Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Old Oil Tears

I once read a book in which an apprentice was being taught by a master artist. One of the questions the apprentice was asked by the master was "How can you paint tears?"

The apprentice responded by painting a picture of the back of a man who was obviously in pain and weeping.

The artist then said something like, "that's great, but technically, you didn't answer my question."

For some reason this always stuck in my mind. It wasn't exactly played as if the apprentice had misunderstood the question, or had surpassed his master's expectations. In fact, if you take the apprentice's response and flip it into a writer's metaphor (as I'm going to do) it's a good representation of "show, don't tell". You don't have to actually draw the teardrops. In fact, it's better if you don't, especially if you're learning, because teardrops by themselves don't mean anything and they can be used as a cheap prop.
If you are forced to to describe the sorrow of your character without mentioning tears, then you will probably write a better description of sorrow.

OK, I know, this is pretty basic stuff, one of the first things they try to beat into you in writing 101, the mantra "show, don't tell."

So why am I bringing it up? I was browsing Tumblr, as you do, and happened to see an extreme closeup of a classic painting, showing an eye with a tear falling from it.
The tear was beautiful. But I realized the artist hadn't actually painted the water of the tear. He (or she) had painted the faint shadow surrounding the tear and the tiny splashes of light reflecting from it.

This is some next level shit, I thought to myself. This is cutting as close to 'tell' as possible without nicking it. 

Now I'd like to describe how you can do this in your writing, but I have absolutely no idea. I don't know if I've ever done it myself. This is the kind of illusion so beautiful and precise it could convince a reader that they sat down and had a heart to heart with a character, who, in fact, never said a word about their inner thoughts and was never tattled on by the narrator either.

Anyway. I don't know if that was the original intention of the master painter, because I don't actually remember if the question was revisited in the novel. But I'm glad to have found the answer for myself. Thank you Tumblr (the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems)!

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