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 500px.com 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.
Marie Lu is the author of the New York Times bestselling Legend trilogy. She currently resides in Los Angeles, where she spends her time writing and stuck in traffic.