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

Do the Objective Correlative

No, the Objective Correlative isn’t a dance step, so far as I know.  It’s a literary term that can be hard to comprehend.  Let’s see if I can explain it in words even I can understand.

Imagine you’re an author writing a scene in which a boy encounters a rather scary bear.  You want to convey to the reader the emotion felt by the boy when he senses the bear is watching him from somewhere, but he can’t see the animal.  You could simply state the boy was scared.  That would violate the principle of show, don’t tell we’ve discussed before, and it’s rather on the amateurish side. You could instead paint a word picture of the scene, as William Faulkner did in his story, “The Bear.”

He heard no dogs at all.  He never did hear them.  He only heard the drumming of the woodpecker stop short off and knew that the bear was looking at him.  He never saw it.  He did not know whether it was in front of him or behind him.  He did not move, holding the useless gun, which he had not even had warning to cock and which even now he did not cock, tasting in his saliva that taint as of brass which he knew now because he had smelled it when he peered under the kitchen at the huddled dogs.

First we have the sudden silence of normally noisy animals–dogs and a woodpecker.  We have the sense of “blindness” in that the boy cannot see the bear.  Faulkner describes the boy’s only potential weapon in countering the situation as “useless” and not even cocked.  There’s a cold, metallic taste in his mouth.  Finally we find the dogs huddled, hiding.

In a few sentences, Faulkner shows us that terror of being watched, vulnerable, unable to even confront the danger.  Never once does he mention the boy’s emotion, and yet we feel it nonetheless because of the situation, the chain of events, the details chosen in the passage.  Moreover, a single one of the details wouldn’t have sufficed; the combination of several details completes the effect of evoking the emotion.

That is the Objective Correlative.  The artist Washington Allston coined the term around 1840 and meant it to be applied to painting.  T.S. Eliot later revived the term and applied it to literature.  I came across the concept while surfing the web one day when I came across this site.

T.S. Eliot said there are ways to fall short of having the right objective correlative.  The details in a scene might not leave readers with any particular emotion, or maybe with the wrong one.

You can use common literary symbols as part of an objective correlative.  Some of the many symbols used to represent an emotion include the color blue to mean calm, darkness to mean fear, rain to mean sadness, and a mouse to represent shyness.

Of course, readers vary by culture and background and some words do not convey the same emotions to all.  Still, the objective correlative is an effective tool for maximizing the emotional impact of your writing.  I encourage you to ‘do the objective correlative’ even if it isn’t a dance.  Did this blog entry help you understand the term?  Leave a comment and let me know.  Dancing here in this little corner of the Internet you’ll find–

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe



When Things Mean Other Things

What do you think of symbolism in writing?  Most of us have been through English (Language Arts) classes where the teacher encouraged us to find symbols in some of the great works of literature.  This is a bit of a stretch for high school students, but school is all about stretching young minds, isn’t it?  Some of us had the unfortunate experience of guessing at a symbol and being told we were wrong.

This raises several questions.  Should writers use symbolism?  If they do, and readers detect and interpret the symbols correctly, does that enhance the reading experience?  If a reader picks up on a symbol the writer didn’t intend, is the reader wrong?

This site lists some of the more common symbols and what they often mean.  But almost anything tangible can serve as a symbol, as long as it relates to the plot, gives added meaning to the story, and is appropriate for the thing (usually something intangible) it’s symbolizing.

Here, writer John T. Reed makes the case that the exercise of looking for symbolism is silly, and no more than a parlor game.  The essay is persuasive, and he argues writers should strive for clarity, not make it a struggle for readers to decode hidden meanings.  Moreover, he says those who seek symbolism often find things unintended by the author.

In Isaac Asimov’s essay on symbolism, he wrote, “When I complained to someone who worked up a symbolic meaning of my story ‘Nightfall’ that made no sense to me at all, he said to me, haughtily, ‘What makes you think you understand the story just because you’ve written it?’… Sometimes it is quite demonstrable that an author inserts a deeper symbolism than he knows-or even understands.”

An intriguing exchange.  Authors have to remember that written storytelling is a curious form of human communication.  The purpose of communication is to convey information from one human mind to another.  But storytelling is one-way only:  writer to reader.  The writer need not even be alive any more, and often isn’t.  The reader’s enjoyment of a story is a personal, internal experience, without any possibility (usually) of asking for clarification or explanation.

Therefore, it seems to me readers get to decide what symbolism they discover in a story, and no one should say they’re wrong.  Not English teachers, and not even the author.

As to whether writers should intentionally use symbolism in their stories, that’s a question for each author to decide.  I’ve used symbolism purposefully in some of my stories, and not in others.  In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the human eye symbolizes the future, whether it’s the large eyes of Heron’s friend Praxiteles or the painted eyes on the Greek ships.  In “The Vessel,” the circle symbolizes the old unity of the previous Atlantean culture, but the ceramic drinking flagon symbolizes the attempt to preserve and spread that culture to other, more primitive societies.

One of my favorite uses of symbolism is in Jules Verne’s novel The Mighty Orinoco, which involves a mission to find the source of the river Orinoco.  Finding the sources of rivers was a major 19th century geographical pursuit.  One of the main characters on the mission is also seeking his father, lost somewhere along the river.  Note the symbolic parallel between the river’s source and the source of one’s own life.

In closing, I think it was Sigmund Freud who reminded us, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but I suspect Groucho Marx would have replied, “Just?”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the use of symbolism in fiction, so feel free to leave a comment for–

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe