A Choice of Frames

The way we cut a picture is almost as important as what a picture contains. The difference between a sleeping lion and the potential of imminent death by claws is about five inches of focus.

This is not a blog entry about photography.

One of my few promises to myself when I created this blog was that all of the pictures I used for my blog entries would be unedited. Everything that goes up here has not been altered after being taken, so I have to live with poor focus or lighting or framing.

I think that there are some important lessons that I’ve been able to take from this and apply both to my writing and to the stories I read.

As much as a few inches shift can affect what a photograph shows, so can a small difference in the choice of focus in a story.

The more I’ve become involved in photography and graphic design, the more I’ve become aware of the difficulties people encounter when they try to decide how much or how little their story is going to show.

Viewpoint can help decide this – a tight first-person narrative is normally going to show less of the world and its events than an omniscient, head-hopping narrator. But much like photography or playing cards, knowing how much to show -and how much to conceal- is a vital part of creating the power and motion of a story.

I’ve mentioned Shirley Jackson on this blog before, but her short story “The Lottery” is a masterclass in framing. I’ve often wondered if Ms. Jackson knew anything about photography because her slow pans and careful scenic movement feel cinematic. The movement towards her reveal of the full scene is careful and cautious and helps to create the power of her conclusion.

I think that sometimes there is a temptation to show everything at once right away or to hide so much information that people become lost and confused. Good framing is honest about what it is showing, but still leaves enough pieces out to create interest and draw viewers into the story or photograph.

There is also the kind of framing where the only part of the story that is told is the part that justifies the experiences of the focus character. This can be used in interesting ways if the narrator is shown to be unreliable (in cinema, something like Rashomon or in story, American Psycho), but it can also make it harder to suspend disbelief if the story does nothing but prop up the character’s thoughts and beliefs.

Have you ever read a story where you spent a few minutes thinking about the main character and decided that you probably would have sided with the villains?

This is often because of a failure of framing. When what we see as bad actions on the part of the main character are justified rather than challenged, we will often lose trust in both the story… and the writer.

Much as viewers will lose trust in a photographer who makes a sleeping lion look as if it is a dangerous threat.

Thinking about how a story should be presented is a vital part of writing.

It is important though that the tale accurately reflects exactly what kind of lion sits on the other side of the lens.

IMG_0623The other part of framing is what is shown and what is not. What’s on the other side of these irises? You’ll never know!

I am fascinated by what we choose and do not choose to show in our stories and how that translates into the tales we tell.

I enjoy playing with framing in my own writing, although I can promise that all lions are portrayed at an accurate level of threat. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.


On the Shoulders of Giants

While most people speak of Suzanne Collins, writer of “The Hunger Games”, being influenced by “Battle Royale” (for that debate you can see here), I wonder whether she was a fan of Shirley Jackson.

I first read “The Lottery” (an audio version here) when I was twelve and it is one of the stories that has sat at the back of my head as a masterclass in tension and plotting. If Ms. Collins was influenced by “The Lottery”, she certainly wouldn’t be the only writer. Both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King cite Shirley Jackson as an influence, although “The Haunting of Hill House” may have more obvious plot influences.

This is not a bad thing.

So often when the discussion of influences in writing appears there is a fundamental undertone of “See! They haven’t done any real work!”.

While we have these conversations in music and art, there seems to be a strange misunderstanding when it comes to books.

Let me tell you a secret.

No story comes entirely out of thin air.

I would argue that the best writing is consciously aware of the technique and tales that came before it.

Our strongest stories are those that acknowledge the giants before them and build upon their shoulders.

Writing is a craft as much as an art and a good craftsperson practices their technique and understands the techniques of other works in their field.

It is not a point of pride to be unaware of the tropes and tales within our rich history of literature. By knowing those tropes we can move beyond their bases and create something that is new, that clearly acknowledges the richness behind us.  I also think that it is important that we look beyond classic European works to fully understand and recognize our rich literary lineage.

I’ll tell you another secret.

Stories disappear.

Without iterations and re-tellings and connected inspiration, most tales vanish into the empty void of lost memory.

I find it telling that Ms. Collins’ writing is compared to “Battle Royale” rather than the work I think that she was far more likely to have encountered.

Entertainment is very much in the moment. While “The Lottery” is still well-known more than sixty years after its publication, it is not as well-known as the stories it has influenced.

How many other stories from 1949 can you name?

The fear of the tales we tell is not that someone will write a story with a similar idea or setting.

The fear is that after we have stood in the square, stoned as a tribute, that no one will remember us at all.

IMG_0600In the end, our ideas are as ephemeral as seeds on the wind if they do not take root and spread

I am openly influenced by writers as diverse as Basho, Lewis Carroll, and Agatha Christie. I hope to do honour to their proud literary tradition.

If you would like to judge my literary influences for yourself, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.