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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

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How to Succeed in Writing part I: Answering Leonardo Da Vinci’s Questions


I would love to tell you that you have a lot to learn from me if you want to be a successful writer in one regard: I’ve never quit.  I would love to tell you that my passion for all forms of writing has overwhelmed all of the potholes I’ve run across in the road, and that I’ve always stood strong in the face of those negatives in order that I would one day become a successful writer.

Robert Hayes sweating in AirplaneI would love to have you picture me in a Gatorade commercial that depicts me writing with colored beads of sweat pouring down my face as a voiceover says: “Rilaly says never say die!”  I look to the camera at that point.  I look mean, I look mad, and I look driven. “Quit?  The word is not even in my vocabulary!” I would say with a look of disgust for you for even asking a question you haven’t asked, “I haven’t even quit smoking!”  I would love to present that image to you, but it’s not true.  I have quit.  I’ve quit more times than I care to discuss.

I’ve grown tired of writing fiction, and I’ve felt more dejected trying to succeed in this field than I have in any other areas of my life, including my dating life.  I’ve gone through bouts of insecurity that double those I’ve endured in any other areas of my life, and I’ve worked in numerous fast-paced, hyper-critical jobs.  If you ever met me, you would know that I’m a relatively confident guy, and I love my life.  Writing novels, short fiction, creative non-fiction, political blogs, and little entertaining, philosophical vignettes has made me happier, more miserable, more disgusted, more vulnerable to the smallest criticism, and more proud of myself than anything else I’ve tried in my life thus far.

If that’s the case you say, then why should I try it?  Why do I need the headache or heartache?  Why would I even entertain the idea of writing a novel?  How do I know if I’m good enough to even start?    I’ve never done anything like this before.  The very prospect of starting down such a road is a little scary to me.  Scary, you say, and a little exciting at the same time.

writing is hardWriting a novel is hard, don’t let anyone kid you.  I’ve written four novels, and three short story collections, and just about every one of them has been difficult to complete.  Very few of them have flowed so well that I thought I made it look easy.  George Kennedy star of Naked Gun, Cool Hand Luke, and over 200 films and television productions, wrote one book in 1983.  After writing this novel, called “Murder on Location”, Kennedy said it was the hardest thing he ever did.  “I do not envy those people who do it for a living,” he said.  “It’s the most trying thing I’ve ever done.”

Just because it’s hard, and just because it may be one of the most trying accomplishments you’ve ever attempted, does not mean it can’t be done.  The rewards for completion are satisfying, enriching, and in many ways therapeutic.  With that said, only you can know if this is the field for you.  Only you!  Only you can answer the mandatory questions that need to be asked in a manner that lets you know that you are a writer.

Leonardo da Vinci had a belief that the only method through which one could answer a question is by asking questions.  That may seem so obvious it’s laughable, but he asked himself hundreds of little questions on every project he pursued.  His goal was objectivity.  He wanted to look at every project from every angle he could imagine to see if he could enhance his view of the project or find it pointless to pursue.  Some of these questions were harsh, some were leading, and others seemed to have no pertinence at all, until he asked them and tried to answer them.  You cannot worry about hurting your feelings when you ask yourself these questions.  You cannot worry if these questions change your opinion of yourself one hundred and eighty degrees.  The questions must be asked.

Most of us ask ourselves questions all the time, but how probing are these questions?  Most of these questions reveal that we have little objectivity about ourselves.  Most of the questions we ask ourselves are leading questions.  Most of us ask ourselves the questions we enjoy answering.  “Do I really need to eat another piece of pie?”  Why, yes I do.  I need those endorphins racing around in my brain like they did on the first slice.  That was nirvana!  “I deserve a second slice.  I’ve been good!”  Then we eat that piece and realize it wasn’t nearly as rewarding as we thought it would be.  Then we pay the price in sluggishness from the sugar lows, in weight gain and its subsequent effect on our appearance, and we’re a little frustrated that we didn’t display more will power.  We know now that we obviously didn’t ask ourselves the right questions.

In the coming weeks, we will be asking you the questions about yourself that you may not want to ask about becoming a writer.  These questions may be a little harsh.  We may ask you to ask yourself some questions you don’t want to answer.  If you really want to become a writer, however, you will need to ask them.