From the very beginning of my time here at Magical Words, I’ve advocated reading outside of genre. Not that we shouldn’t read within genre, too — we should — we must. But rather that, in addition to genre reading, reading outside of genre will open our eyes to different ways of telling a story, crafting a scene, playing with dialogue, or any other aspect of writing fiction. Today, I’m going to take this idea one step further and suggest you also explore beyond the art and craft of writing by delving into a different art form and see what you can bring back with you.
Here’s where I’m coming from — before I began a writing career, I directed theater. Got a degree in it and everything. In learning the craft of directing, my professors had me read the works of actors, scenic designers, lighting designers, costume designers, and directors. There were many reasons for this, some quite practical such as understanding what all the people working for me are doing, but reading how artists of different disciplines approached the acts of creation and execution opened my eyes to new thought processes and new ways to view art.
The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmund Jones, in particular, blew me away. Robert Edmund Jones was a stage, lighting, and costume designer in the 1930s and 1940s. He came into theater at a time of lavish, expensive productions that tended to be more spectacle than anything else (much like today’s Broadway), and he turned it on its head by finding the heart of the plays he worked on and expressing that heart in his, at times, minimalist designs. That in itself is a fascinating approach to read about, but what a writer can really glean from Jones is how to utilize your setting. Jones wrote that stage sets should be more than just a background for the actors to play upon. Stage sets should be living, breathing environments for the actors to live within.
Well, the same goes for the environments we create in our stories. If we just pay lip service to the setting, then our characters are playing out their scene in front of a poorly-painted backdrop. If, instead, we bring the setting to life, then our readers can see it, feel it, smell it, and in doing so, our characters become more real, too.
Stage and film director Peter Brook, who wrote The Empty Space, is another artist worth learning from. Working since the 1960s, Brook has much to say about using the space actors perform in and how directors can approach bringing a text to life. In particular, I was struck by a tale Brook relates regarding how he planned out each moment of a play on a model of the stage with little model actors, only to discover how stale it all felt in real life when he forced the actors to go against their instincts. It’s a bit of the plotter vs pantser conundrum played out on the stage.
Beyond theater, I’ve had the pleasure to meet artist and fantasy cover illustrator Tom Kidd. In his book Kiddography, he discusses both his artistic thoughts growing up as well as his practical applications in creating art. The paintings alone are worth the cover price and provide endless inspiration, but like other art forms, taking a look at how a painter’s mind works — what inspires it, what challenges it faces, why it makes certain choices — can only help improve your own art.
Because, ultimately, as writers, we have to do it all. We not only come up with a story and the words our characters will say, but we also must design the sets, design the costumes, design the lighting, choose the colors of the walls, the furniture, the grass, the trees, the sky, and we must paint them on. We even have to design the actors. We have to paint the pictures for our readers to see. We have to employ so many different art forms that the more we learn about those art forms, the more we can utilize their techniques in our work. I haven’t even touched on music, sculpture, weaving, dance, or a hundred others. And while it would take an enormous amount of time and effort to learn all these other art forms, thankfully, throughout history, artists have been quite open about writing down their thoughts. So in addition to all your fiction reading and all your non-fiction research for the new shiny, you now can add non-fiction art books to the list of must reads. The artists have been kind enough to give us this information, we should go take advantage of it.