Leonardo da Vinci introduced a mindset that every author should be employing in their writing, if they are not already. This mindset resulted from a technique da Vinci used in his paintings called sfumato, or “gone up in smoke”. I use it so often that I don’t think of it as a technique anymore, but I found it interesting to read the explorations of it by one most famous artists in history. The basic tenet of the sfumato technique da Vinci made famous, was to avoid using specific and concrete lines in his paintings. This might not sound like a novel technique to the accomplished artist of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Da Vinci did not invent this technique, as some evidence suggests it dates back to the chiaroscuro effects used by ancient Greeks and Romans, but da Vinci took it to another level. As author Walter Isaacson wrote, Leonardo was so obsessed with using shadows and reflected light that he wrote fifteen thousand words on the topic, “And that is probably less than half of what he originally wrote,” Isaacson opined.
The sfumato technique also applies to writing. When an author begins writing a story, they characterize their main character with bold lines through unique, individualistic, and semi-autobiographical lines. The more an author explores that character, the more they chip away at strict characterization and allow the character to breathe for themselves in a manner that adds dimension. They characterize with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions with others and events. Their main character becomes more prominent through these literary devices, until the central character becomes the literary equivalent to an eye of the storm.
In writing, we call the sfumato technique “the show don’t tell” technique. The author uses supporting characters and setting to define their main character, and they use all of this to bring the events involved in their stories to life. The takeaway might be that the optimum characterizations are those characterizations that appear more organic to the reader. In other words, the author should be working his or her tail off to make the work appear so easy that the reader thinks anyone could do it.
The aspiring writer should also know the principles of Chekov’s Razor that they employ them so often in their writing that they don’t realize they’re using it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader.
Anyone who knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the experienced writer starts writing. We can call this the discovery phase. In the discovery phase, the writing is gibberish that no one but the writer can understand. This is the “all play no work” phase for most writers, as it allows them to be creative. They love to write with an ending in mind, and they love the process of working to that ending. While working to the ending, the creative mind might change the ending, based on little points of discovery leading up to the original ending. Once that ending is changed, however, some of the little points leading up to it need to be changed.
The greater takeaway for aspiring writers is to get the idea down before you forget it. Don’t worry about sequencing, chronology, grammar, spelling, or if this story is the base for the next great American novel. Just write it down and worry about all the editing later. Just writing a bunch of gibberish down, only the writer understands, opens them up to the subject matter. Once the author is in, the material might have the wherewithal to be in a near proximity to where a story lies, but the real story could take paragraphs, or pages, to develop.
Chekov’s razor focuses on threes, the first three paragraphs, and/or three pages of a manuscript, short story, or essay, but I’ve found this length arbitrary. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I don’t think anyone writes gibberish just to write gibberish, it feels like this could or should be the story at the time. I lock myself up when I try to determine if the writing is up to my standard, or if it’s going anywhere. I unlock myself by writing it and deleting later if necessary.
Chekov’s razor comes into play when we go back and delete if necessary. In those opening paragraphs is the gibberish that the writer used to familiarize them with the material. It was the entry point to defeat the blinking cursor.
In the course of writing past the blinking cursor stage, we discover pivot points that take us to the next stages of the story, but we don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, we discover that the pivot point is the story. The frustration falls on two tracks, the first is that we fell in love with that original idea, and it’s tough to just walk away. The other is that we “wasted” so much time writing “the other” story that we loved. When writers achieve the ultimate point of objectivity, when they realize story is sacred, they begin sacrificing all the information they love to leave information you will.
Thus, I don’t believe there is magic in the power of threes in employing Chekov’s Razor to storytelling. A central idea, or pivot point arrives in the course of writing, but the point of Chekov’s razor is to dump and delete the useless information the writer used to write the story.
An important note to add here is that if most authors work the same way I do, we do not write for the expressed purpose of finding the core of our story. Our perspective is, we think we already have the story, and that the only chore involves building upon it. The discovery of the core of story often humbles the author and slaps them back to the realization that no matter how many times we write a story, the art of writing involves mining the brain for ideas rather than having a brain loaded with brilliant ideas. That conceit eventually reveals itself to those willing to write a lot of material, and it’s up to the author to recognize the difference for what it is, if they want a quality story.
It happens in the course of writing it, editing it after we’re done, or in the daydreaming stage that can last for days, weeks, or months. I do not enjoy deleting the chunks of material I’ve written, and I don’t think anyone does, but the quality author will develop the ability to recognize what portion of the story is for them and which portion is for the reader, and they will crib note or delete the part of the story that is for them.
I don’t consider the revelation of these techniques a glamorization of my process. I think it demystifies the process by suggesting that anyone can do this, as long as they write as often as they need to discover what should become the central focus for the reader. Every author needs to move past their conceit of their self-defined brilliance to find the story they’re trying to tell, and learn how to work from within it.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the most prominent use of Chekov’s razor can be found in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.