Finding story in the shadows

This weekend, a friend told me about a mind-changing exercise she did during a stage makeup class in college. The assignment was to sketch a face from a black and white photo. Challenging my friend was the fact that she couldn't draw (or at least she'd convinced herself she couldn't draw.) Seeing her getting frustrated, the instructor told her, "Forget about drawing the face. Just fill in the shadows."

"So I did that," she told me. "No lines. No shapes. Just shading. And eventually -- there was Clark Gable."

My brain instantly went to how that lesson could be applied to storytelling.

I'm currently writing a book in which a main character dies very early on in the story. I knew I wanted this woman's presence to be felt, vibrantly alive, throughout the book. Because the book is also a history of a cultural shift, I didn't want to fudge up the timeline with a bunch of flashbacks. I experimented with a structure that made her death the climax of the book and revealed the cultural shift in flash-forwards, but that quickly turned to moose droppings.

What clicked when my friend told me about that experience is that this woman cast a very large shadow. Her life was short, but her influence has been profound. The story of the cultural shift and the changes in the lives of the people she loved -- that is her story.

Now apply the same dynamic in microcosm. Say for example, the "line" of the action is that a body hits the floor. That action is the line, but the story is in the shadows. A shudder through the ceiling of the downstairs neighbor, blood spattered on a cat, an ominous smell reported by the newspaper boy. Who turned? What tipped? Why did it matter?

A tree falls in the forest and no one was there to hear. Did it make a sound? That's been debated in salons, classrooms, and corner bars for ages. One thing is certain, it cast a shadow. It changed things. And that's where the story is.

(Above: Lubomir Bukov's "Shadows of the Past")


Suzan Harden said…
Wow. Neat concept to chew over with breakfast. Thanks, Joni!
Excellent post, Joni. And I, for one, can't wait to see what you do with these particular shadows.
Marilyn Brant said…
Joni, this is a wonderful post. It reminded me of my high school art classes where we were supposed to draw the negative space--or we had to draw the image upside down--both exercises used so we could detach from what we "knew" about the picture and sketch just what was "there"... I love the application to writing--thank you!
Darnell Arnoult said…
I love the way you can take another medium and make the techniques in that medium work for writing. I use photos a lot to teach ficion and I have the students look at the negative space. Now I can add the shadows to that assignment. As a matter of fact, I think I'll go do it myself right now, because the story often lives in the shadows.

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