The Creative Cousins of Writing

I have a little stack of DVDs and art books on my writing desk, right next to my pile of novels. There are always at least five browser tabs open at any given time. Pinterest, DeviantArt, and are usually three of those five. This is great evidence, by the way, of my scatterbrained nature. Let’s say I’m having a bad writing day—in desperation, I’m probably going to leave my writing and surf Pinterest, or reach for Finding Nemo and let Pixar take my worries off to the Great Barrier Reef and enroll me in coral reef school. But I like to keep visual art within arms-reach not because it distracts. (Okay, not always.) I have them there because I find myself turning to their stories for help.

It goes without saying that, as writers, we hone our craft by studying others’ writing. This is a must, and non-negotiable. But writing has many creative cousins.

One of those cousins is art.

The story in art is told in a drastically different way than the story in writing. Writing creates a story, an entire world of moving pictures, by using nothing but magical black symbols on white paper. Art tells story by using everything except words. They are on opposite sides of the looking glass—and sometimes, in pursuit of story, I have to switch sides.

In the game Journey , for example, colors alone can tell the character’s arc: the mystery of endless golden sands; the joy of a glittering red sunset; the terror of dim blue against black; the despair of cold, green-tinted white; the triumph of brilliant, clean, blue-tinted white; the awe of white mist. Not a word is spoken anywhere in the game.


Journey belongs to That Game Company. I recommend the game and the art book.

Looking at story in art forces us to veer from the writing questions we’re familiar with (What is your character feeling? What’s at stake? Where’s the tension?) to seemingly irrelevant questions like: What is the color and layout here? When your character walks into a great hall, is the light cold and blue, or warm and inviting? Does that reflect the character’s mood? Do we see the scene from above, so your character looks tiny and helpless framed against soaring windows, or do we see it from below, so your character stands tall even in such an intimidating room? Do we zoom in on your character’s face, or torso? Which one is more interesting? Do your character’s arms swing confidently, or are his shoulders hunched in an attempt to protect himself? Can you truly picture this scene?

This is a power unique to artwork: in one simple screen, a skilled artist can tell us everything we need to know. She can weave a story without a single word. Like a great book, everything in a great piece of art is in there for a reason, and that reason is to tell a story.

Sometimes, when I’m deep in first draft mode or in a heavy bout of revisions, I feel myself getting lazy. My scenes become an endless stretch of “she rolled her eyes,” “he looked sad,” “he said sadly/wistfully/cheerfully/angrily/grimly,” or “he gave her a crooked smile,” “she blushed,” and so on. You know. The easy phrases in order to keep chugging along. There’s nothing specifically wrong with doing this, except that, when done too much, it’s not terribly interesting.

On one particular round of revisions for Prodigy (Legend #2), my editor put a stop to that. “You write here that ‘he has a tragic expression’,” she said. “But what is that?”

In other words, what is he doing? Are his shoulders drooping? Are there lines on his face? Is he leaning against the wall? Rubbing a hand across his face? Is the tragedy despair? Wistfulness? Longing? Depression? Like Jon Snow, does he look exactly the same every time something tragic happens—or do I need to step out of my easy phrase, ‘he has a tragic expression’?

Because this tragic expression…


Art by OmeN2501

…tells a different story than this one:


Screencap from Pixar’s Up

To force myself out of my lazy zone, I stepped away from writing and turned to art. Here was my writing exercise: translate the story in art into a story in writing.

To this day, Image #1 haunts me. Just look at all the storytelling going on in here! Who is this girl, and what happened to her? She’s forever suspended in this moment of desperate, mysterious tragedy, her bright yellow raincoat separating her from the darkness, the color confusing us because it’s innocent and happy—a jarring image against the pulled grenade in her hands. I could say: “She wore a tragic expression on her face.” Or, I could say that her face tells us she’s reached the end. Nowhere left to go. She’s no hardened criminal, but somehow she has found her way here. At first glance, her hands seem held up in a gesture of surrender, but upon closer inspection, the gesture is one of warning. We’re not quite sure what to do, so we continue to stand back, threatened but not willing—at least, not yet—to risk opening fire.

Carl, too, wears a tragic expression in Image #2, but that description’s not enough. He has surrounded himself with colors, but the colors are muted because none of them seem to matter. His face stays gray and lined; it is the resigned look of having once had the most wonderful thing in your life, then having to give it back. And yet, still—even now, seated on the stairs of the altar with his hand on his knee, the lines of his shoulders drooping, he holds on, the grimness of his face contrasted with his tight grip on a blue balloon. He’s not quite ready to let go.

There are a thousand ways these two images could be better described in the hands of a more skilled writer. I’m also not saying that one needs to write a paragraph every time a character looks sad. Still, there’s something stimulating about switching gears from the world of words to break down storytelling outside of my familiar realm, especially when the familiar realm starts to make me lazy.

Hidden within art and all of writing’s other creative cousins—music, food, fashion, animation, and so on—-is the glue that binds all of these mediums together: story. Music has natural “plot arcs” built into its harmonies. Fashion is more than pretty clothes. (Alexander McQueen said of his collection The Girl Who Lived In The Tree : “In this collection, she was a feral creature living in a tree, and when she decided to descend to earth, she was transformed into a princess.”) It’s no coincidence that many writers make playlists associated with their stories or create Pinterest boards full of visual inspirations. If your character were a song, what would she be? What changes about your character’s story if she is wearing the rags of a pauper, or wearing a ragged gown that was once luxurious? What is her gown embroidered with? Is it thread from a foreign land? An enemy’s crest?

Search deeply, every now and then, for those stories told without words. They may help you breathe new life into your writing.


11 Responses to The Creative Cousins of Writing

  1. Julie Eshbaugh Aug 16 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    This post is full of such great advice, Marie! I love your recommendation to turn off the standard questions and to think about things like color and layout. I think if we force ourselves to really see our scenes, we might find it easier to turn off those easy phrases. I mean, we all know what emotion is associated with an eye roll, and saying “she rolled her eyes” is like shorthand for that emotion, but that emotion can be pinpointed so much more precisely. As someone who struggles to stay away from “she rolled her eyes” and “he gave her a crooked smile,” I really appreciate these ideas for approaching the writing in a fresh way. 🙂

    • Marie Lu Aug 16 2013 at 7:56 pm #

      Thanks so much, Julie! I’m in one of those lazy phases right now, haha.

  2. Aneeqah Aug 17 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    I don’t normally comment a lot on this lovely blog here, but I felt the need to say something about this post.

    I don’t know what, but something just clicked with me here.

    I’ve never tried looking at things from this way, and it has changed so much of my point of view towards writing. I mean… just wow. I’m too speechless to say anything right now, really.

    Bookmarking this one. I know I’ll be back to reread this a lot.

    Thanks, Marie. <3

    • Marie Lu Aug 18 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      Wow, thanks so much, Aneeqah! I’m thrilled that this post has been of some help. <3

  3. Alexa Y. Aug 18 2013 at 7:00 am #

    I am truly stunned by this post! It’s always been true that writing is related to other creative endeavours, like art and music, and I love that you were able to simply, but wonderfully show how you connect them together. Great post!

    • Marie Lu Aug 18 2013 at 1:11 pm #

      Thank you, Alexa! So glad that you enjoyed the post!

  4. Jessie Humphries Aug 18 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I’ve really got to get my Pinterest boards going again. This post has inspired me in so many ways!

    • Marie Lu Aug 18 2013 at 1:11 pm #

      Man, I am so horribly addicted to Pinterest–so many lovely images. 🙂 Thank you!

  5. SBibb Aug 18 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    Wonderful post, thank you. The examples you gave really illustrated (pardon the pun) how to show the emotion without resorting to overdone phrases (a problem I’m having when writing and editing a manuscript). The picture of the woman in the yellow jacket is one I’ve always been fond of, so it’s interesting to see how it can be described within the context of story writing.

  6. Joni Aug 22 2013 at 9:00 am #

    I ADORE this post. More than enjoying writing and reading I have always loved Story. Like you said beautifully in this post, it can come in all kinds of mediums. (And switching from one form to another when I get in a funk has helped me, too.)
    The idea of mixing them has always been intriguing to me as well. Sure, with graphic novels you get the writing and the art, but maybe even something more than that? With the rise of ebooks, some more artistic expression has come out in moving-covers or even moving-illustrations/animations. I’m curious to see what other artist-expressions will come together to tell a Story.
    I love your Legend art, by the way… Seeing the author’s vision through other “creative cousins” is always interesting and I think it helps the readers understand the tone of the Story even more. ^.^

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