Happy Tuesday, my lovelies! Today I’m here to discuss a principle of art in relation to writing. Ain’t I cheeky?
I was first introduced to the concept of chiaroscuro in – where else? – a novel. Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Desperaux is a sweet illustrated chapter book for children, and features a diabolical rat who bears the name. It is delightful to say. Say it with me. ‘Kee-a-ross-kyu-ro.’ Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? And now, Italiano! ‘Kya-ross-ku-ro’. Marvellous.
Chiaroscuro is Italian for ‘light-dark’; it usually refers to literal light and darkness in an artwork, and not the metaphorical darkness of a rat’s soul. Observe:
Chiaroscuro might be more boringly called ‘contrast’, but you can have many different types of contrast in an artwork – colours, shapes and so forth. Chiaroscuro refers to tonal contrast. Our little white teapot here isn’t simply shaded: it has the full tonal range from the bright highlights to deep black shadow, which makes it look three-dimensional and solid.
Renaissance painters loved this technique. Here’s Vandermeer’s interpretation of the Samson and Delilah legend. (You might know Vandermeer as ‘Girl-with-a-Pearl-Earring-Guy’; he was a Dutch master painter of the Enlightenment, and a lot of his paintings employ a spectacular combination of acid yellow and lapis-blue, the latter of which was pretty expensive at the time.)
Look at how the interplay of light and dark creates the shine on those guards’ helmets. Look at how the light comes from below Delilah’s chin, throwing eerie shadows on her face. Compare the brightness of the hallway and the sky to the depth of the shadow under Samson and the guy clasping him under the arms. Those are some of the ways in which chiaroscuro is employed in this painting.
But what does any of that have to do with writing?
Well, good writing employs chiaroscuro too.
Most people who love stories would probably agree that a tale in which only good things fall into the protagonist’s lap would be extremely dull. There’s no tension, no stakes. It feels fake, because life isn’t one-note in this way. Our triumphs are made all the more satisfying by the trials we face in reaching them.
A story that was all light would probably come across something like ‘Kittens, Puppies and Ponies’, from Andy Griffith’s Just Crazy. For those of you not up-to-speed on your early 2000s Aussie kids’ books, here’s a taste:
It’s twee, it’s dull, it’s artificial. You’d be hard-pressed to find a storyteller, or reader, who would disagree.
But here’s something that’s not discussed as often: a story that’s all darkness is equally uninteresting.
If a story is just one tragedy after another, what’s the point in continuing? After a while, as a reader, you become numb to it. The example that springs to mind, for me, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I say this not as an as-yet-unpublished commercial YA fantasy novelist, but simply as a reader. The Road is not just crushingly depressing, but repetitively so. You lose the will to continue reading. The despair loses its impact. There’s nothing to throw the darkness into contrast. It’s tonally flat. And while that parallels the journey of the characters losing the will to live, I, the reader, won’t starve or be murdered if I simply put the book down and go in search of a more interesting story.
That’s why chiaroscuro is important.
Stories, like life, should have some kind of emotional variation. A dish that’s all salt is just as sickening as one that’s all sugar. Even if the story is about an objectively terrible place and/or time, even if our protagonist loses her lover, her best friend, her parents, her children, her job, her home, her sanity, both legs and a finger over the course of the story, it should be tempered with some light or the reader will get bored.
Light throws the darkness into contrast, and vice versa. Together, they more clearly illuminate the work’s dimensions.