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 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.

Chekov’s Razor

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

How to Succeed in Writing V: Anton Chekov’s guide to the editing process

“Throw out your first three pages,” Russian playwright Anton Chekov advises writers.  Writers are a romantic, emotional, and sentimental lot, and they love every single one of the pages they’ve written, but they tend to be most sentimental about the first three pages of their stories.  Those pages are their babies, as beloved as any humans they happened to create.  They’re the pages—more than any of the others—that were the most fun to write.  They were the pages where their incredible idea—that magically turned into a story—was borne.  They’re crap, says Chekov, and they’re boring, and they amount to nothing more than circumlocution.

Circumlocution, for those, like me, who need to look up such a word, means using an excessively large number of words to express an idea.

Chekov also advises writers to delete as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, for “art must be grabbed at once, instantaneously.”  But Chekov’s most prominent editing advice for writers, regards deleting those first three pages.  Writers will call this bit of advice Chekov’s razor, and it’s well known in writer communities that take the goal of attempting to achieve literary perfection seriously.  If you have a friend that is a writer, and they have never heard about Chekov’s razor—and you’re feeling particularly nasty—let them know about this piece of advice, and you might be able to see a grown man cry.

Writing a great story, one that pops off the page, is hard.  If you call most writers to task, they will admit that very few of their stories pop off the page. It’s hard to do, and it doesn’t happen often for us.  When it does happen, it’s our natural inclination to try to inform our readers of some of the process involved in that magical moment.  It’s a selfish conceit we have to introduce our colorful cast characters that were borne entirely out of our imagination.  We want you to see how brilliant we are, but more than that we want you to experience the joy of our creation in the manner we did in creating them, and we have a difficult time trying to separate ourselves from that joy of creation and perfecting the story for your enjoyment.  We want you to feel the magic we felt in the process, because we loved the process, and if you ask us about our story we’ll probably concentrate our summary on those first three pages, because that’s where the twinkle in our eye was borne.

Objectivity was the point Chekov was trying to assist writers in achieving with this timeless advice he offered.  Objectivity that he presumably hoped would allow the creator the vantage point of viewing their material from the reader’s perspective.  Objectivity in that it should be a writer’s goal to distance themselves from the story just a tad to make it more palatable to a greater audience.  Writers, of all forms, attempt to send a message with their words.  Their stories are snapshots of the their view of the world, but it can get muddled in the closed perspective of personalization, and the first three pages, says this logic, is where most of this personalization occurs.  Take these pages out and you take out most of your personal entreaties into this world, and you’re more apt to leave a reader with the feeling that this story may apply to them too.

We’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen in these first three pages.  We trying to lay a foundation for a the story in these first three pages, and once we achieve that foundation we leap into an actual story world.  That foundation is, more often than not, where most exposition occurs, because we’re trying to explain our story to us.  If you’ve ever heard an experienced writer talk about the word exposition, you’ve usually heard them refer to it as the ‘E’ word, as if saying the full word aloud is equivalent to a Catholic saying the ‘F’ word in a cathedral.

“Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story,” says Robert Kernen.  “It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail.  Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on.”

Exposition is basically explaining.  Explain too much, or provide too much exposition, and we’ll get sad faces in the margins from our editors, our readers will yawn and mentally scream at you to get on with the action for the love of St. Pete, or they may not even read your story, because you’ve lost pace before you even started the story.  To paraphrase Chekov there’s too much circumlocution going on in there.

Have you ever read through your story and reached a point where you want to skip through parts?  Chances are those parts contained too much exposition.  Delete them now, says Chekov, before anyone else sees them…especially those instances that occur in the first three pages.  You’ll have most of what you need to have in an interesting story—if it is an interesting story—figured out by page four.  The first three pages were for you.

The latter line is important to those creators in the process of creating, for in the process of creating you need to know what you’re doing with this story, who your characters are, what your setting is, and where you’re going.  With that in mind, you may not want to delete these first three pages, until your story reaches the final stages.  Once you’ve reached that point, you can use Chekov’s razor, then go back in and add the germane sentences of those first three pages throughout the body of the work, and it’s at that point that you’ll begin to see that most of the information for what it was.

“Starting a story, we all tend to circle around, explain a lot of stuff, set things up that don’t need to be set up.  Then we find our way and get going, and the story begins … very often just about on page 3.” — Ursula LeGuin.

But the first three pages contains the thesis statement, you argue, that beautiful opening line that it took you a week to write properly, and the defining moment that crystallized who our character was going to be once this story got going.  Sure, my story takes off on page four, but the reader has to know the backdrop before the takeoff.  My story is the exception, you say, it just wouldn’t work without those first three pages.

Most people think that their story is so exceptional that it is the exception to this rule, but if most people think this way isn’t it reasonable to think that we might be able to separate ourselves from the pack by not thinking we are the exception to the rule?  It will break your heart, in the manner it broke your heart to dump the first lover that you liked a lot, but with whom you knew you had no future.  You knew that lover did nothing to advance your life, and you knew the two of you were wasting each other’s time in the greater sense of the word, but you liked being around them.  Once you dumped them, and you moved on, you realized that it was the best thing you ever did.  If you think there’s any merit to Chekov’s advice, try cutting the first three pages and placing them in a new file.  Once you’ve done that, try reading your novel without the first three pages, and you’ll find that you can place the germane material in the first three pages in a couple of sentences here and there throughout the body of the work.  Doing so will show you the idea that Chekov was trying to get across with his advice, and you’ll learn the true definition of exposition, and your readers will thank you for your efforts.

A short story would be an exception to the rule, of course, as some short stories are only three pages long.  If this is the case, you may want to try deleting the first three paragraphs, or any sentences that introduce your readers to the essay, or non-fiction piece, you are creating.  The important part of Chekov’s razor is that we delete the exposition that we have placed in the story to helps us understand what we’re trying to say in our artistic creation and get our readers straight into the story.

Chekov’s razor is, in my opinion, intended to assist writers in the process of attempting to create entertaining material, regardless what it does to your love of the creation.  It is also intended to provide the writer the tough love necessary to progress from a writer that loves to write to an author that readers love to read.  It is heartless advice that doesn’t take our romantic, emotional and sentimental needs into account, but like a child that exhibits some discipline problems writers need tough love too.  In the end, Chekov’s Razor may not work for your story.  It may be that your story is, in fact, the exception to the rule, but is has proven to be very helpful advice for writers all along the aisle.