Setting the Tone

This week, my family and I visited Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore.  In comparing the two, I found a lesson for writing.

In many ways, these two places are similar.  Both are large-scale carvings in the sides of the Black Hills, which you can see without actually visiting the sites.  Both cost money to visit (although the price and purpose of the charges are different).  Both include a museum, visitor center, sculptor’s studio, and of course, gift shop and café.  Both tell two stories: that of the sculptor, and that of the people memorialized by the monument.

Even with all of these similarities, the two feel very different.  My mom and I discussed this at length, and my general impression is the tone, and the way in which the stories are told.

Crazy Horse is busy, and not because of the number of people.  You can see the sculpture from the parking lot, but the first thing you do on arrival is go into a building and into a theater to watch a movie about the making of the monument.  After the movie, you come out into a beautiful room with windows that look over the memorial, with a scale model of the finished sculpture.  Even in that space, designed to encourage reflection, the walls are covered with pictures of donors, paintings of Native American scenes, display cases full of artifacts, and a model of how the entire space will look when complete.  The other viewing area, where the larger scale model is kept, is a lovely outdoor deck with a great view of the mountain.  In order to get there, though, you have to go through rooms filled with Native American artifacts, not to mention the gift shop.  Even the sculptor’s home and studio are visually noisy, with paintings, art, furniture, and other pieces sculpted by the artist.

Crazy Horse is trying to tell too many stories at once, so none of them come across effectively.  My strongest takeaway impression was that they depend on the public to pay for the project, and unfortunately that registered mostly as a request for money.

Mount Rushmore feels like a monument.  As you park, the presidents are visible above trees, next to a large stone entry.  Walking through the archways, you can see the sculpture framed by trees and marble.  The path, lined with flags, leads directly to the large viewing terrace.  Even though it’s filled with visitors, the experience is breathtaking.  There are also trails that lead to the base of the mountain, with additional viewing areas and signs about each of the presidents on the mountain.  The gift shops and café are literally peripheral to your experience; they are on the side of the path, behind you, and below you as you first walk out to see the mountain.  The sculptor’s studio houses only models of Mount Rushmore, with information about the process, and every building possible has windows with views of the heads.

Mount Rushmore is also telling many stories, of each of the presidents as well as the artist and the politicians who supported and funded the project.  Here they are all told as echoes of the same story: America is awesome.  I walked away feeling patriotic, inspired by the people who are represented on the mountain and the people who made it happen.

There’s a lesson here for writing, too.  We want to tell many stories, in order to make the novel layered and interesting, but we need to be careful.  The stories we choose, and the way we include them, should all work together to tell a bigger story.  We don’t want our readers feeling overwhelmed by the noise, possibly even putting the book down before the end.