Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's Not Always in the Details

Post by Kerrie Flanagan

A few weeks back, during a NCW workshop called, Art Inspired Writing, the other participants and I had a chance to talk with artist Jim Fronapfel about his artwork that was hanging up in the NCW Studio. I was fascinated by the correlations between creating a painting and writing a story.

One component that struck a chord with me was when he talked about adding details to his paintings. He said sometimes too much detail takes away from a painting, causing it to lose its impact. He showed us this piece that he had recently finished.

As you can see, there is no detailed background, not many colors, some of the lines and edges are blurred, yet it is a stunning piece of artwork. Our eyes are drawn to this mother and daughter. We are intrigued by their posture and we wonder what they are looking at. More detail would have been distracting.

The same thing can happen in our writing. Too often we think that the more detail we add, the more clear our writing will be to the reader. Not true. Sometimes too much detail can cloud what we are trying to convey and it can slow down the pace of our story.

For example:

Josh extended his arm in front of him and reached for the door handle. He grabbed the cold, brass-colored knob and quickly turned it to the right. He pulled the door open and crossed the threshold. Anger raged inside him and he was going to let them know just how much. He grabbed the knob again and pulled hard on it, causing the door to slam as he walked away. 

Instead, how about:  Josh stormed out, slamming the door behind him. 

I know this is an exaggerated example, but the point is, as writers we do this all the time. We go overboard providing too much back story or or too much description of the setting or spend too much time telling the reader what our character looks like. We basically bog the reader down with extraneous details that do nothing to move our story along.

I know it isn't always easy, but we need to tighten our writing and take Jim's lead who shows us that less can be so much more.


Dean K Miller said...

Such sage advice which at times is hard to stay with as we are constantly instructed: "Show, don't tell". So to show what's happening I load up on details/extras to make sure the picture is clear.

But a few blurry edges and soft contours, just like a painting, focuses the reader where it needs to be.

A great interpretation of transitional creativity between two different art forms.

Deborah said...

Some of the same correlations can be made with photography as well. Depth of field is used to help isolate the subject from the background if you want the subject to be the main focus of the picture and you don't want it getting lost in the surrounding details. Sometimes less is more, no matter the field of endeavor.

Kay Theodoratus said...

I think you just emphasized that writers shouldn't "walk their characters to the action". The reader can supply the linking details on their own.

April Moore said...

Absolutely! I think there can be a fine line between too much detail and not enough--and that is a big challenge we all face as writers. Be tight and concise without leaving the reader wondering what's happening. Great post! I think we should have Jim pointed out so many correlations between art and writing.

Andrea Mack said...

Great post! This is so true. I think it's really important to find one or two key details to show, and then let the reader have space to imagine and construct more in their own mind.

Jenny said...

Great post, Kerrie.

T.A. Northburg said...

Thanks for the great reminder! I need to keep this in mind. It is the balance of knowing when to write in detail and when to keep it simple. Practice makes perfect! (And a whole lot of editing!)

Kerrie said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and your great comments. Dean I love what you said here, "a few blurry edges and soft contours, just like a painting, focuses the reader where it needs to be."

Edna said...

Excellent post. April, I agree with you.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Kerrie.

Chuck said...

Ummmm.... I'm not sure your example is all THAT exaggerated. Maybe you could just shorten it a little ;). Beautiful painting. Wish I had been there for the class.

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