Family Holidays as a Study in Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro is the use of deep and subtle contrasts of light and dark in order to create a more dramatic effect. This variation of light and dark creates shadows, nuances and textures within an overall work, both visual works and textual works. As you navigate your Thanksgiving holiday, especially at the dinner table, how do light and dark present both visually and contextually in the room, the decorations, the discussions, the rumors, the family joys and spats…? Make mental note of these. Watch for a particular moment that strikes you as particularly dichotic, light AND dark and full of chiaroscuro.
Chiaroscuro is a foundational element in developing excellent narrative. It can be incorporated into nearly every facet of storytelling. Though literary narrative takes a less dramatic arc as what a more commercial narrative would (we do not write car chases and blowing up city scenes, usually), we do write a great deal of emotional highs and lows into our character arcs.
- Setting: Think of setting chiaroscuro as the paint and the background on the canvas. How do you use light and dark within the visual, auditory, aromatic and sensual (the see, hear, smell, taste and touch) details of your settings?
- Moralistic/Ethical: Is there a spectrum of innocence and sin? Are you setting the moral compass of your characters/subjects or are you allowing them to work through the highs and lows of being human and fallible on the page?
- Pacing: Are you allowing for a variable speed? Slow and quick?
- Language: Does your diction change from character to character? Do your sentences vary in length and poetic vehicles?
The Smithsonian pulled together a fantastic list of Thanksgiving reads and studies. Here is a short list with a diverse spectrum of aesthetics from classic to contemporary, with a Beat thrown in.
- An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott
- Oldtown Folks Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
- “A Thanksgiving Prayer” by William S. Burroughs (YouTube of Burroughs reading his poem. Warning, this one is not for the kiddies. Burroughs employs violent language and sarcasm as a critique on Americanized holidays, socio-political practices and more. This is another example of the Beats giving prejudiced, right wing, extremist America the middle finger while using extremist America’s own violent language. This work goes beyond mere cynicism and into full on anger. Watch at your own risk.)
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
- Do you have more favorite Thanksgiving literature? Share it below!
If you are looking for child friendly Thanksgiving stories, here is a top ten list from Goodreads.
- I Am the Turkey by Michele Sobel Spirn
- The Know-Nothings Talk Turkey by Michele Sobel Spirn
- ‘Twas The Night Before Thanksgiving by Dav Pilkey
- A Turkey for Thanksgiving by Eve Bunting
- One Is a Feast for Mouse: A Thanksgiving Tale by Judy Cox
- I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie by Alison Jackson
- A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving by Charles M. Schulz
- Thanksgiving Mice! by Bethany Roberts
- Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet
Top Thanksgiving films on IMDB.
- Home for the Holidays (1995) After losing her job, making out with her soon-to-be former boss and finding out that her daughter plans to spend Thanksgiving with her boyfriend, Claudia Larson faces spending the holiday with her family. (103 mins.). Director: Jodie Foster. Stars: Holly Hunter, Anne Bancroft, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Durning.
- Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving, with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion. (93 mins.). Director: John Hughes. Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean.
- Scent of a Woman (1992) A prep school student needing money agrees to “babysit” a blind man, but the job is not at all what he anticipated. (156 mins.). Director: Martin Brest. Stars: Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell, James Rebhorn, Gabrielle Anwar.
- Avalon (1990) A Polish-Jewish family comes to the USA at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There, the family and their children try to make themselves a better future in the so-called promised land. (128 mins.). Director: Barry Levinson. Stars: Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Leo Fuchs, Eve Gordon.
- Four Brothers (2005) Four brothers look to avenge their mother’s death. (109 mins.). Director: John Singleton. Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Garrett Hedlund, André Benjamin.
- Pieces of April (2003) A wayward daughter invites her dying mother and the rest of her estranged family to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. (80 mins.). Director: Peter Hedges. Stars: Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke.
- A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973 Short Film) Peppermint Patty invites herself and her friends over to Charlie Brown’s for Thanksgiving, and with Linus, Snoopy, and Woodstock, he attempts to throw together a Thanksgiving dinner. (30 mins.). Director: Bill Melendez, Phil Roman. Stars: Todd Barbee, Robin Kohn, Stephen Shea, Hilary Momberger.
- Rescue Dawn (2006) A US Fighter pilot’s epic struggle of survival after being shot down on a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. (126 mins.). Director: Werner Herzog. Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Zach Grenier.
- The Ice Storm (1997) 1973, suburban Connecticut: middle class families experimenting with casual sex, drink, etc., find their lives out of control. (112 mins.). Director: Ang Lee. Stars: Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Henry Czerny.
If you can find time during the Thanksgiving chaos and family, jot notes. Jot them in the back of your cookbook. Keep a journal handy. Thumb them out on your iPhone as text messages to yourself. Try to record the moments that strike you as particularly humorous, dichotic, ironic and resonant. Wait until after Thanksgiving day has passed and you’ve had two seconds to yourself to go back and read your notes.
As you review your Thanksgiving notes:
- Consider which of these recorded moments jump out as the most cathartic and emotional.
- Choose the two main people in this moment and assign them as subjects of your essay or characters in your fiction.
- Once you’ve identified the moment and the main subjects/characters, explore the subjects/characters. Consider this primary moment from each individual perspective and write the scene/moment from each subject/character perspective.
- Then move onto another moment….
Before long, you may find you have a longer work developing or you may find that you have an excellent short short work under 1000 words. Either way, keep this exploration and let it grow gradually as you make your way through the holiday season. Don’t feel like you need to clean it up right away and send it off. Let it marinate, grow and speak to you.
Remember, this Thanksgiving moment/scene is merely a draft. As you add onto it, give yourself permission to write imperfectly so to get the story out. Later, in January, after everything has slowed down a bit, you’ll have plenty of time to review your draft and begin the deeper explorations, flesh it out and start the developmental restructuring.
First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before looking at it again. Many writers prefer to give it a few weeks or even a month.
Second Draft: You aren’t under any quick turnaround deadlines, so take your time with this draft. Don’t worry yet about the line edits and so on. This is an exploration draft. Consider what in the narrative stands out. How well do you know your narrator, protagonist and antagonist? Spend more time with your characters and really focus on them. Where do you lose interest? What is incomplete and what can be more surgically detailed? Consider, during this revision, how the two characters interact and what that might mean in a sociopolitical and/or human relationship way. How do they foil each other? Flesh out any sections that might further reflect this sociopolitical undercurrent of the work but be careful not to make this undercurrent too obvious. Let the reader have room to work this out for him or herself. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt our readers to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic and literary excellence.
Third Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day, few weeks, months, before your next step.
Fourth Draft: Now read your most recent revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.
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