The Place of Art in Fiction, Part 1

If story trumps all, why should an author bother with anything else?

I hope I’ve built a good case for the importance of well-developed characters, a textured setting, and a definite theme to go along with a fast-paced, conflict-filled plot. If all of the elements of fiction enhance all the others, then the story becomes captivating, not just “a page turner.”

But one of the articles I read years ago when I was first starting to write fiction—an article in Writers Digest—made the case for the writer paying attention to varied sentence structure, the tone and mood of the work, voice, word choice, etc. Poppy-cock, I thought. No writer could possibly pay attention to ALL those things; they’d be at it for ages.

Now, after working as a writer full time for five years, I decry prose that has little sentence variation, relies on repeated verbs, gives scant attention to word choice, and so on. What’s changed?

For one thing, I’ve read more fiction. I can see how some stories impact me and how others pass me by in a rush, without making a ripple in my emotions, let alone in my thought patterns. Further, I’ve seen my own writing change as I’ve spent time with it. I can see the difference in the prose I wrote that was stocked with adjectives and the prose I work to hammer out now.

One writing instructor, Lauren Kessler makes a case for writing with clarity and precision:

Writing with clarity means using language precisely, succinctly and logically. It means simplicity, order and clear-headedness. It means prose that is easily understood, writing that connects with readers effortlessly—that is, it requires little effort from the reader because it has required much effort from the writer.

Interesting side issue: Should fiction require little effort from the reader?

Kessler goes on to say that writing should also be with style.

Style is the product of purposeful choices, the culmination of many things done well, the result of sheer hard work.

She proceeds to say that style is made up of liveliness, detail, and originality.

Liveliness would be the opposite of “clutter, murky construction and faulty presentation.”

By detail, she means “the controlled, creative use of vivid specifics.”

Originality? She promised another entire article dedicated to the subject.

I suppose the easiest way is to show the difference, though this is, quite frankly, terrifying for me. What if people like the serviceable prose better than the reworked version? YIKES!

Nevertheless, here it is—the opening paragraphs of Return to Efrathah, 2001:

In reality Jim heard the earth give way before he felt anything. It was a ripping, then a rumble, louder than the ocean roar from below. The dirt and rock gathered speed. Spurred by instinct he turned away from the lonely cliff at the first indication of danger. But it was too late. The earth melted beneath him, and he experienced an eerie, roller-coaster-dropping sensation as he began falling. The searing thought flashed across his mind, “I’m gonna die!”

In a frantic effort to catch himself, he grabbed at everything within reach, but his grasp closed only on brittle, mottled shale that pierced him and tore at his flesh. In seconds his large, normally strong, hands were raw and bleeding.

How could he stop his fall toward death? In desperation he tried to dig the toe of his good leg into the side of the cliff. Summoning all his strength, he pressed his foot against the jagged, stony precipice. He ignored the sharp rock that bit into his black high-top athletic shoe and pierced his foot; he disregarded the violent snap of his ankle. He knew only that he was still falling.

That beginning is now several pages into the story and looks like this:

A low rumble reverberated from below. His eyes widened.

The ground quivered. He hobbled back a step.

The vibrations increased. Thunder swelled around him. He pivoted from the edge of the cliff. But the earth crumbled away.

He slid downward. His stomach vaulted into his throat.

Rocks and dirt tumbled past him toward the waves.

He flailed at anything within reach. His fingers closed on brittle shale. The rock tore at his flesh, then splintered from the cliff.

He dug the toe of his good leg into the side of the bluff. The shale bit into his black high-top. His ankle snapped. And he was still falling.

Not the best example of varied sentence structure because this is an action scene. But there’s a point right there. Now in my writing, action scenes have a distinctive feel, unlike other types of scenes.

Whether or not I achieved “style” is a moot point, however. What I’m getting at is, should “style” be what writers aim for? Does art in fiction matter, since story trumps all? And if so, why?

Published in: on August 7, 2007 at 1:28 pm  Comments (13)  

13 Comments

  1. I think art always matters. The problem is that art is often subjective.

    For me, one thing trumps all others. The storyteller.

    Some people just have a natural ability to tell stories. They know where to begin the story, where to speed up the tension, where to dwell on emotion, where to lavish in the details. I will stick with a good storyteller, even if some of the writing isn’t perfect. If the writing is stellar, and the person is a great storyteller, then I will buy the next book.

    I think writing and structure and plot can all be taught. But the gift of storytelling is really difficult to learn. Reading is probably the best way to pick it up.

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  2. I think art matters because beauty matters. It’s part of the way God created our souls, and part of His nature, as well. In Genesis He created trees that were “pleasing to the eye as well as good for fruit.” Why? He could have made utilitarian black boxes that produce nutrition as needed. Instead he created a vast variety of kinds of trees, with all shadings of colors and shapes, leaves and flower… maples that rustle musically in the wind, and willows that droop winsomely over ponds, pines that catch snow on their dark leaves, and apple trees that explode in floral blossoms before they even think about giving us fruit to eat.

    I rejoice when authors take the time to use words like music, to craft beauty. Writing can go beyond being utilitarian – just as God chooses to provide for us in ways that are far beyond simply practical. “Pleasing to the eye, as well as good for fruit.”

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  3. um… that should be “pines that catch snow on their dark needles…” not leaves. That’s what I get for waxing poetic early in the morning. I better go eat some breakfast.

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  4. I agree with Merrie that art is always subjective, which is why I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. As a writer, I try to come up with a story that I would enjoy reading. If someone else finds it worthy to be called art, then I would thank God for blessing it in that way.

    When I look at paintings, I have a simple rule for judging artistic value: If I can reproduce it, it’s not art. Monet masterwork? Art. Vertical blue line on white canvas? Not art. This probably goes for my writing as well. 😉

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  5. Coming from a background as a fine artist, I love debating art. I love all of its qualities, those on the surface and the hidden, deeper meanings.

    I love Sharon’s post, and I love Mark’s post, as well.

    To me, art is like a prism. It changes color and reflects light as you turn it. Six different people in the same room would describe the color and light in a different way. Each one of them would be correct. But I think the thing they would agree on is that the prism was beautiful.

    Their takeaway on that beauty would be what was unique.

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  6. I agree with Sharon that beauty reflects God. As such, I think there is a standard of beauty that is He Himself. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s something we will create, though I think it’s a great thing to aim for.

    I do see that others will describe the prism in different ways, but I think there would be near universal recognition of its beauty.

    That’s the problem I have with what we call art. Things like the vertical blue line on a white canvas would not have universal acclaim as something beautiful. Does such a work qualify as art because the artist wants it to be so?

    I guess I’m really saying, What is art?

    Becky

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  7. Art depends on style. If the writing is generic, could be anyone’s, then it’s not art. It’s storytelling, and it may have solid craft, but it’s not art.

    To be art, it must be distinctive, and that comes back to the voice and the style. We know it’s THIS artist or THAT artist, we can differentiate, because they are special in how they compose and express and what things they add and what they leave out.

    Parody can be done because there is a style, and that’s why great art can usually be parodied. Something stands out as different, as “the style of the artist.”

    Mir

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  8. Ah, but what an ordinary person can do with a blue line on a canvas is different than what an artist, a real artist, can do with a line of blue on a canvas.

    As a child, I used to think Mark Rothko was crap. I’d see his stuff in books and in the museums in NYC, and I didn’t “get it.”

    I grew older and one day I got it. I just saw that there was a particularly transcendent sense I got looking at particular Rothko’s, noticed the details that my childish eyes missed. And I got it.

    Same deal with abstract expressionism. I didn’t get it as a kid. I got it as an adult.

    Some things, like some books, you have to grow up to get. Some things you will never get, but that doesn’t mean it’s not great. It means that you or I don’t hae the particular faculties developed to “get” the work. It’s like the Bible. The older I get and the more I read, the more complex and layered and deep and amazing it becomes. Things that I never noticed at 15 or 25 come at me now, because I have the lifetime of exposure that yields benefits.

    Well, for those who have a lifetime of examining art, of learning about art, things open to them that don’t open to the rest of us.

    If someone only reads popular fiction, the gems that more complex fiction offers may be beyond them. (And I used to read a lot more literary and have gotten into popular more and more as I age, weirdly enough.) Poetry as well. People who haven’t developed their poetic faculties simply will not get the amazing, singing, glowing, body-thrilling pleasure of a well-turned line with a perfect image. It won’t happen.

    Some things, you have to work for. Art, for the observer, may be something you have to work for. It’s not just “pretty”. Its beauty may be veiled or complex, but it’s there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear…just like God.

    Mir

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  9. Mir,

    I think that’s kind of what I was saying about the blue line on canvas. An artist would do something with it you would never have dreamed of. I would draw a vertical line and move on to the next task. I’m tellin’ ya, this reproduction rule really works well.

    I only mentioned it because in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, there actually is a white canvas with a vertical blue line on display as art. Maybe I’m just not mature enough (a distinct possibility), but I just ain’t seeing it. Shrunken down and printed on terry cloth, it might make a nice bath towel at Target. 😛

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  10. Which painting was that? Is it a Barnett Newman? His profile of light has a white vertical center against a blue (or blue on either side, depending.)

    Have you seen his stations of the cross? 🙂

    These sorts of paintings ask you to examine yourself in line with a concept, rather than have the picture spell out the story or subject. That makes it, to me, an instrument of meditation, self-examination, and free-association. And that makes it rather interesting, too.

    Mir

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  11. Honestly, I have no idea who painted it. I appreciate you sharing what makes it interesting to you. We are really proving the complete subjectivity of art here, huh?

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  12. Wonderful discussion, all. You spur my thinking.

    Mark, I thought your point about the blue line was that you COULD do such a thing and because you could duplicate the effort, it was not art. The Picasso, however, was not something you could reproduce.

    I’m not saying that the blue line on a white canvas isn’t trying to communicate something. And maybe as I study art, at some point I will “get it.” But I still don’t think that’s enough for a work to qualify as art.

    I look at it as I would a child’s drawing. They are expressing something. If I look at the work through their eyes, I might even see what it is they are depicting. It does not mean it is beautiful.

    Add in what I discovered in the dictionary definition about “emotional impact.” For most people looking at a blue line on a white canvas, do they see beauty? Are they impacted emotionally?

    I suggest not. And yet we call it “art.” Why?

    Chances are it does something “fresh” in the eyes of those who are schooled in color, space, shapes. But I think all that is moot. True art should not depend on being schooled.

    You look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you say, WOW! You look at the statue of David, and you say, WOW. These are not works of art that need explanation. They are extraordinary to the trained or to the untrained eye.

    Apply that to stories. I don’t think stories should have a mysterious beauty that only other writers get. I think there should be a universal quality about them that makes them appeal to most anyone.

    Becky

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  13. Appreciating the highest works of art may depend on being schooled, so I disagree on that.

    And even the Sistine Chapel had its detractors who decided it was immoral and improper and added clothing to it. They were not simply wowed.

    Of course, Michelangelo was a genius, and his skill in composition and portraying powerful scenes is accessible. However, if you show a regular Joe an adequate representation of a prophet, and Michelangelo’s representation of a prophet, would they be able to say which one was better and why? Would, out of the context of “Sistine Chapel”, they be able to say which was the work of a master?

    We know it’s a great work, but then we’ve grown up hearing about how great it is and how magnificently gifted Michelangelo was.

    Even paintings that people hang on their wall today in copy form sometimes were laughed at by both the public and academics, yet history judged them great.

    As I said, sometimes you need time to know what is great art.

    However, I would say that one can use the word art lightly. If I pick up a watercolor kit and did some watercoloring, I could say I had art as my pasttime. I wouldn’t say it was anything worth a buck. If I took up clay modeling, I could say I was creating art–and in the most generic sense, I was, I was involved in creation of something decorative, not strictly useful, something “artistic”–but that doesn’t make what I create TRUE art.

    When we’re talking about fiction as art, I assume we don’t mean the generic sense-involved in a creative endeavor whose utility is solely it’s creative worth, not its utilitarian worth–but we mean lifting it from the usual and ordinary prose and storytelling into something greater, into something finer, into something evidencing great skill and power.

    Well, sometimes, it does take schooled folks to decide that, cause the Jane on the street may thing X romance novel is greater than X Nobel prize winner’s story, and better there is truly about preference and not about judging quality and artistic merit.

    Mir

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