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Craft broadly, not minutely

July 10, 2008

One of the fundamental principles that is so hard to learn is the idea of thinking broadly, seeing large, simplifying your creative problem, be it a story, a painting, an animation performance, or a storyboard.

What will draw the audience will be well crafted larger strokes and elements, rather than the minute details and cookies that tend to bog us down as creators. If the larger elements are not strong, no amount of ‘detailitis’ will save the thing. If the overall conception and design of the larger shapes of a painting are haphazard, no amount of brushwork finesse will save the painting. If your animation performance does not have simple, clear strong poses with a simple and appropriate cadence of timing in the large chunks, no amount of facial animation or finger movements will save it — no matter how clever.

I was reminded of this skimming through Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’. King was making the point that the focus of a writers craftsmanship must be in the larger story, conflict and drama — not in the careful crafting of the words. Reading audiences today have little patience for an abundance of descriptive and cute adjectives and adverbs. Writers have to cut the superfluous. And this will not only make writer easier to read, it will push the author to think about more important things. Writing craftsmanship isn’t going to make the sale or endear an audience. The big idea is what is needed. The only job of the writer is not to botch the big idea. He doesn’t have to try to be a clever wordsmith.

After reading King I about fell out of my seat. I was really surprised to hear an author talk that way. One of the reasons I don’t read fiction is that it’s so painful to get through. Reading fiction for me is like trying to take a nice jog through a 4 foot deep pool of water. It’s infuriating — and the more flowery the more nauseating.

I read screenplays. That’s the only way I can get into fiction. The screenplay forces brevity, and forces you to describe only those things that would hinder the readers understanding of the story if they were left out. The screenplay is also written with the understanding that other creative people will be taking that story and crafting it according to their own vision, such as the director and production designer.

And that’s how I think fiction should be written. Far too much fiction takes the guesswork out. The audience is robbed of being able to use their imagination to make it their own. Who cares if the table is made of cherry wood if it has no bearing on the story. Why can’t I imagine the table as being maple?

Give me a digital book reader that has a ‘Remove all adjectives and adverbs’ button and then I’ll give fiction a try.

Another article I read made the same point King did, and the writer pointed to John Grisham as not being a writer with very strong word craftsmanship. Yet, as we all know, he’s one of the most popular authors today. He’s an A#1 storyteller.

And that’s what it comes down to. Be a good storyteller. Know your craft well enough so that it doesn’t draw attention to itself in an awkward, amateur manner, but then forget about it and focus on telling good stories, giving good performances, and creating pictures that have impact. And the only way to do that is to craft broadly, and keep the minutiae from getting in the way.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2008 12:12 am

    “Be a good storyteller” What a simple yet profound statement. I might have to post that on my desktop. I agree that the excessive use of adjectives can actually deter from keeping the story straight forward and readable. A well formed metaphor can impress me, but not so much the method of simply playing out a story.
    Good post!

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