Story Advice from a Painter


My dad once told me something my grandfather (his dad) told him once about painting, “Don’t paint a picture of a barn. Instead, paint a picture with a barn in it.” Last night I realized for the first time that this bit of advice also applies to stories.

I was watching Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Apocalypse with my brother and a couple friends. Applying my grandfather’s advice to my observation on these two movies, the first one was a movie with zombies in it, while the second one was a movie about zombies. And the first movie far exceeded its sequel.

Whatever the genre you want to write about, write a story with those elements in it, not a story about those elements or genre. Since I am thinking about it, lets take the zombie genre as an example. When you seek to tell a story about zombies, your story becomes the zombies and the only thing your audience will remember are the zombies. But, if you tell a story with zombies in it, then your story becomes stronger and people who may not necessarily be into the zombie genre, per se, may still enjoy the story. Furthermore, your audience will remember it longer, not to mention, you could even find a way to make the principles in your story applicable to your audience. And it makes the story bigger.

This is why Signs did so well. It wasn’t a movie, a story, about aliens, it was a story with aliens in it.

I feel I am beleaguering the point here, but let me add one last thought about this. When you tell a story with something IN it, your scope becomes much bigger and the whole story synthesizes better, thus becoming stronger and more memorable. And this I think is one thing, at least, that separates good writers from great ones.

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