Big Picture/Closeup: a model for reading and writing

There is a big difference between writing instruction and writing instructions. Last month I wrote about writing as making choices as opposed to writing as following a teacher’s instructions.

The question I want to address this month is this: How do students think about the tools they can use when they make those choices? For that matter – how do adult writers think about those tools?

For much of my writing life, I think I had a mental model for my writing lurking just beneath the surface of my conscious thoughts, but I never articulated it. I used this model to make sense of my own essays and stories as I planned them and revised them, but I was too close to the model to see the model.

For much of my teaching career, I think I gave my students writing and reading tools without giving them any kind of mental “files” to put them in, without any mental model that showed them how all those writer’s tools sort of fit together. It was like giving them papers to put in a random stack and hoping they would figure out how to pull out the one they needed at the moment they needed it.

I have written in this space previously about the summer novel writing class I used to teach for students in grades 4 through 12 at my alma-mater, Stetson University. It was while teaching this class that my mental map for how writing “works” became conscious for me – it stopped lurking beneath the surface, and moved to the forefront of my thinking about writing.

At the summer class, we spent part of the week writing and sharing exercises that taught students how to write effective fictional scenes. They wrote using moment-by-moment narration, descriptions of people, descriptions of places using sensory detail, dialogue, and interior monologue. They wrote one scene in multiple points of view. I came to think of this part of their writing as the “Closeup” elements. They were how you told the story you had to tell. Closeup elements are the things you can point to on the page of a story. They aren’t the events themselves, but the way the events are conveyed.

We spent another part of the week as a group coming up with a premise for our group novel, developing conflicts, characters, backstories, settings, and a plot synopsis of our story. Usually, somewhere in the process, a theme would bubble up out of the events we were imagining. We would find satisfying ironies developing as well (usually involving how our novella’s villain would meet their untimely end). I came to think of these elements as the “Big Picture” elements of the writing. Big Picture elements are the story itself, with its attendant cast lists, characters, themes and ironies. You might be able to point at them on the written page, but they are more often invisible, floating through the entire story like a gas or undergirding it like a frame work. They were the parts we planned for before writing, the parts that you revised when the story itself wasn’t adding up.

Closeup elements are how the story is told. Big Picture elements are the story itself.

As we began to talk about this Big Picture/Closeup model, my students and I came to realize that some stories work well one way, but not other. Take the Star Wars movies. The original trilogy (episodes 4, 5, and 6) about Luke, Leia, and Han generally have good stories, told well. Sure, some of the dialogue might be a bit hokey, but the actors compensated. It worked Big Picture and Closeup. The prequel trilogy (episodes 1, 2, and 3) about Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala, on the other hand, worked fairly well big picture – the stories made decent sense and explained how Anakin became Darth Vader – but closeup, they were… problematic. The dialogue, in particular, was often stilted and cringe-worthy. The recent sequel trilogy from Disney studios (episodes 7, 8, and 9) about Rey, Finn, and Poe has the opposite problem: scene-by-scene, the dialogue works and each individual sequence plays well. But by the last movie, it becomes clear that there was no real vision for this trilogy, and the big picture of this trilogy sort of falls apart and doesn’t make sense.

I began to use the Big Picture/Closeup model with my students back at school during the school year as well, and quickly discovered three things. One, the model also works for non-fiction, Two, it has a bit of ambiguity. Some elements can be both Big Picture AND Closeup within the same story, and Three, the model is as helpful for reading as it is for writing. Without further ado, here is the model as it is currently posted in my classroom:

BIG PICTURE Elements run through the entire text and influence all of it. The ideas or story of a text.Main idea/Claim/ Controlling idea Key ideas Organizational patterns  FocusPlot structure Theme Setting Character
BOTH Can sometimes be Big Picture or Closeup; can sometimes be both at once!Rhetorical devicesIrony: dramatic, situational, verbal Tone
Point of view Symbolism Flashback  
CLOSEUP A tool that you can find on the page and point to. Not the ideas or the story, but the way they are expressed or told.Anecdotes Reports Text-evidence Research from sources Statistics/dataMoment-by-moment narration List-of-event narration Description Dialogue Figurative language Hyperbole Hypothetical scenariosCharacterization

When I introduce this idea to my 9th graders and creative writing students, many of them already have working definitions of the terms, so I give them a blank grid with the terms off to the side. They have small-group discussions and place the terms on the grid. After about 10 or 15 minutes of discussion, we then have an all-class discussion and use post-it notes of the terms to place them on a grid on my white board. There is some debate. You, dear reader, may disagree with the placement of some terms. I occasionally shift some of them around myself.

I usually start explaining the concept by stating that “Character” is Big Picture: it’s who the character is, their description for the casting director, so to speak. Ebenezer Scrooge is an old miser who hates Christmas. “Characterization” is Closeup: how a character appears on the page, how they are revealed, how they behave and speak, how others speak of them, what their living quarters look like, etc. Ebenezer Scrooge says “Bah, Humbug!” a lot and evicts people for non-payment of rent.

We always find it interesting to note the elements that are both Big Picture and Closeup. For instance, Point of View in Fiction is a huge choice a writer usually makes before they start writing, making it Big Picture. Point of View also has an effect on every single page of a text, an effect you can point to in places. It is Big Picture and Closeup. Rhetorical devices can be structural/organizational choices (Big Picture) but also specific uses of words, such as repetition or parallelism, right there on the page (Closeup).

Especially interesting are the elements that or Both/Both: both Big Picture and Closeup and Fiction/Non-fiction: Irony, Tone, and Voice. I was once told at a teacher workshop for writer teachers that in English, all roads lead to Tone and Irony. Perhaps their central location to both fiction and nonfiction, both Big Picture and Closeup explains it.

As I thought about how I give my students feedback about their writing, this model helped me find a way to focus my comments and in-person discussions. Are there lots of details, but no real focus? It’s working Closeup, but not Big Picture. Is an essay beautifully focused and organized around excellent reasons, yet very slim on actual evidence or elaboration? It’s working Big Picture, but not Closeup. Once you’ve identified which levels are working or not working, you can help students decide what alternate choices to make as writers.

I have come to realize in my dabbling with fiction, plays, blogs, books, and comic strips that I think about all writing this way – and this mental map always guides me to ways to sharpen my message, flesh out my details, and improve what I’ve written. I have been thinking about this post, Big Picture and Closeup before I started writing it, as I’ve written, and as I’ve revised.

I use this model every time I write. Now that I’m aware of the model and can share it, it has started to help my students do the same.

In the coming months, I’ll talk about how this mental model can be used to help students think differently about their writing at every stage of writing process.

Image via Created by David Lee Finkle, copyright 2016.

Do you have a mental model for how our Writer’s Tools all fit together and work together? How do you share it with students? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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