Art Imitates Reality
It helped me be a better writer
I will do for you what someone did for me about 25 years ago, and it helped me be a better writer.
Have a look at this incredible painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907.) The title is The Price of Blood. It’s part of the permanent collection of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia:
When I first laid eyes on this, I had no idea what story this painting was telling. A woman working at the museum took me though it step-by-step until the terrible truth was revealed. She could have said, “Oh, this is about…” and put it all out there like dousing me with a bucket of water, but she allowed me to understand at my own pace—and thus the impact was far greater. For that, I am ever grateful.
I will ask you some questions about this painting. I wish I could hear your answers, but the best I can do is assume them, based on the many times I’ve used this painting in my classes.
- How would you describe the mood?
- What do you see?
Three men. Two are standing. One is dressed well. One poorly (no shoes). The man behind the table is a businessman. None of the men are looking at one another.
- What time period would you put this at? Why?
Mid-nineteenth century. The clothing. The furniture. There are coins on the table and not paper money.
- What do you think is happening here?
A business transaction in the home of the man sitting (he is too casually dressed to be anywhere else.) The man behind the table is obviously not a guest—he is still wearing his hat—and he is doing the buying, as the money is close to him.
- What is on the floor in front of the man who is sitting?
I’m not sure. Looks like he tore up several pieces of paper. I don’t know why.
- Why does the man sitting not look happy?
I can’t say for sure. But he is unwilling or unable to look at the two other men.
- Let me provide some information. The time period is before 1850 in the USA. The pieces of paper are offers written on scrapes that man with the hat is giving the sitting man. They don’t want the man with no shoes to hear their negotiations, so they write them down. The man sitting doesn’t like any of the offers, so he tosses the scrapes of paper to the floor. Also, the man with no shoes is a slave. Does that last thing strike you as strange?
Yes. The man with no shoes is white. The USA used black people as slaves.
- Take this magnifying glass. Use it to enlarge the eyes on the man sitting, and then on the man with no shoes. What do you see?
The eyes are the same. Oh my God…
- Do you understand now?
Yes. The man with no shoes is the sitting man’s son. He is selling his own son to the man with the hat.
- Well, at lease he isn’t happy about it.
Yeah, there’s that.
I love this art because there is nothing in it that doesn’t belong to tell the story. Not the painting on the wall, not the pattern and color of the tablecloth, and not even the single scrap of paper near the slave’s foot. It all has a purpose.
How about Writing?
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing a story, the first rule is:
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
When you describe anything, do it to establish mood and tell your story. Put nothing in there that doesn’t belong. If there is a sock on the floor, that sock better have a purpose. If a cat is sitting on the bed, that cat had better be there for a reason. Why? Because you can’t describe every winkle in the wallpaper and every spot of rust on the pipes, so why are you drawing my attention to this cat?
Please look again at The Price of Blood. What if you saw a cat on the table? You would likely be “Why the **** is there a cat on the table? It has no place there.”
If you put dark clouds in the sky, some bad shit should be about to happen. If your protagonist walks past a stranger who is leaning on a wall, that better be damn important, beyond even to establish atmosphere. Art imitates reality, but it is not reality. You and I could walk past a stranger leaning on a wall and think nothing of it. But to write about that, and then do nothing with it, is unforgivable.
Imagine reading a story with this as the first line:
Janet woke to the blast of a single gunshot outside her window.
Now, that is a hell of an opening hook! You are instantly curious.
You go on to read the story, and it’s one of the best you have ever read! Maybe Janet is a public defender in New York who kills rapist with a pair of pliers and a blow torch. Or maybe Janet is the first human to set foot on Mars. Or maybe Janet is pulled into a magical world and must protect the gentle Kemni from the savage Dreadoccs of Bloodvine forest. Whatever.
But if you get to the end of the book and never learn who shot off that gun, you would feel cheated. You and I could wake to the blast of a single gunshot. What was that! We look out the window. Nothing there. Maybe a car backfired, but does that even happen in 2017? You ask your neighbors. Yes, they heard it too. No, they have no idea what it was. You go the rest of the week, the rest of the year, the rest of your life and never learn who fired that gun and why. No biggie. Real life is often a series of unrelated events.
But in writing, it’s unforgivable to never tell your reader who shot that gun and why, even if the rest of the story is awesome. Art imitates reality.
To quote another of Vonnegut’s rules:
Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
Go through your manuscript. Put on a pair of dark “Terminator” sunglasses and kill anything that doesn’t tell your story. Never put a cat on a table unless there is a damn good reason for it to be there. If you have, you will leave your reader confused and cheated.