If you watch one video online this week, make it this video essay on the Cohen Brothers’ use of the shot reverse shot from the Every Frame a Painting series. Prepare to never look at a scene the same way again.

Shot reverse shot is when each character gets their own shot, back and forth in dialogue. Every Frame describes the technique as the most basic element of film grammar.

Joel & Ethan Coen – Shot | Reverse Shot

How do you film a conversation? Most likely, you’re going to block the actors, set up the camera, and do shot/reverse shot. But where do you put the camera? What lens do you use? And how do you cut back and forth?

In writing, just like filmmaking, the greats are often defined by their mastery of the most basic elements of the craft. Simple is not the same as simplistic. For simple to work on the page or on screen, it has to be precise and precise isn’t easy–think haikus and the western dawnscapes in Cormac McCarthy.

Writers don’t have the advantage of multiple cameras. We can’t write a scene ten different ways simultaneously and cut between the best shots. But we do have lenses, better lenses than the filmmakers. Our lenses cost nothing and can get infinitely close or wide. The fiction writer’s most basic tool is the one you got sick of hearing about in creative writing class: showing vs. telling.

Think of how you might isolate one of your characters in a situation she can’t control, what will her actions reveal to the reader. What’s in the background? What’s on her desk? How does she handle money? This is how scenes are built. Images are often the best place to start, ideas are almost always the worst. Used simply and with precision, the basics of showing vs. telling will help you bring characters to life using fewer words. Your reader will experience meaning rather than being told what your scene means.

Image: Esquire