March 5, 2012

Making You Feel, Part 2


A week or two ago, I linked to the World Press Photo winners from 1955-2011.  Those photos move us, as do Norman Rockwell paintings.  Today, I want to talk about why and how that translates into fiction.

I deliberately chose the Norman Rockwell painting above because I think it’s one most people are unfamiliar with.  Maybe we can see it a little better if it’s new.  Why does this painting ~ and all Norman Rockwell’s ~ move us so (as a generalization)?  I would suggest that it’s because 1) details, 2) composition and focus, 3) juxtaposition of small and large, 4) its very specificity points to a larger human condition.

Details.  What do we know from this painting?  This guy is a GI. We know that from the helmet and knife above and the badges to the side and the honorable discharge.  Because we know when NR was painting and because of world events, we can guess that this may be right after World War II when the GI Bill helped so many returning GIs get an education.  What he’s wearing screams college coed of that era ~ the turtleneck, the dress slacks, the shoes and the lovely detail of the socks.  Another detail ~ this isn’t a gawky kid.  He’s a grown man, filled out and experienced, yet there are details that show his awkward youth ~ the way his hair tumbles over his forehead, the shortness of his pants, the trying on of the pipe that doesn’t quite fit.  We know his name, Willie Gillis, because it’s written on his books.  We know he’s sitting in his dorm room studying.  Other details ~ the golf clubs, the edifice through the window ~ scream his aspirations.  He wants to do well.  My first impression was that the building through the window was a government building, which immediately made me think he wanted to go into politics, but actually it’s probably just a university building.  Still, the impression is there.

The composition and focus.  This, like many of NR’s paintings, lead the eye up and into the painting.  It’s darker around the outside and light toward the middle.  (Think of the Thanksgiving image of the family NR painted.  Same thing. And so many others.)  It’s framed by the window and walls.  The past is toward the outside and the future is toward the middle.    Our eyes first catch details around the outside but then are drawn inward to the face and then, inexorably, toward the light, toward the building, toward the future for this young man. We know that this young man dreams of a wonderful future, yearns, aspires.  It makes you ache for him, and I don’t think it matters if he’s white or black or any other race or ethnicity.  I think we all know what it means to yearn.

Juxtaposition of small and large.  By that I mean the everyday vs. our larger dreams.  In this image there’s the everyday details, as I mentioned above.  One person going about his day.  But there are also big things ~ life and death and hopes and disappointments ~ right there side by side. Now that I write this, I connect it with the fact that, in compelling fiction, the protagonist almost always wants something.  He or she can want nothing more than a drink of water, but if you show that, the reader is much more likely to be right there with you.

Specificity leading to the larger human condition.  This is a very specific scene with specific details.  This is one young man’s face.  He has a name.  His socks are a little worn.  He’s sitting at this window this fall.  He has a past.  All these details accrete to make a certain person in a certain situation.  But, then, gloriously, they also accrete to mean much more than the sum of their parts.  By their very specificity, they let us know so much about this man and we can identify with what he dreams for.  So many of NR’s paintings are this way ~ they show us a world of hope.

I wanted to point out that this painting does not include all the details in this guy’s life.  No.  They are very selectively chosen and placed and illustrated  to support the larger impression. Maybe this guy is from Texas or Oregon.  Do we know this?  No.  Because it doesn’t matter.  But each detail that is shown means something.

You know what I’m going to say next.  This is just like fiction.  We choose small details that mean.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, should be extraneous in a work of fiction.  (Sure, novels have more leeway than short stories.  Still, it’s all important.)  They should all be working toward a goal, an effect.  The composition ~ the sentences, the scenes, the energy ~ should all be put together to achieve the desired effect.  The “making you feel.”  These, hopefully, will then add up to the last thing ~ your specificity will point to a larger condition. 

Let’s look at the opposite for a second.  Telling us how to feel.  Generalization.  Does it work to make you feel sad to say, “She felt sad”?  Or do you get angry when it says, “She was mad”?  No.  We need the details to make us experience what the character is going through.  We don’t need to be told what to feel; we need to be shown so that it comes naturally to us.  Generalization. The best fiction is most often set in a particular place.  No accident, that.  Once again, it is the details that let us see and hear and feel. 

These craft things sound so easy.  Just write with detail.  Only it’s not, as I’m sure you know.  Which details?  In what order?  What effect am I going for?

The World Press Photo winners move us in the same way.  Their visceral nature.  The raw emotion on the subjects’ faces.  Small details vs. huge hopes ~ or dashed hopes.  The violation of violence.  Grief and loss. Now that I think about it ~ these photos are most often about loss.

Tomorrow, I’d like to talk more about making you feel as it pertains to this great documentary I watched while I was out sick: Life in a Day, which shows the world in a day, June 24, 2010.  It’s amazing. 

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