Friday, March 6, 2009

Observation Exercises

By Josi S. Kilpack

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass."

--Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

My father is a teacher of many things artistic--pottery, jewelry making, drawing, oil painting, sculpting, and photography. It's the photography I want to talk about a little bit, and a specific element of photography that I have never heard anyone talk about but my dad. That could very well be due to the fact that my only photography teacher has been my dad, but still :-)

The element is called 'point', and it's rather hard to describe in technical terms. Whereas line and curve and framing are all fairly easy to explain, point is an element that is best shown:

Pepper on a fried egg
A red tomato set within a basket of green peppers
Three black birds sitting on a power line
The steeple of a church
The star on a Christmas tree
The red ornaments on a Christmas tree
Two glowing green eyes peering between stalks of corn on a moonless night
The slight part of a bride's lips just before the groom kisses her

In photography, point is not the main subject, but it's the detail that draws the eye and is often the difference between a nice photo and a photo that you look at a second time. Imagine something as simple as a photo of a fried egg, what exactly does the pepper do for it?

Adds contrast? Breaks up the solid color?
I like the egg 'show' of what point is because the photo is not of pepper, it's definitely a photo of an egg, but you can't help but notice the pepper when it's there. It draws the eye, and yet does not change the subject of the photo.

In writing, the word 'point' is often thought of as the moral or the plot or the main conflict. I think that works pretty well--in most cases the 'point' is seen as the main event. I can talk to my kids for half an hour and then say "The point is . . ." effectively summing it up. So, there are definitely interpretations of the word. But for right now I want you to ponder the details of your current Work in Progress, viewing 'point' within the photography definition of the element. I want you to back up and look at the 'points' in your writing. What is it that makes your book different than others? Not in overall things, but in the detail. Things like:

The smell of freshly cut grass that clings to his skin
Highly polished loafers that catch the light of the ballroom
A nervous habit of shaking the coins in his pocket
The amber glints in her otherwise green eyes
The fact that there are two different colors of shingles on the house
A doorbell that plays the first measure of Bethoven's fifth symphony
A doorbell that plays nothing at all
The barking dog just after two a.m.

I promise that you have them--or better yet, I sincerely hope you have them. My favorite books always do. And yet sometimes I look at my own writing and find that those details are missing, that I've become so caught up in the 'Point' of my story that I've forgotten the 'point'--which is to make it real. To bring fiction--unreal; completely made up things--to life. I submit that it's those details that are the difference between good books and great books.

Look around you right now, where ever you happen to be and find point--a detail that draws your eye. It won't be your computer or your desk, but something small, something that almost goes unnoticed.

For me, it's the silver lettering on the spine of a book on my desk that reflects the light of my computer; it looks like christmas lights set inside the cover. Or perhaps it's the orange highlighter wedged between a hundred other writing utensils in my pen holder. Maybe it's the sheen of the light that catches the scotch tape holding a quote to the wall above my desk, or the smudge of black on the side of my printer that I've never gotten around to cleaning.

Take a minute and notice the details, the points, around you. Then find a way to show them in words, to create them for your reader. Doing this type of exercise on a regular basis will not only make you more aware of the world around you, but will likely make your readers more aware of the world you create in your book--and that, after all, is really the point, isn't it?


Annette Lyon said...

This is a whole other element to "show not tell"--what a great concept. I've never thought of it that way before, but you're right. My favorite books do have "point" moments that push them to the next level.

Something new to strive for in my own work. Thanks!

Kimberly said...

The publishing of this post could not have been better timed for me. This is one of the ways in which my work in progress is lacking and I feel better prepared for the next round of rewrites. You explained it so beautifully.

Danette said...

I just recently read "On Writing" by Stephen King. The thing that stood out in my mind the most was his 'point' about descriptions. I can still see within the bar the bartenders sleeves rolled up and black hairs covering his arm. (Okay something like that anyway) Stephen King said (in my view)we don't have to describe everything to get the picture to come alive. Just like the pepper on the egg--small but strong contrasts are what stick out in the minds eye.
I really like this post. I just hope I can display some of this technique in my writing. There are so many things to do, like dotting the i's.

hi, it's me! melissa c said...

This is a great post. Love it. The trick is to do it without getting too wordy. How do you know when enough is enough? I guess practice!

Karen Hoover said...

This was awesome. I was reading Inkheart today and the main character noticed the bugs splattered across the windshield when she woke up in the car. I read that and went, hey, that's what Josi was talking about! I totally got it. Thanks for sharing.