I was eighteen years old, a freshman, and sat folded into the desk in the far back of the auditorium. On and on the professor droned, putting up slide after slide on the projector next to him, while I yawned without even trying to stifle my boredom.
The class was Art Appreciation, and I was anything but appreciative. Most days I simply dreamed of returning to my bed, because when you’re eighteen you turn back into a toddler in need of daily naps.
I remember little of that class. I got an ‘A’, which didn’t say much, because all you had to do was show up to receive the highest mark. There is one day, however, that stands out. In fact, this one lesson may be the most vivid memory I have from a college course.
The professor put up a slide and asked us to examine it closely. It was speckled, different colors dripped across the screen as though the painter had dipped his brush in paint, then turned his head to speak to someone and let the pint fall haphazardly onto the canvas.
After a moment of observation, the professor replaced that picture with a new one. It was the painting of a riverside. Children played in the meadow at the feet of men in formal suits, and women carrying white parasols. Pulling out his marker, my professor circled a small section on the bottom right-hand side of the painting.
“You see that cluster of flowers in the corner?” he asked, and I leaned in a little closer. “Those were the markings you just observed. They were not random. They were deliberate. It’s amazing what detail can do to a piece of art, isn’t it?”
Isn’t it interesting how certain details never leave us? I’ve never forgotten that solitary lesson from a class I didn’t even like, because the lesson has so many layers of application. For the purposes of today, we will use this as an analogy for developing a killer storyline.
When you’re writing a book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, the power of the message will be wrapped firmly in the details. If the completed work is your finished canvas, then each page is like a splotch of paint. The details must be intricate enough to form a completed picture, but they must not be so muddled that they overwhelm the story.
When I saw the final painting that day in class, it struck me that there were just the right amount of flowers in the landscape to make it look entirely realistic. The flowers didn’t overpower the tranquility of the image, and neither should your detail overpower the message of your book.
As you build your characters, you want to carefully and skillfully weave the background of the story in such a way that it remains in the background, but supports the book as a whole. As writers, we’ve all heard the phrase “Show Don’t Tell.” My elementary school children are already working on the skill of showing and not telling. This is crucial in developing a storyline that makes readers want to turn the page.
Your goal is to write a story so compelling, with imagery so vivid, that your readers will lose sleep in order to read just one more page.
You do this by offering sensory images, word pictures that engage the reader emotionally and mentally. Don’t just tell us what the surroundings look like – make us feel them.
As you begin to further develop your story, whether it be a short story, or a novel, step back and consider the whole canvas. Beginning with an outline will help you define how you’re going to fill the empty spaces. Then slowly, very slowly, step closer and closer until each little detail comes together. Weave those details in meticulous strokes and planned drips, until the final picture stands complete. Tell us a story we can see and touch, one we can taste and smell and hear.