I used to live on a lake in Alaska. I had a gorgeous view from my deck–the little lake, full of wildlife and surrounded by rugged Alaskan mountains.
But the pictures I snapped, once developed, looked nothing like reality.
The snow-capped peaks in my photos were flat, small, pedestrian things. They elicited no feelings of wild, brutal power. They never stirred the passion in me that the real mountains provoked. The swans on the lake were little lumps of white in a sea of gray water. The otters and the moose were smudges of brown.
A better photographer would have taken better pictures. He would have focused his shot to make the mountains pop out and grab me. He would have brought the wildlife forward–blurred the background instead of the subject of the shot. That’s what good photographers do. They focus their shots. They freeze a moment and they make us stop and look and really see.
I suspect that even as my camera strips truth from nature, so does the bustle of our world strip meaning from life. Good novelists, like good photographers, have the power to make people stop and listen and learn. We have the opportunity to paint scenes and bring into focus things they often rush past without seeing.
What we bring into focus, and what we blur in the background matters.
I once critiqued a novel in which the writer painted a homosexual rape in excruciating detail. It was devastating and ugly, but worse than that, it was so brutal that it lost all power to move me emotionally. I shut down. I couldn’t look, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t connect.
I told the author that the scene would have been more powerful if she had shown the big boys moving in, and then cut away, perhaps to focus on the flower being crushed under the heel of one of the attackers. The flower would act as a metaphor and it would allow the little boy to have some privacy and dignity. Then the author could move back in to show the little boy lying in a wilted, little heap on the ground after the act was done.
We want to elicit emotion so people will grow, but people rarely grow when we bash them over the head with ugliness. They close their eyes.
I’m not saying we should paint peaches-and-cream pictures of life. Our readers don’t live in heaven and we can’t paint heaven on earth and expect anyone to care about what we say. We live in the land of brutal rapes. We can’t lie and pretend that stuff doesn’t happen. But showing ugly, raw stuff is not the answer.
We often hear that we should show and not tell, and that’s partly because people aren’t moved and they don’t grow when novelists preach at them. Telling is preaching. Showing is allowing a reader to draw his own conclusions. But as we show, we need to remember to focus our shots. We don’t want to show life exactly as it appears to the busy reader as he rushes through his day.
We want to show the underlying truth that we see in life.
Anyone can show the grime that lies on top. Anyone can show the rats in the alleys and the pot-bellied babies with flies buzzing their faces.
We want to go deeper. Where did the grime come from? Why are the babies dying of starvation. Get to the evil heart of man and to the loving heart of God and you will get to truth.
The truth in the brutal rape scene I mentioned earlier was not when the big boys pulled down the little boy’s pants and the author spelled out what happened in detail. The truth was in the big boys approaching caring only about their selfish desires. No love. No mercy. The truth was in the little boy’s humiliation. That scar went way deeper than the physical pain. The truth was in the hearts of the boys, not their body parts.
You’re the artist. You need to play with the light in order to bring some things forward and push some things backward so that the reader will see life as it really is and not as it is appears on the surface.
How have you used metaphors, or how have you seen others use metaphors, to paint more clearly the truth behind brutal acts or beautiful ones?