Next in this series of blog posts is a strange one: Sfumato. I’m blogging about how each of the seven principles in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb, relates to fiction writing. Today I grapple with the fourth principle, Sfumato, a word that means “going up in smoke.”

Gelb’s definition of Sfumato is “a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” Although most people prefer knowledge, predictability, and clarity, Gelb contends that Leonardo did not shy away from the gray areas, the question marks, the mysterious, and the absurd.

SfumatoDa Vinci painted beautiful things, but also made many drawings of ‘grotesques’ or ugly human faces. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, contains mystery after mystery, including the anonymity of its model. Gelb notes that we discern human mood from the corners of the eyes and mouth, but in the Mona Lisa, Leonardo obscured these areas in shadow, deliberately leaving them vague so we are left to wonder whether she smiles or not.

Is Sfumato important for a fiction writer? First, let’s define each of its three aspects:

  • Ambiguity: something that can be understood in more than one way, allowing for more than one interpretation.
  • Paradox: a statement or proposition that, despite apparently sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, illogical, or self-contradictory.
  • Uncertainty: A state of having limited knowledge where it is difficult to choose between two or more alternatives.

Writers make use of ambiguity through symbolism, where one thing may represent something else. Metaphors and similes prove useful to ways to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar, but also leave the story open to interpretation. Often the greatest works of literature contain enough ambiguity to allow generations of critics to argue over meanings.

As for paradox, a writer may employ it for humorous effect, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” where a young man thinks he can end his apprenticeship with a band of pirates when he is twenty-one years old, but since he was born on February 29, he’s really only a bit over four. Even when a writer uses paradox in a serious way, it can heighten reader enjoyment by giving the reader something to puzzle over and think about.

Uncertainty is at the center of fiction writing, and comes into play in three levels—the character, the reader, and the writer. Fiction must have conflict, and often it can be an internal conflict for the main character. To heighten the drama of the conflict, it’s necessary to force the character to make a difficult decision. The protagonist’s uncertainty is what makes readers keep on reading.

You must create uncertainty in the mind of the reader as well. If the reader knows what’s coming next, there’s no point in continuing with the story.

How does uncertainty apply to the writer? I believe this has to do with the tone of the prose. A writer should have something to say, and have a level of confidence in the point she or he is trying to make. I didn’t say ‘certainty;’ I said ‘a level of confidence.’ If you believe you possess the ultimate truths of the universe, the universe will prove you wrong. No reader likes a know-it-all, so I urge authors to advance ideas for consideration, not in a manner that closes the door to criticism.

That’s Sfumato. Now, if you find yourself striding with confidence into areas of smoke, of fog, of murkiness and mystery; if you come to enjoy being ambiguously, paradoxically uncertain, you have no one to blame except Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb, and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 20, 2015Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Metaphors Are Icing; Similes Are Like Spice

Looking back over some of my blog entries, I see I sometimes sound like quite the expert, a know-it-all who has decided to bestow some of his vast expertise on new writers.  I should make it clear my expertise is really not vast—it’s half vast.

On the subject of metaphors and similes, I have to say I’m not even a novice yet.  I have to force myself to use more of them in my stories.  So this blog entry is written as a set of reminders for me.  You’re welcome to read along if you like.

First of all, Steve, metaphors and similes are very much alike; they’re both methods of comparing one thing to another, it’s just that similes signal their presence with the words “like” or “as.”  Those words announce to the reader a comparison is coming.  Metaphors can sneak up on a reader such that he or she doesn’t realize the comparison has happened until after reading it.  Similes lack that stealth.

Remember, Steve, that readers, nearly all of them being human, possess brains naturally equipped to recognize patterns–the similarities between two things.  They store their memories in interesting places within the brain but always near other analogous things.  Consider the concept of “soft.”  Just thinking about soft conjures up images of feather beds, pillows, baby’s cheeks, puffy dandelions, etc.  All those images and more are stored within the brain, filed with the word “soft.”

So when you’re writing a story, Steve, and you want to describe how soft something is, you can compare it to something else filed under that heading.  Chances are readers will share the same mental picture you’ve conveyed, thus saving, as the saying goes, a thousand words.

It can work as well with concepts less concrete than “soft.”  A person can be described as being “as loving as…” or “as loyal as…” where you can compare these qualities to the standards in your mind filed under those headings.

Two common pitfalls to avoid, Steve, are clichés and mixed metaphors.  Clichés indicate the writer’s laziness, and often fail to convey the image intended due to overuse.  Mixed metaphors are at best jarring to the reader, and at worst, funny (and the reader’s not laughing with you), like the ones listed on this site.

There are some great writers you can learn from, Steve, about similes and metaphors.  There are sites out there like this one where you can read through some of the classic similes.  Be on the lookout for clever comparisons in all the books you read.  Take a moment to analyze each one and figure out why it works—why the author chose those words.  Poetry is often teeming with metaphors due to the compact nature of the medium and the need for each word to pull more of a load than is required in prose.

Steve, you’ve got to strive to use metaphors and similes more in your writing.  They help the reader picture your scenes and characters better.  Metaphors are icing; similes are like spice.  You must make better use of them if you wish to continue being known as–

Poseidon’s Scribe