So I was walking down a back street in Southside Richmond the other morning when I came across an obvious party spot. A still-smoldering fire in a burnt-out trash can was surrounded by broken bottles and other recreational paraphernalia from the night before. As I walked by, the rising sun transformed the glass on the ground from shades of dirty brown and green to brilliant points of light, sparkling diamonds in the rough, so to speak.
I was transfixed by this unexpected flash of beauty in a forlorn, deserted part of town. Having been an amateur photographer for years, my mind immediately began composing the shot. How much time did I have before the light turned? What was the best angle and exposure to capture these stars in their transitory brilliance? How much background did I want? Did I want to focus exclusively on the pieces of glass, or did I want some sort of contrast with the bleak landscape behind?
Now they say that the human mind can only hold one thought at a time, but I’m not so sure that’s true. As the photographer part of my brain was framing the shot, the writer part started pushing its way in. Something about the diamond-like pieces of broken glass on the side of this deserted city street made me think of Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. Beauty emerging amidst suffering and hardship, made all the more tragic by the contrast with its surroundings. You know, stuff like that. I figured there had to be a node in there somewhere.
As these two sides wrestled for processing time in my head, a thought occurred to me. Are these two means of expression, photography and writing, so very different? Do the lessons learned in photography, a visual art form, have anything to teach the writer who, after all, paints pictures as well, only with words rather than pixels? Can the writer learn anything from some of the basic rules of photographic composition?
- Fill the Frame: One of the most fundamental rules in photography is to fill the frame with the active elements of your composition. If you’re taking a picture of a deep, red, velvety rose, get in there to make the texture and color come alive. If you’re taking a picture of a little boy playing with a ball, you need to get up close to make that smile and laughter stand out (Yes, you can take a picture of laughter, just like you can write the sound of rain falling or sing the smell of spring in the air).
This doesn’t mean you can’t have borders or space in your picture, just that you need to make those borders and open spaces work for you if you're going to take the best picture possible. If you’re taking a picture of a cowboy riding off into the sunset on the open prairie, for example, the sky above and the grass below –- even large expanses of them -- are an essential element of your shot. But if you leave a lot of dead space around your subject –- elements that add nothing to your composition -– you’re just taking a snapshot.
The same principle applies to writing. Filling the frame as a writer means getting rid of extraneous elements. Dead weight. That five-page description of your main character’s childhood might be useful for your own understanding of him, but it may be unnecessary, even counterproductive, for the presentation to your reader. That little sidestory between two of your minor characters might be funny as hell, but it’s got to go if it doesn’t move the main story forward. For the factual among you, that long discourse on antiquated Napoleonic tactics might be interesting and accurate, but it probably has no place in a short article on the Battle of Gettysburg.
Filling the frame as a writer also means knowing when to start and when to stop. If my memory serves me correctly, iceowl put it really well some time ago in a discussion of an e2 fiction quest. He said that most, if not all, of the submissions would have been improved by simply cutting off the first two paragraphs. This is a common mistake, with writers of fiction and non-fiction alike, because the writer has to know more of the story than he tells. Indeed, you might even say that the essence of writing, as with Michaelangelo’s sculpting, is in first seeing the work of art inside, then brushing away the extra bits. Knowing when to stop is equally important. Even well-known classics can drone on for page after page, leaving the climax of the novel a distant memory. Such excess verbiage is simply the writer’s ego, and needs to go.< /li>
Move from the middle: Another important rule in composition is to move your subject away from the middle of the frame. A centered subject staring directly back at the camera while standing in front of a distant or nondescript background is the classic snapshot pose. Static, motionless, boring. Moving the subject off-center, often according to the rule of thirds, is a quick and easy way to add some motion and life to your picture. Never heard of the rule of thirds? Well, here it is in short form.
Imagine the rectangular frame of a camera. Now imagine lines cutting it into thirds both horizontally and vertically, kind of like an elongated tic-tac-toe board. These four lines form a grid, with four intersecting points surrounding the center of the frame. These four points, in turn, are compositional “power points,” good places to move your subject off-center while still keeping the composition balanced overall.
While a photographer can only simulate motion through the placement of objects in a static, two-dimensional picture, a writer has the luxury of an added dimension, namely the passage of time from the beginning to the end of a piece. The “move from the middle” principle still applies, though, albeit in a slightly different way. Instead of moving an object away from the static center of a picture, the writer needs to move the “main stuff” of his writing, whether it be factual content or plot action, away from a flat-line, droning monologue. I personally think of it in terms of an EKG for writing. If it’s flat, monotonous, and unchanging, the writing is dead.
Capture what captures you: This isn’t a rule commonly found in “how to” articles on photography. I learned it from the friend who first taught me to take pictures years ago. Back then, we would take his wooden 4x5 field camera, complete with bellows and glass plate, up to Skyline Drive to capture the light of sunset or early morning. We never had any particular subjects in mind. We’d just shoot what struck us. Whenever I would point out something I thought would make a good shot, he'd help me try to figure out the best way to set it up.
This was the advice he gave me. Instead of taking your subject at face value, he said, take a good, close look at whatever attracted your attention in the first place. Try to isolate and understand it, distill it to its essential elements, or even better, element. An example that comes readily to mind is a tree we came across some years ago. Something about the bark of this particular tree caught my eye, so the two of us set out to figure out why.
When we looked more closely, we saw that the deep grooves in the tree bark created a striking criss-cross pattern. The light gray bark contrasted sharply with its own deep, shadowed grooves as well as the bright blue sky behind. The effect was only heightened, as it were, by the size of the tree itself, at least 50 to 60 feet high.
To capture the effect, I brought the camera in low, for the height of the tree, and close, to emphasize the pattern in the bark. Underexposure ensured that the contrast between light and dark would translate to film, while a polarized lens made the blue sky really pop. Result? What I got wasn't simply a photo of a tree. It was an expression of its visual impact.
This powerful lesson applies directly to writing, as well. How so? Well, what it teaches us is that we, as writers, should write about topics that interest us, that grab us, that set our imagination afire. Write what you know? Sure. I mean you can't pass along what you haven't got, right? But it goes further.
Write what you know that captures you. Here, the writer has an advantage. Unlike the photographer, who must rely on technical solutions to achieve the desired effect, the writer need merely select a topic that captures him. The rest will come, for if he does this, his own imagination will do the rest, laying at his doorstep livelier prose, more vivid images, and more inspired characters and dialogue.
Because that is what we're talking about, after all. Inspiration. Anything less is just a Wikipedia article.
Change perspective: One of the basic rules of photography teaches us that the photographer should explore and consider all possible views of his subject before setting up his shot. A photograph is, in essence, a story of the relationship between the photographer and his subject. As the photographer changes that relationship, whether it be by changing the time of day, the lighting, or his own physical position, he changes the photograph. By carefully evaluating and selecting each of these elements, he works towards his goal.
In the example above, I spoke of moving closer to the tree. This brought the pattern of the bark to life by making it a bigger element of the picture. I spoke too of moving low on the tree and raising the angle of the shot. This emphasized the height of the tree, yielding a much different effect than a straight-on shot. Changing the perspective on this way can add interest and action to a shot. Ignoring it can leave you with a dull, lifeless picture.
This principle applies equally well to writing. When a writer writes, he is by necessity making a choice of what to disclose and, perhaps more importantly, what not to disclose. Either way, the writer is making a presentation, factual, fictional, or otherwise, of a certain subject from a certain perspective.
We most often think of this in terms of fiction. When a writer envisions, and then tells, a story he begins by choosing a particular perspective. First person? Third person? Which third person? Sometimes this is a mundane question, glossed over quickly in Beginning Writing 101. Sometimes the choice can fundamentally alter a story, as in the case of Updike’s Roger’s Version, a retelling of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter from the point of view of the cuckold husband. Choice of perspective makes a difference in non-fiction writing, as well, albeit to a lesser extent. The presentation of a subject, be it historical, scientific, or what have you, from a perspective not previously considered can make all the difference.
Know your equipment: The photographer has to know his equipment, no question. If he’s carefully framing a still life shot, he needs to know his film type and speed, the quality and focal length of his lens, and the impact his choice of f-stop and shutter speed will have on the end result. If he’s shooting action shots, he needs to know this information by heart. He can’t afford to be fumbling around with his equipment while that beautiful smile fades from the face of his two-year old child, or that touchdown pass is hauled in and the players fall into a less than photogenic pile at the back of the end zone.
The writer’s equipment is his command of vocabulary, syntax, sentence structure, and style. He needs to know these, deep down in his gut, so that he can bring to bear the right words in the right place at the right time. The writer who is forced to wrestle with his technical writing while sifting through the creative process of his ideas at the same time is at a handicap, as the effort spent trying to force words to the page will necessarily detract from his ability fully to understand and to capture the thoughts he is trying to express.
How best to attain this command of one’s writing equipment? Well, practice helps. Write, and write often. Read, and read often. And read different writers, with different styles. Do not do this literally to adopt the styles you read, but instead to let the mixture of writing styles and ideas come together in your own creative spirit to create your own distinctive style, one upon which you can call at will to convey the thoughts from within your own mind onto the page, and thence into your readers’ thoughts.