Posted by: Kerry Gans | August 21, 2012

Rack Focus in Fiction

In videography, there is a technique called “rack focus.” This is where you have one object in the forefront in sharp focus with a background object in blurred focus and then slowly change the focus so the front object turns blurry and the background object comes into focus. You can do it the opposite, too, of course, from back focus to front. While most often seen with “set-up” shots like flowers or decorations, you can use it with anything if the shot lines up correctly.

I am currently rack-focusing my fiction manuscript.

I got back the edits from my developmental editor. As always, the suggestions seemed overwhelming at first. But on the whole, the feedback was positive—most of the changes needed required little actual new material, and more a repurposing of what was already there.

My biggest weakness was an unevenness in my manuscript, brought on by scenes that didn’t focus tightly enough on the premise, or underlying idea, of my novel. These scenes lacked emotional depth and forward movement because they didn’t touch the premise in any meaningful way. The good news is that most of those scenes can be re-purposed to support the forward movement of the premise.

That is where the rack focus comes in. The weak scenes are focused on the wrong idea. But re-working them with the premise firmly in mind, I can shift the focus to the proper idea and bring the necessary components of the scene to the front. Sometimes I find that the scene really can’t be made to work, and then I need to think of something else to use in its place, or perhaps I can cut it totally. I am finding that, so far, the scenes can be made to work very well in the new focus with some judicious cutting and addition of sentences throughout. The manuscript already feels more solid.

So when you have a scene that just isn’t working and you don’t know why, return to your premise. Ask yourself if your flat scene is informed by the premise. Is your scene focused on something that will forward your underlying story idea? If not, then try to rack focus it—adjust your lens and focus on the part of the scene that will bring your premise to the front. If that doesn’t work, maybe you don’t really need that scene at all.

Rack focus, when done right, is one of the most beautiful techniques in video. Finding out that you can change the focus of a scene without rewriting from scratch is one of the most beautiful moments in writing.

Rack on!


  1. Really great post Kerry—love the application of the rack focus idea, which is terminology I didn’t know. It is so often the case that a scene we’ve intuitively included needs to be mined a bit for its best story contribution, and then re-tweaked to bring that aspect forward. I’ll remember this film craft imagery!


    • Thanks, Kathryn! This post couldn’t have been written without your great edit suggestions.


  2. Ooo, cool idea, Kerry! I love the way you worded it: repurposing what was already there. So often we have the right pieces and parts, but we’re not focusing them properly. (And I love rack focus shots in video. 🙂 )


    • As Kathryn said, our writer’s intuition seems to know what we need, btu sometimes we don’t get it sharply in focus. Thankfully, if the bones are already there, it’s much less difficult to tweak it to the way we meant it! When I was a video editor, I always loved rack focus shots, too. 🙂


  3. […] Luckily, I was able to keep most of my scenes and just refocus them (explained in more detail in this blog post). I only wrote 2 completely new scenes and a half of another one. The rest were all repurposed with […]


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