Writing Reality: What’s in a name?

21/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


As a writer, you have at some point probably spent an agonizing amount of time thumbing through every baby book and name-etymology website you could find, in search of that set of letters which would sum up the person you are creating – whether a child or an adult. The forename is our personal identity – if we choose to keep it – and the ways in which it can be used, added to, altered and spoken aloud, bring to light a lot of the subtle interactions which go on every day, as part of human life. It is our stamp of identity, distinguishable from the inherited family surname, and though it may be commonly used throughout particular cultures / age groups, it still has a unique relevancy to our personalities. It is, after all, one of the first identifiable set of phonemes we are likely to hear and respond to, when we are small. And unless circumstances dictate otherwise, such as a name-change by deed poll, your forename will be what is left of you after death, written in cards and letters, on gravestones, in the minds of others – along with all the relevant memories which are attached. It is these which make us human.

Connotation, Denotation

There is much to be said for the word “misnomer” in this context. Some people really do not “look like” their names. You have probably come across at least one person who didn’t seem to “fit” their name, whether through connotative imagery – the associations we make with words, through cultural / historical / social references – or through detonative meaning. My grandmother once told me of a friend called Grace, who was in the habit of breaking more china plates, and bones in her body than anybody else she knew.

This was, of course, not that poor woman’s fault. But it is interesting to note how a name can seem to influence our perspective – and expectations – of others, as well as ourselves. Living up to a surname or title is one thing, but to live up to a forename too? If it has been consciously passed on from one family member to another, or was given in honour of somebody admired, how might this affect our perception of the world, and ourselves?

This is worth paying attention to, when naming your characters and creating people. How might they choose to react to – or disregard – the associations which surround their fore/last names? What is expected of them by others, and how does this shape their relationships? Is there a running tradition of naming a child after a parent (father-son, mother-daughter etc), and if this is not observed, how might the narrative be suffused with conflict as a result? (I had a friend in school whose uncle took such offence at the boy’s father’s disinclination to observe family tradition, that he referred to my classmate only by his middle name – which happened to be his own, carried over by several generations.)

If you’re looking for balance between the projected image of a name, and the context/tone of your work, it might be best to avoid “loaded” names that carry heavy connotations – perhaps from a well-known fictional text (e.g. “Titania”/ “Romeo”, from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet”, respectively) or a period of history (“Hitler”, whether for a protagonist or an antagonist, is not advised.)

Then again, as a way of subtly influencing the audience’s perception of a character – or perhaps to give them a gentle nudge in the ribs – there is always the option of allusion. This is subjective to what the audience already knows, and how they might link this to your work (e.g. if you were writing a tragedy, the name Cassandra would be picked up on by those familiar with the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, of Greek mythology.) As ever, context is a key element.

Sound Effects

I am always a bit startled to hear my name in full, because it came to be associated with trouble, in childhood. My parents and teachers were in the habit of calling me “Rai” under normal circumstances, but at times of tension, the simple utterance of my full title would be reprimand enough to pull me up short, since it was used so rarely. Tone and volume of course played their part, but even now, I get an uneasy “uh oh” quirk of the mind to hear it; even when the cause is a simple call for attention in a more formal setting.

Be aware (and wary) when using alliteration in naming characters. On the one hand, this can create a useful mnemonic effect, especially when applied to a role that you want to make more identifiable from others (protagonist / antagonist) – but overuse of alliteration can dilute its effect, with names jumbling into one another if they have too-similar phonemes (e.g. protagonist called Katherine/Catherine, antagonist called Karrie/Carrie.)

Alliteration, and other sound-effects such as assonance and sibilance, can be used to emphasize the sound-symbolism of names. “Salazar Slytherin” will forever be a favourite of mine, with its sibilant hiss referencing the snake motif that is a recurrent theme of the Harry Potter series, which the founder of Slytherin house was associated with – as well as the spitfire language of snakes, Parseltongue. When combined with dialogue and/or narrative that “echoes” the sound-imagery of a name, the effect can be startling.

“‘It matters,’ said Hermione, speaking at last in a hushed voice, ‘because being able to talk to snakes was what Salazar Slytherin was famous for. That’s why the symbol of Slytherin house is a serpent.'”

“‘They called Slytherin himself Serpent-tongue.'” – pgs 146-9, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling.

The names which J.K Rowling chose for her four school houses seem to fit quite neatly with the general characteristics ascribed to each, through the respective ideals of each founder, and the symbolism of sound (e.g. Hufflepuff = predominance of “soft-friendly” phonemes vs. Slytherin = sibilance, “shifting/sinister”, as of snake movement.)

Do vocalise your own choice of names before applying them to characters. Take into consideration how they sound in your mind, how they feel when spoken, how they look when written out. Do they appear wonderfully exotic, but cause an ache in the mouth just trying to pronounce them? How easily will the audience recall their sound-associations; how can this work in your favour, when trying to promote a certain “image” of a character (more / less appealing) and how might this correspond with their personality / agenda over the course of the narrative? Will reading/speaking aloud the name of one character, be a more enjoyable experience than another – how can this be manipulated for maximum engagement?

Honorific

As the word “honour” denotes, the use of an honorific is often a mark of respect. The Japanese suffixes -san -kun and -chan, for example, can instantly change the manner of expression between two people, and give an insight into their relationship: formal/informal, person/impersonal. Woe betide the employee who addresses his superior with -kun, which tends to be used between peers of an equal social standing.

In England, our most commonly recognized honorifics include Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, etc; these can be used in salutations, and dropped thereafter if appropriate (such as when an equal footing is found in conversation between strangers.) Where the honorific is maintained, the mark of respect/authority is made clear – in the House of Commons, John Bercow will be referred to as “Mr Speaker.” In my workplace, the leader of each team is known as the “sergeant” – an honorific which, depending on the level of familiarity between staff, can often be contracted to “Sarge”, which can itself become a type of honorific-nickname.

Depending on your characters and their interactions with one another, consider the following:

* Who is dependant on who? Is an honorific used as part of a plot device and/or characterization, to emphasise the need of one character for the aid of another (sucking up, fawning for favour, flattery – bestowing an honorific which might not be factually applicable.)

* Conversely, is the relationship an antagonistic one, in which a character bestows an honorific to be insulting – either by exaggeration (“his Nibs / her Ladyship” for an overbearing and demanding person) or by diminishing their status in life (the Japanese suffix -chan, applied to a peer with whom one is not overly familiar, would be troublesome; applied to a figure of higher authority, it could spell disaster.)

* Who possesses the higher authority? Do they require an honorific, and if so, how does this bear upon the relationship with others of your cast; can it be dropped in favour of the first name (personal, a warmer approach) or is it required at all times, to instil a continuum of respect? (e.g. the Japanese sensei is often used in favour of a first name altogether, as students would refer to the highest authority figure in a school as “headmaster”.)

* How important are hierarchies in your plot; who adheres to what in the narrative? How sensitive are your characters to social mores, to class status, to the often-unvoiced but very much prevalent plays of power in the workplace? All of these can be conveyed to the audience through the simple act of bestowing an honorific to a certain character … and the choice of another character to ignore this rule (e.g. a student addressing a headmaster by his first name/surname, without due consideration for the latter’s higher authority – unless permission was first given to do so), may provide a nuanced insight to the relationships that form part of the plot.

Nicknames / terms of endearment

Opinions differ when it comes to the giving / receiving of nicknames, and terms of endearment. My aunt is forever reminding people that her youngest daughter was baptised “Jennifer”, thereby cancelling out all diminutive forms such as Jen/Jenny. I have no argument with that, since it is a lovely name. But nicknames and contracted forms of a forename, can serve their purpose in the right setting – such as a fast-moving game of football or basketball. I speak from the experience of having a team mate back in school, who insisted on being referred to only as “Sebastian”, and refused to acknowledge all variations. Words can tumble about when you’re trying to run and yell at the same time. We opted for hand signals in his direction, not all of them polite, depending on how he was playing.

Friends and family often use diminutive forms of a given name, to strengthen the bond between them (Jim = James, Gabby = Gabrielle.) This can vary between social circles – online, I’m more commonly known by my Twitter handle, Raishimi; this wouldn’t be applicable offline, at the Nick for example, where I’m known as Rach. But to family, who have of course known me the longest, I will always be Rai (pronounced Ray), which was apparently how I referred to myself as a baby.

Keep in mind how a name can be used as the smallest citation of an emotion – the equivalent of a hand’s compression on the shoulder, or a long look. The less people there are who hold the meaning behind a nickname, the longer its secret emotional attachment may be preserved.

Shared life experiences and circumstances can form an attachment that is best summed up by the link of a nickname. A gang member may refer to his/her companions only by their street names when in that setting, to preserve the mentality – should they wish to avoid drawing attention to activities, they may automatically slip back into the names which their families are familiar with, when at home. This forms a contract of code, with the names becoming symbolic of another lifestyle.

Having grown up in an environment where it was quite common to be known as anything from “sweetpea” to “darling” – that’s before we get onto the nicknames, which we won’t – this now translates over into how I interpret / convey levels of familiarity in social interactions.

“Liebling” (German, “darling”) is one frequently used when talking with friends on Twitter – though it is generally reserved for those who understand what it means, in terms of language-translation and the symbolism behind it. German tends to sneak into my speech when the setting is casual (on Twitter, or when speaking with family), but in a professional capacity or when speaking with those of higher authority, it makes less of an appearance. For me, the second language – in particular, the use of its endearments – has become symbolic of familiarity and affection. I still refer to my ex as “Liebs” – a contraction of “Liebling” – which became something of a nickname while we were together, and has now stuck. It is equivalent to calling someone “hon/hun”, a contraction of “honey.”

“Liebe” – Love – is the strongest sign of affection I can give, and is used rarely. It holds the same symbolic power as the use of a first name, which generally happens when I wish to make a point, either in written text or in dialogue. This can be a useful angle when there is the presence of subtext, either in an implied emotion or message.
Repetition of a name can enforce the presence of personality; it can ascribe all the nuances of life to something that might otherwise be viewed as an inanimate object / subhuman being:

“Catherine is my daughter’s name. Please, show us your strength,” Senator Martin said in closing, “release Catherine
unharmed.”
“Boy, is that smart,” Starling said. She was trembling like a terrier. “Jesus, that’s smart.” …
“Why did she keep saying ‘Catherine,’ why the name all the time?”
“She’s trying to make Buffalo Bill see Catherine as a person. They’re thinking he’ll have to depersonalize her, he’ll have to see her as an object before he can tear her up. Serial murderers talk about that in prison interviews, some of them. They say it’s like working on a doll.”
– Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

With regards to how your characters address one another, keep the following in mind:

* Levels of authority, hierarchies of power – when is it permissible to relax these boundaries, to allow for such terms of endearment in social / personal / professional interactions?

* How might contracted versions of an endearment / honorific become nicknames (e.g. a uniformed sergeant being referred to as “Sarge”, or sometimes “Skipper/Skip” (as in the nautical “captain.”)

* How can the use of endearments/nicknames convey intimacy in a relationship – or conversely, how might their omission display an emotional reserve, as with professional/impersonal boundaries? If two characters who were once friends then fall out, how might this be reflected in their manner of addressing one another? (honorific-surname brought back to replace a term of endearment / first name / nickname = cold civility. “Mr — was just leaving”, in lieu of former warmth found in the use of a forename.)

* When does it become permissible, in the development of your narrative/plot, for the use of first names in social interactions between characters, if such an observance of etiquette must be made?

Acknowledgement, Possession

A name can be altered with personal choice, by deed poll; it can be adapted to suit the mutual agreement of intimacy between friends and lovers. But the act of taking away a name – of denying its use to the original bearer – can create a striking message of possession and adversity.

In the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away“, the heroine Chihiro Ogino comes up against the witch Yubaba, who controls a bathhouse for the spirit world, in which the latter may come to refresh themselves. When Chihiro approaches Yubaba to ask for a job – as part of the rescue mission of her parents, who have eaten food meant for the spirits and have subsequently been turned into pigs – the latter agrees, with a highly symbolic condition: she claims for her own, with magic, some of the characters (kanji) which make up Chihiro’s name.

Sen

Thus does Chihiro become Sen; her true identity belongs to Yubaba, for as long as the witch holds onto what makes up her name. The kanji becomes a written representation of the girl’s identity, which in turn is bound up in the existence of her name – both of which she must strive to remember, if she is to escape and succeed in rescuing her parents.

The simple act of acknowledging a name in conversation can be a gift of subtle intimacy – particularly with its repetition – or it may serve as a marked point of reference when drawing someone’s attention to a thought / idea. In creating characters, you leave their thoughts, memories and ideals behind the identifying stamp of a name, for the audience to find and latch onto. You are taking someone who was a work of fiction, and turning them into a reality.

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Writing Reality: Author Voice vs. Narrative Voice

07/04/2014 at 06:00 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


You will probably have encountered the conundrum of defining your own Writer’s Voice at some point. This is the distinct signature of an author, stamped upon every written page, and can be viewed as being parallel to the auteur theory of the cinematic world, wherein a director (and quite often an actor or actress, too) will leave their indelible mark upon each film, regardless of genre. The Writer’s Voice is not to be confused with the Narrative Voice. The latter is the perspective through which the audience views a story / text.

If the plot is a road, then the narrative can be viewed as the person(s) walking down it, and it is through their sensory perceptions that the audience will “feel out” the way. Based upon the author’s cast and/or choices of narrative mode (first person/personal, third person/omnipresent, etc) the perspective may shift between chapters or even between paragraphs. This should be noticeable in the opinions given, the elements of life which are prioritized vs. what is overlooked; what is revealed to the audience vs. what is concealed, or is apparently unknown.

For example: I have been (at least) two people in this lifetime – the Anorexic Me, and the Healthy Me. The former, being in a constant state of starvation due to malnutrition and low bodyweight, was wound up in a constant state of nerves and adrenalin, with a distinct fear of losing control of any situation I happened to be in. What this translated to, was an avoidance of any scenario where food / restriction of movement might be involved – say, a crowded room at a party. Paradoxically, every sense would be on high alert, with sustenance the main focus, since the human body is fine-tuned for survival.

I would walk into that room and immediately zero in on any scrap of food / drink, with senses sight and smell in particular having a heightened stimulus effect on concentration. While distracted by this sensory overload, I would be unable to focus on anything else occurring in the room. I would pay little attention to, say, art on the walls, or my host’s choice of furnishings. The language of those around me, vocal and physical, would seem at once cloying and intimidating, even if they paid no attention to me whatsoever – their very presence in the room would be overwhelming, when all my body would be focused on was how to get at the food made available, while my mind (the anorexic part) sought to take me as far away from the situation as possible. Thus runs the paradox of sensory overload / self-denial and control. In this state, I would be unable to appreciate what could be important information passed around, and entertaining company. Since setting, dialogue, subtext etc, make up vital elements of the reading / writing experience, a narrative perspective seen through that Anorexic self would be something like tunnel vision.

Nowadays, in a more healthy state, I am able to notice and appreciate the wider scope of the world, and am constantly in awe of it; finding symbolism and figurative language in nature, listening between the lines of what is said around me in society. Essentially, walking out of the tunnel.

A term that seems to crop up a lot on social media, is “reader’s hangover”: a story creates such an impression on the audience, that to finish it and be forced to find other books to read, is some kind of mental torture. Nothing else will suffice. It’s the itch between the ears when a song becomes so addictive that it must be listened to on repeat, until the damn thing has finally lost its appeal. In childhood, I would simply go back to the beginning of a book, getting a little less pleasure the second or even third time around – because of course, the words (for all their appeal) were still too fresh in the mind. Peeling myself away, I’d let time pass so that the words might collect dust for a bit and blur in the memory, before the book could be pulled down off the shelf again.

Nowadays, I don’t order books according to alphabetical arrangement, but in terms of what their Author’s Voice means to me. The genre of each text might be very different from the ones either side of it, but the written style of the authors are remarkably similar. Whenever a case of “reader’s hangover” crops up, I tend to sift between the culprit’s “compatriots”, to stave off the itch. It’s also a refreshing way to deal with writer’s block.

Who are your Influences?

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Joanne Harris. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter S Beagle. These are authors I will return to again and again. They are usually often found lumped together in book-stores and online, in the genre known as General Fiction.

Me, I prefer to know them as the “synaesthetic” authors. Their diction and syntax, have the knack of creating quite vibrant and refreshing colours/patterns in my mind. They are the writers with distinctive Voices, often using symbolism / a cross-over of sense-imagery in their diction, to illustrate a point.

– “Bony birds struggled across the sky, screeling ‘Helpme helpme helpme!’, and small black shapes bobbled at the lightless windows of King Haggard’s castle. A wet, slow smell found the unicorn. ‘Where is the Bull?’ she asked. ‘Where does Haggard keep the Bull?’ – pg 69, “The Last Unicorn.”

Syntax tends towards a simplistic construct – and I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the free-flow of reading, found in an uncluttered sentence / clause. There are few stumbling blocks; you get the sense that each word has been carefully measured out and chosen for its unique ability to convey as much meaning when stood alone, as when strung alongside others.

– “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment. 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.” – pg 1, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

– “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, as the house was high up a hill; here the sun burned hot but the shadows were cold. Inside, the house was always dark and cool, and the walls rustled with pasted pink and green newspapers. There was only one room; it contained a stove, a teetering mirror on top of a marble table, and a brass bed big enough for three fat men.” – pg 9, House of Flowers, Truman Capote

These authors write about the nuances of life, picking out the seemingly mundane and turning it into a work of art: brown silt and river water, transmuted to gold by the evening sun. In cinematic terms, this would translate to a keen eye for subtext around dialogue, symbolism in misc-en-scene, body language of actors/actresses, the cinematographic choices of camera angles and filters, etc.

– “She held my hand impersonally, as a promise that she’d take care of me in a minute, and gave ear to two girls in twin yellow dresses who stopped at the foot of the steps.
‘Hello!’ they cried together. ‘Sorry you didn’t win.’
That was for the golf tournament. She had lost in the finals the week before.
‘You don’t know who we are,’ said one of the girls in yellow, ‘but we met you here about a month ago.’
‘You’ve dyed your hair since then,’ remarked Jordan, and I started but the girls had moved casually on and her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Complex and technical language are kept to a minimum, with the thesaurus apparently thrown aside – something I am training myself to do when searching for that one perfect word, which was actually stuck between my ears the whole time but had been dismissed, due to my belief that it was far too simple a choice. But why hamper the audience with a stumbling block? Why not string together a perfectly reasonable set of words, to create an image that is still original, still glowing with beautiful colours and pathos?

– “Elv had begun to whisper Arnelle stories to her sisters during the bad summer when she was eleven. It was hot that August; the grass had turned brown… all she’d wanted was to lock herself away with her sisters. They hid in their mother’s garden, beneath the trailing pea vines. The tomato plants were veiled by a glinting canopy of bottle-green leaves. The younger girls were eight and ten. They didn’t know there were demons on earth, and Elv didn’t have the heart to tell them. She brushed the leaves out of her sister’s hair. She would never let anyone hurt them. The worst had already happened, and she was still alive.” – pg 7, The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

These synaesthetic writers are at once easy to read, and rather mysterious; equivalent to the portrait of a woman with beautiful, regular features … and the smallest hint of a dark smile.

After years of battling with my Voice – trying on various guises, as is necessary to discover whose shoes you are most comfortable walking in – I know that it is alongside these “synaesthetic” authors I would prefer to be shelved, should I have the luck of being published. It is through their respective Voices – each one unique, and somehow familiar as candlelight – that I have stitched together the components of my own.

They are the mainstay influences, but this is not to say I would ever restrict my reading / writing habits to only their work. Going with the analogy of shoes, I would say that while the synaesthetic authors are the hiking boots and Converse, authors such as Dr. Hunter S Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk and John Wyndham are the kitten heels. I love their work, but couldn’t begin to emulate their styles. My feet just won’t fit, and the walking is precarious.

When writing became more than a hobby, it was an essential exercise in discovering Voice to write through as many authors as possible – the more distinctive, the better. It’s just as vital to write across a range of forms, to develop audience awareness and an eye for self-editing.

Writing across this “vocal range”, is not plagiarism. It’s not copy ‘n paste. It is simply defining who you wish to sit alongside, who you would deem your contemporaries and influences to be – taking snippets from their respective styles, and stitching them together to form your own. This doesn’t just aid your prospective target audience, when they seek out authors of a similar “flavour” and whose work they can’t help but return to again and again. It can also help a potential agent to find where you might fit into the literary market.

If a Voice does not sit comfortably, and you find your nerves are frayed from trying too hard to be someone you’re not, then the writing experience will be a tedious one indeed. The forced Voice may waver between works-in-progress, as of a mask slipping. I’ve walked away from stories, believing them to be impenetrable, and blaming my own ineffectiveness to get down the vital message; only to return some months later, when a particularly influential / distinctive author I had been reading at the time, was finally out of my head. Their style was pressing in on mine, and though enjoyable to read, it was not something I could hope to replicate as a writer.

In blog entries, there is more chance of achieving an authentic Voice. You’re not trying to keep in character, and are not fretting about plot / narrative. Emotions and ideas are allowed to free-fall. Think back to the blog entries you may have rattled off – the sticky details of childhood life, the golden-hue moments of nostalgia, covered in dust motes, or tears. How easily did these outpourings come, when you were perhaps half-cut at 3am and coming off the rush of a night out or the viewing of a film which had touched your mind; the attached feelings you then just couldn’t keep to yourself, and were forced to offload in a blog entry before you forgot what it all meant?

Think about how that writing experience was, how every image seemed to slot into place – how when, reading it back to yourself in the early afternoon (waking to a faceful of old makeup, wine-stained lips and a head like Vesuvius) you’d felt the strange tang of seeing yourself outside yourself, and wondered where on earth had all this came from? How could it be that this was so easy, when (if you’re anything like me) trying to drag out fictional work can be akin to being prepared for the canopic jars in Ancient Egypt?

Those blog entries hold the Voice that is yours alone, when you weren’t trying to be someone you’re not; you were too excited and pissed to think about anything but getting the message across to your audience. YOUR perspective, YOUR experiences, YOUR views – all of which can be tweaked and filtered according to characterization and narrative perspective, and indeed, the same holds true for anyone in your reality who might have struck an influential spark, and deserves a place in your narrative.

Look at your voice on social media. This is you, taking part in written discourse in what may be a near-immediate environment. How do you instinctively respond to people when they speak to you? What language do you use to pitch ideas and thoughts? Are you pretty stark in delivery, or prone to using imaginative subtext? When I’m writing a blog entry, that Voice is pretty much what you’d get in real life. That’s my choice of delivery. The trick is to keep the trend going, when it comes to writing fiction – admittedly, something of a task, particularly when a multiple-member cast gets involved.

Finding your Voice is putting that stamp on your work. It is defining who you are, where you stand among other writers, how you might relate to them or indeed, be set apart. Crucially, it allows any audience member who might read your work, to come to know what to expect from you in the future.

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Writing Reality: Synonyms and Antonyms

06/01/2014 at 05:50 (Personal) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Our language is wonderfully diverse. For every one word or phrase assigned to something – whether in description, as a preposition, to denote an action – there are countless others with the same or similar meanings, but different graphemic / phonetic constructs, waiting to be used. As any writer will tell you, it’s often the most agonizing part of the whole process … trying to find that one word which will encapsulate the message you wish to convey, in a sentence.

Collectively, these words/phrases are known as synonyms. Their function, broadly speaking, is to add flavour to communication in speech and writing. If we were all to use the same words in our vocabulary then conversation would soon become strained; in text, all prose/verse would seem repetitive and lacking depths of meaning. We would know what to expect from others, with little chance of gratification from being surprised/charmed by a turn of phrase not our own. Synonyms step in to alleviate this wearing-out of language.

When a word or phrase is described as being synonymous with another word or phrase of the same language, its meaning can be taken as the same or suggestive of it:

“His name became synonymous with that of the Devil” (suggestive of evil in a character, through deeds)

Beautiful is an adjective. All well and good when used in the simple sentence, “She was beautiful.” Now imagine it being repeated across a more complex sentence structure, with additional features thrown in: “She was beautiful, with a beautiful nose and beautiful eyes.” By this point, beautiful is starting to look a bit strained around the eyes itself. To liven things up, it can be substituted after its first appearance with “a cute nose and lovely eyes.” Even these words are on the generic side, and don’t really add much in terms of describing the features mentioned – but they are synonyms of beautiful nonetheless, in the denotative sense of being attractive, and in their positive connotations.

Context is a pivotal factor when choosing to replace one word with another. Fine and pleasing are synonyms of beautiful, but they might not make as much of an impact when describing someone’s features or personality. Substituting it for foxy when describing the appeal of an ancient church, wouldn’t quite make the right impression; likewise, bewitching has connotative links to magic and enchantment, which would seem unsuitable in the religious context.

Bright is an adjective, and can be replaced with glittering, shining, aflame, vivid, argent, etc. However, as argent is associative with the colours silver and white (from the noun Argentum, chem., the metal silver) it may not be the best synonym to use in lieu of bright, when describing a pair of eyes. It would however fit the context of a night sky, and a full moon.

When writing, take into consideration the environmental / lifestyle factors that could affect someone’s personality, appearance and decisions, which in turn will influence your word choices. If the context was to be the description of a feral hunter or mercenary warrior on the campaign trail, chances are you could be looking for words that will reflect a life of guerilla movements, outdoor living conditions and tight rationing. In terms of appearance, you could describe them as being strong, but it doesn’t convey much in terms of imagery.

“He was sinewy with muscle” vs. “He was brawny with muscle.” Though both denote strength and a compact, toughened physical form, the word brawny is more closely associated with the image of size and muscle mass. For swiftness of movement and tenacity in battle, the character is more likely to need / to have built up a lean muscle mass that resembles steel rope, braided and sinewy, as opposed to large blocks of muscle that might actually slow them down and make them more conspicuous in battle. This is only a personal observation, of course; but I choose sinewy over brawny to suggest a lean style of living, reflected in the physical form of the warrior / hunter.

Synonyms can be used to denote authority: “It is the first time British police are being issued with the “non-lethal weapon“‘ – as opposed to, ‘…are being given the “non-lethal weapon.”‘ This report refers to police Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. To issue is a verb – synonyms include to give or to dole out, but neither fit the professional context of the action and the impersonal tone of the text. There is technically nothing wrong with using the word “give”, as it is a verb and concerns supplying someone with something. But it doesn’t have the same authoritative ring of issue and to give is more closely associated with gifts and presents, or acts of charity.

In obituaries and epitaphs, words synonymous with death can be used as part of a euphemism, to deliver a softened approach to a subject that is taboo for some (where open discussion is concerned), and raw for those in mourning. As the concept of death can be surrounded by negative feelings (grief, anger, loss) and the word itself holds connotations of fear and the unknown, it is useful to have words synonymous with it (when placed in context), which deliver a message that isn’t quite so direct. These synonyms often have restful and positive meanings, or humour intended to take away the sting of loss; they might also reflect the religious beliefs of the one who has died / their family.

passing away
(courtesy of http://kaionegal.typepad.com/)

In contrast to synonyms, we have antonyms. These are words that stand in oppositional meaning to others:

love hate

The word itself is an antonym of synonym, and is just as reliant on context. Hot is a word that can be made relevant to the weather when placed in a meteorological context – say, the comparison of two countries’ climates. But it can also be used to describe someone’s physical attractiveness or success, in a colloquial sense.
When seeking the antonym of a word, be aware of unintentional connotations becoming linked to your desired message.

There are three types of antonym.

Graded antonyms could visually resemble railway lines on a map, with the starting point at one end and the destination at the other. In between lie calling points to be stopped at first. Between Love and Hate, there is Like. In the context of a dimmer switch on a light, there is an Increase – Decrease of illumination, before On / Off occurs.

Relational antonyms cannot exist without one another.
You may greet someone with Hello, and bid them Goodbye
A door may be Opened and then Closed (or Shut, if you want a synonym.)

In weight-training, Flexion is the bending of a joint, bringing the bones that create it closer together. Its counter (or antonym) is Extension – straightening the joint out. Likewise, there is Elevation and Depression (raising / lowering.)

Complimentary antonyms have only one outcome – words meet and greet without gradients of meaning between them.

You can either be Alive or Dead.
Something can be True or False
A light can be flicked On or Off

If you are one, you cannot be the other; these are ‘absolute’ opposites.” – Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2013

Be careful when using your Thesaurus. Overdoing it on the fancy variations doesn’t make a text look more professional, and may actually harm the rhythm of your words. As ever, consider context – what message are you trying to convey? what connotations are linked to the word/words you wish to substitute? – and read aloud what you have written. Sometimes, the word we’re trying to avoid is the most likely candidate, with the truest message, after all.

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Writing Reality: Connotation and Denotation (AKA was that Really what you meant?)

23/09/2013 at 05:45 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Have you ever handed your writing to a beta reader, and – despite careful editing – been rewarded with an interpretative summary completely off-kilter with the intended message?

This might be clear in your own mind. Your characters know one another as well as you do their credentials, innermost fears and hatred of broccoli. A setting could be a photographic copy of real-time surroundings, or indeed, drawn from an image pulled off the Internet and studied for every nuance, to try and capture its spirit in words.

But what if the word choices were wrong, when placed in context?

This may come across as a little blunt, but what you see, feel, emote etc for everything you write, is your own business until it’s shared. The audience comes fresh to the scene. They haven’t been with you on field research, haven’t sat with their elbows propped at the bar while you earwigged on dialogue-drops. Most pertinently, they haven’t broken sweat and maybe tears for your characters, known their foibles and lusts as you do. It’s your responsibility, as a writer, to give them the means of approaching and accepting your literary universe. Their suspension of disbelief is in your hands, and the tools to make it happen are of of course your words – more specifically, the choices you make when stringing them together.

This is where Semiotics are involved – and if that’s technical gubbins to you, bear with me. It’s important stuff where linguistics are concerned.

Semiotics “is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign … the study not only of what we refer to as ‘signs’ in everyday speech, but of anything which ‘stands for’ something else. In a semiotic sense, signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects.”
The site highlighted (Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler) is top-notch if you’re looking to take things further than this article. It elaborates on the many technical structures that literature/linguistics are built upon. We’re going to focus on word meanings and associations, otherwise known as connotation and denotation.

This is a mnemonic taught to my Media studies class in school, by one exasperated but canny teacher:

“Connotations connect and create
Denotations define and dictate”

Put simply, Denotation is the literal definition of a word. The dictionary pull-out. It’s about as plain as it’s going to get, the reality of fact. It’s one side of the coin, while its flip – Connotation – is the projector of image(s) via “socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations (ideological, emotional etc)… typically related to the interpreter’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on.” In essence, what an individual / audience takes away from what the creator gives, as referenced in this article of Show and Tell.

There’s an overlap between perceived Intentional meaning and perceived Personal inflection. This is art in its purest form, the interaction of concepts. But if the Creator’s angle was off in the telling, the correspondence goes awry. A scene intended to be frightening can at best fall flat, at worst seem unintentionally funny. You may not have wished a character to be aligned with demons or perceived to have a demonic nature, no matter how antagonistic their actions – but if you’re going to use words like “devilish smile” and “forked tongue” in their narrative, don’t be surprised if the afore-mentioned images are invoked in the minds of at least some of your audience. Likewise, a character may take on accidental predatory connotations if described or aligned with words of this nature – “Alpha”, “wolfish”, “stalked towards.” A positive/beautiful setting may become subverted if the sky’s compared to wallpaper paste, the grass to barbed wire.

Studying adverts is a great way to gain a handle on Connotation and Denotation. The company is not only looking to inform the audience about their product – its specifications, the plain facts – they’re looking to sell the product, or more specifically, the projected image. This means persuasive and/or figurative language; linking one concept to another at whipcrack speed, so the audience is absorbing and computing at a subconscious level. It’s only when the ad is slowed down and carefully studied, that the methods used reveal their truths.

Notice the repetition of the word “car” – a key persuasive trigger, ingraining the denotative message in the minds of the audience, while the connotative overlay gets to work.
Other words appear. Nuts, bolts, leather, cogs, steel, wood, glass. All pretty dull on their own, but when set to the beautiful images appearing onscreen, their respective meanings are enhanced. They become abstract concepts, shining metal, a vibrant night-drive through woodland, sumptuous skeins of material, unfolding blankets of light; the darkest pools, so gorgeously thick you can almost taste the toxic beauty. They become, in and of themselves, important. Their purpose is full of clarity, linking one image to another – safety, comfort, intelligence, durability, style, class. Above all – every small piece, making up the whole. Every one word, forming an appealing message in the mind of the audience. A persuasive package, tied up in a clever bow of simple words juxtaposed with carefully-chosen images.

Your writing intends to do the same – to sell images, to persuade the audience to believe in the construct. The projected images may not all be pleasant ones, but they’re required to convince just the same. Your word-choices need careful consideration to gain the effect, and with minimal fuss. This is where context comes into play.

It still staggers me how often a company can shoot itself in the foot with its choice of brand name. I’ll paraphrase a few to give a general idea, and hopefully avoid lawsuits.

– “Mud Pie Pottery” – OK, kudos to them for the rhythmic alliteration of P’s. That’s memorable. But so too is the sticky, messy image of playing in the mud as a kid (or indeed, cleaning up after your own.) The splattergram-image might work for a play area, but in the context of trying to sell fine ceramics and pottery, it doesn’t quite fit the bill. The connotations of “mud pie” are child-associative at best, crude and amateur at worst. Not a great start for sales.

– “Blurred Lines Printing” – Though their precision and output might be admirable, the company’s name is a let-down in terms of public image, simply from a lack of context-consideration. It’s only on a subconscious level, might not even take the form of a thought, so much as a feeling of wariness in the audience. One linked image to another, through the connotation —> context of blurred and printing.

Used carefully, a juxtaposition of positive/negative connotations can actually progress narrative, and inform characterization. Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi novel The Rowan tells the story of a young woman born with inherent psychological powers (telekinesis/telepathy, among others.) As the sole survivor of a landslip in her home-territory, Rowan – aged three – is taken on as a Ward of the Planet.

‘”You’ve done marvels with her, Lusena,” Interior said warmly. “You’ll find a tangible reward from the Council when you’ve delivered her safely to Earth.”
“She’s a taking little thing, really,” Lusena said, smiling with affection.
“A bit odd-looking with that whitened hair and those enormous brown eyes in that thin face,” and the Medic looked uncomfortable.
Gorgeous eyes, lovely features,” Interior said hastily to cancel Lusena’s dismay at the Medic’s blunt description.’ – pg 29, The Rowan, Anne McCaffrey

Odd-looking, whitened, enormous, thin. None of these words are particularly positive when strung together in a description of the child. The Medic might have taken a more tactful (and positive) view with words like “striking”, “pale/snowy hair”, “large/luminous eyes”, “small/slim face.” Instead, the connotations of the words chosen create a projected image through his perspective, of a strange-looking little girl who has an unnerving effect on him. This is a Show of characterization in the scene; clearly, Rowan has got under the skin of the Medic (backed up by the Tell of his looking “uncomfortable.”)

Interior’s swift annulment of the Medic’s negative assessment – with far more positive-connotative words gorgeous and lovely – Shows the audience that the former has a high empathy and consideration for Lusena’s “dismay”; it also exposes the Medic’s tactlessness in the narrative. This is emphasized when set in the context of Rowan’s predicament as a small orphaned child, as well as her obvious inability to change how she looks. There is also her primary carer Lusena’s previous comment, of being quite taken with her, to consider.

It’s worth considering narrative voice when it comes to choice of words. In third person-omnipresent, the voice is yours as the author; whatever descriptions are laid down, are assumed to be your opinion. When placed through the filter of a character – over shoulder or first person – the perspective switches, and immediately assumptions are made on the part of the audience, everything from the character’s intelligence to their ethos, their feelings about others, experience of settings etc. Consider carefully – what is the primary message of the scene you’re creating? What is the subtext, if any, beneath dialogue; and can context itself manipulate the connotations of words uttered?

“‘Let’s take our good host here. What is he? He is a gentleman… A classic English gentleman. Decent, honest, well-meaning. But his lordship here is an amateur.” He paused at the word and looked around the table. “He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentleman amateurs.”‘ pg 106, “The Remains of the Day,” Kazuo Ishiguro

As adjective or noun, amateur is defined as “engaging or engaged in without payment; non-professional / a person who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid basis.” So far, so neutral. But placed in the context of world affairs, as delivered in the dialogue of Senator Lewis – attending a conference at Darlington Hall during the run-up to WWII – and the message becomes one of quiet desperation, frustration and scorn.

Decent, honest, well-meaning – all work to present the sign of Lord Darlington being a “classic English gentleman”, until amateur is put into the mix. Synonyms range from casual participant to dabbler to novice; none of which are particularly abrasive when stood alone. But filtered through context – the severity of the situation – and when aligned with more negative-connotative words like hog-wash and meddle, a pejorative anchor is laid on these positive connotations. Their message becomes subverted, implying Darlington and his fellows are only clueless fools, in danger of losing their grip on the situation.

“All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over… Gentlemen like our good host still believe it’s their business to meddle in matters they don’t understand. So much hog-wash has been spoken here these past two days. Well-meaning, naive hogwash.” – pg 107

Words of authoritative connotation in this context are brought up – world, business, matters. These enhance the impression of there being a higher game at stake than any of the Lords realize.

“You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs. If you don’t realize that soon you’re headed for disaster.”

Lord Darlington’s response is framed along the same inference-structure (both are far too polite and well bred to delve into crude slanging matches), with connotations turned on their heads when filtered through an individual’s perspective:

“‘What you describe as “amateurism”, sir, is what I think most of us here still prefer to call “honour.’
This brought a loud murmur of assent with several ‘hear, hear’s’ and some applause.
‘It appears to mean getting one’s way by cheating and manipulating. It means ordering one’s priorities according to greed and advantages rather than the desire to see goodness and justice prevail in the world.’ … This was met by the loudest burst of approval yet, followed by warm and sustained applause.” – pg 107

Ishiguro uses applause as a paralinguistic signal of approval, much as the adjective “warm” works to frame the action in connotations of intimacy as well as approval. On a universal-subconscious level, it speaks to our earliest instincts of keeping close to preserve heat. If you were writing a similar scene in which the applause was instead sporadic, insincere, doubtful, what alternative word-choices could you make to draw on the senses, to deliver a negative-connotative message?
* Cold / cool – as of the feelings of the gathering towards the speaker and his opinion; lack of intimacy and unwillingness to engage, to accept the message delivered
* Half-hearted – lacking impetus, enthusiasm, not wishing to engage
* Scattered (especially in a room full of people, where applause from all present would be thick and loud, rolling off the walls, tumultous, energetic … not described with a word that has connotations of being loosely strewn, haphazard, quiet where noise would be preferred.)

Also worth noticing is how Darlington – in a progression of characterization and narrative, showing the now-taut relationship between the two men – turns Lewis’ word “professionalism” back on itself. By juxtaposing it with negative-connotative words like “cheating”, “manipulating” and “greed”, a wholly different meaning is pulled from the Senator’s word, subverting his message. In this case, mimicry is not a positive affirmation, but a riposte.

A single word can have many associative-images when standing alone; imagine its impact when framed in the right context and strung alongside words of equal power and direct meaning. This is particularly important when it comes to paring down your figurative language and imagery, for a smoother reading-experience and more succinct message:

“It was the same looking out; the green-tinted window glass was so old and so thick that everything on the other side seemed like a dream, including the sky and the trees.” – pg 4, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

“If only she could believe in love’s salvation, but desire had been ruined for her. She saw craving as obsession, fervor as heated preoccupation.” – pg 31, “Practical Magic”, Alice Hoffman.

If words are an author’s medium – the brushes of their art – then the colours alive within each one are surely the meanings laid upon the canvas, for audience interpretation. Consider your mixtures and blending; all it takes is one poor choice of colour for the image to be spoiled. Your word-choices affect the balance of the overall message, by virtue of association and context.

 photo c0abddc5-4ef6-49c4-86a3-259cfca7c486_zps5e835cd2.jpg

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Writing Reality: The Silent Story of Show don’t Tell

15/09/2013 at 23:08 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When it comes to writing, Show don’t Tell can be a priceless component for exposing that which needs more audience interaction. It’s all very well for an author to speak at the reader when there are facts in the offing; but it’s only ever a one-sided conversation.

The truth of art is about interaction – bringing together that which the creator offers, and what the audience already holds as experience/applied knowledge. The result is a bond, a unification of source and meaning; the give-and-take of a ball passed across the court, and if the pitch is right, the audience will make the catch. Perhaps they’ll run off with their own ideas; as individuals, we bring personal inflections based upon memory and mindset.

But if the pitch is out of context – if a generalization is made, where more detail was necessary for emotional engagement – then the ball is dropped, the audience left cold.

Tell-Summaries work like a film’s passage-of-time montage or a video game’s Cutscene; a sequence of events that riffle over an extended period, in which not all details are made available or are necessary to the audience. Those which are displayed are compact, delivered as unassailable fact. A canny director / author knows when such editing is required; perhaps for a shorthand narrative that, while informative, doesn’t require high audience interaction. Narrative and plot points wash over, inform, but don’t necessarily engage.

The intro to Bioshock is an example of Tell; an informative Cutscene, in which the player becomes a backseat audience, unable to control the protagonist for any decisions made. This funnels the audience’s attention onto the facts being Told – setting, circumstance, objective characterization, plot progression – for absorption, and referencing at later points in gameplay. There is no immediate distraction from needing to engage, to keep the protagonist alive.

It’s essential to find the balance between what an audience wishes to – or can – engage in, and what reaction/conclusions they are fine with being led towards, for the sake of narrative progression. Too much Show can bog the latter down. Tell-summaries act as the foundations on which audience engagement is layered, in personal inflections such as dialogue and reactions. They may be paragraphs or pages long. The key is to find which technique fits which context.

Sometimes, a summary of events may be a safer stance for a sensitive subject. Audience engagement is drawn upon in terms of imagination – they’re left to close the gaps in the Tell. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs can be used as a point of reference, with the infamous ear-cutting scene.

The camera moves away at the last moment, but the build-up of tension in the dance-shuffle, upbeat range of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You”, and close-ups of the victim’s bleeding face, creates a juxtaposition of fact and imagination – infused with empty air and muffled off-screen cries – that’s more emotionally engaging than any actual portrayal of violence. This can be a critical point where film ratings are concerned, or indeed the level of interaction your audience wishes to have.

An inferred Tell can be a handy way of filling in the blanks, particularly when the primary instinct of fear of the unknown, is engaged. On the flip side, basic human curiosity is pinged like an elastic band, calling the participants back … just to check. If the audience doesn’t have all the answers on the page, they’re more likely to turn to the next one.
If a memory is invoked in a story’s narrative, they will be curious to see what it’s point was, where it might lead:

“At first I was alarmed. Then, as I lay still, gathering my wits, I reflected on how long Eel Marsh House had stood here, steady as a lighthouse, quite alone and exposed… And then, those memories of childhood began to be stirred again and I dwelt nostalgically… I lay back and slipped into that pleasant, trance-like state somewhere between sleeping and waking, recalling the past and all its emotions and impressions vividly, until I felt I was a small boy again.” – pg 123, The Woman in Black, Susan Hill.

Contrast this abbreviated segue between past and present, which invokes a mood of security and trance, with the needle-sharp dialogue and paralinguistic features exchanged between the narrator, Arthur Kipps, and local countryman Samuel Daily:

“He sighed and shifted about uneasily in his chair avoiding my eye and looking into the fire –
‘For God’s sake, what is it you are holding back, man? What are you so afraid of telling me?’
‘You, Arthur,’ he said, ‘will be away from here tomorrow or the next day. You, if you are lucky, will neither hear nor see nor know of anything to do with that damned place again. The rest of us have to stay. We’re to live with it.’
‘With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’
‘With whatever will surely follow. Sometime or other… It’s changed people. They don’t speak of it, you found that out. Those who have suffered worst say least – Jerome, Keckwick.’
I felt my heart-beat increase, I put a hand to my collar to loosen it a little, drew my chair back from the fire.” – pg 147.

This is an example of Show. Dialogue carries the narrative forward with hinged explanations, a drawing-out of events; not only to hook the audience and lead them on, but to invoke the fearful reluctance inside Daily. He is genuinely disturbed by the knowledge he holds, weary of carrying it; there’s faint envy in his tone – “You, Arthur …” His sentence structure is simplistic and staccato, falling from his mouth like stones.

For the same reason, Kipps’ dialogue and narrative are structured along jagged lines, as of hitched breathing, a tight chest – “hand to my collar to loosen it a little.” There’s no need for him to narrate his fear, as Hill creates this effect through his actions, choice of words and repetition:
God’s sake“, “So afraid“, “With what? Stories – rumours? With the sight of that woman in black from time to time? With what?’

When it comes to characterization, an author would do well to Show the truth of a narrator’s personality through interaction with others. Not just dialogue, but paralinguistic features (body language, tics, tone) and that which they do and say (or do not say); these infuse a character with 3D personality and subtext. More often than not, people do not speak aloud their true thoughts and intentions – based upon social mores, natural reserve, or a reluctance to be pinned down to an actual interpretation of meaning.

Because The Woman in Black travels between past and present, there is some leeway available when older-Kipps refers to his younger self as having a “youthful and priggish way”. Retrospect is his filter in this Tell, and a rueful one at that. In the active past-narrative, this “youthful priggish” nature is made apparent via Show:

“I began to be weary, of journeying and of the cold and of sitting still while being jarred and jolted about, and to look forward to my supper, a fire and a warm bed.”
– The repetition of “and” gives a drawn-out quality to the sentence, as of childish whining en route to a destination that at first held much bearing. Now he’s tired, and peevish with it.

Upon first meeting Sam Daily, his first appraisal is less than positive:
“He was a big man, with a beefy face and huge, raw-looking hands … nearer to sixty than fifty”
– There’s a trapdoor negativity where Daily’s aged, weather-beaten appearance is concerned. Though Kipps reins himself in before becoming outright critical in language, his tone is patronizing:
“His clothes were of good quality, but somewhat brashly cut .. he wore a heavy, prominent seal-ring on his left hand, and that, too, had a newness and a touch of vulgarity about it.”

Hill employs Daily as both protector and foil to unpin Kipps’ character through Show. The countryman’s consistent politeness and willingness to help, effectively send up the young man’s assumptions by subverting them:

“I decided that he was a man who had made, or come into, money late and unexpectedly, and was happy for the world to know it.”
(compare this with Kipps’ reaction to Daily’s questions about his destination):
“I nodded stiffly.
‘You don’t tell me you’re a relative?’
‘I am her solicitor.’ I was rather pleased with the way it sounded.” – pg 36.

This from a man who has already taken mild affront to the “vulgarity” of Daily’s display of financial well-being. He goes further towards making himself less than endearing, by paraphrasing Daily’s description of the local mist and its dangers:

“‘One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next …’ he gestured to indicate the dramatic suddenness of his frets.” – pg 36.

By deliberately overloading the adjective-fork, Kipps conveys surprise at the other man’s exuberance; the implication is that he believes Daily to be exaggerating. There’s the distancing effect of ‘his frets’. The tone is patronizing, as of an adult hand patting an excitable child’s head.

“‘It’s a far-flung part of the world. We don’t get many visitors.’
‘I suppose because there is nothing much to see.’
‘It all depends what you mean by “nothing.” There’s the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village,’ he chuckled. ‘Those are particularly fine examples of “nothing to see. And we’ve a good wild ruin of an abbey with a handsome graveyard – you can get to it at low tide. It’s all according to what takes your fancy!’ – pg 38.

– Note the repetition of Kipps’ words back on himself, in conjunction with one point of interest after another; the lesson-recitation sentence structure; personification of the graveyard with ‘handsome‘; reference to local knowledge with ‘get to it at low tide”, suggesting authority through Ethos.

In this brief paragraph, Daily undermines Kipps’ first appraisal of him with a teasing that, by its very gentleness, sets him in higher esteem than the protagonist. The latter’s surprise is made interestingly clear with Hill’s use of a symbolic sound-conduit, which effectively ends the conversation’s stand-off mood and sets it on another route entirely:

“‘You are almost making me anxious to get back to that London particular!”
There was a shriek from the train whistle.”

– Another train emerges from the tunnel, reminding them of their shared destination. Perhaps it’s the sight of the “line of empty yellow-lit carriages that disappeared into the darkness” (Show of desolation, cold, the unknown) which appeals to Daily’s kind nature, for he chooses to see past Kipps’ thinly-disguised rudeness, to offer hospitality:
“‘If you care to come with me, I can drop you off at the Gifford Arms – my car will be waiting for me, and it’s on my way.”

Kipps’ disbelief and pragmatism – “exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness” – have a hollow echo to them, following so soon after his staccato exclamation of wishing to return to London. The inference is that, through a reconsideration of his situation as the foreign element, he’s willing to be mollified:
‘He seemed keen to reassure me and to make up for his teasing exaggeration of the bleakness and strangeness of the area, and I thanked him and accepted his offer.”

– There’s no need for a Tell, nor for an apology. Hill makes Kipps’ feelings clear through Show. He is the alien, on unfamiliar territory and out at night, with its symbolism of the unknown and universal fear. This is imagery that an audience can latch onto.

Using weather to convey the typical mood of a setting (pathetic fallacy) works only for as long as the latter remains objective. For example, the moors of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, tend towards a naturally wild climate that can be easily set to personification – either as stand-alone imagery, or through the behaviour of characters such as the willful Cathy and dark-souled Heathcliff.

To avoid breaking the fourth wall with steering an audience’s perceptions too much, it’s best to stick with what is a natural progression of weather patterns in your setting. Don’t let a character’s mood influence the weather, or there is a risk of creating an unrealistic standpoint (this holds true across genres; even if used as a trope in fantasy, it should fit the context of a character’s powers.) It can’t be stormy everyday in a horror genre. Far more unsettling, is the upending of audience expectations. Keep things normal as a backdrop to the Unusual. The rickety old house set against a bright blue sky and piercing white sun; the children’s playground, wind-torn and empty of life but for lowering nimbus-clouds. This is using setting and scenery as a Show of mood, on a subversive level.

Setting and circumstance can certainly be employed for subjective Show when it comes to cause and effect. Imagine your character in their normal state of mind; perhaps they’re a stickler for neatness and order. What happens when something upsets their life, throws them out of regular habits and safe patterns? They may become lacklustre at the death of a family member or friend; life may cease to hold meaning. Their clothes, so pristine before, may hang wrinkled and loose as their thought processes, from not bothering to iron anything; weight loss from lack of appetite may also be a contributing. Makeup may be applied haphazardly, or not at all – large black circles may ring their eyes, from insomnia. Their garden may go untended, full of weeds where only prim flowerbeds once lay; the house may fall to rack and ruin, by slow degrees of separation from reality and consequence.

There’s little need to Tell an audience that your character is suffering, when it’s plain to see. Dialogue and character interaction can build this further. Last week, after a crazy night of editing, I got into work two hours late after oversleeping the clock.
A co-worker took one look at me and said, “I’ll get the coffee on.”

Were I to put this into a written scene, I’d add a line where, with one hand, I scraped the mass of knots I once called hair out of my eyes, and with the other supported myself in the doorway. Dialogue
(as a direct quote here) would run thus:
“You know me far too well.”

They do at work, when it comes to my caffeine habits – this is through experience, past interaction. But how does this work for the audience? An author has to be careful with how much they let hinge on perceived knowledge. Coffee makes a good caffeine-kick reference; a near-universal fact that can carry a shared joke better than something more specific, such as Red Bull energy drink.
When setting a brand name to your work, check context first – does it belong in this scenario, this genre, this time-frame? Is it an easily-accessible Show, or does it run the risk of dating your work / throwing the audience out of their suspension of disbelief? When making an in-joke about a character’s habit, does it dovetail with the rest of their life, or stick out as an unnecessary plot point?

Sensory language and figurative speech can help Show an audience what is unfolding within a scene, at what pace, and – with the right words – how to find the world immediately surrounding a character. Jeffrey Eugenides is a fine example of an author who has mastered the art of Show/Tell-characterization. The following scene dissembles the projected image of sexual power surrounding the character Lux in The Virgin Suicides, and invokes a very real sense of despair at the futility of her situation:

“Through the bronchioles of leafless elm branches, from the Pitzenbergers’ attic, we finally made out Lux’s face as she sat wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket, smoking a cigarette, impossibly close in the circle of our binoculars because she moved her lips only inches away but without sound.” – pgs 145/146, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

– So near yet so far; the girl of their dreams may well be just this, an illusion brought to some kind of reality through the depth sensation of binoculars. What they see, and what they hear and know for certain, are separate quantities. It’s the equivalent of looking at the moon through a telescope and fancying that you know its face, every contour; how it feels to touch. A sense of yearning is invoked. Lux, as perceived by the boys watching her, is a figure of sexual power. Even while under house arrest, she makes the appearance of preferring a casually arrogant role:

“True, it was impossible for Mr and Mrs Lisbon to see their own roof… but there was the unavoidable prior noise of sneaking down to let the men and boys in, of leading them up creaking stairs in a darkness charged with anxious vibrations, night noises humming in their ears, the men sweating, risking statutory rape charges, the loss of their careers, divorce, just to be led up the stairway, through a window, to the roof, where in the midst of their passion they chafed their knees and rolled in stagnant puddles.” – pg 146

Powerfully evocative language – “creaking, charged, vibrations, risking” – spread out over a meandering sentence structure, which draws the tension out to its somewhat brutal climax (for the egos of the men, brought low into puddles and against their better judgement, by a child.) Contrast this with the description of Lux that follows:

“All sixteen mentioned her jutting ribs, the in-substantiality of her thighs, and one who went up to the roof with Lux during a warm winter rain, told us how the basins of her collarbones collected water…They spoke of being pinned to the chimney as if by two great beating wings, and of the slight blond fuzz above her upper lip that felt like plumage.” – pg 148

The juxtaposition of positive connotations/abstract imagery – “carnal angel”, “plumage” – with negative concrete reality, “collarbones collected water, jutting ribs” – creates a scene of pathos, and unreliability where Lux’s personality is concerned. For all her power over these men, she is wasting away in body and soul; apparently taking no pleasure from the “measureless charity” she deals out, falling into cinematic pretense of Self that is in no way true to her circumstances:

“She told Bob McBrearley that she couldn’t live without ‘getting it regular’, though she delivered the phrase with a Brooklyn accent, as though imitating a movie.”

Imitation. Phrase. Through the collective narrative of the boys, their observations, Eugendies layers up the sense of a girl living vicariously through the imaginations and expectations of those around her. She distances herself from the painful reality of being housebound with her sisters, losing weight from malnutrition. To her adoring audience, she is a “succubus of those binocular nights” – but the narrative itself tells the audience a very different story:

“Dan Tyco … stepped in something soft at the top of the landing and picked it up. Only after Lux led him out the window and up to the roof could he see by moonlight what he held: the half-eaten sandwich Father Moody had encountered five months earlier…Mrs Lisbon had stopped cooking for the girls and they lived by foraging.” – pg 147

Emotional investment is crucial at times like this. If an author is not willing to allow their audience more than a back-seat view of what is going on, through a generalization where details were needed, then the latter will be unable to engage. The distance is breached when emotional investment and sensory integration are added; spicing up the dull porridge of “he was thin and tall” with the cinnamon of “his clothes hung from his frame; he was forced to duck under every doorway.”

Notice that this took a good deal more words to convey. This will equate to more time spent writing, more thought applied to intention. There’s a need for deferring to connotation (figurative) as well as denotation (plain facts.) As an author, you’re reaching out to meet the audience halfway; giving them the chance to feel as much a creator, as a participant-witness. In this way, the story becomes relative to their lives and the structure is made sound. The narrative becomes credible, and the characters stand as people.

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