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")