Let’s Write That CRAP

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

Serdar and I often discuss the way writing is improved by drawing on anything but writing.  I’d like to share a recent insight I had regarding using graphic design and writing.

Graphic arts are a hobby of mine – and vital for my writing career so I can make the kind of covers I want.  I’ve been putting more time into my skills because they are fun, because of my writing, and because it’s also useful in my career.  One of the best sources is The Non-Designer’s Design Book by creator Robin Williams, which I returned to as a refresher.

Williams sums up good design in the enjoyably shameless CRAP acronym.  Anything from book covers to business cards has four traits – Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.  These traits of good visual design made me wonder – do they apply to good writing?

Let’s explore.


Good graphic design means that there are stark differences that stand out.  The similar should be similar, and the different should be very different.

When it comes to writing, contrast is very important.  Fiction requires us to know the differences among characters, places, and things – in fact to feel them viscerally.  Non-fiction needs to be bundled up in a way where you get distinct information – a muddle isn’t going to let you find what you need.

A surprising amount of writing is making sure things aren’t the same.  Like, say, these sections . . .


Good visual elements – colors, shapes, and so on – have to repeat in graphic design.  A book cover should have the same fonts for different text (unless you’re using that for contrast).  A good logo might use lines of the same thickness.

Writing also requires repetition.  Fiction requires restating certain things so the reader “gets” them – like a character’s personal habits or traits.  Non-fiction can require everything from similarly formatted timelines to repetitive elements like exercises or summaries of each chapter.  Examine your own writing, and you might find some things you think of as repeating aren’t boring, but are a good idea.

Writing is repetitious.  Hey, notice how these sections are also repeating a format . . .


Good graphic design has elements that align with other elements, giving them a kind of connection.  Business cards don’t place text willy-nilly, but are carefully aligned with each other for ease of reading.  Take a look at good movie posters and notice how titles, taglines, cast information, etc. usually have alignment that makes them visually pleasing.

First, let’s talk fiction writing.  Good plotlines need to have elements aligned so you can tell a story, and many fiction stories have a kind of symmetry.  Some authors carefully size chapters and scenes so they’re about the right size to keep pace and keep reader interest.  I’m sure if you write fiction you know that sensation of seeing it in your head – and a good story has alignment of many elements.

In non-fiction, writing also requires alignment.  You have to put information in the right order of a chapter so people learn the right lessons.  Chapters need to align, going in the right order to lead people through what you want to teach them.  These alignments may also repeat, as our friend repetition appears.

You’ll see this post has (mostly) aligned sections.  This one went a bit longer, but let’s call that Contrast . . .


The CRAP acronym’s final lesson is Proximity, a simple but oft forgot lesson of good design – related elements should be close together.  A business card probably has a person’s title right under their name.  A book with many authors probably lists the author’s names together as, well, they’re the authors.  Proximity says “this is related.”

Of course in writing proximity matters as you usually put related stuff next to each other.  A plot has scenes happen in a kind of order – even if you’re pulling a Rashomon and people have to guess the order themselves.  Non-fiction obviously groups similar things as that’s how you inform people.  As a writer, you’re probably using Proximity without even thinking about it.

And we see proximity here, in, of course, these sections along with opening and closing.

Looking back on that fun little analysis, I think it was a worthwhile metaphor to explore.  Taking CRAP and seeing what it might tell us about writing helped me think about both design and writing.  All from picking up a book from my past to refresh some lessons.

So what kind of metaphors are in your life that might help your writing?  Let me challenge you to find one and write about it – and share it with me.

Steven Savage

Coming To Our Separate Senses

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

You may remember my earlier post on “granularity” as a measure of quality of story.  My take was that good work has a level of detail, much as a visual work does.  Some works of broad tropes may be big, colorful detail (like an 8 bit game), others may have fine, subtle detail (like a realistic painting).  I felt the visual metaphor was useful.

In a discussion with my friend Serdar, he brought up how he had a similar term for good works – pungent.  That work that has a power to it that brings a reaction just the way a strong smell does.  Pleasant or unpleasant, it has a certain something that draws you in, a depth.

I went with sight as a metaphor.  He went with smell a metaphor.  I suggested we should find other metaphors using the remaining senses, but by the time the joke was made I took it seriously.  Why not experiment with metaphors to understand creativity?  My creative friends and I are always trying to find metaphors to understand what makes creative work good.

Writers, artist, cosplayers, etc. want to know what’s good, but creativity is not so easily classified.  But exchanging metaphors and comparisons like this?  That’s valuable, small signs and milestones to help us get where we’re going.

(OK now I’m using a map metaphor.  See what I mean?)

By taking a moment to think about good works as pungent (as opposed to my granular), I gain a new way to appreciate good works and improve my own.  Is this story I’m considering more soy sauce or fermented pepper paste?  Should a blog post be like a delightful smell that lures you in, or the punch-in-the-nose scent that gets your attention?  For that matter, could I be writing something so bland there’s no “scent” at all?

I invite you to exchange metaphors and brainstorm them with your creative friends.  See what kind of visceral relations and comparisons you can come up with.  Your differences will probably lead you to some informative places . . .
They may even lead to metaphors that are pungent.  Or granular.  Or use some other sense . . .

Steven Savage

The Granularity of Good Stories

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, Steve’s Tumblr, and Pillowfort.  Find out more at my newsletter, and all my social media at my linktr.ee)

Why can some stories with broad strokes – tropes really – satisfy us while others disappoint?  This subject came up in a writers’ group when we discussed tropes, and someone noticed simple stories of good versus evil could still satisfy as much as complex ones.  I responded that simple stories can still have depth as surely as a more nuanced work, because both had granularity.

However I wasn’t sure why I was saying that.  I could visualize what I meant, so to put it into words, I wrote this.

When we think granularity, we think of the level of detail in a report, a game’s graphics, or just a description’s detail.  Some things are “big and chunky” (8-bit game graphics), and others are “fine-grained” (research data catching differences among subjects).  Good stories, worldbuilding, and characters also have granularity – but the kind varies.

Look at what is often considered a “good” book or movie.  There’s depth to the characters and setting.  There’s subtle detail about motivations, political history presented subtly that still gives you a century’s events and Checkov’s guns that were more of an armory.  There are levels of fine detail there, like a painting of many colors and delicate brush strokes.

In short, “good” works are often ones with granularity, those details and extras that make it real in our minds.

But what of those simpler works we enjoy, one that may be very simple, trope-filled, or both?  Sure some are real simple, but aren’t many books and movies “good” without all the fine detail of other works?  In fact, I’d say yes – because a “good” work that’s simple or trope-filled can have granularity of a different kind.

The “good” broad, trope-filled book or show has granularity as well, just not at the level of more complex works.  Think of the difference between 8-bit graphics and modern cinematic videogames.  The first presents a world realized in big, colored, obvious dots.  The second is a subtle palette of colors and detail.  Both can delight, but they deliver a different experience.

The “good” book of broad strokes?  That’s the 8-bit game.  There are differences, there are details; they’re just big, obvious, and not always subtle.  But there is some level of granularity and detail, it’s just not the same or the same amount as other works.  It’s “chunky.”

A standard “charming rogue” character can be boring; we’ve seen that all before.  Let’s give them one trope of a soft spot – they never abandon their friends.  Next, throw in a flaw like overconfidence, another trope.  But that’s enough to tell an interesting tale about a person who’s dashing but not always responsible, never abandons people but overestimates their ability to do so.  Three tropes together give you enough depth to enjoy and feel something.

You need enough granularity to bring the characters and story to life.  Be it a “good” book of the incredible detail or a “good” show that is filled with tropes with enough big chunks of detail to give it meaning, you can enjoy yourself and the experience.

And you, my dear writer, just need to find what granularity does what you and your audience want.

Steven Savage