Together, you and I have arrived at the end of this seven-part series of posts. We’ve been working our way through the principles in Michael J. Gelb’s wonderful book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. For each principle, we’ve been exploring how it relates to fiction writing.

The last principle is Connessione: a recognition and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena—systems thinking.

ConnessioneLeonardo had a fascination with the connections between things. He’d study how a tossed stone caused expanding circular ripples in water. He wrote, “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.” His notebooks were a disorganized, chaotic stream of consciousness, as if his mind would flit from one thing to a seemingly unrelated thought. In a strange echoing of what we might consider Eastern philosophy, he wrote: Everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything.”

In what ways should a writer of fiction embrace the principle of Connessione? Here are some that occur to me:

  • When you’re thinking of plot ideas for stories to write, look for separate ideas from the world around you and connect them. To pick just three examples of this, consider how Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series combines the ideas of TV reality shows and war; how Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein combines Tarzan, Jesus, and Mars; how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick combines whaling and obsession.
  • Think of the interconnections between characters within your stories. For characters A and B there are (at least) four connections: how A feels about B internally, how A behaves toward B externally, and the same internal feelings and external behavior of B toward A. Now imagine three, four, five, or more major characters and convey, in your story, the rich web of interconnectedness between them all. This alone will be the subject of a future blog post.
  • Your stories have an internal, systemic structure. They are a connection of related parts. The chapters (or sections) are themselves composed of scenes, and build on each other to form the integrated whole of the story.
  • The story element of theme is a connection between concrete things in a story to abstract ideas in real life. Similarly, the techniques of metaphor and simile are connections in the form of comparisons—relating something you’re describing in your story to something familiar or understandable to the reader.

See? If you write fiction, you must embrace the notion of Connessione to some extent. In fact, it helps to practice all seven principles— Curiosità, Dimonstrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione. Perhaps you’ll not become as well remembered or universally admired as da Vinci, but you can think like him, and write fiction as he would have. That’s the aim of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 11, 2015Permalink


We’ve come to the third principle in Michael J. Gelb’s remarkable book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. In recent blog posts, I’ve been relating each principle to fiction writers, encouraging you to think like Leonardo as you write.

SensazioneThe third principle is Sensazione, which Gelb defines as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” Leonardo knew that we experience life through our five senses; therefore, only the person who could enhance his or her senses in perception and accuracy could experience life fully.

Da Vinci’s sight and hearing were superb, and he worked to improve all his senses. He regarded sight as the most important, following by hearing.

The exercises in the Sensazione chapter of Think Like Leonardo da Vinci are among the most fun in the book. For example, Gelb suggests you smell and taste things while blindfolded until you can identify each odor and taste, even those with only slight differences.

How does this relate to writing? The Point of View character in your story also experiences life through her or his senses, just as real people do. However, the only way you can convey these sensations to your reader is through words.

I’ve blogged about the senses before, and encouraged you to incorporate all five of them in your stories. To apply Sensazione in your writing, you must choose words that precisely convey the sensations experienced by your POV character.

I don’t necessarily mean you should pile on adjectives like beautiful, pungent, sonorous, delicious, and velvety—or adverb forms. Adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) can be useful if you’re selective and choose just the most apt one. Some adjectives, like “beautiful” and “delicious” are not distinct; they tell rather than show.

Another method is with metaphors and similes. If you can compare the sensation your character is experiencing with something to which the reader can relate, and make the comparison distinct and descriptive, that’s Sensazione.

As Leonardo knew, sight is the primary sense for humans, and so it will be for your characters most of the time. But if you appeal to the other senses, too, it can only enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Also, there are times when a character’s first sensation is through one of the other senses, such as when a sight line is blocked and the character hears or smells something before seeing it. Your character might be blind, or in darkness, and will have to rely on the other four senses.

If you work to cultivate your senses in your own life, by going through Gelb’s recommended exercises, you should also strive to become more adept at describing each feeling and sensation in words. As your skill improves, readers will be drawn into your stories and connect with your characters’ experiences.

Ah! I see, hear, and smell breakfast being prepared. I’ll have to end this post now, for soon I shall feel the fork in my hand, and a succulent repast will be tasted by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 13, 2015Permalink

What are All Stories About?

Many years ago I read somewhere that all stories, without exception, are about the human condition.  The writer stated made it sound like one of those obvious statements that require no explanation, as if any doubting reader must be stupid. It may seem obvious to you, too.  However, I stopped reading and thought about the statement in a critical manner.

First, any bold statement that all members of a class of things (stories) exhibit some property (are about the human condition) is subject to the simplest of tests for accuracy.  All the skeptic has to do is come up with a single counter-example—just one!—and that disproves the statement.

The statement can’t be true, I thought.  There are a few stories that have no human characters at all, and these stories are clearly about animals or extraterrestrial aliens, etc.  Surely these stories serve as counter-examples to disprove the statement.

On further reflection, I realized they aren’t counter-examples at all.  Even stories without any humans in them are about humans.  This is because the characters, however inhuman, are serving as metaphors referring to some aspect of the human experience.  Consider any story you’ve read that has no human characters in it, and you’ll see this is true of that story, too.

Okay, so all stories are about the human condition.  What exactly is that?  The human condition is the state in which essentially all humans find themselves—the common attributes of our existence, many of which are unique to humans.  These include the fact that:

  • We are born.   We also will die, and for most of us, the date of death is unknown.
  • We are conscious and self-aware, but we do not know what happens to our consciousness at death.  Because of that, we have a fear of death and seek to preserve ourselves, to delay or avoid death.
  • We are divided, as a species, into two genders which have similarities and differences.
  • We mature as we grow from a helpless infant stage through childhood to adulthood.
  • We are a social species, with complex and varied social structures, and a need to interact with each other.
  • We have developed methods to communicate with each other to some degree, but cannot know for certain what our fellow humans are thinking.
  • We are all born on a single planet, a planet with many fascinating features.
  • We are curious about our world and about ourselves; we seek to understand more.
  • We are able to fashion tools, to manipulate resources in ways we find useful, though we are not always successful in this.
  • We have fragile bodies that are easily damaged.
  • Our minds are limited and we make mistakes.

Obviously I could go on and on.  When you think about it, the shared human condition is quite a narrow one, and it’s easy to imagine that any of these attributes might have been different.  Although the condition is very constrained, it still allows for an infinite number of stories within those limits.  Story writers may assume their readers know and understand all of the attributes of the human condition without having to explain any of them.  Moreover, writers of stories can play at the edges of any of the boundaries, and even go beyond them.

So far, all writers are human and all readers are human.  In a sense, writers can’t help writing about the human condition.  It’s all we know, and it’s what readers want to read about.  Someday, many of the attributes of the human condition may no longer be true.  Someday we will likely encounter another sentient species and human authors can write about that species’ condition, and our interactions with them, perhaps even write stories for the other species’ readers.

Until then, all stories are about the human condition.  If you still doubt me, leave a comment for–

Poseidon’s Scribe