Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Focus on the Beauty

There’s a rule in photography that we can apply to writing: focus on whatever attracted you to the shot. Or we could word it as, focus on the beauty. The idea is that if you see a beautiful sunset, or an unusual flower, or you like the way something is reflecting off of a building, that you zoom in or frame that aspect of the shot, to that when people look at the photo, their eyes are drawn to the beauty you were trying to capture. Don’t show the whole tree when what attracted you was the setting sun shining through the leaves as a butterfly rests on the blooms.

When begin to write a story or anything else, there is something that attracted us to it. With each of my books, I can tell you that one thing that attracted me to the story. In the latest one, And Thy House, what attracted me to the story was a parent teaching his children to reject God and then realizing that he was wrong, after they are too old to listen. The beauty I saw in For the Love of a Devil was the unconditional love of God, as revealed through the story of Hosea. I’m sure that other writers have similar experiences.

Once we can pinpoint that element of beauty that attracted us to the story, we should narrow our focus to that one thing. If you want the technical term, we are talking about theme, but that sounds almost too cold. We have a strong emotional attachment to the element of beauty in our story. If we aren’t emotionally attached to our theme, either we don’t know what our theme is or the story isn’t worth writing. Just like the photographer tries to highlight the beauty in his pictures, we want to draw our reader’s attention to what attracted us to the story.

Left to our own devices, we would probably do just that. If we didn’t have readers to think about and we thought of a story, such as a story about two penguins falling in love, we would probably stay focused on our theme, but we have to worry about tension and word count and genre. We have setting and point of view and we start throwing in these gimmicks that we think will make the reader more interested in the story. We can lose our focus and the beauty gets hidden behind other stuff. It’s easy to ruin the story.

In a personal example, I have a manuscript hidden away in a closet. I sent it out to a few agents, most of whom didn’t respond and I am partly glad. I tried to make the story into one about a wealthy man who has a girl show up on his doorstep, claiming to be his granddaughter, but he is unwilling to accept that as truth because it would be an embarrassment. It isn’t a bad story. I enjoyed writing it, but I keep thinking the payoff isn’t strong enough. What it comes down to is that I didn’t focus on the beauty that attracted me to the story. The beauty of this story isn’t the grandfather who must learn to be more accepting of people beneath him, but it is the unlikely mother who has raised the girl as her own because her mother was unable to care for her. I found myself drawn to that beauty as I wrote the story, but kept trying to make it about the old man.

Someday, I intend to revisit that story, but I’ll focus on the beauty. The plot will change. The decisions will be tougher. The characters will be nicer, but the result will be a much better story.

Question: What is it that attracted you to your stories?