A while back I went to a retrospective for the late American photographer Gary Winogrand. Part of the exhibit was a short film recording of Winogrand giving a talk to a group of UCLA students. During the question and answer period he mentioned something that’s since then always buzzed about in the back of my head. A bit of craft advice, that while made with regards to photography, I think can apply to writing as well.
To paraphrase, he said all a photographer has when he or she is out in the world snapping pictures is what’s in front of them. Photographs, Winogrand said, gain power from what they make viewers imagine about a scene. If a shot conveys something beyond the constituent parts, becomes “more dramatic than the situation it depicts,” that’s when it crosses into the realm of art, he said.
He listed a few examples of how this can be accomplished. A woman standing on a street corner, the wind lifting her hair, plastering her skirt around her legs, might appear either defiant or forlorn, depending on her pose, the lighting, and the time of day. A couple in a car might suggest a sense of freedom, but depending on their expressions, whether the background is moving or still, and how close or far apart they sit from each other, could just as easily convey isolation, speed, or entrapment.
This struck me as an aesthetic principle a writer could apply to their work. It’s easy to describe a situation: who’s doing what, the physical space, who’s talking. But that’s mere reportage, similar to the endless vacation shots stored in the memory of a smartphone. To exceed what might otherwise be a simple tale — a story related over coffee, say — the writer must make the piece more dramatic than its bald subject.
Once I started thinking about this, examples seemed to jump out at me all over the place. One I remember reading soon after the Winogrand exhibit was a passage from White Teeth by Zadie Smith. In the novel, Samad, a waiter, is left a meager tip. Smith writes, “For what’s the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish.”
That could have been a simple moment, a second of frustration (“Cheap bastards!”) in a hardscrabble life. Smith, by associating a meager tip with a wish, shows not only Samad’s immediate existence, but also suggests his profound desperation as an immigrant in a massive, unfriendly, and alien metropolis.
Besides creating vibrant prose, this added layer of complexity — the evoked drama — in Smith’s hands develops character, reinforces plot, and reveals theme. In other words the moment becomes more dramatic than the situation it depicts. And here is how and when writing becomes art.
A writer has many tools to help her ratchet up the drama of a story or novel. An interesting narrator, an unusual POV, subtext, dialogue, sharp and perceptive detail, wildly inventive metaphors. Think Lolita, which is (and who would have believed this possible?) more dramatic as an overall novel than the base situation it depicts.
Yes, rather vague advice. I can’t tell anyone how to do this. It’s where a writer shows her talent and skill. I’d say trying to follow this “rule” can improve a writer’s craft by forcing her to evaluate what she puts down on the page, asking the age-old question about everything she writes, “What work is this doing for the story?” If the answer is none, then perhaps the section needs to be excised, or at least rewritten.
So, don’t just report. Dig into the scene and reveal its layers and subtexts, what it’s really about.