Can’t See the Forest For the Trees?

Often when I wake in the morning I’ll have a song, phrase or word stuck in my head. It’ll bounce around in there for most of the day. When it’s an annoying song I generally try to sing it in front of someone else so it gets stuck in their head instead of mine. Oddly enough, this seems to work. 

This morning I was thinking about the phrase “They can’t see the forest for the trees”. In context it often means the person being referenced is unable to see the big picture due to the petty/small details involved; those are all they can see.

I like to flip that around. “Can’t see the trees for the forest”. The big picture becomes so encompassing that individual details can’t be recognized. Example: in At Wit’s End I know exactly what I need/want to have happen however the way to make it happen is often beyond me. Perhaps I shouldn’t try to tell my characters where to go and what to say, perhaps I should listen to what they want. The problem comes when, like small children, they never know what they want for more than a page at a time. “Oo! Oo! Shiny object!” and the story drifts away. 

Then there are the days when the details take over completely and I realize I’ve written myself into a hole. In a previous blog I compared it to painting oneself into a corner but I’ve found it feels like I’m digging my way out of a hole, not being patient and waiting for the paint to dry so I can traipse across the floor. 

It’s difficult to find a balance between the trees and the forest. Do I need to know that tree over there is an oak? No, but it’s good to recognize that there is, indeed, a tree over there and it’s playing an important part in the forest of my mind. Need I describe every curve of bark? Flipped over leaf? I certainly hope not. I’d like to imagine the reader can fill in blanks that will make the story more of their own. 

So then the definition of moderation comes in to play. Moderate descriptions but fun plots? And what, exactly, is moderate when it comes to setting a scene? Some writers have this down in a way I may never. Then there are the writers who take three pages to describe a single object. Does that make it better? I’m very undecided. 

The one conclusion I’ve come to is the KISS rule should define all. In the immortal words of oh so many people, Keep It Simple, Stupid. 

The main thing to avoid, I believe, would be clear cutting the forest of my mind and I wish/hope/pray that others also avoid that. It’s better to have a few trees and a forest than to have nothing at all, right?

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