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.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Foiled Again

Have you ever noticed a pair of characters so alike in so many ways and so opposite in others?  I'm quite sure you have.  Any English major can tell you these pairs of characters are called foils of each other.  Foils are incredibly useful in characterization.  Look at Tom Riddle [a young Voldemort] vs. Harry Potter.  They have so much in common.  They're both orphans with black hair, incredible gifts, and a tendency to work outside the rules.  They both attract the particular attention of Dumbledore.  The list goes on and on.  What makes them different?  Their choices.  Tom chooses to embrace the darkness while Harry rejects it on every side.  These similarities and differences give Rowling the chance to enhance the reader's understanding of both characters.  We see the path Harry could have taken had he embraced the darkness that lurks inside and watch as he, instead, chooses a different path.

If your tastes are more toward the literary fiction, you'll see even more foils than in genre fiction.  Look, for instance at "Pride and Prejudice."  Darcy and Lizzy are clear foils of each other.  They at first can't stand each other because of their character differences.  Yet at the same time, they both personify the traits of pride of their position and prejudice of the other class.  They only want to speak if others will be impressed with their words.  They both have rebellious streaks against overbearing mother figures.  In some ways, they could not be more different, yet at the same time, they couldn't be more similar.  Their differences and similarities highlight the same in the other.

Let's look at fairy tales for a moment.  You may think that Snow White couldn't be more different from her evil step mother because the princess is pure, innocent, and kind, while the step-mother is vain and murderous.  This just means you haven't looked past Disney's version.  If you look carefully at the Grimms brothers' rendition of the story, Snow White's own vanity mirrors her step-mother's.  Her vain step-mother is only able to entrap her because she's drawn to ribbons, laces, corsets, combs, and the like.  The queen wants to kill Snow White, yet the story ends only after Snow White and her prince have the evil queen dance herself to death.  These two female characters are so different in so many ways, yet they are so similar at their core.

No matter what your genre or themes, the power, meaning, and literary strength of your story can be enhanced through careful attention to foils.  If your villain is all dark and hero is all light, both are boring and fall flat.  However, if your hero is noble and heroic but for his attraction to the dark, and your villain is angry and vindictive but drawn to the light in spite of himself, they both start to get more interesting.  Just look at Kylo Ren and Rey from Star Wars Episode 7.  He's angry and dark but drawn by the light inside.  She joined the light but yet is often tempted by rebellious, angry, or selfish impulses.  Neither is perfectly one or the other, and their similarities and differences weave them together and highlight the reader's understanding of both.  Look through natural pairs of characters in your writings.  How can you enhance your own characterization through the use of foils?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Pixar vs. Old School Disney

I remember seeing and enjoying "Aristocats."  I tried to see it again, and it couldn't keep my attention for long.  So I ask myself what is the difference between fun, though shallow, romps of that era like "Aristocats" or "Jungle Book" vs. Pixar/Disney offerings now.

The secret seems to be in the hero's journey.  I've mentioned this multiple times, but it seems most of the best adventure yarns of any depth and meaning in the modern day focus on it.  Pixar, which runs Disney's animation division, openly uses the hero's journey as its formula for writing.  There's no question that just about everything from "Star Wars" to "Harry Potter" to "Star Trek" and "Pirates of the Carribean" follow the formula as well.  A hero of any species starts in their home base and refuses the call to adventure.  Eventually, he/she/it heeds that call and descends into the underworld to face opponents with the help of allies.  After several trials and loss, often of his/her father figure, he/she faces the primary adversary to become the master of both worlds.

There's much more to the hero's journey.  It was conceptualized by Joseph Cambell, who was invited to the set of "Star Wars: New Hope," so Lucas could make sure they got the story right.  Obviously, any Disney movie before the widespread study of Cambell's work and its adoption in modern Disney wouldn't have these keys to good storytelling.  The movies from earlier dates seem to be based on a vague plot with a lot of madcap moments and songs to keep kids entertained.  I don't think it's overstating things to say that there has been a cultural revolution with the hero's journey at its heart.  If you want to write an adventure story and don't know the intricacies of the hero's journey, I highly recommend you google it now.  I have no doubt you're following pieces of it without knowing it because it has become so ingrained in the culture.  But as you become self-aware, your writing will improve.

Monday, December 26, 2016

You Gotta Have Heart

I've noticed something about the movies I've watched recently.  Some of them work for me, and some of them don't.  I wondered why.  I tried to guess, but it dawned on me what the movies that don't work for me lack: heart.  We more or less enjoyed "Secret Life of Pets" in theaters because it was a good romp.  But upon further reflection, I realized the characters were fairly simple and unrelatable.  The beginning looked promising, but the rest lacked heart and meaning.  I didn't care about what was happening that much because of the lack.

"Moana" and "Finding Dory," however, were full of heart and meaning.  I cared about the characters from the beginning, so what they went through and their voyage meant a lot more to me.  I saw a clear motivation for everything they did, and it made human sense.  The characters cared about each other, so I cared about them.

I guess, for me, the clearest back to back comparison is the two newest "Star Wars" episodes.  "Force Awakens" seems to me to be full of heart.  I love the humor and chemistry between the characters as well as their clear motivations.  It's a joy to watch.  Meanwhile, "Rogue One" has some good characters and a clear plot, but it seems to lack that heart.  I found it hard to care about most of the characters because they didn't seem to care much about each other.  Some of the individual pairs of characters have chemistry and heart, but all together, there is little to no heart.  The magic that worked so well with "Force Awakens" is lacking for me.  Some people really like it because of a compelling storyline.  For me, that's not as important as caring.  

Authors who sit down to write a screenplay, story, novel, or whatever need to make sure audiences and readers care about their characters, that they are invested in the heart of the story, or nothing else matters.