Writers aren’t painters they’re magicians

by | Feb 23, 2012 | Writing Advice | 32 comments

When someone writes well people often say it’s like they painted a picture. And of course, there’s that old phrase a picture is worth a thousand words. But painting with words really isn’t what a writer does.

A painting can be many things. It can be pretty or thought-provoking or disturbing or haunting or anything the painter wants. It can be just about anything. They can even tell somewhat of a story. But paintings are static. They don’t move. They capture a moment in time.

I’ve definitely read novels that read like paintings. They paint a portrait of a family or an individual or a new world and they might even do it in impeccable, transporting detail. It almost feels like we’re staring at a beautifully detailed painting. While that can be interesting and impressive, it’s not why we read novels.

Writers who want to really capture a reader can’t be content only with making the reader feel like they really know their characters or their world or admire that the writer is describing everything perfectly.

Novels have to move. They need a plot. Those perfectly rendered characters and details need to be challenged and mussed up and thrown into disorder.

The real metaphor for writing is magic: Writing is a performance, it brings things to life, it surprises and awes the audience.

The elements in a novel don’t remain in place for us to admire, they change and evolve and start in one place and end in another.

So don’t be content if you’ve painted a good picture in your novel. Now you have to animate it and set things in motion.

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Art: “Stage Set for Mozart’s Magic Flute” by Karl Friedrich Schinkel


  1. Josin L. McQuein

    A step that a lot of people miss with writing is to realize that they're capturing 3 dimensions in 2, like those posters of dots that become 3-d images when you look at them right.

    Writing is the evolution of the tribal storyteller and the wandering bard, both skills that required movement and tone – the occasional flourish of hands or dance or tossing of sparking powder into a fire for effect. Writers don't have those luxuries, so they have to trap those breaths on the page.

    Telling a tale is taking the reader's hand and dragging them behind you like an excited child who can't help but point out every unexpected delight as they run along. You're wanting to show them what happens, they want to explore, and intend to come back after their first read to see what wonders they missed.

    It's a thread that connects the past to the future, and the voices of those long sense dead who continue to live through the words they spoke into being. Their breath catches the next voice and the next until they're spoken out 2,000 years later.

    And that, most definitely, is its own kind of magic.

  2. Josin L. McQuein

    That should, of course, be "long sInce dead", and not "long sEnse dead"


  3. Matthew MacNish

    That's a beautiful painting you posted before this, Nathan, but you probably should have put up some kind of spell.

  4. Ted Fox

    I like it–as long as we don't have to spend time learning from Nicolas Cage like in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

  5. Stephanie

    Good writing is definitely magic. The reader is like Lucy, stepping through the wardrobe and discovering a new world. Good writing lets the reader actually inhabit that world. And that is magic. There's no other explanation for it!

  6. Jenny Maloney

    The best metaphor I've read for what good writers do is from Terry Pratchett on Neil Gaiman…and it involves 'magic':

    "…conjurers work very hard. They spend a lot of time in their youth watching, very carefully, the best conjurers of their day. They seek out old books of trickery and, being natural conjurers, read everything else as well, because history itself is just a magic show. They observe the way people think, and the many ways in which they don't. They learn the subtle use of springs, and how to open mighty temple doors at a touch, and how to make the trumpets sound.

    And they take center stage and amaze you with falgs of all nations and smoke and mirrors and you cry: 'Amazing! How does he do it? What happened to the elephant? Where's the rabbit? Did he really smash my watch?'

    And in the back row we, the other conjurers, say quietly, 'Well done….'"

    I really love this observation because, not only is it magic, it's work. To pull the reader along, to perform well, you have to work and study and practice and then one day you fool the other conjurers. Makes it very doable.

  7. Miriam Pia

    A novel or a short fiction story is a "recreational guided meditation". They can be educational, rather than pure recreation, but that's the essence of it- a real journey of the mind.

  8. Rick Daley

    Kind of like the paintings in Hogwarts. When you mix magic and painting, you have reached the pinnacle of the art.

  9. D.G. Hudson

    I think that writers are a bit of both.

    With their description, they paint the setting, they fill in the features of the people with hidden hints in their narrative or dialogue. Then the magic takes over when you select the words that will reach the hearts and the minds of the readers.

    Writers vary, but some do have that 'eye of the artist'. They show with words those things that make us sigh with their beauty, cause us to be anxious at the action or relieved when the protagonist survives his quest.

    So, I have a different opinion, Nathan. Some writers do have a bit of both.

  10. Lauren

    What a great, inspirational post. 🙂

  11. Ishta Mercurio

    YES – and it that magical feeling of having been transported, changed, and brought back a different person that leaves a reader wanting more.

    Great metaphor.

  12. Jory

    So true. I'm currently reading The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, and it is increasingly apparent how things words can be so differently expressed and interpreted from they way visuals are.

  13. crow productions

    As a painter who writes, I agree. A painting expresses my desire to capture the moment. When I write, I want to know what happens next.

  14. Stephanie Garber

    Beautiful post, Nathan! This was just the type of inspiration I needed this morning!

  15. Mr. D

    I don't know about magic, but as a musician/composer, an artist, and an author, I have found that, for me, anyway, writing a great novel is the most rewarding creative endeavor of them all.

  16. Ainsley Shay

    Nicely said! You've described perfectly, and in a beautiful and inspirational way what authors stride for.

  17. Kristin Laughtin

    If anything, a written story is a series of paintings. Each little section captures the essence of a moment, but the things within it have to move and breathe.

  18. Mira

    Gorgeous picture, lovely topic and nicely said, Nathan! I had not conceptualized it this way before.

    Enjoyed reading the comments here, too.

    This made me think about how difficult writing a novel is – very complex. Quite an artistic achievement.

  19. ekbalesteri

    I'm a writer with an eye for taking pictures…Nothing fancy, just my Canon Elf and whatever catches my eye.

    It's later, when I download the static photos that the writer in me emerges, and I begin imagining a whole story around something as silly as a red tree branch lying in the sand…

    Yup, writers can conjure a story out of just about anything!

    Great post! You always make me think.

  20. Diana Hunter

    Short, "slice of life" stories come the the closest to a still-life painting when comparing the two genre. Both capture just a moment in time, one with paint, the other with words. Both examine the moment with detail, uncovering particulars missed in a casual glance. And both give a sense of more…of something beyond the canvas and of events outside the story.


  21. Patrick

    Chuck Rosenthal once said to a class I was in that writers are wizards, not magicians. I agree with what you're saying Nathan, but I like Chuck's distinction. We were talking about "twist" endings and other devices and he was illustrating that a writing doesn't have to hold back the secret from the audience (as a magician would) but rather works magic with everything on the table (which can lead to suspense and the like)
    Just a consideration

  22. Bryan Russell

    I still haven't figured out how to put the bunny and top hat in chapter four.

  23. Susan Kaye Quinn

    Lovely! Gives depth to the idea of moving the reader. The story moves, the plot carrying it along from start to end, but it needs to move the reader with it. And pretty scenery along the way doesn't hurt.

  24. Lucy

    And this is why we write. To cast a spell.

  25. Anonymous

    I respectfully disagree. Everything you described about writing is what a great painting should do. Especially abstracts. And a great artist knows how to touch people and draw them into a different world, just as a great author does with the written word. A magician creates illusion and his work is based on skill that can be explained. Andrew Wyeth can't be explained anymore than Fitzgerald or even Franzen.

  26. Traci Kenworth

    So true. It takes more than painting a background to bring a story to life.

  27. Jaimie

    And novels about magic can read like paintings. (This post just reminded me of THE NIGHT CIRCUS.)

  28. Nicole

    Yes, yes, yes! Love this!

    And Jenny M's quote about conjurers is also fantastic. We must capture not just the picture, but the movement, emotions and stakes that pull readers into our worlds.

  29. Criticus

    Good observation. I think poetry is more analogous to painting than fiction. Ut pictura poesis, as Horace wrote.

  30. Nathan Coppedge

    I would like to recommend my book 1-Page-Classics, for similar reasons

    –Nathan Coppedge

  31. Devin cena

    I've definitely read novels that read like paintings. It almost feels like we're staring at a beautifully detailed painting. So don't be content if you've painted a good picture in your novel.


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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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