Tag Archives: Storytelling

Painting Pictures With Words

This is a new thing for me. What I mean when I say a “new thing” is writing a blog post without using any inline images. Normally, I will break up a post here and there with either an image or a video or possibly some text formatting in order to give the piece a bit of shape.

Not today.

I’m taking a bit of risk with this. I get some fairly decent traffic, but it’s still not enough to make a living on, so the desire for me to pretty this up with flashy images is high. I’m a writer, though, and pictures, for the most part, are not part of my standard operating procedures.

There’s the old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and it’s true. In fact, in 2011 I started a project where I would post a picture and people would submit a 100-word paragraph to me about it and I would stitch ten of them together to make a thousand-word essay about it. It was a cool exercise and it helped me get a sense of what words come to people’s minds when they see an image. I found this quite relevant seeing that, as a writer, I’m responsible for performing that same act—only in reverse.

It’s not an easy task.

Certainly, there are other ways to consume the written word besides reading them. There are many folks who enjoy audiobooks, many more still who listen to podcasts (which are just people speaking words), and there are even those who use braille, which for me represents the holy grail of users who provide feedback. You see, the world is dominated by the sighted. Just about every interaction we have involves a visual component. We even use phrases like, “See it in your mind.” Well, what about those who have never seen anything? How would my work resonate with them? Would it resonate at all?

I don’t have any of my work translated into braille (that I am aware of) but I would like to see how that works out one of these days. For now, I’ve decided that a decent half-measure would be to write a post and keep it as simple as I can. Words and characters as they would appear in a novel, with paragraph breaks and sentence length—and strategically placed em dashes—my only tools for altering the visual structure of the piece.

How’m I doing?

A common problem with many writers both new and old… er… experienced, is purple prose. It’s also often referred to as “flowery”. When trying to paint a picture for the reader it’s easy to slip into the habit of tossing in descriptor after descriptor like rice at a wedding (or rice and toast when seeing a performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show).

“The woman glided across the sparkling marble floor, silently, on shimmering blue satin slippers as the brilliant midday sun shone through the only stain glass window in an otherwise gilded ceiling, which reflected the sunlight and sent it dancing throughout the room.”

That might not be the best example, but you get the idea. When you try to dress up your text with a few fancy words, more than a few commas and end up telling the reader more things than you’re showing them then you’ve got an issue. It’s a constant struggle and when I am writing a novel it’s always at the forefront of my mind. If I were to re-write that previous paragraph I’d go with something like this:

“The woman’s slight frame combined with her satin slippers on the marble floor allowed her to move without sound. The midday sun shone through the stained glass window in the ceiling and it warmed her face. There were few shadows but that didn’t mean there weren’t places to hide. She tilted her head using small movements to improve her chances of picking up the sound of anyone lurking unseen in the nooks and crannies of the vast cathedral.”

I think that’s much better. Certainly not award-winning narrative, but you can see the difference, yes? In the second paragraph, we’ve learned much more about the character and the story than in the first one. She’s moving without sound on purpose. We know she’s in a church. We know it’s a bright, sunny day. I don’t know about you but I want to know more. Why is she walking quietly in a seemingly empty cathedral, but concerned that it isn’t empty, in the middle of the day? There’s more to this story and hopefully, it’s written in such a way that the reader will want to find out more.

If they each were the opening paragraph of a book, which one would you be more likely to continue to read? (And no, there isn’t a third choice of “neither”).

The job I’ve committed to is putting together collections of words that don’t paint a picture for the reader but help them paint the picture with me as we move through the piece together. If I feed them too much description then I’m stifling their imagination. I give this advice to other writers about writing sex into non-romance books: Less is more. If you give someone enough to get the idea of what’s happening their mind will fill in the blanks better than any of your words will be able to. But, sex sells, right? Sure it does, but that doesn’t mean you need to spill all the dirty details in order for it to be effective. It doesn’t take much to go from engaging to gratuitous and when that happens you risk losing your reader.

So, it’s a delicate balance that the writer must strike when they sit down at the keyboard and start their journey. I have got to tell you, though, when it works, when you get in that zone and you can close your eyes and let the visions in your head flow through your hands onto the page, there are precious few feelings as good. It’s in those moments you’re most likely to have painted a picture with your words and brought something into the world, not just for people to read, but for people to experience.


Fill In The Blanks

First off, an apology to all four of you that were expecting posts the last couple of weeks. I decided  I would take some mental health time away from blogging. Also, I had exactly zero ideas for posts and was becoming quite frustrated so I decided to do other things.

Anyhow, a few things happened while I was away from the blogosphere but today we’re going to focus on storytelling. I was in a bit of a funk and having a hard time getting words to flow. Call it writer’s block, call it whatever you want. I was stuck and having a hard time getting out. Before you knew it though the day was saved… by none other than Rob Ford.

I know it sounds a little suspect, but it’s true! Before you think I’m just another person jumping on the let’s make fun of Rob Ford bandwagon (I’m not) I have a question:

What do Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, former President Bill Clinton, and former football player O.J. Simpson have in common?

Answer: in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary they all chose to deny, deny, deny… and then admit.

Well, two of the three eventually copped to some reasonable facsimile of the truth. One of those two could very well be in the White House again in a couple years (albeit as the spouse of the President this time) and one could still be Mayor of Toronto in the fall (though still the butt of late night television jokes). The one who is still denying everything? Well he was sued for every penny he had an is now in jail for an “unrelated” conviction.

So what is it about denying something until you’re blue in the face before coming clean at the last second that actually works?

Answer: imagination.

In storytelling you have to lead people down the path but you can’t spoon feed them every detail. If you did there wouldn’t be much of a story, and if there’s one thing we humans love it’s a good story. We also have wonderful imaginations, especially when we’re given just the right amount of information to work with. If you can leave out certain bits and carefully highlight other ones you end up leaving enough room for the reader to fill in the blanks with their own fabulous ideas.

Good stories live inside negative space. 

By constantly denying, what those people are doing is allowing everyone’s individual storytelling machines to work overdrive. At the end of it all they can just stand back and put their arms up and say, “Well look at that, everyone’s got a theory. My ‘theory’ is I’m innocent. [smiles and waves] No further comment.”

After a while, because people have dreamed up such amazing stories to fill the space in between, when the truth does come out (and it always does eventually) it’s really quite an anti-climactic event. We forget all about how incredulous we were back when it all began. The redemption story starts to take hold. Everyone deserves another chance. Blah blah blah. Humans are also suckers for the happy ending. Film has been taking advantage of this for over a century (the finest example I can think of is the film adaptation of Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural”. Watch Robert Redford in the movie and then read the book).

The problem is we live in the real world and not in the pages of a best selling novel or some Hollywood tale. I want real people, especially leaders and role models, to be able to produce a list of end notes and reference checks as long as their arm like you’d have at the end of a research paper. Just as it is with that list, I’m never going to follow up on everything on it, but I’ll feel much but I feel much better knowing it’s there. This way we can spend more of our precious creative time coming up with stories that actually matter.

~ Andrew