Writing Reality: Personification of Autumn

09/12/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s a familiar wind back in the city this week. It wears a blue cape and likes to hurl itself up and down the cobbles, whistling through its teeth. The trees, once decked out in their finest gold, now shiver and quake in the sight of its cold eye. I turn my collar up, walking to and from work through crisp black shadows, and that wind waits on my doorstep, ready to leap out and slap me upside the head with quick cold fingers.

Autumn is my favourite time of year, for its colours and its medley of imagery. Beginning with a faint song of melancholy in the brassy light and the changing west wind, it ends with high wreaths of silver in the trees, white mornings like diamonds strewn by a passing queen. The forests turn quiet with the cold, ready and waiting for midwinter freeze; they buckle on armour and lower their heads to the stiffening winds. The sun is a capricious fellow, at times grumpy and sullen as he winds his grey scarf about his throat, while on other days he will grin with a hard, shining mouth. Leaves skirl and dance; they twine gold necklaces about the roots of their erstwhile fathers, where some flicker-flames still cling on for dear life with numb little twigs, in the face of that wind … But all become mulch in the soil, at the end.

These are all examples of word imagery. The wind does not wear a cape or have a mouth full of teeth, though it is a concrete noun. It has no thoughts or emotions, and is governed by nature, which in turn is no more caring or hateful towards mankind than we are able to completely control it.

When writing, it often pays to give human sentience / characteristics to non-human beings and concepts. This can help the audience to understand and appreciate the latter more, through emotional context and relativity.

To say that the wind is fierce in its intensity, is to lend it a recognizable emotion – we’ve all felt fierce at some point, when our eyes burned and our mouths ran dry; when we felt ready to tear ourselves apart over a situation.
Likewise, we know what teeth are capable of doing – they tear, rend, cause bitter pain, chew food, click together with irritation. To say that this north wind, back in my home city once more (and likely to be a lodger for the next four months) has sharp teeth that he likes to use on my skin, is just a more interesting way of saying, “The wind is bloody cold.”

To give something emotional resonance is to engage with it, whether on a positive or negative level – I know I’ve cursed that wind many a time for daring to fling pellets of rain in my face, but really, what is the point of getting cross at something that neither bears me ill will, nor laughs at my numb fingers? Still, it makes me feel better to swear at it.

Personification is everywhere; we hear it all the time, lending personal features to otherwise abstract concepts. Father Christmas, Grandfather Time; Cupid as the embodiment of Love; and in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the personification of fear, death and inevitability:

black rabbit

“‘Now as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off… We come into the world and we have to go: but we do not go merely to serve the turn of one enemy or another…We go by the will of the Black Rabbit of Inle, and only by his will.” – pg 276, Watership Down, Richard Adams

By the same token, the rabbits of this novel are subject to anthropomorphism. This is similar to personification, and while both give emotional and physical attributes to non-humans / inanimate objects and concepts, I find that anthropomorphism seems better suited to the creatures, while personification appeals more to the abstracts. For example, Bigwig is made an officer of the Efrafan Owsla – he is an anthropomorphic example of rabbit leadership and governing, with the contextual rationality and intelligence involved that is not usually attributed to their natural way of life:

“‘What can you do?”
‘I can run and fight and spoil a story telling it. I’ve been an officer in an Owsla.’
‘Fight, can you? Could you fight him?’ said Woundwort, looking at Campion.
‘Certainly, if you wish.’ The stranger reared up and aimed a heavy cuff at Campion, who leapt back just in time.” – pg 317

He can also be seen as the embodiment of that military spirit of “do-or-die” attitude.

In this way, the rabbits are allowed to develop behavioural patterns, mannerisms and dialogue similar to that of humans; this allows the audience to engage with and respond to them on a deeper level. Their instinctive reactions are somewhat quelled, to allow personalities to develop and the narrative to progress, rather than each rabbit scattering aimlessly and without thought. Much of the novel hinges upon planning, strategies and tactics which would not be applicable in reality.

A Simile is a figure of speech used when comparing one thing to another that is otherwise unlike it, by way of adding the words “like” and “as”, to create an image that will enhance writing:

“He ran through the field; it was as though his feet had wings.”
“She was young and fair, and looked like a lily, clad all in white.”

Said images rely on the audience having some contextual knowledge of what makes up the target comparative element; they must have an awareness of the lily being white and smooth, and of wings being capable of flight, thus lending connotations of speed to the feet. A simile won’t work when the target falls short of what the image intends (though this can sometimes be used for comic / sarcastic effect):

“That’s as clear as mud.”

“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

But when it does work, a simile can drive home a memorable message with emotional resonance:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” – Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, Blade Runner, 1982

Only take care that the two elements you use for comparison are equal in part to what they convey when standing alone, in order for them to work in a combined context. A lily flower is different to a young woman in that it is a plant, and does not possess sentience; but it does hold connotations of grace, beauty and pale smoothness, which can be positively aligned with her appearance in a simile. Put into another context with a different setting, this can also be used in a negative sense to convey her paleness and sorrow, perhaps after illness or a death, as the latter has connotative links with the flower.

A Metaphor is when “a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”; this is in keeping with Simile, but in a more subtle way than actively telling the audience something is like or as another. With a metaphor, these words are omitted, and the audience is left with the bare bones of the image.

“He walked with a stony step and an icy gaze; none dared get in his way.”

A stone is not a man, nor can ice actually stay in the eye. But the qualities of both (hardness, cold) and the subsequent connotations (determination, implacability; unfriendliness, lacking emotion) are useful when conveying an image of someone powerful and difficult to approach or sway from their path. But one way to upset the balance would be to throw too many comparisons in at once – especially when they conflict with the overall image:

Ice lived in his heart. He smouldered with the flames of his anger; it was eating him alive.”

The symbolism of fire = anger, doesn’t sit well with the image of a “cold-hearted” man. Fire would extinguish itself in the cold, ice would melt. Although we’re not dealing with literal meanings here, it’s still worth paying attention to what connotative messages you are sending out with metaphors / similes used.
On the other hand, this can be useful when applied to another character to create a large-scale metaphor of conflict, perhaps in a relationship:

“The flames of her temper often thawed his heart. He couldn’t help but laugh, in spite of himself.”

Try wherever possible to create your own imagery. There are many tired metaphors and similes out there, which have been strung up as clichés – they work at a pinch, but can often lead to a trite tone in a piece of writing. Look around; take in as much of the world as possible. I make a note of every image that strikes me while out and about – the sky strewn with cumulus clouds like pebbles on the beach (simile); the full blue cape of night, thrown about the shoulders of the world (metaphor / personification).

Always be prepared to record more, and hoard them like treasure, because if you’re anything like me, the hard work will really begin once you’re sat down to write. As obvious as this sounds, you can make life a bit easier (and save time) by having a stockpile of key words / phrases to use in imagery. It beats staring at the screen or paper, rummaging through your memory for something you knew you wanted to say.

Unless you’re referring to the inside of your head as a blank sheet, of course.

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Writing Reality: Sensory Seasoning

05/08/2013 at 19:53 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , )


There’s nothing I enjoy more when settling down to read, than coming across the sort of sensory delights that work to enhance a literary style; a welcome handshake between author and audience. An image will be passed via metaphor and juxtaposition, and it’s left up to the reader to follow the trend of themes, for heightened enjoyment. There’s no better feeling than making that connection; the “aha!” moment, and (for me anyway) smile of real pleasure, at having my mind expanded that little bit more.

More often than not, it’s a case of drawing the audience into a sensory mindscape; giving them word-images to pick over and enjoy en route. As someone who indulges far more in the abstract, in setting and concepts, such literary techniques as metaphor and juxtaposition help me to avoid boring myself to death when writing. I love splicing words and their relevant connotations together, to see what works.

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors to employ these sensory-themes. Probable Future has an unnerving plot, to be sure, but for me the real focus lies in the sheer beauty of tasting her words, the images they evoke:

“Today there were huge cumulus clouds in the hazy sky, and Stella felt the sultry dampness in the air. Everything at Cake House was faintly wet, the blankets and the carpeting. All night long, Stella had heard the peepers on the shore and the whisper of reeds.” – page 87, Probable Future

The plot of Probable Future revolves around such themes as hasty actions, indecision, natural magic and real lives. Rather than tell the audience in bland sentences, Hoffman conveys the themes with references to spring fever, heat haze, the colours green and gold, as they are primaries of the month of March, in which the story is framed. The universality of March-madness is one a reader can grasp when taking on board the often erratic actions of the characters. Wild weather and water, act as conduits for the suspension of disbelief required in small acts of word-magic.

“Before long, there would be sheets of green rain of various different consistencies: fish rain, rose rain, daffodil rain, glorious rain, red clover rain, boot polish rain, swamp rain, the fearsome stone rain, all of it washing through the woods, feeding local streams and ponds.” – page 120

This is no place for referencing dusky desert heat, nor yet the hard blandness of a concrete setting. The settings of the novel, its references, fairly drip with mould and sultry-dark water; they filter quietly through descriptions of the furniture in Cake House, bubble away like an underwater stream beneath the lives of the characters.

With your own written work, try to keep to a steady flow of themes and relevant imagery. Don’t suddenly change tack because something sounds good in your head; if it doesn’t fit the context, it doesn’t belong. For example, looking at this picture, I’d describe it as a gunmetal sky in a modern context:

 photo a8c520d9-1375-4901-9361-2cabc5c03f04_zpsd0049c8f.jpg

But this wouldn’t be so fitting of a genre where firearms were nonexistent. It’d only throw the reader out of whack, a real fourth-wall breaker. Instead, when trying to depict something like this sky full of cumulus, in words:

 photo 98722d72-1ae8-400a-bd0f-4f141f659744_zps192bfb51.jpg

I’d use archaic language and imagery; “burnished shields”, springs to mind.

“Gunmetal sky” came about through an inherent wariness of nimbus clouds; as a permanent pedestrian, I know what they can unleash. There’s the element of danger in potential lightning strikes, tumultuous rain. There’re the darkly gleaming colours, reminiscent of a gun barrel. And of course, with reference to a firearm, the connotations of injury and death.

So, all of the above can be nicely sandwiched together in a couple of loaded words. This frees up my writing space, and a reader’s time; and hopefully, gives them a little *nudge-wink* into the bargain.

That being said, I know I’m a terrible metaphor fiend. With every first edit, I find myself wincing at the stumbling blocks of my own imagery, laid on far too thickly to establish a smooth read.
Through studying various authors, I’m learning to pare down my style towards something mimicking their own exotic simplicity.

In Capote’s own words, “…the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” He may not be an author to everyone’s taste or style, but I do believe his use of juxtaposition is second to none:

“It was one room crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs, upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train.” – page one, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A universal truth, for anyone who’s used public transport before. No need for great detail in establishing the discomfort of the furniture. The one simple image-reference, is enough.

“Leaves floated on the lake; on the shore, a parkman was fanning a bonfire of them, and the smoke, rising like Indian signals, was the only smudge on the quivering air.” – page 52, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

To quiver is, of course, a verb, and a sensual one at that. In this context, it delivers a lustrous personification of the air surrounding the scene. There’s an aura of romance, of the unknown; the future flickering into being, taking the characters through a curious enhancement of emotion, as they spend the afternoon together. They may well be rippling the folds of the world in their enjoyment of each other’s company.

It’s a technique I like to borrow when scene-setting. There’s no need to waffle on in reams of description, where a handful of simple, carefully chosen words might suffice. Where “quivering” and “bonfire” are raised concurrently, the nature of Holly Golightly is made manifest in wavering heat, the inability to grasp at anything solid. The audience feels the beauty, the fragility of the scene, through the narrator’s sensory perceptions.

And I really can’t advocate using these five senses enough, to frame your own writing. Draw upon the memories of your audience. Allow them to touch, taste, see, hear, smell all that your characters do; overlap senses, to create memorable images that will enhance their reading:

“Royal’s house was like a house of flowers; wistaria sheltered the roof, a curtain of vines shaded the windows, lilies bloomed at the door. From the windows one could see far, faint winkings of the sea… Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers.” – Capote, House of Flowers, page 9.

I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough smooth imagery to paint the picture for me. The use of colour references is simple, yet the names of the flowers are exotic, to create a subtle blend; alliteration / onomatopoeia found in “far, faint winkings of the sea … the walls always rustled,” evokes a gentle rhythm, as of the distant tide and the breeze.

While reading Tim Gautreaux’s excellent short story anthology, Welding with Children, a particular paragraph leaped out at me as both vitally clever in asserting its imagery through sentence structure, and a real pain on the eyes to read:

“…a loose tarpaulin flying over the forty-foot trailer, wild as a witch’s cape… After one click of his blinker he would roll out like a fighter plane, road reflectors exploding under his tires like machine-gun bursts…the car would surge into the curves like electricity, Wesley pushing over the blacktop as if he were teaching the road a lesson.”

Wild as a … like a fighter plane … like machine gun … like electricity…

Real stumbling-block words. Far too much imagery, condensed into a paragraph. Oh don’t get me wrong, in terms of context – the driver zigzagging through a dusty panhandle landscape – it’s an effective way of depicting his erratic slalom-run of acceleration and sharp braking.
All the same, it requires a readjustment of gears in the reader’s mind, just to keep up. The imagery pounds on the mind, each one different from the last, charged with its own electricity. I was left a little overwhelmed; as is often the case when reading back over my own freshly written work.

Learn to pare down your style, to use only the choicest and most contextual references and words. Don’t bombard your audience with imagery; lull them along, interspersing it with good stock words and simple phraseology. They won’t think you’re daft for it, that you’re not trying hard enough. Overblown words, sentences and imagery, will only make them squirm, as though you’d upended a salt shaker on their bowl.

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