Compositional Balance in Writing

Work is progressing on the cover for Highfields Volume One, albeit at a slow pace which is necessitated by my having to re-acquaint myself with the art of oil painting and learning to use a complex art program at the same time.

That and the fact that the stylus tablet and the computer are displaying a tendency toward a hostile relationship based on USB non-recognition that is giving me some wasted hours. They’re as bad as my two teenage daughters.

However, this blog is about writing, not art, so this post is about a cross-over concept I found myself contemplating today.

When embarking on a painting, the first step is to nail down the composition of the piece; getting the proportions and balance set, deciding on the tonality of the colors and light to be utilized and layering the components into a correct perspective viewpoint.

It struck me how similar this is to setting out a written project; there are a number of parallels that we, as writers, do well to consider.

True, some of the terminology may be at variance with the art world, but overall composition remains something that is critical in the preparatory stages of any written piece, is it not?

Leonardo Da Vinci was a master at the art of composition; his works drawing the viewer into the piece, causing the eye to ponder the magical proportions and expressions made possible by his fascination with the physical construction of nature as well as the depths of complex mathematics.

The most famous of these, Mona Lisa’s smile, is a classic example of this technique.

So it is with writers; the very best are able to capture the reader’s mind and imagination by portraying the story in a way that is faintly undefinable, but very real.

Being a fan of 18th and 19th century naval novels myself, the writer who first comes to my mind is the sadly departed Patrick O’Brian.

The Aubrey-Maturin series, as it is now known, is a captivating twenty book series (with a twenty first book part completed) that O’Brian gifted to the world over a thirty year period beginning in 1970.

When reflecting upon the art of fictional composition, it is hard to ignore O’Brian’s mastery of the concept. Although writing a successful twenty book series without becoming formulaic would be impossible, the structure of the individual books still remains complex and deep, and the emergent formulaic construction of the last few books (unavoidable, to my mind) is of no consequence to the readers continued enjoyment.

This, then, is where composition becomes more of a challenge than writing a stand alone work and moving on to something different would be.

We know that a book must have several levels of arcing within it; the main plot, sub-plots, mini arcs, and so on. Imagine, though, the level of planning and depth to carry a series for twenty novels without losing the reader’s interest.

The key, I believe, lies in the development of not just characters, but their relationships with one another. Particularly difficult is the depiction of relationships in ages past; not too much of a trial for myself with 1969, but very much so for those who delve into many centuries past.

The American film industry is almost criminal in its injection of modern-day speech and values into the minds of populations past and I believe society as a whole is  so much the poorer for it.

Writers have, I think, a responsibility to be a little less blase about accuracy in historical narrative; doing the research and spending the time to get the right feel for the setting, rather than the Hollywood approach of using the equivalent of neon light and mirror balls in a Renaissance painting.

Of even greater importance is the relationships between individuals in these historical settings.

O’Brian developed the main plot line for his series, the friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Steven Maturin, in the plots of three previous novels; The Road to Samarcand, The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore.

Each of these is centered around a friendship between two men. This, then, is the driver for the entire Aubrey-Maturin series as well, and the depth of the two characters is essential to the success of the series.

Jack Aubrey has a sometimes tempestuous relationship with the good doctor; political belief, patriotism, aggression and superstition are all explored through the polarized viewpoints of these two main characters.

To me, this is a parallel to the use of color and light in a series of works from an artist. Indeed, some artists use the same color and light techniques throughout their careers, making their work unmistakable.

I am re-learning the importance of correct color and light balance; the difference a few highlights can make to the believability of a few leaves on a tree is incredible.

The proportions of a picture can also have an immense influence on the quality of a piece of art; these proportions as used in composition are so ingrained in the art world that it is known as the “Golden Ratio”, or earlier in history “The Divine Proportion”.

Defining a “Golden Ratio” for literature is nowhere near as simple. The human eye may have an affinity with certain mathematical formulas, but the imagination is a far more subtle thing.

Thus we have to achieve a balance between story telling and real life; stray too far toward story telling and the plot becomes unbelievable, err on the side of realism and we cease to entertain.

Due to the complexities of fiction writing there is, I believe, no “Golden Ratio” between realism and story telling.

We must decide this ratio ourselves; the hero needs to win the day, but he must do so in a way that doesn’t stray us too far into 1960’s James Bond territory.

Who today doesn’t rail at the Bond villain of years past with anguished cries of, “Just shoot him, you idiot!”?

Indeed, the ability to tell a compelling story without losing historical accuracy and believability is a challenge that we should all, I think, take hold of wholeheartedly.

We have the privilege of connecting two worlds, if we are ready to take the dare; the world of today with the world of yesterday.

It is almost an act of diplomacy, is it not? We are facilitating the coming together of two very different groups of people, our audience and our characters.

If we get it right, then both sides of the table can benefit; our audience gets to see the world through the lens of society past, while, hopefully, the past gets a little more polish put on the lens through which we see it.




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