Writing Tips from Titian

As a writer, it interests me to see how one sort of art informs another. Wandering through galleries, it’s fun to consider new ways of looking at storytelling through paintings.

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon is a wonderful composition, full of life, colour, naked women and tension. The goddess Diana is at her bath on the riverbank with her maidens about her. No man may see her naked, but the hunter Actaeon has just pulled back the red curtain. Titian paints Actaeon as he recoils with horror at his own blasphemy.

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Diana and Actaeon, Titian, 1556-59

The moment: Actaeon knows what he has done and can’t take his action back.  The stakes are ramped up: his life is now forfeit by Diana’s law.

Xrays of the canvas show that Titian had originally planned to paint Actaeon just before he pulled back the red curtain. Titian’s first idea must have been to involve viewers in that moment:  Don’t pull back that curtain, Actaeon!  But Titian wasn’t in demand all over Europe for having second-best ideas.  Instead, he paints the moment after Actaeon’s choice has been made, and there’s no going back.  So we ask, Actaeon, what the hell are you going to do now?

This question propels us forward, and forward is a great direction for readers to lean. I think of Actaeon when I’m beginning a chapter, writing towards the stakes-are-ramped moment for the hero.  It’s tempting to spend a few paragraphs on my hero’s agonizing choice:  “Should I go upstairs, should I open that container, should I trust that fellow?” And we can all think of examples where this works.  But often, readers already know that the hero has to do it, is driven to it, and the paragraph might be better employed by putting the reader and all his survival-evolved senses into the hero’s skin now that said skin is at risk.

Here’s the ending of Diana and Actaeon, by the way…

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The Death of Actaeon, Titian, 1559-75

Thanks for the writing tip, Titian.

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