Turning Flat Stanley Into Stanley Tucci: A Take on Texture

When you look at a flat black-and-white stick figure drawing, you see exactly that. A one-dimensional, basic, mono-chromatic image.

smoothdude via Wikimedia Commons

smoothdude via Wikimedia Commons

Often, the idea for a new novel or story begins exactly the same way. A single line of thought—what would happen if a butterfly’s wings contained a map to the greatest treasure on earth, or, if defense-deployed micro-computers became self-aware  autonomous actors, would they form nano-coalitions that could infiltrate and control human minds?—is usually the same as our stick figure drawing. But we, as storytellers, are not content with drawing mere sketches. We want texture.

But, what is texture? Merriam-Webster clears that right up.

: something composed of closely interwoven elements
: essential part : substance
: identifying quality : character
: the disposition or manner of union of the particles of a body or substance
: the visual or tactile surface characteristics and appearance of something : a composite of the elements of prose or poetry

Ah, yes. Composite, interwoven elements, disposition or manner of the particles of a substance. What this is telling us is simple: Texture IS storytelling.

As writers, particularly when we’re just starting to cut our teeth in the world of words, we learn to break down each component, or particle, of writing into discrete steps and practice those until we get comfortable. Character description, scene setting, the overall plotting and outlining of an engaging story arc, world-imagining then building; and then the more abstract elements of setting a mood, deciding on a tone, and developing a unique writing voice.

When looking at these individually, the act of writing can begin to seem formulaic. Yet it’s the craft of writing that takes each of these items and turns them into a layered, compelling story that brings readers into the unique, multi-faceted world you have created. Combining the particles of a story’s substance means not simply putting readers into your characters’ shoes, but shoving their too-big feet into the humid, smelly, compressed insoles of your characters’ ragged chukka boots with mismatched laces, one of which bears a suspicious stain on its musty canvas tongue, and neither of which will EVER make it past the threshold of a black-tie party.

And that, dear readers, is what makes a texture so important. Texture is not merely detailing the facts, it’s flourishing the facts, the sensations, the pace, the who-what-when-where-how-why, and the dark matter of the universe in sweeping, calligraphic brush strokes that turn flat words into a three-dimensional masterpiece.

A bit more on texture from the experts:


The status quo is a known quantity and so it does not demand the attention of our description — we know what a chair looks like, a bed, a wall, the sky, that tree. The straight line is as plain and obvious as a pair of ugly thumbs. We know to describe instead the things that break our expectation, that stand out as texture, that are the bumps and divots and scratches and shatterpoints of that straight line. We describe those things that must be known, that the audience cannot otherwise describe themselves, that contribute to the violation of their expectations. We don’t illuminate every tree in the forest: just that one tree that looks like a dead man’s hand reaching toward the sky, pulling clouds down into its boughs, the tree from whence men have hanged and in which strange birds have slept. We describe the different tree. The tree that matters. The crooked tree that doesn’t belong.

David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Storytelling as a Fine Art

For me, a plot is like the skeleton of a dinosaur. You could wire up the vertebrae of a T-Rex, hook up its femur and skull and other bones, and get an idea of what it looked like, but even a completed skeleton only hints at the monster. You need to put muscle on those bones to get a real idea of its composition, and then flesh to get the textures of the creature, and you’d need pigments to see its coloration. You’d need to finish by putting in things like eyeballs and nostrils, and little cowbirds living on its back as they fed on parasites. In short, the bones are just a skeleton. Even if they’re put together perfectly, it won’t bring your story to life.

Artists at that time in the mediums of poetry, music, and painting were also trying to discover new ways to express themselves, so that we had various experiments cropping up—poetry that was un-metered or un-rhymed, music that was cacophonic or avoided self-resonance, and paintings that sought to draw out the viewer’s emotions by the use of color and texture rather than by portraying any realistic images, and so on.

Note: For David’s fans, you may not know that his son was recently in a terrifying accident. If you’d like to send David words of encouragement, or help with his son’s ongoing medical expenses, please visit: http://www.helpwolverton.com/.

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.