Recently, I watched a video of the late American photographer Gary Winogrand delivering a talk about his craft. He mentioned something I think can apply to any artist — not just photographers — and to writers in particular.
To paraphrase, he said, all a photographer has when he’s out in the world snapping pictures is what’s in front of him, but that a good picture captures a moment more dramatic than the situation it depicts. When a photo suggests something beyond its constituent parts, that’s when it crosses into the realm of art, he said.
This struck me as a guide for how writers should approach their work. It’s easy to describe situations, to put words on paper, but that is merely reportage, similar to the endless vacation shots stored in the memory of a smartphone. To exceed what might otherwise be a simple tale — a story related over coffee, say — the writer must make the piece more dramatic than the subject it depicts.
Winogrand said he believed that a photograph gains power from what the viewer infers or imagines about the scene. He listed a few ways this can be accomplished: an unusual setting, a person with an interesting pose or face, dynamic weather or action, the time of day, and lighting.
Literature must be similarly evocative if it wants to exceed the merely quotidian. As an example, I’ll use a passage from White Teeth by Zadie Smith. In the novel, Samad, a waiter, is left a meager tip. Smith writes,
For what’s the point, Samad would think, pushing aside two mints and a receipt to find fifteen pence, what is the point of tipping a man the same amount you would throw in a fountain to chase a wish.
That could have been a dull moment, a second of frustration in a hardscrabble life. Smith, by associating a meager tip with a wish, shows not only Samad’s immediate existence, but also suggests his profound desperation as an immigrant in a massive, unfriendly, and alien metropolis.
There are other ways to increase the drama of a story or a poem. An interesting narrator or unusual POV character, avid description, clever subtext, engaging dialogue, sharp and perceptive detail, wildly inventive metaphors. Think Lolita, which is (and who would have believed this possible?) more dramatic as an overall novel than the base situation it depicts.
I’m not claiming this “rule” will turn a person into Nabokov, but it might help a writer squeeze every little bit from her words. It will force her to evaluate what she puts down in terms of how it enhances the story, essay, or poem.