A Picture Tells a Thousand Words — But Which Words?

2 Moscow fotosWhat can a mystery writer learn from these photos?

Both were shot side-by-side and simultaneously. The color photo is by David Maung, Bloomberg News (front page of Wall Street Journal, Feb. 28). The B&W is by Pavel Golovkin, Associated Press (New York Times, page A9, Feb. 28).

Both show a crime scene: the murder of Russian activist Boris Nemtsov. Both are great photos.

The difference is in the cropping.

At the WSJ, the page designer went wide, taking in more of the street scene: the police, the media, the onlookers to the right; the grandeur of the onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral resplendent to the left. And the body of Boris Nemtsov front and center, well-lit but not spotlighted, the investigators and criminalists looking calm and maybe a little bored as they go about their routine.

The NYT page designer tightened up the shot. Nemtsov’s body is much more prominent; almost the first thing we see. The photo is about him, not about the scene. St. Basil’s looms behind him, along with a perfectly bland car park. The juxtaposition of pomp and prosaic are superimposed over the horror of death; a nice metaphor for modern Russia.

It’s the same set of decisions mystery writers use in setting a scene. What elements are essential? How much detail is too much? Is this a crime or a crime scene?

As a page designer, I would have opted for the NYT crop: tight and horizontal (same decision I would use as a reporter). As a novelist, I like the WSJ’s crop; the essential Moscow-ness of it. It looks like a scene shot by William Friedkin or Michael Mann.

(Please note, I do not take lightly the death of a political activist in Moscow, and I apologize for anyone who interprets this as cold-hearted. I react as a human being differently than I do as a scene-setter; distancing myself from the horror.)

When crafting a scene: What do you put in, and what do you take out? Some days, that’s about 90 percent of what we do.

About danahaynes

Dana Haynes is the author of ICE COLD KILL (2013), BREAKING POINT (2011) and CRASHERS (2010) from Minotaur and St. Martin's Press.

Posted on February 28, 2015, in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on A Picture Tells a Thousand Words — But Which Words?.

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