Have you ever tried looking at those Magic Eye posters? You start by wondering what images the bright colors and abstract shapes are hiding, then you relax your eyes and shift your focus until the picture materializes, sharp and three-dimensional. It’s a pretty cool experience, and though their big wave of popularity has long since hit the beach and retreated, I still use those pictures with my music students to make an important point—one that is equally applicable to the art of story.
My favorite object lesson
In my thriller, Nocturne In Ashes, protagonist Riley Forte clings to calm and sanity by teaching a piano lesson to a young girl while a killer stalks the neighborhood. The student, Rebecca, is overwhelmed and confused by the flurry of notes on the page until Riley asks her to focus on the Magic Eye print. When the hidden picture springs into view, Rebecca is amazed.
“Very cool,” she said, “but what’s it got to do with music?”
Riley replies: “Music is just dots on a page, until you know how to look at it properly. And when you figure out how to see the big picture, it opens up worlds you didn’t even know existed. I aim to teach you how to see the big picture, how to open up some of those doors.”
But how does that relate to story?
When reading (or writing) a story, it’s also crucial to see enough of the big picture—right from the beginning—to get an idea of where the story is heading. The big picture is what puts the story in context, giving it perspective and a point. Without it, readers flounder and lose interest, but with an idea of the big picture in mind, readers can enjoy the story and derive meaning from it.
It’s a little like doing one of those jigsaw puzzles with a thousand tiny pieces. If you know what the finished product will look like, it’s a fun challenge to find the pieces that go together and complete the picture. Without an image to go by, it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration.
Let me share an example from my own life
I love The Story Grid book and podcast. For about a year, I took Shawn and Tim with me each day on my commute through the beautiful towns and hills of Bavaria to the studio where I taught piano. During one episode, Tim mentioned that he enjoyed reading a book, Lexicon, by Max Barry, and the way he described it fascinated me. I checked out a copy from the library and dove in. After about a page and a half, I would have dove back out if Tim hadn’t recommended it so highly.
It begins with line after line of cryptic dialogue from characters the reader knows nothing about, with no setting and no context. Okay, I’m fine with that. For a while. But this went on for three and a half pages and went from intriguing, to frustrating, to irritating. I had no sense of where the story was going, no glimpse of the big picture. I started going a little hostile on the book and grew dangerously close to quitting.
Because of Tim, I persevered, and actually ended up liking the book so much I bought my own copy, and the audiobook, as well. But that’s only because I stuck with it long enough for the big picture to come into focus.
What makes the big picture so important?
From a writer’s point of view, it’s filtering. Having the big picture in mind allows us to focus on what’s germane to the story and leave out the irrelevant. Readers are intelligent beings, they understand that everything in a well-written story is there on a need-to-know basis. It all comes into play. So, if the writer introduces, say, a hand-carved slingshot, it better be relevant and feature later in the story. Extraneous elements float in the reader’s mind, creating anticipation. If that anticipation goes unfulfilled, the reader goes unsatisfied. At best. Such a scenario leads to distraction, frustration, loss of interest, or worse.
Mystery, suspense, anticipation—these are all good for drawing a reader in, but for a gratifying story, they need to be woven into a big picture that begins emerging right from the start. On that note, I’ve got a hankering for a really satisfying story. Any recommendations?