The Painter Effect – In Storytelling
A few months ago, I was writing a story, and it made me realize something that I like to keep in mind for everything I write. Whether that’s a story or not. I won’t go super in-depth about the story itself; that’s not what’s important here.
However, I will tell you about the epiphany that struck me. Because I think it makes me a better storyteller, and I think it could help many people become better themselves. It’s also relevant to much of what I talk about on the site because you’ll likely notice that my favorite part of everything I discuss is usually the stories or characters of various things. Since I was young, I’ve always felt more of an attachment to that side of fiction. (See what I did there?)
I don’t really know if this – theory – I guess, has a name. I’ve done some research but haven’t found anything entirely similar to it on the web. Still, if there is something else out there and I happen to find out, I’ll link it somewhere in this post. Likewise, if any of you know of anything, please tell me, and I’ll do the same.
The point of this isn’t to be the first one to talk about the subject or even to be the best authority on it. I’m not, by any means. I’ll tell you that right now. I just want to share my own experience, and maybe it may help one of you. All you need sometimes is just a change in perspective, after all. And my perspective is certainly something I can give.
So the plot of my story (A Noble Thief) wasn’t exactly a fantasy setting. It was in a more medieval setting, but not quite fantasy. That wasn’t exactly what I was going for. I had another story in a more fantasy world already (The Boy and the Pond) and didn’t want them to share many plot points.
The main inspiration for A Noble Thief came from some weird places (one of which I’ll talk about in the future) but ultimately culminated in being a story about the massive rift between the rich and the poor – the seemingly unanimous hatred between the nobles and commoners as the story takes place in the time of kings and queens. Before this, I had already learned a few things from other stuff I had written. One of the biggest things I try to keep in mind (and I think this is important for any form of writing) is to, generally, only include the facts or concepts that further the point you’re trying to make or the point of your plot.
I say “generally” because you may have noticed I don’t always do that on Side of Fiction. I tend to deviate from the subject here and there to make a joke or tell a story. That’s mainly because, for something like this, writing with personality is often important, and I don’t want the site to read so much like an essay. That’s never what I wanted out of my writing.
However, for something like a story, you need to be a little more concise. It’s important to do more with less if you want to keep people interested in your plot. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t take the time to tell a joke or to add in a scene that’s not incredibly relevant. Both of these can break a story up and provide different types of enjoyment to the reader, but you certainly do need to take great care not to deviate too much. There is a limit to how much I would say is acceptable.
And this is where the Painter Effect, as I’ll be calling it, comes into play. I knew I wanted A Noble Theif to be about the rift between nobles and commoners, which was decided fairly early on. That meant I really wanted to hammer that plot point into the reader’s head. I want you to be able to read it and know right away what the story is about. To do this, I took many of the ideas behind commoners and nobles and amplified them. I made the rift so massive – so noticeable – it would be impossible to miss, even to the more casual reader. I wanted that concept to be embued into every fiber of the story.
I did this in a few ways. One of them is a literal wall, known as “the Wall” in the middle of the kingdom, which is a sort of castle-like fortress that nobles live in, and commoners are rarely allowed near. But by far, the most obvious difference is how everyone looks. To really drive the point home, I made them almost like different races. Where after years of segregation and only being able to have relations with those similar to you, it eventually created this world where commoners all have shaggy, mated, brown hair. In contrast, the nobles had always tidy, smooth, silver hair.
Originally, this form of segregation between classes wasn’t why the nobles and commoners looked the way they did. But past me still needed a way to explain why they looked so different. This started to send me down this rabbit hole of, wait for it, magic. Did you see that coming? I wanted to include some magic system into the story. In the past, this (though it seems so obvious it wasn’t now) seemed like a perfect solution.
The reason they appeared different could be because of the powers they had. Each kingdom could have nobles with different appearances, thus creating more variety. It also explained why this rift between the classes existed in the first place – because the magically inclined nobles held more power (and thought themselves better) than the magicless commoners.
But this is when I started to see a problem. As I wrote up these concepts for different forms of magic, different ideas for kingdoms, how these relationships between the magical and the magicless would work, I realized something. This story was suddenly about magic. That’s not what I wanted. In trying to add more plot points to the story, even one I thought would solve a problem, I ended up creating something entirely different than what I had wanted. It was no longer a story about the rift between commoners and nobles; it was now about magic and its effects on the characters.
This isn’t a problem on its own. I love magic, and I love fantasy settings. The Boy and the Pond was very much centered around both of those concepts. That’s what made me realize I was beginning to write the same thing twice, just with different circumstances. I did not want that. I wasn’t happy with how things were turning out. So I started to ask myself why that was? Where exactly I went wrong? And I figured it out. I was trying to overcomplicate things. Finally, I knew what I had to do. I needed to axe the whole magic system then and there.
The Painter Effect
That may seem a little harsh, I admit, but it’s generally how I am. If I write something I don’t like and can find no way to rework it; I get rid of it. I think this is usually a good practice to have. I, like many people, have tons of ideas floating around in my head. Yet, I don’t always know how to get them out of there. So I throw things out and see what sticks. This is fine, but depending on how you do it, you may lose something in the process.
If you continue to add all of your ideas into one story, not only will it make it more difficult to come up with something later on, you will get one story that will be far more unfocused than if you just made a separate one about each concept. This doesn’t mean you should have one concept for your story, period. You can have more. Sub-plots are very important. But it should never detract from what the main point of that particular story is. That was exactly what I was doing by trying to add magic into A Noble Thief.
Think about a painter, for example. Painting really isn’t that different from writing. Both try to create something out of a combination of different things that may not work on their own. For a painter, it’s trying to craft a beautiful image out of the many colors on their palette. For a writer, it’s attempting to bring worlds and characters to life out of the many concepts and ideas floating in their head.
A painter can throw a single color on the canvas, and while it may be pretty on its own, you don’t really have a work of art. (Well, maybe in today’s art world, you would.) It isn’t until the painter starts to use a combination of those colors that you start to get something special. Much like in writing, if you take your main concept and supplement it with additional ideas, you’ll start to craft a living, breathing world.
The problem comes from how many concepts you try to throw in. A painter has many colors on their palette, but sometimes they need just the right one. By mixing two or three of those colors together, the painter can get a shade fit just for their specific need. The same way writers can take their concepts and mold them into plot points that complement the story they want to tell.
However, if a painter tries to mix even more colors together, you’ll no longer be able to tell what colors make the new one up. You’ll be left with nothing but a muddy brown. A muddy brown without any semblance of what it once was, like what I was doing with A Noble Theif. As I added more and more concepts into it, it diluted the colors of the plot, so to say, and creating a story that bore little resemblance to what I had originally wanted. This was the main issue.
In trying to make our stories interesting, I think our first thought is to add more to them. To add more plot points, characters, conflicts, and other stuff to add depth to the stories. But I’ve learned that that isn’t always the best idea. What you may be doing to add depth to your story just may have the opposite effect in the long run. Adding more to something doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’s how effectively you use what you have.
A painter using only two or three colors can make a work of art far more impactful than a painter with every color of the rainbow – so long as that painter knows how to use them. It’s the same in writing. If you’re anything like me, there are times you have tons of ideas for characters and different plots floating around in your head, just itching to get out. But don’t be too hasty to release them. Even if they don’t fit perfectly in the story you’re writing now, try writing one that works with them. Don’t focus on how many colors you can use, focus on how to effectively use what you have then you can accent it with other colors.
It’s very much a balancing game. It harkens back to that concept of if you try to do everything, you’ll accomplish nothing. A concept that I very much need to get through my head at times. Still, for all I said, some of the more interesting ideas I’ve had have come from a story changing shape. That almost always happens in my creative process. So it will ultimately be up to you – as the writer – to decide what works and doesn’t work. Unforeunately, nobody else can solve that for you.
But if you want my two cents, if you have a bunch of ideas just ready to burst, maybe see if there’s a more fitting story you can put them into. Don’t waste all your ideas on one plot, especially if there are more fitting ones for them to be in. If you like writing, you won’t stop anytime soon. There’s no need to rush. Like the painter who knows what colors blend, pick the ideas that mix into your own masterpiece. If you do, you won’t have a story represented by a muddy brown, but one that shines its own bright hue.
Thank you very much for reading
What would you recommend to writers with too many ideas floating around in their heads? I feel like there are two modes for me: either I have way too many ideas, or I have little to none. I wish I could find that middle ground a little more often. It would certainly make my life easier.