Da Vinci’s Sfumato and Chekov’s Razor

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 of 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 the character with shading and reflection, or refraction through supporting characters, until they have done little to characterize the main character except through their interactions 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.

Chekov’s Razor

The aspiring author should also be using Chekov’s Razor so often that they don’t realize they’re doing it. The idea of Chekov’s razor is that the first three paragraphs, or pages that an author writes, are for the author, and the rest is for the reader.

Anyone that knows anything about the writing process knows that the blinking cursor, or the blank page, can be daunting. To defeat the blinking cursor, the writer should start writing an idea down. This technique opens the author to 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 an arbitrary length. When I begin a story, I think I have a full-fledged introduction on my hands. I think this idea, warts and all, will be the story. I know I will eventually need a pivot point(s) to take me to the next stage(s) of the story, but I don’t consider them anything more than what they are at the time. In the course of rewriting, however, I discover that the pivot point is the story. I can’t tell those reading how many times it has happened to me, or a general area in which they occur, but I often find it frustrating to realize how much time I wasted building upon an original idea only to realize it’s all dreck compared to a pivot point I wrote and everything I wrote after it. 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 at in the course of writing.

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 a story. We think we’ve already found it, and that the only chore involved thereafter is 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.

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.


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