Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Paint a Picture

Reading is like 5D-cinema - with the difference, that the reader does the biggest part of the work. The only thing he needs is a small impulse - a picture drawn in his head.

This is, where the wheat separates from the chaff. It is part of the craft to paint a picture into the head of a reader, but it is an art to paint it in a way that it becomes alive and accompanies the reader through the book and even after he read it.

I am currently reading "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, where he describes this scene when they travel up the river.

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances."

Can you see it too, the dark and daunting rain forest, the turbid river? Can you also see the rotten boat, the silent crew staring with empty at the green wall of slow passing trees and the underlying despair? I can. But how did he do it? 

First, let me take a step back. What do these sentences have in common:
"He entered the room."
"She walked down the alley."

In both instances, the places are blank. We only know that it is a room and not a hall or a closet something else and maybe we know out of the story if this is in a castle or a space station. But other than that, the room is blank. The same with the alley, it is not an avenue or a trail. The rest of the picture is blank. This is too much of a white page for most of the readers to fill with his imagination, just as it is too much for many people to imagine a sculpture in a block of marble. 

Don't get me wrong, this might be intentional. You might not want to interrupt the action or you might want to put more emphasize on the character's thoughts or a conversation he/she is having. Similar to the first lines in Ender's Game - without being given any details about the room, the conversation receives much more weight. However, in most cases you need to fill the blank space in order to create a living picture. But don't overdo it - too much description drags the readers attention away from the plot and works against the most powerful weapon of a book: The reader's imagination. You only need to give the reader a jump start and he will fill the room with his imagination. But how?

Let's take a little example. If you enter a living room, you immediately get a sense of the room which tells you something about the person that lives there. Is it a family with or without kids, a single, do they have pets? Is it an artsy or book lover? Are they young or elderly? Sometimes it is one item or a smell and sometimes it is the pictures in its completeness of all items. In any case you only need to give the reader one or two characteristic pieces and the reader does the rest, but the piece have to nail it.

Back to our examples:
"He entered the room. His eyes needed some time to adjust to the dim light. After a moment he was able to see the miserable furniture. The stuffy air made the room appear even smaller than it were."

"She walked down the alley beneath the infinite number of clotheslines hung from balcony to balcony providing a nice shade from the hot sun. The smells out of the open doors reminded her of her grandmother's pasta arrabiata and made her hungry."

See how the picture came to live? I just added a little something and your mind did the rest. The same is true for Joseph Conrad scene above. The key sentence for me is "There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine", this part gives me the depressing feeling. Now, imagine this picture as a starting point for a series of scenes - as a reader you will see the every following scene in the shade of this picture.

Happy painting
Your writer in a foreign land

No comments:

Post a Comment