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It's all there in Black and White

I've mentioned before that I play Sudoku. Today I was working on one that I've been doing on and off for several days. Mostly off. My new diet means I spend less time sitting in the "reading room", which is where I have the puzzle book, so I don't finish the puzzles nearly as fast any more.

Anyway, the idea is much like writing--you fill in more and more as you go, which lets you fill in the blanks, and everything has to be consistent with the original conditions you (or someone else, in the case of the sudoku) set down.

Well, today I sat down and opened the book, and realized that the initial conditions allowed me to fill in a "3" that I'd missed all this time. Even though it was there in black and white right in front of me. And that returned me to my musings earlier this week about figure and background.

You see, the ladies’ room where I work has a little sign, which reads either vacant or in use. You switch back and forth by sliding a bit of dark plastic to cover one or the other. It’s simple, obvious, and easy to use.

And yet, again and again, I find myself instead reaching for the side of the sign with the words, to sweep the words aside.

I can’t help it. They’re figural. I know they’re in the background, physically, but in meaning, they’re the important part. The foreground.

When I do that, my thoughts turn toward fiction. Toward how important it is to write so that the background is in the background, and not distracting to the characters, the plot, the theme and mood. Or toward how sometimes you want stuff that is important to the plot to be there, in black and white, but apparently just part of the background, long before the reader has enough information to realize that a particular bit of “color” is actually important…

What’s your favorite technique that, like that bit of black plastic, helps determine whether a reader perceives a detail as figure or background?

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