Friday, September 17, 2010
Painting the Kitchen
I spent a few days last week painting my kitchen and dining room. It was a project long overdue and my stepdad jump-started it with his visit. “It’ll be a simple job,” he said. Famous last words, eh?
Sometimes in our enthusiasm for writing, in our excitement at discovering a new, untold story, we jump right in thinking, “It’ll be a simple job.”
Thing is, just like my kitchen and dining room re-do, writing takes some ground work. For instance, my kitchen walls needed texturing. The smooth walls showed every old ding and imperfection. The dining room walls had texture - but it was ugly. So first off, we textured the whole lot, top to bottom, ceilings and walls. It was hard work. (And I did it myself! Got out the compressor, texturing tools, texture compound, and did it.)
What has this got to do with a shiny new story? Why not just jump in and paint it, so to speak? If you’re lucky, your story might be a good read right from the start. But a great read has texture.
Texture, in a story, comes in many forms. One of them is foreshadowing, those hints and suggestions of things to come. As Jessica Morrell says in, Between the Lines - The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, “Foreshadowing suggests, whispers, or plants information, and deepens the reader’s sense of anticipation by laying down traces of what will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing causes tension because events are hinted at, but not explained. It also lends future events authority and adds layers and depth that readers appreciate.” Layers and depth, or in other words, texture.
Texture also comes from pacing. Pacing controls the rhythm, or the flow, of the story and is important because you don’t want to leave your readers mired in the mud or left behind in the dust, so to speak. Every scene has its own tempo and you control that with your choice of words, your choice of construction. William Noble, in Conflict, Action & Suspense, says, “Story pace essentially means two things: smooth, even writing without anticlimaxes, without lengthy static prose; and carefully constructed scenes that blend with one another and build to a satisfying climax. Pacing our story means controlling it, and that, in turn, means taking the long view and measuring each scene against the entire story line.”
With the texture on my kitchen and dining room walls they were beginning to look pretty good. We stepped back and admired our work. But we didn’t stop there. Next up was giving everything a primer coat of paint. Primer paint seals the texture and makes the next coat of paint (the one with the color) go on smoothly.
Primer, in writing, is that layer of craft that is invisible to readers. While they enjoy your story, they shouldn’t be aware of your careful painting of sensory details, your fine tuning of tension and suspense, your creation of place and time, or even your crafting of theme and premise, but by the end of your story, the reader will appreciate all of these things.
Finally, with the primer dry, I could begin to see that our efforts in the kitchen and dining room were paying off, but everything was stark white. White is not a bad color, oh no, I like white. But it wasn’t our goal. So now it was time to add the color.
There are countless ways to paint a wall, from bold and bright, to zany or childish, subtle and subdued, feminine or masculine, and so on. The choice of color, the way it’s applied and juxtaposed with other colors creates a living space as individual as the person who held the paintbrush (or at least selected the paint).
Adding color to a story is probably the (seemingly) easiest part of writing. Most beginning writers leap with both feet right into the paint can. Armed with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an army of adjectives and adverbs, the novice writer splashes on the color with abandon.
But colorful writing is more than sprinkling a story with descriptive words. It includes flourishes that give it a life and a voice. Good writers use a toolbox of devices for decorating their world, including similes and metaphors, allusions, analogies, alliterations and imagery.
Jessica Morrell, on the topic of imagery, says, “Images are…word pictures that grant power and richness by involving the reader’s senses… use imagery to engage his imagination, allowing him to bring his own understanding into a scene.” She uses a quote from Homer's Iliad as an example of this. Homer wrote, "Grey-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing o'er the wine-dark sea." How easily Homer could have written "a west wind began to blow." Ms. Morrell says, "...without the imagery, the idea doesn't connect as firmly or beautifully in the reader's mind."
A word of caution about adding color to your writing - beware of bloated language. Like a room with too many colors and patterns, a story with too many frilly words and showy descriptions will cause readers to flee.
Like renovating a kitchen, writing a story involves a step-by-step process. Thankfully, unlike renovating, writing doesn’t necessarily have to follow the steps in a certain order. Go ahead and splash on the color if that’s what occurs to you first, but don’t forget the texture and the primer. In the end, you’ll have a world in which readers will wish to linger, much like my new kitchen. Come on over for a cup of coffee and stay awhile.