Drawing Inspiration from Artistic Mediums
Guest Post by Susanna Skarland
I am always on the lookout for ways to improve my writing craft, and lately this journey has led me across the artistic divide, venturing into other mediums—movies, poetry, music, and painting. Surprisingly, there is much to be learned from these that can be translated into writing craft. In using successful techniques from other mediums, we can infuse our writing with more depth and let our art bloom.
One obvious place to look for inspiration is within television and movies, which are good for examining plot, character, and theme with minimal time investment. Game of Thrones (GOT) came to my rescue when I was having trouble blocking the action of a middle grade food fight scene. I felt lost trying to manage the large group of characters, who were all in motion, and I needed a strategy to make sure that the reader could follow the action and still care. The GOT technique for blocking battle scenes kept the camera trained in on the main character as they moved through the chaos and emphasized how the protagonist interacted with the primary antagonist. By focusing on one or two characters, the viewer remained invested on a personal and emotional level despite the large scope of the battle.
Poetry condenses the written story down to a core emotion—like condensed milk, sweet on words and rhythms and fat on emotion.
Like movies, poetry is a close relative to the novel, simply bending in the opposite direction. While movies use audio/visual to expand the story, poetry condenses the written story down to a core emotion—like condensed milk, sweet on words and rhythms and fat on emotion. Borrowing from poetry can mean reviewing your word choices and phrases, paying special attention to verbs and diction. It can mean reading your manuscript aloud to catch rhythms with your ears, discovering where your prose sings or stumbles. It can mean showing your character speaking gracefully by using graceful rhythms and language. In a word—prosody.
A form of prosody, called “word painting,” is also found within music theory. The technique involves pairing the words and tones of a song, such as singing a high note on the word “up” or “high,” and singing a low note with the word “low.” A great example of this is in the first verse of the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen where the words about minor and major chords falling and lifting match the underlying chord transitions in the music. In a novel, this can mean setting off a bang! with onomatopoeia. It can mean slowing time while meandering through a long sentence. It can mean punctuating shortness of breath with short sentence fragments. Play with your tones.
Think about what order the reader’s eye encounters the images and present them with intention.
But what can we glean from the static visual arts like painting? For me, it’s all about the setting. When describing a room, setting, or person, think about what order the reader’s eye encounters the images and present them with intention—from big to small, from bright to dark, from near to far, from head to toe—whichever flow pattern makes the most sense for the scene, and land the description on the focal point. Think about near and far. Foreground, midground, and background. Items that are closer to the viewer/POV character will show more detail than things far away. Think about light and shadow. Light brings height, and shadows add depth, adding 3-dimensionality. Think about sight lines.
As with all these techniques, the reader may not notice them on a conscious level. And they shouldn’t. The techniques are simply ways the author can manipulate their prose to help obtain a desired emotional effect from the reader, same as do actors, poets, musicians, and painters.