Seeing, storytelling, and a really cool book
It occurred to me recently that one of the ingredients in a writer’s style is the way they see the story in their mind’s eye. Whatever point of view (first person, third person etc) they adopt focuses a reader’s attention on certain elements of the story, while turning it gaze away from other areas. In addition to writing I am a photographer, and it seems to me that there are parallels between these two arts. Photography is the art of writing with light, where a writer illuminates their world with words. Not all of what is seen through the camera lens is in focus, it is our job to draw attention on what is important. We may step back and use a wide-angle to show the bigger picture, or use a telephoto to portray a more intimate image of a person, object or place. We cannot do all of these at once. This combination of exploring and selective focus makes the story, and if you pay close attention you will find that our interaction with the world is much the same, what we see, how we see it, what we see only at a distance, choose not to see or miss on the periphery of our imperfect vision.
Applying this idea to writing style it becomes clear that writers see their worlds very differently to each other, and to you or I. At one end of the scale we have writers like Michael Moorcock. The Elric novels are so short! Our attention is drawn to what is most essential in any scene, with little description given over to mundane artifacts, places or other less important things. It is for the reader to fill in the blanks, and you know what? The imagination does exactly that, creating our own picture of his fantasy worlds. On the other side of the scale are writers who description and appreciation of detail are a master-class in observation. Nuances of characters, places and turn of events so subtle that I feel I must walk around with my eyes shut to not see the world in the same way.
Where we sit on this scale as readers is very much personal preference. My inclination as both reader and writer is to skip a bit of detail to keep the plot flowing quickly, yet there are compromises that are made whichever way we turn. This week I just finished reading the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and he has given me cause to look again at how I write. It’s a rare book which achieves that. This isn’t a review of his book (though perhaps I will write one at some point) but I will share with you my overall impression. It’s a unique fantasy novel, the pace of which is slower than I am accustomed to, but like any journey the slower you go the more you notice along the way. His writer’s gaze hovers so close to his main character Kvothe that a reader walks virtually in-step beside him in this first-person intimate portrayal. Supporting Characters are so real you can touch them, they have a zen-like imperfect beauty which I can’t say I have ever experienced in any other novel. Put simply, it’s brilliant.
What does all of this mean? Speaking personally, I guess it encourages a stronger self-awareness of what I draw a reader’s attention to, always asking myself why am I doing that? Does this best illustrate what I have to say, and portray the story the way I want it to be told? Have I omitted something important? Or shown this character’s back story sufficiently for readers to appreciate his part in the big picture? During the rewriting process, a writer needs to look at each scene and weigh it against their vision of the whole story. It has prompted me to remove redundant scenes, reshape others, or extend some, where like Kvothe we must walk closely side by side with a character to fully appreciate the power of the story to follow. The Name of the Wind has encouraged me to rethink my habitual focus on the epic events, the big story. I could be on my way to thinking that intimate is the new epic.
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