I recently wrote on a manuscript, “Is all this realism necessary? I feel like it’s too much information, too many details. What about writing it as impressionism or expressionism?”
Scott loves Impressionism. He’s always talking about light. You know, Rembrandt lighting in portraiture, bokeh, and specular highlights. You know, that sort of thing. We’ve had conversations about how Impressionism could translate from painting to photography. We’ve never talked about Impressionism in writing. But there I was last night, suggesting my friend try it. Then I decided I’d better try it myself. So I did.
I began a scene and wrote it as Realism, Impressionism, and Expressionism. These are just scratchings, but I hope these serve as an illustration of something interesting.
Samuel was early. It was his practice to be early for appointments, to never keep people waiting. His mother ran late for everything and he grew up aware of the gripes people made behind her back, and the jokes, too. “You’d better print a special invitation for Clara or she’ll hold up the wedding.” He was starting to think it was a mistake, being early for this. The magazines scattered around the end tables were the usual fare of months-old Time and Newsweek with a smattering of Mensworld thrown in. The woman behind the reception desk didn’t seem to have enough work to occupy her. She kept glancing over the top of her monitor to look at Samuel.
He wore his suit today because he had a client meeting. Now he wished he’d left his jacket and tie in the car. They’d have to come off soon enough. His assistant thought he was at a dental cleaning. Samuel hoped he’d find a sink so he could brush his teeth before going back to the office. Last time Samuel went to work after the dentist, his assistant, Peter, had cried “Show us your smile,” in a singsong, and Samuel had obliged reflexively even though he felt foolish right after. Peter was the kind of person who invited co-workers to his drag cabaret performances, not someone Samuel trusted to be discreet.
When he’d first arrived, Samuel approached the desk and found himself looking down the woman’s blouse. He hadn’t meant to, of course, but she was sitting at the desk. He was standing across from her. Her silk blouse had a deep V neckline that ended in a bow. Like a present, he thought. He was startled both by the sudden appearance of cleavage and by his reaction to it. He normally made a point of not looking at women’s breasts. He may have stuttered.
OK. Pretty simple. We probably don’t need to hear about Peter, but I like him already and would want to see him back in the office. We also don’t need to know about Clara for this scene to work. She can be cut. Her mention gives us Samuel’s motive for being early, but it’s psychological backstory that doesn’t move anything forward. Clearly, I was figuring out who this character is as I wrote. Often that stuff remains in a story because it seems useful and interesting, but here it’s obvious to me that it’s unnecessary.
Samuel checked his watch again. There was no one else waiting and the windows were the kind you couldn’t see through from the outside. They were meant to screen those inside, but watching his own approach, the effect had unnerved Samuel as he met his reflection at the doorway. He crossed his legs and picked up a Newsweek that was three months old. A warning flashed through his mind and he uncrossed his legs, shifted and straightened out his pant legs. He caught the receptionist looking at him again. She apparently did not have enough work to occupy her time. A light above her workstation made her hair appear orange wherever the light fell. The sections of hair that rested over her shoulders were red. Samuel thought he’d like to see her hair in the sunlight, to know it’s true color. Her eyebrows were the same reddish-orange as her hair. Not from a bottle, he decided. He did not let himself look below her shoulders. He already felt like he was cheating.
When he’d first arrived, Samuel approached the desk and found himself looking down her blouse. He hadn’t meant to, of course, but she was sitting at the desk. He was standing across from her. Her ivory-colored silk blouse had a deep V neckline that ended in a bow. Like a present, he thought. He was startled both by the sudden appearance of cleavage and by his reaction to it. He normally made a point of not looking at women’s breasts. He may have stuttered. It was probably best that his wife had not come along to help him.
OK. I started from the Realism text and shifted my focus. I thought about the light and color in the room and made Samuel notice those things. This time, I was more concerned with the environment and Samuel’s feeling than with setting up a scene through narrative. I stay in the present moment. I mention Samuel’s wife because she pops into his thoughts, but before, the thing about his mother was just backstory and I doubt Samuel would be thinking about her in this waiting room. Also, Peter is gone from the scene. Instinctively, I stayed with the present impressions taking shape in my character’s mind.
The first thing Samuel noticed about the clinic was the mirrored windows. They were impossible to miss. He watched himself park the car, climb out, and approach the door. He looked rather blue, his suit more brown than black, but it was a good likeness. The door was made of the same stuff and when he reached for the handle it was like shaking his own hand. He shivered when his hands touched.
Samuel didn’t mean to look down the blouse of the receptionist, but she was sitting and he was standing. Her blouse had a plunging neckline that ended in a silk bow, like a present. While she checked him into the computer, he noticed a mole on her right breast just high enough to be visible. He made it a point not to look at breasts, so finding himself staring carelessly into this woman’s cleavage disturbed him. He decided to look at her hair instead. It was red. Orange-red, really. A garish, silly color. Samuel was thinking about clown balloons when she said, “You can take a seat, Mr. Thompson.”
Scattered across the coffee table were a number of months-old Time, Newsweek, Mensworld, and various sports magazines. He picked up a cycling magazine. “Train for a Century.” “Hydration Dos and Don’ts.” “The Lightest Frames Yet.” Samuel didn’t even own a bike, but he liked the pictures of men with bulging quadriceps cruising down desert roads. He could buy a bike. He could train. There was no reason why he couldn’t take up cycling. His wife was thin with small breasts. Her chest would never approach the receptionist’s, even if they one day filled with milk. Oh, God. I hope not, he thought as he imagined her chest swelling. Samuel was not a breast man, which had made his staring at the cleavage all the more strange. Large breasts seemed flabby to him, and he found that women with large breasts often had large waistlines tucked beneath the breasts. It wasn’t obvious at first because one’s attention went naturally to the breasts, but if one looked down, there it was: the curvaceous waist. He called it a fat roll. He found it distasteful. His wife would like cycling. It would keep them thin.
OK. This time, I wanted the scene to feel slightly askew and I tried to affect that by having Samuel watch himself approach the door and meet himself there as he’s about to go in. Pretty trippy. I read that Otto Dix took the subject’s worst feature and made it the focus of his painting. I intended to pick on Samuel, but I didn’t get around to him in these few paragraphs, at least not his physical description. I am in his point of view, however, and I don’t think he’s all that likeable on this page. He is looking at the receptionist, so one of her features has been magnified instead of one of his. Her breasts become the focus of the scene and we see how subjective a thing point of view is. The receptionist’s breasts are mostly admired by herself and by observers, but in Samuel’s point of view they become a thing of ridicule, “clown balloons” actually. Although I don’t describe Samuel’s physical presence, we see his attitudes and prejudices taking shape, and so the scene contains two portraits though they are different kinds.
Reflection on the Exercise:
This proved interesting and useful for me. I was surprised at how easy it was to shift my focus and therefore the focus of my writing. I don’t know much about art, but the little I do know was all I needed for this exercise.
For Realism, I wrote like I normally do, putting character, setting, backstory, and the beginnings of plot on the page.
For Impressionism, it was about light, color, large brush strokes, and evoking a feeling.
For Expressionism, it was about observation, exaggeration, calling attention to one truth even if it was at the expense of another truth.
The receptionist is neutrally portrayed in Realism. She is flattered by Impressionism. She is most objectified by Expressionism, and the gaze (Samuel’s, mine) is not very kind. I found that by shifting my “ism,” I easily shifted the focus of the scene.
This was fun, and I think the next step will be to see if I can maintain such a focus for an entire story. If you try my exercise, let me know how it goes.
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