I took Art Appreciation in college. I can’t say I came out of it with much of an appreciation of art, but I did fully appreciate electives that were such an easy ‘A’ you didn’t even need to buy the book. Money well spent on that education, yes?
I remember one lesson from that entire semester of Art Appreciation. One. That’s it. I don’t remember if we studied painters, or styles of art. I remember nothing about those weeks except for the one solitary lesson when the professor put up a slide (I know, a slide. I’m old) of the bottom corner of a famous painting. No, I don’t remember which painting. Please refer to my confessed laziness at the start of this paragraph.
We were told to look closely at the markings. They looked like a random assortment of drip marks, as though the painter had dipped his brush in paint, then turned to talk with someone while the paint dripped onto the canvas. It didn’t make sense. The colors didn’t relate to one another, there was no discernible pattern, and the splotches of paint appeared accidental.
The professor then took the slide down and replaced it with the full painting of a riverside. In the corner, he circled a gathering of wild flowers, which were painted across the canvas. “These are the markings you just observed,” he noted. “They were not random. They were deliberate. It’s amazing what detail can do to a piece of art, isn’t it?”
Isn’t it funny how certain things never leave us? I will never forget that one solitary lesson in a class I cared nothing about. For some reason that stuck with me, and it is a lesson that applies to life in so many ways.
When you’re writing a book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, the power of the message will be wrapped firmly in the details. If the completed work is your finished canvas, then each page is like a splotch of paint. The details must be intricate enough to form a completed picture, but they must not be so muddled that they overwhelm the story.
When I saw the final painting that day in class, it struck me that there were just the right amount of flowers in the landscape to make it look entirely realistic. The flowers didn’t overpower the tranquility of the image, and neither should your detail overpower the message of your book.
As you build your characters, you want to carefully and skillfully weave the background of the story in such a way that it remains in the background, but supports the book as a whole. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Show Don’t Tell” in writing. My elementary school children are already working on the skill of showing and not telling. This is crucial in developing a storyline that makes readers want to turn the page.
You do this by giving us sensory images, word picture that engage us emotionally, and mentally. Don’t just tell us what the surroundings look like – make us feel them.
Consider this passage from The Kite Runner:
“I stepped outside. Stood in the silver tarnish of a half-moon and glanced up to a sky riddled with stars. Crickets chirped in the shuttered darkness and a wind wafted through the trees. The ground was cool under my bare feet and suddenly, for the first time since we had crossed the border, I felt like I was back.” The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
You can see the moon, and feel the warm wind wafting across your face. The picture is so vivid, the strokes of the brush so defined, that you know exactly what the character is feeling. This is powerful writing.
As you begin to further develop your story, step back and consider the whole canvas. The outline will help you define how you’re going to fill the empty spaces. Then slowly, very slowly, step closer and closer until each little detail comes together. Weave those details in meticulous strokes, and planned drips, until the final picture stands complete. Tell us a story we can see and touch, one we can taste and smell and hear.
Give us a book we won’t soon forget.
This is part of a 31 Day series on becoming an author. To read all the posts in this series, click here. To stay up to date on my daily posts through email subscription, enter your email address in the top left corner.