Foreground, Middle-Ground, Background


Rafferty paintingLooking at a visual image through photography, video, paint or our own eyes, we’re aware of objects in three dimensions. They inhabit different grounds, and that gives them diverse prominence and meaning; all pretty obvious, except when we start to pay attention to the details drawing us into the story. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to the elements of composition in art and music recently, appreciating their similarities to the structural alignment of my writing, but also as other ways of understanding creativity. Looking at the building blocks of different crafts opens new insights in mine. The same elements that make a picture or concerto complete also fill up a story on the page.

I began thinking about dimensional layering when a writing colleague discussed “killing off” one of my characters in a first draft of my novel Certain Liberties. It’s not as morbid as it sounds, but more an issue of pushing one character into the background so another can stand in front of him. That conversation broadened into why characters can’t all carry the same weight; how many complete characters there can be if the reader is to be fully engaged with the story, rather than throwing it down in frustration. The novels that start with dense family trees, or long lists of the cast don’t work for me. Sometimes I’ll stick with them through sheer stubbornness—I won’t let that damned author get the better of me, and look how long I’ve already wasted trying to remember who these characters are—but that’s not the kind of reaction I want from my readers. Figuring out how prominent a character needs to be is a topic well worth the inspection if readers are to know who’s vital and who isn’t.

The initial discussion I had with my colleague, like most good dialogues, stimulated further thought. As I considered the differences in detail for a subject in the foreground, middle-ground or background of a picture, an image flashed into my mind of a very small painting I have on my bedroom wall. It was done by an artist friend in France who used to come to Long Island to show paintings every summer. He was inspired by the light and outdoor subjects, especially the bay and ocean beaches. The painting in my room is only 6” X 6”, and was titled ‘Early Morning Ride’ by the artist (see the photo above). He always paints a tiny version, a sketch in oil, of what will eventually be a bigger painting, to work with color, style and form before he commits.  A friend of mine who loves to ride horses bought the bigger one when finished; and knowing I had been taken with it, the artist gave me the preliminary little ‘sketch’ framed as a gift.

The painting is mostly done in shades of blue, white and beige. There’s lots of sky with interesting clouds and light (roughly two thirds of the canvas) and the rest is a strip of ocean and another of sand. Everything is loosely painted. A little right of center in the foreground, a dark horse jogs on the beach with a rider who looks out to the water. They are miniscule against the large landscape background. The dark-haired rider is wearing the only spot of color, a red jacket, and his pants are white. He and his horse are also barely outlines, but what’s there pulls your eye immediately because of the contrast coloring, position in front of everything else, and movement.

The horse’s legs suggest the early morning ride is a spirited trot. That’s the entirety of the picture and the story it tells, except for a very small dog running along beside and slightly in front of the horses hoofs. Judging from its form in relation to the horse and rider, this is not a powerful hunting dog; more a domestic pet, also out for an early morning run but very connected to its owner. All three animals, the man, his horse and his dog, are playing together gently in the early morning light and air. Of course this scene is extremely impressionistic and evocative, the artist describing the feelings it brought out in him rather than depicting the scene with precise realism. I looked at the painting with a new eye and thought about how much detail is necessary in written character description, and what happens when the detail gets less relevant as things move into the middle-ground and background. Instantly I realized something was wrong. The dog was gone from the painting! 

What happened to him? I stared at the picture, grabbing it off the wall and holding it close to inspect the scene of the crime. The dog was key to the picture and story of that early morning ride. The relationship between horse, rider and pet, both emotionally and physically, meant so much more than the billowing clouds and tranquil sea and shore. Staring at the empty sand around the front hooves of the horse, I remembered that this was the first ‘draft’, the penultimate of my artist friend’s story, and the big painting my rider friend bought was the final one. In that ultimate version, the tiny dog had been added in the foreground, and even though he was a small and seemingly insignificant player in comparison with the larger protagonists, as well as the water and sky, his placement in the foreground guaranteed him an importance to be reckoned with. How fascinating that he became so important to the ‘story’ that my inner eye had added him into my little ‘first draft’ sketch after seeing him in the larger final one! Obviously he belonged there, and his detailing and positioning made it so.

Thinking now about that little pet taking an early morning run on an ocean beach in the Hamptons, I’m surer than ever of the importance of detailing and positioning in character development. I agreed with my writing colleague that the one we discussed changing in my novel needed to come forward a bit, just as another one needed to recede behind him. But I’m convinced he shouldn’t emerge from the middle-ground to compete with the protagonist for importance. Even though he would never be as complex or intriguing as the other characters who live in the foreground and a space just behind that, like the shore and sea in my painting, this character could easily gain the prominence of the little lost dog and start to take over the story.

That’s the balancing act authors need to work on. Fortunately, whether it’s a palette knife or a computer, correction is possible if a mistake is made. But just like the story in the painting, it’s easier to add character than it is to take it away. Understanding the importance of foreground, middle-ground and background is a great help. Maybe that’s why practitioners of other crafts make such good readers and writers. Depth of field impacts every story we tell, and where the character is in that field impacts his importance to the story, no matter how insignificant he may seem at first. So now, Bill, I’d like you to step forward a bit (but not too far) and Charlie, you have to go back. I hope you’ll like the changes when Certain Liberties finally comes out.

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