A photographic approach to writing
Composition is all important, whether you’re behind a camera or at a keyboard. An awareness of composition is something that separates the good photographers from the truly great, and the same applies to great writers too. I’m going to look at one of the photographic rules of composition and see how it can apply to a writers’ art.
Compositions is Rule One. Get it wrong, and nothing else matters. Get it right, and nothing else really matters either. It doesn’t matter if your photograph was taken with a busted Holga, or your manuscript was written on the back of napkins using a chewed Biro if the composition flows.
From a photographer’s standpoint there are certain rules of composition which have stood the test of time. They’re the same rules Da Vinci and Michelangelo used to create their masterpieces, and they apply just as much today as they did back then.
While some of the rules can be difficult to understand unless you’re a mathematician (like the Golden Spiral) or more to do with the proportions of the frame itself (the Golden Mean), there’s one rule of composition that’s both easy to understand, and has a good application in writing too – the Rule of Thirds.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
When taking a photograph – or cropping it – imagine that the shot is split into a 3×3 grid across and down, like this:
Try to position the subject of the shot where the points intersect, as with the girl’s head in the shot above. Your eyes naturally draw to those points on any image, so it makes for a shot that’s pleasing to look at. Of course, knowing a rule also means that you know how to break it, so if you want to challenge the viewer then avoid those spots instead
Applying the Rule of Thirds to your writing
To an extent, this rule could be simplified as “Beginning, middle, and end” – splitting the story up into three distinct chunks that clearly show a progression in the pace of the tale. That’s only a part of what Rule of Thirds means though. The important thing is to look at those intersections. In a photograph, that’s where the action should be; it’s the focal point for the image. Similarly, in every genre of writing there are events that are expected to occur at certain points of the story.
If you’re writing a thriller, there’s likely to be a murder (or other crime, but usually a murder) close to the beginning of the story, and a captured (or dead) villain at the end. Action stories follow the convention of car chases and the good guy being captured before finally gruesomely killing the arch villain. Romances follow the pattern of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl (etc, depending on the length of the story).
All of these conventions exist for a reason. They work, and they provide a story with a fixed framework, a set of intersections that give the reader what they expect. Much like the Rule of Thirds, really. If you can identify where your intersections lie – the “key points” of your tale – then you can craft the rest of the tale around these events.
Just as with the Rule of Thirds, sometimes these conventions work best when they’re broken. Deviating from those intersections produces tension, and tension promotes interest. Have the boy and girl not meet until the very end of your romance, only communicating through letters or email. Have the bad guy kill the hero, or let the villain be captured then die fighting his way out of the good guy’s base. It’s stories like this that can make for a much more interesting read.
And it’s not despite the Rule of Thirds, but becuase of them, and knowing where and when to make the break.