Ekphrasis: (noun) a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art
As a published poet, I tend to lean heavily on literary devices. Metaphors, cadence, a cannonball of irony, you get the picture. So even within my debut mystery, I didn’t shy away from ekphrastic writing, as I knew how it would add depth and underscore the tension in my novel. After all, writers have been vividly describing art since seventh century BC. (Thank you, Homer.)
Art can grip you, rattle you, charm you, seduce you, and burn into your consciousness. If you have ever seen the classic film Laura, you know how a portrait can captivate both the hero and the audience. (Cue the dramatic score, the violins tugging at our heart strings.)
Often, when we think of art in mysteries, we think of the art as the mystery—the painting is forged or stolen or provides one jaw-dropper of a clue—saluting Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, here. But art doesn’t need to be central to a storyline to earn its place in a mystery. Art offers writers dozens of opportunities that may not relate directly to structure, opportunities to add colour and texture to the page, whether you’re penning a cozy or a thriller.
Similar to the inclusion of romance in a mystery, there is a fine line drawn between just enough description and purpled overkill. Readers of Gothic fiction tend to prefer lusher and longer descriptions, but even if you’re writing an edge-of-your-seat page-turner or a noir-ish police procedural, a brief well-worded description of a piece of artwork can:
How characters react to a piece of art can frame their personality, mindset, baggage, interests, vices, and virtues. What they hang on their walls or arrange in their personal spaces can highlight their personal taste and style. Does the character cherish his great grandmother’s painting of a family cottage that has long fallen into disrepair? Does he cover his walls with the jigsaw puzzles he painstakingly completed, glued to boards and shellacked? Do portraits comfort or trigger him? Does the art bore, annoy, amuse, or arouse him?
Art can allow a character to reconsider a situation or to become self-aware. A pastoral landscape could reopen old wounds or—conversely—act as an emotional tourniquet after a violent confrontation. A garden gnome can stir a memory, a photograph can call out bad habits, and even a still life can express interiority.
Enrich a Setting
Whether the setting is a pool hall or a city hall, including art can broaden a book’s dimensions and put the reader right there, whether that art piece is a well-known reproduction, a poster, a child’s first collage or a pricy lithograph on permanent loan.
Art has the ability to say something about a time period, the locale, landmarks, cultures and heritage. Art can call to mind tradition or give tradition the bird.
I recently watched the film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story 1408, a gripping horror-mystery hybrid. Three paintings are featured in the movie: a schooner lost at sea, an old woman reading to children, and a British ‘horses and hounds’ hunt scene. The paranormal debunker who is staying in the hotel room makes glib remarks about the ‘thrift store art.’ The deadpan descriptions poke fun at the hospitality industry.
A description that encapsulates both what is seen and what is felt does not require a page or even a paragraph. In just a sentence or two, we can shift the mood gears, go from light to dark, threatening to safe, mild to spicy, if we show the reader exactly what it is that your POV character has noticed or absorbed. Does the art sharply contrast with the scene that has just played out or does it echo it?
Moments that are filtered through art can shadow a scene or to give it a barely perceptible undercurrent. Objects can also represent art. I found the arrangement of clocks in Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney to be installation art—and the use of time paints each chapter with urgency. How the characters respond to the past, present and future is also cleverly crafted.
Highlight your book’s theme
Incorporating art with the intent to emphasize themes requires subtlety. My opinion is that if the art duplicates a novel’s theme, readers may feel they have been thumped on the head with analogy. A less in-your-face comparison can go a long way.
Say you have woven themes of regret and loneliness into your traditional mystery. Perhaps, a watercolour of a river hangs in a home that has grown overly quiet. The watercolour was a first anniversary gift from the wife. Trees shade the river, dragonflies hover over the shallows, a row boat has come unmoored, and a weathered dock can be seen in the distance. This painting has hung on the same wall for twenty-five years. The couple host a dinner party, and a guest asks about it. What if the husband says he bought it for her? What if the wife had hated it for years? What if they both keep trying to straighten it? A thousand possibilities!
Provide an ‘in’ for foreshadowing or flashback scenes
If any objet d’art is being used to forecast plot, a backdoor approach works better than an announced arrival. In other words, setting fire to a painting of a barn and then having the barn actually catch fire could (pun intended) backfire on an author. It’s risky to clone the storyline or to draw arrows pointing towards endings and beginnings. What I am speaking of here is a glimpse of the future or a wink to the past.
Paula McLain brilliantly works in just a hint of foreshadowing within the third chapter of When the Stars Go Dark. She vividly describes the Time and The Maiden statue located in Mendocino, CA, and then finishes the description with the aside, ‘The whole carving like a mystery in plain sight.’
Alter the pace
Generally, description slows a novel’s pacing, but describing art brings it to a near standstill. It’s a freeze-frame moment shared between the POV character and your reader. The art is filtered through your character, then interpreted by the reader.
There are so many different forms of art that can easily be incorporated into a mystery—stained glass, sun catchers, cemetery art, knickknacks, graffiti, paper weights, doodles, mixed media canvases, colouring books and even ash trays.
In my genre-blending novel, A Cruel Light, I’ve done my utmost to use art to its full advantage. Though my main character, Annora Garde, is an art conservator, art is more than her vocation, it is her lifeblood. If she needs to collect her thoughts—take a breather—she engages with the art around her.
As a reader, I enjoy when an author paints a picture with words, so my aim is to pay that forward. Ekphrastic writing is not exclusively for literary novels. Descriptions of art have a place in all fiction, including crime fiction.