that of varying “the focal length”. This is basically where they change the distance between the observer and the subject. Depending on the chosen focal length, the same sized subject can seem close and isolated from its surroundings, or distant and grouped with the surroundings. Conversely, a change in focal length can be used to modify the significance of the surroundings, either enhancing or diminishing them.

The photo strip to the right demonstrates the results of using this technique.

Writers can mimic this in their work. By changing the current point of view of the narrator, the prose can provide the reader with a perception of being ‘up close’ or ‘viewing from a distance’ and so subtly change the effect of a scene. The technique can also be used to play with emotions, withhold information from the reader or make additional information available.

(For anyone wishing read about varying the focal length of photographs, there is a very good write-up at Exploring How Focal Length Affects Images.)


How to play

You will need either a new scene or an existing one to play with. If you are using a new scene it is okay to start with just an outline.

I will use a robbery as an example to illustrate how the game can be played.

Statue hall in local museum.
Dr. Freja Svensson has her handbag snatched whilst she is studying a statue.
During the robbery, she loses her footing and strikes her head on a statue.
Security respond but the robber escapes. Medics are soon in attendance.

Now imagine all the different points of view that this same scene could be written from and write a list of the possibilities. In your creative journal there is no restriction to performing a little “head-hopping”, so you can be very creative and employ the view point of anybody who might be in the scene. This is always fun and often adds some refreshing potential or insights.

“Head-hopping” however, whilst fine for your journal, is deprecated by editors and you should refrain from it in your main work. However, all is not lost, a similar, if not the same, effect can be gained by moving your actors to different physical locations in the scene.

The actors:
Dr. Freja Svensson,
Herr Mikael Svensson (Husband of Freja),
   Stood beside her
   Stood on opposite side of room
   Stood near door thief exits from
   Stood in conversation with Jane Ambridge, middle of room
Ms. Jane Ambridge (Local artist),
   Near incident
   Stood on opposite side of the room
John the Security guard,
   At desk in next room
   In the room and close
   In the room and near middle of room
   In the room and on opposite side
Maria the medic,
   Arrives after robbery but before police.
Sam the robber,

Now for your selected scene, decide which of the viewpoints to explore and rewrite the scene from each of those perspectives. There is no need to explore all of them, but you should attempt those which give the greatest ranges of “distance” from the situation, both physically and emotionally.

For example, consider the emotional dilemma of poor Mikael as he stands at different parts of the room, torn between attending to his injured wife or chasing the thief. Think how his physical distance from the robbery would change how he would react and think.

Notice how the available information also changes. In our example, notice that if the tale is told from Maria’s eyes, then nearly all the information being fed to the reader would come from dialogue, further distancing the reader from the action.

Another aspect that varies with different viewpoints is the start time. Each chosen point of view has a range of starting times, from just before the robbery to sometime afterwards. Changing the time frame will also significantly change the ‘distance’ between the reader and the scene.

"…some people like to wander through an art museum standing back from the paintings, taking in the effect the artist was trying to achieve, whilst others need a closer look because they’re interested in the details…"

Twyla Tharp, “The Creative Habit

The purpose of the game

The game is a journaling for creativity prompt and is a fun way to get into the habit of always considering the best way to tell a particular part of a story. By practicing in this way in your creative journal it allows you to maintain an awareness of the possible multitude of subtle changes which can affect, for the better or for the worse, your story telling.

By practising in the unrestricted space of your journal, you are free to try all the good and bad forms of telling your tale, to learn from mistakes and from happy accidents.


Okay, now it’s your turn. Spend five minutes thinking of a small scene or beat that will be the focus of this game. You can even use the example scene from this post if you want to. If you do then you might like to consider if ‘Sam the robber’ is a Samuel or a Samantha? (Read my post on “Beware Assumptions” if this caught you unaware).

Then work your way through the game as is described above.



Finally, a question for you; did playing this game make you want to revisit some of your scenes from previous projects?

Photo credit: Series of Focal Length Tests, by Davidd.

"Journaling word games: Varying the focal length" by Andy Shackcloth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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