Sunday, February 28, 2010

Let us eat cake

As I promised last week, here's my explanation of four elements that affect how we perceive images – visual or written.

Please know that I am not an expert! Check out Jeff Curto's podcasts about Gestalt for a photographer's take on this.

Closure is our brains’ tendency to supply missing pieces – we recognize a human face, for example, even if the eyes are covered. The viewer completes the puzzle and in fact gets satisfaction from doing so.

In writing, this means that we don’t have to supply every detail of a person’s appearance or actions – we include just enough so the reader can create an image that will let her understand the story. For example, check out the opening of Susan Fox’s March 30, 2010 release, Love, Unexpectedly:

“What’s new with me? Only everything!” Nav Bharani’s neighbor Kat widened her chestnut brown eyes theatrically. She dropped her laundry basket in front of one of the half dozen washing machines in the basement laundry room of their apartment building, then hopped up on a dryer, clearly prioritizing gossip over chores.

The name Nav suggests the actor Naveen Andrews, so right away I assume that Nav is dark haired and handsome. Kat’s comment and her hopping up on a dryer suggests she’s young, agile, and lively. The author didn’t have to tell me those things in so many words; my brain filled in the blanks from the information she did provide.

Once something has directed our attention in a particular direction (a path or lines of perspective, for instance), continuance is our tendency to continue to look that way until we see something interesting. In Western society we read from left to right, so we’re more comfortable when the path draws us from left to right.

Structure does this in a tale. We place the most important element, the most powerful word or image, at the end of the sentence, paragraph and story. We seduce the reader into following us along the trail, tossing out crumbs as we go and all the while making them wait for the cake.

It can be as straightforward as this line from Love, Unexpectedly:

Even in the crappy artificial light, with her reddish-brown curls a bed-head mess and pillow marks on one cheek, Kat was so damned pretty she made his heart ache.

The beginning of the sentence sets up the reader’s expectation with the word even. We read on to find out even what? Next, the physical description lets us picture the setting and continues with the set-up: even though she looks a mess…what? Only when all that work is done does Fox deliver the powerful "she made his heart ache."

That’s satisfying – and enticing.

Our brains like to group things, and similarity of size, shape, and colour or value (lightness or darkness) are three visual categories the brain uses.

In storytelling, this works in the sense of style or voice. The terse sentences of a 1940s noir mystery novel create a mood for the reader; using them in a romantic comedy would contradict the light, generally happy tone of the story and the dissonance might rankle in the reader’s mind.

Parallel sentence structure and agreement are two obvious grammatical uses of similarity. If it aren’t there, readers are jolted out of the story as his brain tries to make sense of the awkwardnesses.

In the opening of Firefighter Daddy (July 2010), Lee McKenzie uses two different kinds of similarity.

Mitch Donovan hadn't been inside this second-grade classroom since…well, second grade. He noticed two things right away—the chairs were a lot smaller than he

remembered, and the teacher was much younger.

The first sentence uses repetition of words to create humour; it sets the tone for the book. The second applies structural repetition for rhythm; that makes the sentence flow smoothly.

Visually, proximity is often a more powerful way to group things.

Close edge creates visual tension; the closer items seem to be to each other, the more likely we are to think they belong together.

Images in which items are or appear to be touching can be stronger than close edge


overlapping items really look like they belong together.

However, in writing, close edge is a stronger technique than overlapping. We want to create tension in the reader and crank it tighter during the course of a story. That means the detective can’t match the criminal with the crime too quickly, the romantic hero and heroine can’t touch (or overlap) too soon. By letting the characters get close and then pulling them apart before they get what they really want, writers force readers to keep turning pages in an attempt to relieve that tension.

Sharon Ashwood’s Unchained (July 6, 2010) creates suspense by making the reader wait for each revelation.

Ashe stilled, straining to pick up the slightest whiff of Nasty Critter. A light breeze chilled the sweat along her hairline. Her heart hammered hard, but her thoughts were clinically calm. If you were going to kick the ass of anything bigger than a garden sprite, discipline was key.

We know the protagonist is hunting a bad guy, and Ashwood leads us through the chase move by move, letting us see just one enticing element of the story at a time. We get close…

Ashe dropped back to the counter just as the outside door swung open and someone walked in. In a flash, she aimed her gun in a two-handed grip.

Then she froze. Oh. My. Goddess. But she let her surprise last only a microsecond. Her eyes on the newcomer, she hopped to the floor. “What are you doing here?”

Captain Reynard gave a slight bow. “I am looking for you.” His so-English accent sounded like something off Masterpiece Theater, but that baritone voice was pure seduction.

…but he’s not the bad guy, so the hunt is still on. However, now there’s a new kind of tension in the story as well and while Ashe and Captain Reynard get closer during the course of the book, something keeps them apart: close edge but no touching, in the storytelling sense.

No matter what the genre, a tale always lies in how the characters travel their paths, and the readers' pleasure comes from being led along with them, one tasty crumb at a time, until we reach the resolution, the big picture…the cake.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Citius, Altius, Fortius

My latest quest for knowledge is: why do images sell, but words don’t?

I think it’s pretty much an accepted fact that they do. The expression “a picture’s worth a thousand words” sticks around because it’s true. I’m a writer and I admit that I look at photos before captions. I judge books by their covers.

What is it in our brains that makes us do that?

I suspect that volumes have been written on the subject but, being human, I went straight for the pictures.

Victoria photographer Andrea Kucherawy explained that perhaps Gestalt theory holds some of the answers I was seeking.

Our evolution and survival are based on visual clues,” she said. “Gestalt means that images are first perceived as unified wholes before they are seen as unified parts. In other words, we 'see' the whole before we 'see' the parts that make up the whole.

“A picture,” she continued, “is the unified whole of the parts of a story. We gravitate to the photo before the words because the message is perceived by the brain in split seconds, whereas when we read, the picture in our minds takes that little bit longer to form.”

In order to survive on the savannah, the steppes or the streets, we have always needed to be able to see what’s in front of us and process the information instantly. So the brain likes to get things whole and fast and that’s why we look at pictures first – they give us the image much more quickly than having to read words and build the image in our heads.

In other words, a picture is like a single plank that we can walk across to reach the other side of a stream, while written words – or spoken, I suppose – are like a pile of rocks. We can build a bridge and get to the opposite bank, but it takes a while.

Is our all-too-human desire for speed the reason that “swifter” is the first word of the Olympic motto?

Drat. There’s another question. Does it never end?

Next week:

According to Gestalt: Four elements to consider when composing images, and how they also apply to writing. Because everything relates to writing. Doesn’t it?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Save the date has rated Victoria the third most romantic city in Canada based on sales of romance novels, sex and relationship books, romantic comedy DVDs, and Michael Bublé CDs. My husband, however, has this whole live-outside-the-rules, not-gonna-buy-into-the-whole-commercial-thing-unless-it’s-about-skis schtick, so at our house Valentine’s Day is often marked only by a kiss.

In contrast, I recently commented on the very pretty earrings and matching necklace one of my friends was wearing. Her husband, she said, has an account at the jeweler in the nearby town where they live and every once in a while he picks out something he thinks she’ll like. Just because.

I once worked with a woman whose husband gave her flowers on Friday. Every. Single. Week.

Me, I’ve stuck a little florist’s card on my fridge.

It’s been there so long that the words my husband once wrote on it have faded away. I keep that card in plain sight because it came inscribed with “I love you” and was tucked into a bouquet of flowers and when he makes those gestures, their rarity makes them doubly precious.

Not that I’m going to tell him that.

I like romantic gestures (and books and movies and Michael Bublé, too) and hey, I’m not afraid to make them.

When himself came home from work last Saturday, I had candles glowing on the dining table, dinner ready to serve and a DVD just a Play button away. It was his birthday and I think that deserves a celebration.

Today is you-know-what day and I found the perfect silk-screened card:

Again, love is worth noting.

And now I’ve found a new occasion to extend the string of lovey celebrations a little longer: La Fete des Baisers – Festival of Kisses – in Roquemaure, France takes place the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day. This year the dates coincide, but next year he’d better look out…I’m going to market the heck out of a local version.

I figure it'll be very popular with everyone who forgot why February 14 sounded familiar.


After I wrote and scheduled the above post, my guy came home with a big bouquet of red flowers, a bottle of Red Bicyclette wine, a tub of strawberry ice cream, and a slab of dark chocolate almond bark.

He got a kiss.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The hidden meaning of deer

As I drove through the University of Victoria campus bright and early on Saturday, a stag with an unusually large rack of antlers trotted along the side of the road toward me for a hundred feet or so before turning aside and disappearing into the woods. It was an auspicious – or at least exciting – start to my morning.

I was on my way to the annual day-long Medieval Studies workshop and looking back, I’m reminded of the play (and movie) The History Boys, in which one of the main characters is a high-school teacher who believes that education is much more – and more important – than passing exams. He encourages his students to memorize poems from the First World War, to sing old songs, to perform risqué skits in order to practice the subjunctive mood in French.

That spirit, the passion for learning and sharing (although without the risqué skits), also drives the Medieval Studies event. Each year, I read the list of presentations and have no idea what I’m going to see.

Dr Marcus Milwright’s opening remarks yesterday, for example, rolled straight from “Hello, nice to see you,” into an illustrated description of why, across North Africa and the Middle East to the borders of China and India, the wheel as a method of transportation disappeared for centuries after the Roman Empire faded. Camels can carry surprisingly heavy loads and don’t need paved roads, you see, so they could move goods and people long distances without a lot of infrastructure.

The printed program contained, along with the bios of the speakers, a fourteenth-century recipe for venison broth. You never know when that might come in handy.

From art historian Dr Catherine Harding’s talk about menageries, I learned that Pope Leo X was so enamoured with the white elephant given to him by Portugal’s King Manuel that he wrote poetry to the beast.

Philosophy professor Margaret Cameron described the Aristotelian view of rational language (not simply communicative sounds) as the characteristic that separates human beings from animals.

And Dr Iain Higgins delivered one of the more shocking statements of the day: Aesop, he of generations, centuries and millennia of animal-based fables, might not have been a real person!

And I learned something else.

In French professor Hélène Cazes’s presentation on serpents, basilisks and dragons, she also let drop the tidbit that in the medieval world, a stag with antlers symbolized Christian regeneration. Now I wonder whether the presence of the deer on Ring Road that morning means that my soul is safe, or whether the deer’s turning aside means it isn’t.

Or was my seeing the buck and the recipe on the same day simply convenient?

Just because I acquire knowledge doesn’t mean I no longer have to think.