Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner

A brand apart

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Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

The Sea Captain syndrome

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The Sea Captain on the Simpsons

The other day, after recounting the famous story that John Gardner tells about writer’s block in On Becoming a Novelist, I suggested that Gardner’s inability to figure out a small point of his story was really a reflection of deeper uncertainties. He sensed intuitively that he didn’t know the narrative or his characters well enough to move forward, so his mind seized on a tiny, seemingly trivial detail—the question of whether a certain woman would accept an hors d’oeuvre at a party—as a way of stalling the process, thus buying himself an extra week for unconscious reflection. The hors d’oeuvre didn’t matter in itself; it was only the excuse he needed for a necessary break. And this strikes me as being more generally true of writer’s block itself. I’ve talked about writer’s block here before, noting that the best way of dealing with it is by establishing a routine that fools the creative faculty into thinking that something useful is taking place, even if it isn’t. But it may be more accurate to think of writer’s block less as an impersonal scourge than as a condition tied inextricably to the conditions of writing itself, just as an illness can emerge from a breakdown in the body’s homeostasis.

What I’m proposing is that there are two opposing forces that play a role in any creative artist’s life: the urge to produce and the urge to postpone. Both sides are essential, and at their best, they work together. If we didn’t feel driven to get something down on paper, even on our worst days, we wouldn’t do much of anything at all: half of writing consists of meeting quotas or cranking out words when we’d rather be doing anything else. Left to itself, though, that inclination can lead to shoddy work, or, worse, a kind of deception that the writer imposes on both the reader and himself, as fake insight or emotion stands in for the real thing. Hence the importance of postponement—the ability to know when to pull back, or to wait for the second good idea. It’s a principle that governs everything from Walter Murch’s admonition that an artist should leave “a residue of unresolved problems for the next stage” to David Weinberger’s simpler motto “Include and postpone.” David Mamet notes somewhere that the first thing that occurs to the writer is often the first thing that occurs to the audience, too, so an author needs an internal mechanism in place that prevents him from going with a convenient idea simply because it exists.

The Sea Captain on The Simpsons

Under ideal circumstances, these two impulses exist in harmony, pushing against each other so that the writer oscillates between extremes of productivity and idleness. Average them out, and you’ve got a decent writing life. If either tendency starts to take control, however, it can cause real problems. We all know how it feels when the urge to postpone consumes everything else: we spend more time on research, or we suddenly feel the urgent need to reply to a few old emails, and it can leave us paralyzed with inactivity. Yet the urge to produce can be even more dangerous, precisely because it’s so seductive. I’m a pretty good writer; I’ve trained myself to crank out five hundred words in an hour on just about any subject, and I don’t lack for ideas for long. But when I look back at some of my old work, I can see that this kind of facility can be a trap in itself. Whenever I get notes on a draft, for instance, I immediately come up with five different ways of addressing each problem, but just because the answers come easily doesn’t mean they’re correct. And there are times when I’ve realized, in retrospect, that I would have been better off rejecting the first ideas that presented themselves and waiting for something better to come along.

That’s the greatest danger of writer’s block: it’s so painful that we’ll do anything we can to avoid it, even if it means falling into the opposite extreme. I sometimes think of it as Sea Captain syndrome, named after an exchange involving Captain McCallister on The Simpsons, as he presents a proposal to Mr. Burns:

McCallister: “I’ll need three ships and fifty stout men. We’ll sail ’round the Horn and return with spices and silk the lives of which ye have never seen.”
Mr. Burns (angrily): “We’re building a casino!”
McCallister: “Arrr…Can you give me five minutes?”

I’ve spent much of my writing life coming up with five-minute solutions to problems that really should have taken five days—or five weeks—to solve, and it’s been a liability as much as a strength. The healthier approach, which I’m still trying to master, is to regard productivity and postponement as complementary states, the warp and woof out of which the writing life is made. The former feels a lot better than the latter when you’re in the middle of it, but like all artificial highs, you pay for it in the end. Better, perhaps, to see writer’s block, rightly, as a necessary condition to creativity, even if it leaves us saying, as the Sea Captain does elsewhere: “Yarr…I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Written by nevalalee

November 5, 2014 at 8:35 am

Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre

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John Gardner

“I myself am stopped cold,” John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist, “when I cannot make out how a character would deal with the situation presented to him. If the situation presented is trivial, one’s perplexity can be maddening.” Gardner continues:

Once during the writing of Mickelsson’s Ghosts I found the novel’s heroine being offered an hors d’oeuvre, and I couldn’t tell whether she would accept it or not. I forced the issue, made her refuse it; but then I found myself stuck. It didn’t matter a particle which choice she made, but damned if I could move to the next sentence. “This is ridiculous,” I told myself, and tried a little gin—to no avail. It seemed to me now that I knew nothing about this woman; I wasn’t even sure she’d have come to the party in the first place. I wouldn’t have. Stupidest party in all of literature. I quit writing, put the manuscript away, and took out my frustration on woodworking tools, making furniture. A week or so later, in the middle of a hand-saw cut, I saw, as if in a vision, the woman taking the hors d’oeuvre. I still didn’t understand her, but I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.

This story has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, close to a decade ago, and it isn’t hard to see why. Every writer has had the experience of clocking along nicely on a novel or short story, only to be stopped cold by some absurdly tiny question or detail—which is really what we mean when we talk about writer’s block. It’s one thing to find yourself baffled by the big, overwhelming narrative issues at stake; the larger the problem, the more potential handholds it offers for grappling. With something like Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, you don’t know where to start, and a sentence that nearly any reader would pass over without particular notice starts to loom like the finger of Jehovah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (For what it’s worth, here’s the sentence that Gardner finally wrote, which occurs shortly after the midway point of the novel: “Hardly aware that his gloom was deepening, Mickelsson bulldozed the plate toward her, urging her to take an hors d’oeuvre. ‘Oh!’ she said, smiling brightly, and, lifting her hand from Blassenheim’s arm, wide eyes unblinking, carefully took the nearest on the plate.”)

Mickelsson's Ghosts by John Gardner

These miniature crises can befall a writer countless times over the course of any career, and I suspect that Gardner, who was possibly the shrewdest writing teacher we’ve ever had, chose the hors d’oeuvre example because it’s almost comically insignificant. (There may be a buried pun, here, too: hors d’oeuvre literally means “apart from the main work”—the canapé that threatens to derail the whole entrée.) Looking at the situation from the outside, an objective observer could naturally suggest a number of possible approaches, exactly as they must have occurred to Gardner himself: you could write the sentence both ways and see how each version played, or simply cut out the interaction altogether and move on, or try a little more gin. But writer’s block has a logic of its own, and it feeds on itself in an exceptionally vicious way. When you’re stuck on an important point, you can at least take consolation in the fact that you’re tackling something that might have stumped Tolstoy or Flaubert; when you can’t bring a character to take an hors d’oeuvre, you feel that you have no business writing fiction at all. It all turns into a crisis of confidence, and it feels more depressing the more trifling the problem becomes.

Yet there’s something more subtle at work here. When he found that he simply couldn’t write the rest of the sentence, Gardner took a long break, and it wasn’t until he was absorbed in an unrelated manual task that the answer popped into his head—”as if in a vision.” The phenomenon he describes is a familiar one: insight often takes the form of a sudden intuition that appears after a long process of consolidation, occurring below the level of conscious thought, and it tends to emerge when we’re doing something else entirely. Gardner’s hors d’oeuvre, then, was less important in itself than as a kind of signal that the story had to render a little longer. In all likelihood, his uneasiness with the story or this character had been simmering for some time, and it happened to crystalize at the moment the plate of hors d’oeuvres appeared, when it might easily have hit a sentence before or later. Stewing over this apparently insignificant problem bought him a week of reflection, and when the solution appeared, it brought the rest along with it: “I was positive I knew what she would do, and what she would do after that, and after that.” Writer’s block is hell, but when we’re stuck on something small, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that it isn’t about the hors d’oeuvre at all, but the entire oeuvre.

Written by nevalalee

November 3, 2014 at 9:08 am

“A big, friendly officer…”

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"A big, friendly officer..."

Note: This post is the fiftieth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 49. You can read the earlier installments here

“It is a time-proven rule of the novelist’s craft,” John Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “never to introduce but very minor new characters at the end of a book.” Fowles is being a little facetious here: the character whose first appearance these lines introduce is either God himself or a veiled surrogate for the author. But he makes a decent point. In what we think of as a properly constructed novel, the ending is a kind of recapitulation or culmination of all that came before, with a recurrence of characters, images, or themes that John Gardner has visualized in a famous image from The Art of Fiction. Introducing anything new at this point can feel like poor planning, and that’s especially true of the human players. Character, by definition, is revealed by action in time, and when you only have a handful of pages left to wind up the story, anyone who shows up at the last minute usually won’t have room to develop anything like a real personality. He or she feels like what the other characters might well be, but have had more of a chance to hide: a plot point, or a puppet.

Which only suggests that the rule against introducing new characters late in the story is just a particular case of a more general principle. A novel is a machine constructed to hold the reader’s attention, but the best novels keep their internal workings well out of sight. Among other things, this often involves concealing the real reason a character has been included in the story. Even in literary fiction, most characters are there for a specific purpose: to advance the plot, to illustrate a theme, to provide the protagonist with an important interaction or a moment of contrast. Sometimes a character will be introduced on page five for the sake of a scene two hundred pages later, and it’s the intervening space that makes it seem natural. When the gap between a character’s initial appearance and his or her reason for being there is reduced, we start to see the wheels turning, and that’s especially true near the climax of the novel, when the range of possibilities the story can cover is necessarily constrained. If a major character shows up fifty pages from the end, it often isn’t hard to figure out why.

"Taking the binoculars from Lindegren..."

What’s funny, of course, is that what seems like a departure from reality is actually a departure from a different kind of artifice. In real life, people don’t appear on schedule: enormous presences in our lives can be introduced at any time, and the sequence of events doesn’t fall into a neat pattern. We see this clearly in books or movies based on real incidents: a movie like Zero Dark Thirty struggles—very successfully, I might add—with the fact that the players in its climax are a bunch of guys we haven’t met before. It’s easier to accept this when the narrative presents itself as a true story, and a plot invented from scratch wouldn’t be likely to take the same approach. You might even say that a story that wanted to come off as factual could introduce new characters at any point, as they appear in life, but in practice, the result seems paradoxically less convincing. (This may be why when a major character is introduced late in the game, it’s often because he’s compelling enough to overcome any objection. My favorite example is Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita, who makes such an impression in the last thirty minutes that he ultimately got what amounted to a spinoff of his own.)

In Chapter 49 of City of Exiles—on page 342 of 396—I introduce a character named Timo Lindegren, a senior constable in the Helsinki police department. Shrewd readers, noticing how few pages remain in the novel and that a big chase sequence seems to be impending, might conclude that Lindegren has appeared on the scene just so he can be shot to death forty pages later, and in fact, they’d be right. I won’t pretend that Lindegren is anything other than a functional character, there to give Wolfe someone to talk to as she tracks her killer in the endgame and to die at the moment when the danger seems greatest. (He’s also there, and not trivially, to give Wolfe a handgun when she needs it.) And what strikes me now, reading these chapters over again, is that in a different version of the same novel, Lindegren might well have been introduced three hundred pages earlier, only for the sake of filling the exact same role he does here. If that had been the case, his function might not have been so obvious, but the late change of scene to Finland meant that he could only show up just in time to be knocked off. That’s essentially true of many other characters, but it feels particularly blatant here because we’re so close to the end. But he’ll stick around for a little while longer, at least before his abrupt exit…

“Whose locker is this?”

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"Wolfe headed inside..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a point in the audio commentary for one of the Bourne movies—I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum—when director Paul Greengrass admits that he made things a little too easy. Bourne has narrowly avoided being assassinated at London’s Waterloo railway station, escaping with nothing but a dead reporter’s notebook, and he has no way of knowing who ordered the hit. Fortunately, the notebook happens to contain the name of an investment advisory firm that bankrolled the operation in question, so Bourne does what any of us would do in that situation: he googles it. He comes up with an address in Madrid, confirms it against a receipt in the reporter’s notes, and then he’s off to another big action scene. Needless to say, this all seems a bit too simple, and if we weren’t caught up in the movie, we might object to it. But Greengrass argues, and with good reason, that in this kind of story, it’s more important to move from one beat to the next as quickly and economically as possible, rather than derailing the momentum with a more plausible sequence of events.

I think he’s right. It’s easy to make fun of certain stories, especially thrillers and action movies, for the leaps of logic that the hero has to make to get from one stunt sequence to another. Even superficially more realistic procedurals are grounded less on real crime scene technique than on sudden flashes of insight, and if you were to cut all of them together, they would start to seem even more ridiculous. Yet it’s a convention that arises less out of a lack of concern about “realism” than from the set of rules that the movie itself has established. Plenty of films, from All the President’s Men to Zodiac, have made riveting cinema out of the tedium of ordinary reporting or investigative work, but they’ve been conceived before the fact in a way that prepares us for the kind of story we’re about to watch. A Bourne movie presents us with very different expectations: the only logic that matters is that of restless movement, and to the extent that the film presents certain elements more or less plausibly, it’s only to facilitate our larger suspension of disbelief. Bourne googles his way over a bump in the script because it was the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

"Whose locker is this?"

We see this kind of compression and elision even at the highest levels of literature. I’ve always loved what John Gardner had to say about Hamlet, which includes a moment of high implausibility: the fact that the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox outfoxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” He continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

In other words, it’s a question, like so much else in art, of prioritizing what is truly important. And sometimes realism or plausibility takes a back seat to advancing the overall narrative.

Many of the same factors come into play in Part III in City of Exiles. The previous section ends with Wolfe in London, helpless to prevent the crash of Chigorin’s plane; Part III concludes with her final confrontation with Karvonen in a tunnel beneath Helsinki. To get from one point to the next involves covering an enormous geographical distance and an even more tenuous chain of associations. Wolfe needs to figure out that the plane was sabotaged in Finland, find Karvonen’s contact at the airport, track her down, interrogate her, and preemptively think ahead throughout to anticipate where Karvonen will go now, all in exactly fifty pages. Pulling this off in a way that also kept the story going involved a fair number of shortcuts, as we see in Chapter 47, in which Wolfe identifies Karvonen’s accomplice thanks to the lucky glimpse of a volume of John Donne’s poetry in her locker. If this feels like something of a cheat, well, maybe it is. Still, I had little choice if I wanted to keep things moving. Playing this kind of card too often can strain plausibility to the breaking point, which hurts the story more than it helps. But here, it seemed more important to get Wolfe as soon as possible to her appointment under the city…

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

The dot and the line

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Take a blank piece of paper and put a dot in the center. It’s the single most basic creative act imaginable—aside from deliberately presenting the viewer with an empty page, which is a different sort of statement—and it lies at the beginning of any work of art. Even the most complicated drawing or story is essentially an assemblage of dots or individual units, and in most media, the process can’t help but be sequential: you start with one unit, then add another, and even in works that unfold more rapidly in the author’s mind and hand, in theory, you could see each dot falling into place in sequence if you could slow the tape down far enough. And looking at that single dot reminds us of how much meaning and information can be packed into the simplest of artistic gestures. As Christopher Alexander notes in The Nature of Order, with the addition of a dot:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

When we add a second dot, another dimension is created. With it comes the possibility of direction and relationship: two dots imply a line, although the way in which it runs remains unclear. No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story. Two dots or words set side by side convey a meaning, as subtle as it might be, greater than the sum of the constituent parts, and much of the resultant power comes from that invisible line. In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.


And when we add a third dot, we get something even more powerful. Instead of a line, we have a triangle, with all the possible variation it implies. This last leap—assuming that we’re confining ourselves to the two-dimensional page—is arguably the most profound, and any advances we make with a fourth or fifth dot are only incremental, and may even detract from the composition as greater complexity is introduced. This is why the rule of three is so central to all forms of storytelling: it’s the minimum number of elements required to convey shape, whether spatial or temporal, and if we’re convinced that simplicity matters, it’s not surprising that a story with three acts can seem more organic and satisfying than one with four or five. (This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it’s worth noting that units of narrative often fall into odd numbers, probably because it preserves the idea, initially present in the number three, of a center. As Milan Kundera says: “I am not indulging in some superstitious affectation about magic numbers, nor making a rational calculation. Rather, I am driven by a deep, unconscious, incomprehensible need, a formal archetype from which I cannot escape. All of my novels are variants of an architecture based on the number seven.”)

It might seem like an empty exercise to reduce the creative process to such simple components, but it’s one that every artist should do from time to time, whether the unit in question is a dot, a word, or a musical note. As we grow more sophisticated in craft, we tend to think of our works in terms of their larger structures: many writers approach a story on the level of the paragraph, for instance, just as chess players see the board in chunks of pieces. Yet it’s important not to lose sight of the meaning implied in our most basic choices and juxtapositions. If there’s one characteristic that the greatest creative geniuses have in common, from Beethoven to James Joyce, it’s an uncanny ability to drill down into individual units while keeping the overall shape of the work in mind. That kind of intimate engagement with each piece is, necessarily, invisible: most artists would prefer that the dots and words fuse or blur together when the work is finally experienced, leaving an impression of a coherent whole. And emphasizing the parts over the whole can turn into another kind of indulgence, the kind that John Gardner called frigidity. But neglecting those pieces carries a risk of its own. And we often end up with a more beautiful work once we take a few dots away.

Written by nevalalee

June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am


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