Writing is like Drawing: Find Structure First

Here’s a kind of abstract idea for a blog today–the parallels between storywriting and visual art. I don’t claim to be good at it, but I love to do figure drawing. I usually have a good laugh when I look at what feels like my masterpiece and then have a look around the room at the other folks at the session. My masterpiece suddenly looks sad and amateurish in the face of these others who can actually think about bone structure and light-and-shadow right there in the same brain.

I enjoy drawing, though, because this is just a hobby, so it’s not about the outcome. It’s more about the mind-space I get into while I’m doing it, and that’s where the parallel with writing lies.

In drawing a figure–and I mean really trying to represent reality on the page– the brain has to compute the basics, such as the proportion of the head to the torso. You don’t want to end up with a huge or a tiny head, or puny or gigantic shoulders. To make the figure look realistic, you have to pay careful attention to keeping the larger body parts proportional to each other, while, on a micro-level, you also want to keep the eyes, nose, and mouth proportional to each other, and the various tiny parts of the hand, too.

While you’re doing that, you can get distracted by the play of light and shadow as well as small details. It takes a lot of mental to stay focused on the proportion and structure until you’re ready to deal with small details. This exact issue is where I have to do a lot of education with my clients.

When a ghostwriting client and I are putting together the plot of a story or memoir, what often happens is that the client is focused on what I consider small details, while I’m looking for the central conflict (or the bone structure) of the story. That just happens because most people who aren’t professional writers don’t know the difference between the two.

I wouldn’t expect them to. Knowing that is my job. So, I try to educate my ghostwriting clients about the difference as much as I can. Now, some folks want to learn and some folks just want me to take care of everything. Either way is fine with me, but just like in figure drawing, a plot can’t be drawn by putting together superficial details.

The writer (or ghostwriter) has to have a profound sense of the story’s central conflicts, both inner and outer, in order to draw a plot that enables all those witty, insightful, and otherwise fun details to have an impact.

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