A Picture vs. A Thousand Words

This past weekend, Bobby and I visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk to see a glass exhibit, and while there we discovered Giovanni Battista Langetti’s “Prometheus,” which had been in the museum’s storage vault for some time awaiting restoration. Now that it’s back to full splendor, the painting hangs alone in the upstairs foyer, a grim sentinel who greets visitors on their way to the second-floor galleries.

You couldn’t walk past without seeing it. The piece is enormous, its rich shadows and vivid colors combined in a beautiful depiction of an appalling scene. Prometheus—who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans—lies chained to a mountain ledge. Skin and muscles of his brow wrinkle and writhe even in the stillness of the artist’s oils. Whites of his eyes stand out around blown pupils as he stares, panicked. His mouth stretches so wide you can almost hear his scream. Knotted muscles cover every inch of his naked body and all four limbs, including their associated phalanges, contort in futile attempt to escape. Beside him sits the eagle, dispenser of justice sent by the gods to eat Prometheus’s liver. Every day he endures this torment. Every day it begins again. Every day. For eternity.

Standing before that painting, I felt the thief’s dread, his terror. I easily imagined the madness that surely crept in, the suffering he must have experienced on a daily basis even before the eagle touched him. Just knowing what lay ahead would be torturous. I’m familiar with the myth of Prometheus and his theft of fire. Nonetheless, seeing that painting drove home with morbid finality the revulsion I didn’t feel from reading the tale.

That is the power of the visual. That is why our writing teachers tell us to “show,” not “tell.”

In this past week’s fiction class, my short story “Last Call” was up for critique. While everyone suggested improvements or noted flaws, everyone loved the story. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel! (Sorry for the exclamation point, Lydia!) Several people mentioned in their written comments how my description of a nebula popped a visual into their heads, or how Max’s reaction to news from home provoked in them a visceral reaction. I breathed a sigh of relief, I must admit, because I’ve been tweaking that story since February of this year. Of course, it was my first ever short story attempt, but I loved the concept so much I could never bring myself to set it aside and forget it. Now I’m glad I didn’t.

It ain’t easy to paint pictures with words, especially when word-count is so important. I’ve sometimes found it difficult to know when to just come out and say, “Sam told Jane the bad news. Jane fainted,” and when it’s better to say, “Sam’s voice echoed in Jane’s ears, tinny and surreal beneath the hissing roar that threatened to drown him out. All the color drained from her face. A grey film painted everything in sight as if someone had drawn a fine veil over her head. She watched, mesmerized and nauseated, while a darkening tunnel sucked the room away, and the floor rushed up to catch her.” Okay, maybe that’s not my best effort (hey, it’s Monday with a vengeance), but you can see what I mean. Readers need to see what’s happening. And if I can’t show them in imagery, then I must bind their emotions to those of my characters, and pluck them as needed to drive home a plot point.

Granted, sometimes it’s easy to go overboard. A fellow student in class wrote at one particular paragraph on my manuscript, “Words on words on words. Wordy McWordy Word.” After I stopped laughing, I tried to figure out how I could make it better. I certainly notice when a writer has gone on far too long about a particular point; unless it’s necessary to the story, Professor McWordy can deflate all the power from the narrative, not to mention send you spiraling into an unwieldy word count that no agent or publisher will take on.

The key, I think, is as in most other things in life—to strike a good balance between the words and the images they paint. I’ve heard teachers say over and over that words in written works are valuable real estate; every single one must be absolutely necessary to the whole.

So I dance between too much and not enough. Don’t all writers do that same jig? I promise, if I ever figure out the exact formula that works every single time, I’ll write my own “how to” book and share the secret with the rest of you.