There are four main questions you need to ask of every book:
- What is this book about?
- What is being said in detail and how?
- Is this book true in whole or in part?
- What of it?
If all of this sounds like hard work, you’re right. Most people won’t do it. That’s what sets you apart.
- from Shane Parrish
A British company has produced a “strange, alien” material so black that it absorbs all but 0.035 per cent of visual light, setting a new world record. To stare at the “super black” coating made of carbon nanotubes – each 10,000 times thinner than a human hair – is an odd experience. It is so dark that the human eye cannot understand what it is seeing. Shapes and contours are lost, leaving nothing but an apparent abyss.
If it was used to make one of Chanel’s little black dresses, the wearer’s head and limbs might appear to float incorporeally around a dress-shaped hole.
The Colours Of Night
I have a Pinterest board called ‘Night’, because I’m interested in all the different ways artists show a viewer darkness, when in reality, night is the absence of light. If you’d never had much exposure to art then you’d be forgiven for thinking that a board full of night would look like a sheet of black. Not so! As Vincent Van Gogh apparently said, ‘I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.’
Apart from black and dark blue, various other colours depict darkness:
- All the different shades of blue
- A little more surprisingly: greens
- Sepia tones
- Orange (see Józef Wilkón’s picture of a boy sleeping outside in a bed. The sky (which he imagines) is orange.
How do illustrators depict night time without losing colour and form and interest?
Of course, there has to be a light source from somewhere, even if it’s just from a few stars. And there is always a light source. Light commonly comes from:
- Light coming out of windows
- Street lamps or electric lamps
- Torches and lanterns
- Phosphorescent insects
- Through keyholes and crevices
A light source can also be entirely made up:
- From special objects, for example from the inside of open books, to light up the character’s face. The light may technically come from some reflected light on a white page, though can be exaggerated. Fantasy scenes are best suited for much exaggeration.
- From a light source which is presumed to be slightly off-stage. Film noir is a good thing to study because you’ll find that shadows appear from unlikely light sources. Light can be artistically manipulated. A light doesn’t really have to exist in real life for the artist to make use of a convenient light source — but it’s unlikely to work unless the artist is manipulating light with purpose.
There are other tricks illustrators use to depict the darkness of night even when there isn’t a strong light source in the world of the narrative. Borrowing a film term, you might call these tricks non-diegetic sources of light.
1. At night scenes lose their colour, and so a simple desaturation can work to convey darkness. To maintain the focal point of the painting, an artist can desaturate some things and not others. Desaturation can be used alone to convey darkness. In fact, look at the picture and if it weren’t for the hues, it’s as light-coloured as a daytime equivalent.
2. The desaturation can take on a sepia tone, or ochre, or turquoise etc. In digital art this is easily done. Add a layer of colour over top of all the other layers (gradient, if you like) then set it to multiply. Lower the opacity to the desired amount of new hue. This same trick can be effective for daylight scenes as well, in which you can take the colour of the sky, then set it to about 5 percent opacity. This gives a unifying effect to a picture which may otherwise look quite ununified due to different elements being on different layers, or painted at different times.
3. A lot of artists make the moon bigger than is possible here on Earth. (Earlier in 2014 we saw the moon at it’s biggest in years, and it still wasn’t nearly as big as seen in many story books!) The moon can seem almost as bright as the sun, especially if reflecting off something light, like a blanket of snow. In illustrations where the moon might be mistaken for a sun, a crescent moon can be preferences. (Because the sun is never ‘crescent’.)
Although in real life the moon is sometimes visible during the day, this isn’t conventional in illustrations, where sun equals day and moon equals night. Even in night scenes without a moon in sight assume the presence of a moon. For example, in the Japanese Fireflies over the Uji River by Moonlight, artist Suzuki Shonen doesn’t show the moon — this would compete for attention with the fireflies, yet the moonlight reflecting off the road is evident, and the artist includes ‘moonlight’ in the title of the work.
4. If you’re not painting the dead of night, it’s convenient to add a band of sky colour on the horizon. A band of orange or yellow in the sky can tell us something about the time of day as well as lending colour to an otherwise monotone scene. Even in illustrations which are not set at sunrise or sundown, there is often an inexplicable light source coming from behind some houses or trees. The sky often gets lighter towards the horizon. In this case, it’s the top of the sky which gives the reader the night-time cues.
5. Some illustrations do nothing whatsoever with the hue or tone to convey darkness, apart from showing a character in bed, or telling us in the words that it is night-time. This seems to work! (See illustration by Gyo Fujikawa, in which the blue of the sky outside might be used equally to depict a bright, sunny day.) See also the book cover The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket by John Boyne, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. The turquoise and the purple form a limited palette which the reader is used to associating with night-time. The shades themselves are bright — and therefore appropriate on a book cover for children.
6. The pink illustration by Guy Shield shows young lovers kissing at the drive-in. This example shows that it doesn’t really matter what palette you use, as long as it’s a limited one, it can suggest the desaturation of night. The viewer also knows that it is night-time because that’s when teenagers used to go to drive-in movies. So the surrounding narrative is also important.
7. In night time scenes some tonal diversity is still necessary — a wider range of tones makes it easier to create interest. With a little imagination, lighter tones can be exaggerated or made up. An imaginary light source is one thing, but there are also rain droplets on a window which may collectively add up to quite a light painting if there is something lighting them up. Fog and mist are also light in colour, and so a light horizon might be put down to that. Cities seem to light up from below, even in the dead of night. Bodies of water are reflective, and provide sources of light by virtue of reflection. (Presumably a moon.) In any case, a strong contrast between the foreground and the background helps greatly with night scenes. The foreground can be in silhouette (popular at the moment in games such as World Of Goo and also on YA book covers). In this case the background will be more or less in full colour. Alternatively, the foreground can be light against a dark background.
What about when the illustrator wants to depict true darkness, possibly because the darkness itself is part of the story? How do we show darkness while still showing some sort of picture? Jon Klassen worked with this exact problem when he illustrated The Dark by Lemony Snicket. He got around it by making use of the a silhouette technique. The light parts are surrounded by large blocks of black, in which neither the viewer nor the character sees anything at all, at least not until illuminated by chinks of light.
The same technique has been used by a variety of illustrators:
Strawberry Hill by Kurt Knobelsdorf is a painting of a house at night which is also very dark, even though there is indeed a light source coming from one of the windows and a small moon in the sky. Tsuta Spa, Mutsu 1919 by Kawase Hasui is a Japanese example of something very similar — a genuinely dark picture of dark. Even so, the three squares of light give the picture enough interest to warrant it being look-at worthy.
This kind of story relies on what TV Tropes calls ‘The Alternate Self’.
I doubt Sliding Doors (1998) was the first well-known story to use this structure, though it is perhaps one of the best known, since more people watch popular movies than read books. This is a plotline in which a character has a difficult decision to make. Instead of having the character choose one path, then carry on the story until a good point to stop, this kind of story decides to explore the consequences of each decision by having the character follow both paths, perhaps with alternating chapters or something quite complicated plotwise.
This kind of plot can be quite didactic. Usually this sort of story has the following message:
However you imagine your life might have been had you made X decision instead of Y, your imagined other life isn’t as romantic/glamorous as the imagined life in your imagination.
Here are some examples of books which use this plotline.
THE POST-BIRTHDAY WORLD BY LIONEL SHRIVER (AMERICAN AUTHOR, SET IN ENGLAND, DARK)
Anyone who has read Shriver’s later (and better known) We Need To Talk About Kevin will already be expecting something quite dark. It’s what Shriver is good at. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Shriver is an expert at plotting, as evidenced by her adept execution of this device, which is used for the end purpose of exploring long-term, stable relationships such as in marriage. The end message, for me, was that
…the story breaks into two narratives with alternating chapters: In one, Irena pursues an affair with Ramsey and leaves Lawrence; in the other, she restrains herself and stays loyal. Each choice has its downside.
I think that this book is just as good as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Don’t be fooled by the cover; the bright colours may suggest chick-lit, but it is nothing of the sort.
JUST LIKE FATE (Young Adult)
I have not read this one myself, but here’s what Kirkus had to say:
In an ambitious narrative device, the book juggles two alternating plots, following a prefatory “Before” section. Chapters titled “Stay” are based on the premise that Caroline chooses to remain with her grandmother in the hospital and hears her dying words of love for her granddaughter; in those titled “Go,” Caroline succumbs to her friends’ pressure to go to a party, thus missing the moment when Gram dies.
ME MYSELF I BY PIP KARMEL (AUSTRALIAN CHICK-LIT)
This is a book from 2000 which has been adapted into a film starring Rachel Griffiths. This is much more light-hearted than Shriver’s, and makes use of a structure oft-utilised by writers of picturebooks. When the protagonist comes back from the fantasy world (or in this case, wakes from a vivid dream), they are lead to believe it wasn’t really a dream because they have brought something back with them from the ‘dream world’. Or things have been moved slightly, and their world view is significantly changed (in almost all cases, for the better).
LIFE AFTER LIFE BY KATE ATKINSON
Atkinson’s (Started Early, Took My Dog, 2011, etc.) latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns (including one, mutatis mutandis, by no less an eminence than George Steiner). But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of Groundhog Day, but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and—in this instance—our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion.
- from Kirkus
Princess books tend to fall into several categories:
1.pink and sparkly
2. fairytale and traditional
3. subversive and ‘tomboyish’ and ‘feisty’
4. as flawed and real
These books are purchased for and I daresay read mainly by — in public — by girls.
But boys seem to like princesses, too. Or, they get princesses whether they really wanted them or not.
I recommend the article Your Princess Is In Another Castle by Arthur Chu at The Daily Beast, which is tag-lined with:
Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.
We all need to understand this, and the consequences of teaching boys that if they’re good, then their prize is a big-breasted, scantily clad young woman.
Of course, feminists have been saying this for a long time. But it takes a man to write it before it gets published at a mainstream non-feminist site such as The Daily Beast.
I am always saddened to hear that some teacher or librarian is in trouble because of something I have written. They are the true heroes in my mind. But I have come to believe that if a book has power, it will always have the power to offend someone. I don’t want to write books that have no power to move or inspire the reader.
1. VILLAINOUS TWINS
A New Zealand YA novel from 1992 may be a rather obscure example, but Underrunners by Margaret Mahy includes a scene with twins Guy and Brian Morley, who seem twice as dangerous and mean to our hero precisely because there are two of them.
In his book for adults, Atonement (2001), Ian McEwan includes among his cast of characters some nine-year-old twins who are not villainous, but at times perceived to be so by their elder sister Lola. “Everyone thinks they’re little angels just because they look alike,” Lola says after her brothers have given her scratches and Chinese burns, “but they’re little brutes.” When Jackson and Pierrot run off into the night, this changes the course of the plot. Lola’s dialogue highlights something about fictional twins, though: The disconnect that can happen with duality. Since the twins look alike, they have had a certain cuteness bestowed upon them. When it turns out they’re not cute at all, the fact that there are two of them make the shock at learning so double.
2. THE FASCINATION FACTOR
Enid Blyton make use of twins for no obvious reason other that she found them fascinating, and expected the reader to get equal pleasure out of her using them as a gimmick. Take The Famous Five novel, Five On Finniston Farm (published 1960), in which the part about the twins is summarised by a user of EnidBlyton.net:
I’m sooooo bored with twins by now, especially as they’re named “the Harries”—the boy is named Henry which “naturally” became Harry (I never understood that logic), and the girl is named Harriet, which “naturally” became Harry too. And because Henry “can’t grow his hair like a girl,” it’s down to Harriet to crop hers so that the two look like peas in a pod. Except for a scar on Henry’s hand, apparently the only way to tell them apart. They have a dog called Snippet, a small black poodle. The twins are characterized as quiet and sullen, perhaps resentful at first, because they see visitors to the farm as more work for their poor hard-working mother, Mrs. Philpot. And while the twins are in this stand-offish mode, they speak in unison. Literally every piece of dialogue is spoken by “the twins,” no matter how much is said.
- Keith Robinson
Some characters in children’s literature really don’t need to be twins. So what’s the point? Well, a twin does allow a conversational partner. Dialogue is easier to write, and also easier to read for young readers, at least compared to internal thoughts, or an omniscient narrator who may or may not be reliable. Blyton’s Harry Twins are an extreme example of this, but other authors of the time would use characters interchangeably, with no discernible difference between them. Take P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins as an example. The eldest boy and girl might as well be the same person. Two genders exist presumably to appeal to the widest possible audience.
3. THE SHADOW AND THE HERO
This is the biblical Cain and Abel story. One twin is evil, the other good.
4. THE IMAGINARY OTHER SELF
She left the cafe, and as she walked along the Common she felt the distance widen between her and another self, no less eral, who was walking back towards the hospital. Perhaps the Briony who was walking in the direction of Belham was the imagined or ghostly persona. This unreal feeling was heightened when, after half an hour, she reached another High Street, more or less the same as the one she had left behind.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
In this case the main character wonders what her life might be like if only a few, though significant, things had been different. An imaginary other self is a way of exploring possibilities.
Like most excessively beautiful persons, [Moody] had studied his own reflection minutely and, in some way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior. He had passed a great many hours in the alcove of his private dressing room, where the mirror tripled his image into profile, half-profile, and square: Van Dyck’s Charles, though a good deal more striking. It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied–for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one’s arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls.
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The sentence which follows soon after: ‘He could see his own self now, poised in the doorway of the smoking room’ shows that this mirror-self is a form of narcissism, but also of self-consciousness: ‘He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread.’ The very clever thing about this character and his twin of a reflection which dogs him is that the room he is about to enter houses ‘studded couches’ which ‘gleamed with a fatness that reflected the girth of the gentlemen upon them.’ In this way, the man is of his environment.
5. TWO HALF PEOPLE; ONE COMPLETE PERSON
Berner and Dell Parsons are the twins of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. Told from Dell Parson’s first-person point of view, this is the story of a bank robbery, committed by the twins’ parents. After the parents are taken away by the police, Berner runs away and Dell is taken to Canada by a motherly friend where he becomes something of a hunting guide.
At first glance, the fraternal twins of this story have a bond which is not particularly stronger than any sibling bond, and it is mentioned time and again how much smarter and older-seeming Berner is than Dell. Yet as the story progresses it becomes apparent that the twins don’t really consider themselves as separate beings, which makes their separation even more significant.
I’d begun to believe it would be nice to be around girls. Berner, of course, was a girl. But most of our lives we had treated each other as being the same thing because we were twins. That same thing was neither male nor female, but something in between that included us both.
To reinforce the idea that Dell and Berner are two halves rather than one whole, Berner is left-handed while (it is assumed) Dell is right.
As Dell continues to tell the story of his family, his twinness becomes increasingly significant, because his relationship with his sister reflects the relationship he has with his twin sister:
Nothing that had happened had been in any way normal. Whatever changes had occurred in them and to them defied any idea I had of familiar. They looked like two people I knew, who I was again seeing across a distance, some unspannable divide, much greater than the border that separated us by then. I could say that their intimate familiarity as my parents, and their ordinary, generalised humanness had become joined, and one quality had neutralised the other and rendered the two of them neither completely familiar nor completely haphazard and indifferent to me.
Overall, with the twins’ fortunes significantly different, the fact of them being twins shows how trauma during youth can pan out in vastly different ways.
6. ANTHROPOMORPHISED TWINNESS
‘Are you a wizard too?’
‘Yes,’ said Marco. ‘But I was never a very good one. I don’t have the twin signs.’
…Then his father had taken him by the shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. ‘My magic is weak,’ he said, ‘it’s untutored and without power—I have never saved anyone. But you, Leo, you will be different. You have the two signs of wizardry, my boy—silver hair and golden eyes. You have the sun and moon within you.’
- from The Witch In The Lake by Anne Fienberg
This from TV Tropes, although twins as metaphor is not limited to the sun and moon, but can be applied to a great number of opposites:
The sun and moon have also been personified by having both of them be a specific sex. For example, the pairing could be a masculine and harsh sun paired with a feminine and soft moon. In historical religions, the sexes associated with the sun and moon vary greatly, and in some cases both a male and female deity may be ascribed to a single celestial body. According to The Other Wiki, it is somewhat more common to view the sun as male and the moon as female due to the prevalence of that portrayal in Greek and Roman religion.