Sunday, April 16, 2017


What is a symbol?

My blog recently has been all about how to make your writing, any writing, more literary.  One of the key literary devices that can elevate a piece from just a story to something above that, something more meaningful, is the use of symbolism.  Symbolism is where one thing--say, a fish, a snake, a tree, or a lamb--can represent something deeper and more culturally significant.  All of the aforementioned items are used within the Bible to reference the divine.  The symbol of a snake in the Old Testament appears in the story of a brass serpent used as an object of healing, one which many consider a foreshadowing and reference to the story of Jesus.  The medical symbol of the crossed snakes references this same symbol while also alluding to Hermes in Greek mythology.  Yet at the same time, a serpent is also used in the Old Testament to represent the devil.  Say you want to make a character, a doctor, who is mysterious and could be either evil or good.  You associate this symbol of the crossed snakes with him to make him seem noble and good, someone seeking to heal.  Yet there's also something else snakelike about him, and these snake symbols seem more sinister and are somehow associated with temptation, an apple, and a fruit.  You have now used commonly understood cultural symbols to make this doctor both confusing and intriguing.  Is he a healer?  Is he bent on your main character's downfall?  How did you do this?  By use of symbolism.

Examples of Literary Symbols

A symbol is most often an object that means more than what it seems at face value.  Let's consider Hester Prynn's badge in Nathaniel Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter.  At first blush, it seems to be simply a letter.  What's in a letter?  To the characters in the book, it's a badge, a brand to show that she is a fallen woman.  The red marks her as a scarlet woman, a whore undeserving of membership in the regular community.  Yet at the same time, the A sets her free to become what she wants.  It frees her from the regular constraints of a very restrictive society.  It sets her apart and makes her both special and unique.  It ceases to be just a letter and becomes a symbol of the outsider.  In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the white whale is a symbol of the power of nature.  Most characters in the novel self-destruct when they joust that mysterious and insurmountable power.  One could discuss the phallic nature of both harpoon and whale and see this novel as the ultimate masculine face-off, the moral being that man cannot withstand the power of nature.  In F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, a pair of glasses on a billboard seem like just an image, yet they come to symbolize the all-seeing eye of God, which sees and judges society and finds it wanting.  Great authors know and use the power of simple symbols that represent so much more than just a simple object.

How can you use symbols? 

If you want to consider symbolism, look at the meaning of color in your books.  Let's consider the image of a blanket.  You say, "Wait.  But a blanket is just a blanket, right?"  Oh, but in a literary book, whether it be a sci fi, fantasy, romance, or something else with literary overtones, a blanket can be so much more. In your text, you can suggest a blue blanket represents depression, sadness, and loss with its color.  You can hint that a person hiding under that blanket is so steeped in sadness that he can't face the world and seeks to hide under a blue blanket.  Say you want the blanket to be yellow.  You suggest this character is reminded of all things bright and sunny, of his mother, of her warm embrace, every time he looks at the yellow blanket she gave him.  Now she's gone, that yellow blanket represents all that is light and happy in the world as the rest of the universe grows cold and ugly.  He would die to save that yellow blanket because it's all he has of her.  Say the blanket is red.  It was steeped in the man's people's blood.  He tries to get rid of it, burn it, but it will not disappear.  Everywhere he looks, he's haunted by the image of that blanket that speaks to him of death.  He goes mad because he can't handle the depth of pain held in that one red blanket.  Say the blanket is white.  He has become a serial killer but misses the innocence he had.  The blanket represents the innocence he seeks to destroy because he can't handle that anyone can be as innocent as he was when he was hurt by someone he loved.  One blanket can be a symbol for so much more.

Pick an item.  Find out how you can make it a symbol.  How can you turn it into something beyond just what it is at face value?  Consider how that can add meaning to your whole book or story.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Compelling Voice

I've been writing about how to turn any piece into something more literary.  This week, I will explore how to make any writing more compelling, so that your meaningful prose can find its readers.  This may seem basic and obvious to a lot of writers, but I teach beginning writing.  I know a lot of people write with a passive, static voice instinctively.  Good writing is intentional, each word chosen for its meaning and power.  In order to keep a reader interested enough to get to your brilliant allusions, foreshadowing, etc., they have to read on.  If you put readers to sleep on page one, this cannot happen.

Mistake 1. Passive Voice: A passive voice shows the object as the main noun in a sentence.  "This sentence was written by me."  I'm doing the writing, yet I get sort of lost in a dull, passive sentence.  Such sentences get old quickly.
Correction:  In order to write in active tense, make sure the sentence starts with the active noun, as in, "I wrote the sentence."

Mistake 2. Static Sentences: I may have all the interesting nouns in my story taking charge of their own sentences, but action verbs need to do the heavy lifting.  Otherwise, my fiction can still get dry.  You can dry out your writing with heavy use of "to be" verbs (is, are, were, was, have been, will be).  These words express a state of being but don't show anything actually happening.  Even great works of literature can sound fairly static to the modern ear.  I love Jane Austen's works, but she came from a time in which one commonly used "to be" verbs as a matter of course:  "A lady's imagination is very rapid;"  "There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends;" and "I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"  If you tried to write with so many "to be" verbs now, your reader would get bored in a hurry.  
Correction:  Seek out strong action verbs (except with dialogue tags; an editor's podcast I heard explained about the need to stick to said, asked,shouted, and whispered in order to write like a professional.)  I will rewrite Austen's sentences above to make them more active.  "Her imagination explored this new suggestion and turned it into a full-blown plan."  "I devoted myself to serving my friends."  "My joy soared with the intricacy of the words."  Note:  If a writer focuses on making "to be" verbs a rare occurrence, each one maintains its potency.   The state of being becomes important and draws attention to itself in a positive way. 

Mistake 3. Making up for dull verbs with adverbs and adjectives:  Stephen King took J.K. Rowling to task for a plethora of adverbs that appear throughout the first four or so books.  The first time I read those books through, I didn't notice so much.  By the second time around, those words jumped off the page like a 3D image.  They drove me nuts.  I'm reading a book series right now that is charming except that they use adverbs as dull, wordy crutches.  The occasional adverb is okay, but most of them can be cut for crisper, more potent writing.  Adjectives can be powerful but only when used sparingly.  
Correction: Cut adverbs and trim adjectives to no more than one per noun.  Later in the Harry Potter series, Rowling seemed to have caught the message.  Her writing got so much more subtle and professional when she focused more on powerful nouns and verbs.  

Mistake 4: Monotony:  It's easy to write with the same sentence structure again and again, with the same noun-subject combination and roughly the same length of sentences.       If you catch yourself writing the same sentence structure again and again,, it's time to switch it up.  

Go through your manuscript right now and make sure your sentences are varied and contain an active verb without a lot of adjectives and adverbs.  Your prose will come alive.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


What is an archetype?

In an ongoing attempt to explain how one can make any piece of writing more literary, we can next look at archetypes.  What is an archetype?  It is "a character, an action or a situation that seems to represent [...] universal patterns of human nature" (  So what does this mean, exactly?  Most people think of an archetype as a general kind of character, place, etc. that can appear across many literary works.  These behave, in many ways, like a literary allusion [like I wrote about in my last blog] not just to one other work but to several other works at once.  It helps your character feel familiar, normal in some ways, to your reader.


Everyone knows about the stranger walking into a town, saving the day, then walking out again. The common name for this is the catalyst.  The character effects change without being changed.  This is a common figure in so many westerns that it's hard to count. But it can also appear in fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, romance, and in just about any other genre one can name.  Once you notice this character is a catalyst you know what to expect from him.

Archetype vs. Stereotype

It's important to remember, however, that if you rely too much on the archetype without fleshing out the character and making him unique, he remains a stereotype, a cliched gesture at a character who isn't fully fleshed or interesting. There is a fine line between an archetype and a stereotype.  Han Solo could have remained a stereotype but didn't because he became an interesting character with his own needs, desires, and drives.  He plans to walk out, unaffected like a proper catalyst, but then he returns.  He suddenly becomes a different sort of hero.  Our expectations become challenged as the character becomes more than just a cliche.


Another archetype is the clown, as in a Shakespearean clown.  This is not to be confused with a buffoon.  A Shakespearean clown is someone who says humorous or whimsical things, but he says them as social commentary.  He seems a fool, but there's a wisdom in his foolishness.  One great example of that is Olaf from Disney's Frozen.  On one hand, he was quite literally born yesterday.  He is a snowman who looks forward to summer because he does not understand he will melt.  However, he also knows more about love than anyone else.  He embodies both wisdom and foolishness.  A buffoon is someone to be mocked and laughed at, someone who is bereft of wisdom and is just foolish such as Jar Jar Binx from The Star Wars saga.  A buffoon is easy to make into a stereotype and hard to make work on any other level.

See, also linked to above, for a short list of other archetypes.  The use of archetypes makes your writing seem more grounded in literature, or, by definition, more literary.  Just beware of stereotypes.  Make sure to flesh your archetypes out.  Try using archetypes and see how they work for you.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Literary Allusion

I've been writing about ways to make your writing more literary and more meaningful.  You may wonder what literary allusion is and what it can do for your reader.  Allusion is simply a reference, usually an indirect reference, to another work.  When a story features a woman give a man a piece of fruit in order to tempt him, it's alluding to the Adam and Eve story from the Bible.  When a man romances a woman who is standing on a balcony, it's an allusion to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.   When alluding to another work, it's usually best to pick something that is universally or almost universally known, or the reader will not usually understand the allusion.  Its power will be lost.  Most people are at least familiar with the Bible.  Almost everyone has at least heard of the balcony scene.  

Using allusion allows a writer to draw on the deeper meaning and connotation of the original work of literature.  It's usually best to go back to the source when choosing an allusion, not to allude to an allusion, because then you know what the original context is.  You know what it means when you use it.  If you simply see a balcony scene or the story of a person giving an apple then choose to use that event in your work, you don't know what deeper meanings you're drawing on.  Your allusion could be clunky, confusing, or nonsensical.  Say you want to write about an angel because you saw the story of an angel on a movie or television series.  In reality, you're borrowing someone else's mythology, not making a meaningful allusion.  Let's say, instead, that you want to create a proper allusion to biblical angels.  Then you research angels.  You look up when and how angels appear in the Bible then carefully decide how you're going to allude in a way that brings in all the connotation and meaning of biblical angels.  A reader who is familiar with the Bible understands that meaning.  You have called on the weight of the original source material, and your reader feels it.  Try using literary allusion to deepen your writing.  

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dive into Meaning

These last few blogs, I have addressed various literary devices that turn a decent piece of writing into something more meaningful than just a story.  I have been reading a manuscript written by someone who calls it "literary fiction."  I've had to inform him there is nothing literary about his fiction.  The story meanders without purpose or deeper meaning from event to event, drawing no conclusions and making no suggestion at anything deeper.

What makes literary fiction?  Literary fiction is a manner of describing events that shapes meaning through literary devices such as those I've described.  This genre of fiction exists not just to tell you once upon a time, something happened but that once upon a time, something happened for a reason or multiple reasons.  If you are not writing with purpose and theme, you are not writing in any way that could be called literary.  And any genre, if well handled, can become at least somewhat literary.

What is a theme?  Theme is simply meaning.  You can incorporate multiple meanings into one story, but if there is no theme at all above and beyond bare facts, why are you writing?  Why tell the story?

Obviously, there's much more to it than this, but all of these literary devices are meant for one purpose: to suggest something grander is going on than just simple events.  You can read To Kill a Mockingbird as a set of fictional events in a made-up child's life.  However, if you do, you miss much of what is going on beneath the surface.  You miss the grander themes of prejudice, child abuse, hatred, love, and so much more.  You can read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet as depressing yarns in which a whole series of people die, but then you may as well read a cheap thriller.  Shakespeare's plays explore questions of love, loyalty, family, murder, revenge, and language, among other things.  Clearly, the authors built these tales as carriers of depth and meaning beyond just the events described.

So how do you explore themes with your works?  This depends on your writing process.  You could simply write the bare bones story and then decide on what meanings you find yourself exploring or you could decide in advance what meaning or meanings you wish to address through your writing.  I decided with my first manuscript to explore child loss as part of the tale because I'm working on healing from the loss of my baby almost seven years ago.  For more on this, look to another of my blogs, Alamanda's Place.  I consciously decided that was one of my themes before I ever started typing.  That was my starting place, why I wrote the story.  Other themes have grown organically out of the story as I've gone along.

 Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling started writing her tale as the story of a child wizard, but as she went along, she consciously wove deeper themes into her novels such as death, resurrection, love, and friendship.  When she started to explore those deeper themes that spoke to the human condition, she began to write fantasy in a more literary fashion.  If you haven't done so already, go to your latest work in progress and brainstorm what themes you can find in your own work.  What greater statements about the human condition do you make?  If you can't find any, what themes do you WANT to explore?   You don't want to tack something on that feels tacked on, nor do you want the narrative to become preachy.  Either way, you're bound to turn readers off.  Look at your favorite books.  See how the authors have woven themes throughout their tales so you can see how they do it.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Last post, I wrote about similes and metaphors.  This time, I'll talk about foreshadowing.  These are two of many devices used in writing to make it more meaningful, more literary, than just a story with a simple narrative.

Most people who have taken an English class have heard of foreshadowing.  Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is full of talk of suicide, hinting where the story was going long before either followed through with the hints.  This is not to be confused with foretelling.  The prologue reads, "A pair of star-crossed lovers took their life." This is simple foretelling.  I tell you it's going to happen, and then it happens.  In Shakespeare's day, playwrights were expected to tell you what was coming.  In modern literature, this is generally considered bad writing.  If you hear a plan laid out, chances are, everything will go differently, usually badly.  Now, foretelling is used most often to tell the reader is supposed to go, so when it goes differently, the reader knows what went wrong.

Foreshadowing is something else again.  Throughout the scenes of Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet both talk about death, how they'd rather die than lose each other, with comments about how "Life were better ended by their [families'] hate" than that they were separated.  Every suggestion of death enhances the sense of foreboding created by that prologue, building on each other until the main characters' demise, especially at their own hands, seems inevitable.

On the website, we're told,  "Foreshadowing in fiction creates an atmosphere of suspense in a story so that the readers are interested to know more."  Shakespeare tells the audience/reader in the beginning that Romeo and Juliet will die, but the suspense builds throughout the story as to how and what leads to it.  That website goes on to explain that "foreshadowing can make extraordinary and bizarre events appear credible as the events are predicted beforehand, so that the readers are mentally prepared for them."  A modern audience may find it hard to believe that two teenagers would kill themselves for each other after having known each other two or three days, but as mentioned before, by the end of the story, this choice seems inevitable for the characters.

Say a major character is going to sacrifice himself at the end of your story.  Through dialogue, phrases, or narrative, you hint at his sacrifice to come.  The story builds up toward the events at the end.  This happens throughout the Harry Potter series, especially in book seven.  The reader knows the hero will going to sacrifice himself in a conflict with Voldemort because it had been foretold and foreshadowed.  The prophecy in "Order of the Phoenix" tells the reader, "Neither [Voldemort nor Harry] can live while the other survives." This is a foretelling and a foreshadowing.  We know a conflict between the two is coming, and one will die.  Then, when we find out that Voldemort can only be killed after Harry dies, it's clear Harry has to die.  However, we don't know how it can possibly happen.  The narrative builds toward Harry's death, but yet, there are hints of the resurrection to come as well.  Fawkes the phoenix proves rebirth is possible.  Voldemort, too, is reborn in multiple ways.  We know and hope it can be done, but we're not sure how.   The foreshadowing builds toward these impossible events--death, rebirth, and triumph against all odds--and somehow makes them feel possible if not inevitable.

When you write your next story, try using hints toward the end to help your reader anticipate what is to come.  Try building suspense and meaning through foreshadowing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Using Metaphors and Similes

The Books:

I'm reading an awesome series of books right now: Brandon Sanderson's "The Reckoners."  It's the dystopic vision of a world wherein super villains arose, but there were no superheroes to fight them.  The use of powers corrupted these characters and turned them into ruthless, amoral monsters who took over the world and turned its cities into their own personal fiefdoms.  The books have wit, great characterization, a fresh story clear of cliches, and, basically, everything I look for in a series.  I could talk about any one of these things.

But one of the aspects I find most entertaining is the running gag of conversation on the subject of metaphors and similes.  A character is considered either sharp or dull based on how well they can handle metaphoric language.  The main character is criticized because his metaphors keep falling flat.   "Man," [the main character] thought, "I really do suck at metaphors."  Another character is hailed for his ability to handle metaphors and similes deftly.  

Simile vs. Metaphor:

For those not clear on the difference, a simile has the word "like" or "as" in it.  One great simile from Firefight, the second novel in the series, is, "The overworked machine hung out over a plummet of many stories, dripping water like perspiration from the forehead of a suicidal jumper." [There's nothing intrinsically dangerous-seeming about an air conditioner, but in that moment, the world symbolized by that machine is on the verge of destruction.]  Another segment a couple of paragraphs later is rich with similes.  "I lowered my popsicle and squinted at the strange red light, which rose like a new star above the horizon. [...] It looked like a bullet wound in the dome of heaven itself."  [The new star in the heaven brings to mind the biblical story of the birth of Jesus, which event transformed how many humans viewed their world.  The same is true here but in a different way.  The bullet wound in heaven simile suggests that the change that was coming would be destructive.]   These moments become rich with imagery as we feel the connotations of the things to which events in the story are compared.  [Emphasis added in above quotations.] 

A metaphor does not have the emotional distance that simile bears.  This item or event is not just like that.  It IS that.  The symbol and item become merged through the comparison. To borrow a Shakespearean metaphor, “All the world’s a stage"("As You Like It.")  The world isn't LIKE a stage.  It IS a stage.  This kind of comparison ties symbol to symbolized much more closely.  When Sanderson says the light mentioned in the quotations above "blanketed the entire city in a strange warm glow," the idea of a blanket is tied so closely to the light that the light becomes not just like a blanket.  It becomes the blanket itself.  Just like a blanket provides the illusion of safety in a dangerous world, so, too, does that light.  

Power of the Metaphor:

Regardless of whether an author uses simile or metaphor, this kind of comparison livens the language and makes the whole piece more interesting.  I've been reading a story by a fellow writer in my writers' group that is the master of metaphor and simile.  This kind of language elevates her pieces above so many others' pieces because it draws on sensory language.  A less deft writer may write, "Her beauty made him happy."  We can't see beauty.  We don't know what happiness means to the character, necessarily.  These words remain flat on the page.  Say instead, the writer wrote, "Her glowing profile sent sunlight through the dark corners of his soul."  We can see glow, sunlight, and darkness, and corners.  We know her face isn't literally glowing, that it doesn't bring sunlight and that there really aren't corners in the guy's soul.  All of this is metaphoric.  But the reader can feel the glow and understand the connotations of sunlight as something powerful.  There is a gravitational pull to the sun.  These words have ceased to remain flat ink on the page; they have given birth to an image in the reader's mind.  

Dos and Do nots

There are three cautions I'd make with using this kind of symbolic language.  

1. Avoid cliched metaphors and similes like the plague.  Yes, that was a cliched simile.  You probably rolled your eyes or read quickly over it.  Cliches are boring.  We've read them so often, they have become meaningless.  When Shakespeare first wrote, "dead as a doornail," it was likely a fresh turn of phrase meaning as lifeless as a key.  Now, it's just part of the language.  Nobody even knows what "doornail" means anymore.  And if you think about it, dead implies once had life.  And keys really don't and never had.  However, "dead as a roadkill opossum" may seem a bit fresher and more meaningful. You haven't heard it as many times, so it makes you think.  It brings to mind [unfortunately] sensory imagery and all the connotations of a dead, smelly marsupial with a long history in the Western United States.  It may suggest dirty rodent to someone less well versed in biology.   But it's not a cliche.  This brings me to number two.  

2.  Avoid using metaphors that don't belong.  Comparing a medieval dragon to a modern blowtorch wouldn't work very well.  It would jar the reader out of the narrative, unless the author is going for humor.  Stay in the world.  Make sure your metaphors and similes actually belong.  

3.  Avoid using so much description that your narrative becomes purple, meaning that your story has been choked out by description so lush that nothing happens.  Descriptive language is best in small doses in most writing.

In other words, metaphors and similes turn flat language into round, interesting language as long as they are used sparingly and in a way that livens the text without bogging it down.