Research — Looking at Other Art Forms


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.


15 comments to Research — Looking at Other Art Forms

  • Very astute observations my friend. I have only, through the reading of classics outside of the fantasy/sci-fi genre, polished my writing style and researched the topics I utilize. Luckily, I watch a lot of theater and film, but henceforth, I will be watching it with a keen new interest.

  • Loed this post, Stuart! I have a few artist friends, and I am always fascinated when they discuss their processes of creation. I can’t draw a reasonable fascimile of a stick-man; words are my medium. To listen to them talk about how they ‘see’ something and how they will break it down into shape and color and light and dark and detail and suggestion is truly an education. Thank you for reminding me to try to ‘think’ outside the medium of words when ‘painting’ my worlds!

  • This is great advice for all artists -to read outside the mode they are currently engaged with. Art history is one of my favorite subjects to read and explore. It is enriching, because not only do I as an artist myself, become heartened through learning about the trials, travails and triumphs of those who have come before me, but I also end up learning a lot about politics, mythology, history in general. Today for instance, my pleasure reading is “The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War” by Stewart Home. It is a quintessential survey of various fringe art groups and movements following dada and surrealism, including fluxus, the Situationist International and more. This kind of study can help sharpen critical thinking skills, which in turn may help an individual reasses the basic assumptions of his or her craft.

    Also in looking at the arts I think it is important to be engaged with the contemporary as well the classic. To know what has come before and to have an informed sense of what is going on now.

    Finally, inspiration comes from many sources. The images, sounds, textures, theoretical and conceptual aspects of art all can be fed into fictive universes. The oblique strategies employed by other artists may be something I can mimic in another medium. William S. Burrough’s wrote that “writing is fifty years behind painting” and in many ways he is still correct, even though it has been decades since he said that! Now we are in an age where multimedia is the norm, so let the cross-pollinisation of the arts continue.

  • I totally agree about looking at other art-forms, or other types of writing. I actually found that listening to biographies and non-fiction in my car actually starts to help me spawn ideas. My favorite listen is “The Meaning of Everything”, which is tells the story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Really fascinating stuff, there!

    I think you make a good point about pantsing versus plotting; sometimes I find that what I plan for my characters isn’t what they need to do at that point, and if I force them through it, the story reads flat and uninteresting.

  • My brother is a visual artist — he’s a plein-air painter. My sister is a script writer. I’m a musician. And I couldn’t agree more with the idea that writers can learn so much about our own work by looking at other art forms. What strikes me again and again, particularly in my conversations with my brother, is how similar our creative processes are. The art forms couldn’t be more different, but the thoughts and emotions behind the art, the experience of creating — these things are quite similar. Nice post, Stuart. Thanks for giving me stuff to think about today.

  • Unicorn

    Very interesting post, Stuart. I’ve always thought of a novel as a particularly troublesome play: you the writer are directing it, the actors simply won’t listen, and you’re the only person on the place who doesn’t have a script.
    When I get stuck with a story, I often get a sheet of paper and a pencil and sketch a character or a scene. It gets me unstuck, for some reason. I’m not much good at drawing, but it does help me to visualise and draws me further in to the story.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Great observation, Stuart. Like you I’m a theatre guy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues to run through next week for those in the Charlotte area: can’t beat steampunk fairies!). I’ve learned a lot about story and character from theatre, but like others here I find I learn from other art forms too, both stuff which might be called research, and stuff which is more about sensibility, about aesthetic focus and tonal awareness. You can’t always track the links back to my writing directly but they are there and they are invaluable.

  • Hi everyone. My computer went kablooey last night, so I’m stealing a few seconds on my wife’s laptop. I should have my computer back up and running late on Monday, so I won’t be absent too long. As for today, thanks all for your comments. I’m glad to see so many of you already utilize other art forms in your life.

  • When a published writer and friend told me 19th century literature has no value in modern writing it surprised me. Not only do I learn a great deal from current visual artists, films, and various genre books; I gain a insight from old B-movies, both non-current and contemporary theater, and even dance. Literature is art using words as a medium. In my opinion, SFF has more color and texture but the same canvass as all other forms of fiction. I enjoyed your post, Stuart. Thank you.

  • This post was quite interesting to read. I have a lot of other hobbies in various art forms, you could say, which inspire and enrich my writing. I write songs from my characters points of view (some of my characters are songwriters themselves), I sketch and draw my characters, and the clothing I sew often looks similar to what they would wear.

    Not to say it’s just my own participation in creating other types of art that inspires my writing. I love finding music that sounds like a mental soundtrack for my characters, or for their world (music that they’d like or that could be their ‘themesong’). Same goes for art, etc.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see I’m not alone. And power to the theatre nerds! One thing I love about writing is getting into the characters’ heads–I’m an actor at heart…

  • Churnok

    A very interesting article. I write and review fan fiction as a hobby and already employ some of the ideas touched upon here when I write. I assume the reader is new to the world I’m writing in so I try to paint a clear image of what the setting and characters look like with my words. I’ve also advised other fan fiction writers to do the same. I find it helps develop the story and make it more believable.
    Which brings me to some questions I have. I’m new to this site so forgive me if I’m not using the proper channels here. What’s the general opinion of professional writers on the art of fan fiction? I know some writers dabble in it, but is it a good starting medium for aspiring writers like myself to develop our abilities?

  • Churnok — Welcome to MW! As for fan fiction, you’ll find answers fun the full spectrum; however, I do think most professional writers lean toward fan fiction not being the ideal place to start. Writing short stories (or novels) of your own invention is better if you are looking to have a career because when you finish, you’ll have something marketable. Fan fiction is not something you can legally sell. Also, using your own ideas forces you to develop the full story-telling skills because you are introducing new characters, locations, and concepts, whereas with fan-fic, it can be easy/tempting to take short cuts because everybody already knows who Han Solo is (for example). Having said all that, plenty of writers get the writing bug from doing fan fiction and I see nothing wrong with that.

  • Churnok

    “fun the full spectrum” Mr. Jaffe? I assume you meant to say run the full spectrum. I hope you’re not offended by a novice pointing out the typo.
    Thank you for your prompt reply. Thought what I meant was; is fan fiction a good testing and practice ground? To see if writers like myself have the skills to consider it as a profession before we try to sell our work. I believe I get your point though. Can you recommend any sites that would be good for testing a writer’s skills?

  • Churnok — We have our own Beta readers group (check for the link near the top of the left column). They’re a good bunch of people who’d be happy to give you feedback. But, ultimately, the only way to find out is to write a story, revise it, and send it out. There’s no shame in getting a rejection. Every one of us has stacks and stacks of rejections. That’s the only true testing ground. Get out there and do it. Good luck.

  • Churnok

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll check the group out. I’ve heard the only true test is to risk rejection but I suffer from delusions of inadequacy so I want to reduce the risk and build my confidence before I jump in and try to swim.