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What happens off-camera can affect your story. How do you deal with that on-camera?

Photo: By Jorge Royan (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Books and movies share a common element in storytelling: Point of View. The camera or the narrator of a scene (whether it be a character or a third person) has a particular spot from which it views the events taking place. No matter how many points of view (POV) you use, you will never capture all of the events that might possibly influence the story. Even children’s stories have unanswered questions:

  • Who sent Jack and Jill on their water-fetching misadventure?
  • What was Willy Wonka doing while Charlie and his grandfather wandered unattended?
  • What were those three bears doing while Goldilocks was burgling their house?

What constitutes “off-camera” action?

Consider it to be basically anything that impacts the actions that you see, but which you are not actually shown in the narrative. It can be in the form of a motivation (in the Jack and Jill Example), opportunity (why was the bears’ house open to Goldilocks), or merely filling in the missing details of what other characters are up to (Willy Wonka).

Why does it matter

The idea is not that all off-camera action matters, but that it ought to be considered. By selecting what becomes part of the narrative, you decide what the reader needs to know, what they see, what information they need to come away with as they leave a scene. But in the writer’s mind, there is always more to the story than what is told. These are the little threads that wind their way through the background, influencing the course of events that will later affect the characters who are on screen.

How Off-Camera affects On-Camera

It’s rare for a story to take place in a vacuum. There are outside influences everywhere. From the examples above, how does the tone of the story change if Jack and Jill were sent to get water to put out a fire? What if that wasn’t their family’s well, and they were rushing to avoid being caught?

In the Willy Wonka example, you have a more basic question to keep in mind: is the character’s absence and reappearance believable? In this case it is, since Mr. Wonka is the owner and builder of the fantastical candy factory. The more common problems of this type tend to pop up in thrillers and comics. When you drop a villain down a mineshaft (never to be seen again?), and he pops up a few scenes later, readers are going to be A) surprised and B) suspicious. It’s a fine line to walk between casting your antagonist as a persistent threat and making him a believable one.

In the Goldilocks example, what you’re looking at is a window of opportunity. A vacant house is nothing unusual, but one with a cooked meal on the table, especially one that is too hot to eat, is unusual. It would suggest that either the occupants did not intend to be gone long, or that they left under emergency circumstances. Told to an adult, this story raises a lot of questions that cause it to sound ridiculous (anthropomorphic bears set aside in the cause of suspension of disbelief).

Bringing in off-camera action

Sometimes things that are not shown are still essential to your plot. These may be boring bits, or parts that got trimmed down in the editing process, or parts that just seemed extraneous for whatever reason. If one of your ensemble cast goes missing for a scene; if someone shows up with a new car/gun/wardrobe that stands out as unusual for them; if there has been a major news event that changes character’s goals or priorities … these are the things that you need to find a way to pull into your scenes.

  • Narrative – Slipping things into the narrative can work, but it’s probably the weakest way to present outside information.

The sword at Hayl’s hip was so new that the scabbard’s leather shone with polish. It was imperial make, stolen just hours ago from a poorly guarded shipment from Taal.

  • Narrator – If your story uses a narrator at all, this is actually appropriate fare for that voice. The narrator fills the reader in on outside goings on that the characters may be aware of (or not), without having to devote a full scene to it.

I knew an imperial sword when I saw one, and Hayl was no soldier. The only way he could have gotten a fine new blade like that was to have stolen it, since he didn’t have enough silver to buy so much as a sword belt.

  • Dialogue – If your reader might be confused by outside information, your characters are liable to be confused as well. Have them work out these off-camera happenings among themselves:

“Hayl, what’s that cursed thing you got there? You enlist or something?” Robil asked, eyeing the fine piece of steel belted at his hip.

“Naw, boosted it off some Taalish caravan while the night guards were playin’ at dice,” Hayl replied. He pulled the sword from its pristine leather sheath and showed it off to his fellow brigands.

What do you need to keep track of

If you’re looking to create a fully immersive world, especially one that might spawn offshoots, sequels, or prequels, knowing the ins and outs of what goes on elsewhere as your story takes place can be a great help. However, in the general sense you are not looking to keep track of what happens off-camera so much as you must be mindful of what could have happened off-camera. This all comes down to believability within the framework of the story. If the actions as presented raise no jarring questions, you can leave the off-camera happenings alone. The point at which the reader begins to question whether your plot is full of holes or that they begin getting the wrong ideas about characters or events – that’s when you need to pull in details from outside to smooth things over.

Example: Your characters have had a harrowing journey across oceans, through jungles, over mountains, all following a secret map they’ve dug up. Then the villain shows up moments later??? Unless you’re ready to whether a firestorm of reader outrage, some hint as to how he manages such a feat is in order.

Example: Rob and Matt are an inseparable pair. After the heist, when everyone gathers to split the loot, Rob is alone. A simple, sullen comment by Rob that Matt didn’t make it would be all that is required. Done with a deft hand, a simple description of Rob’s mood and mannerisms might convey the same thing without having to say it outright.

Example: Mr. Wood is a known thief, gambler, and con man. He’s been down on his luck of late, but shows up in a brand new Bentley. This is an example of when not to let the off-camera action intrude. The reader knows enough of Mr. Wood (which they will probably guess is not his real name), to put the pieces together themselves.