Writing Reality: Sound Effects in Writing

25/11/2013 at 05:45 (Poetry, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


When writing, do you speak aloud the words that will form your sentences, to know them for sound as well as structure?

As Capote quite rightly said, “the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.” There are a good many comparisons to be drawn between writing – both verse and prose – and music, most notably in the techniques used to establish rhythm and rhyme.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve wrangled with the latter in particular for years, to the point of actively abandoning it for a length of time while writing poetry in my teens. We’ve probably all been there at some point, guilty of wrestling a word down, beating it into shape to suit our intended message. But the result will only ever sound forced. This applies to both poetry and prose; too often, I’ve read my own work aloud and found a sentence / paragraph in dire need of rearrangement, because it didn’t “sound right.” Words didn’t click together where a smooth or beautiful image was my intention; likewise, a scene fraught with tension could have used more staccato sounds indicative of the mood.

Below are a few linguistic sound-effect techniques which I’ve returned to recently – learned in English Language, and perhaps overlooked while writing prose as opposed to poetry, which was my primary creative outlet for some time. It’s quite easy to overlook sound-imagery when a particular genre (in my novel’s case, YA drama) doesn’t tend to be vocalized. Speeches, scripts, adverts, poetry, lyrics, phonetic picture books aimed at children, are more likely candidates.

But this doesn’t mean the mind can’t automatically register a word in its “silent” form, particularly with relation to life experience. In the case of onomatopoeia, “we read not only with our eyes but also with our ears. The smallest child, learning to read by reading about bees, needs no translation for buzz. Subconsciously we hear the words on a printed page.” – James Kilpatrick, Listening to What We Write.

For sensory involvement in text, onomatopoeia is a great way to transport the audience “live” to a scene, without going overboard on lengthy descriptions. Words are used which imitate the action, object or concept they refer to – the rustle of leaves, the hiss of a snake or wheeze of a bad cough (and of course, cough itself is another example.) Farmyard picture books for children, with the animal / industrial sounds displayed in bold letters, are a classic example of onomatopoeia. They are a delightful way of putting words, their relative sounds and animals, into context.

Comics and graphic novels have used onomatopoeia to great effect over the years, with emphasis on character actions:

thwip

and scene events, for enhanced audience involvement:

trwoa

It could be argued that these words will change in relation to the language used, and therefore lose their onomatopoeic value – but as Cornelia Haase points out in her Oxford Dictionaries blog, it’s the initial phonemes used which will round up the differences: “A French rooster says ‘cocorico’ and an Arabic-speaking one will sound something like ‘kuku-kookoo’. Whereas the vowels differ in these examples, all of them contain a plosive (/k/). Once again, this is the quality of the sound produced by a rooster translated into human speech: loud and piercing.”

“From the moment he entered it the wood seemed full of noises. There was a smell of damp leaves and moss, and everywhere the splash of water went whispering about..
Roosting birds rustled overhead; the night breeze stirred the leaves…” – pg 34, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

In this excerpt, onomatopaiea and consonance are used to convey the unsettling motion of the woodland; the wind ruffling rabbit fur, shifting leaves; the fluttering of birds. All are disturbing to the rabbit’s peace, out of their secure home and wandering in alien territory. Consonance being the repetition of similar consonant sounds at stressed syllables, when spoken aloud, the repeated use of the /r/ phoneme makes it easy to imagine their wide-eyed fear, as they take note of every minute detail which might cause them harm.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds, found at points of stress. It’s useful for memorization, for creating text that is catchy and trips off the tongue. As it’s dependent on the sound of the letter, clever cat is alliterative – so is murky with mud; but clear light in the city is not, as the letter C in this case is soft, as of /s/. The first C is relevant to the /K/ phoneme – cat, kitten, school. It’s the feeling you get at the roof of your mouth.
The second C emerges through the teeth and tongue, as with ice, sun and dress. This is an important feature to remember about alliteration.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before…” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe.

Alliteration is a useful technique for ad campaigns – you’ve no doubt had some earworm heard on the TV or radio, stuck in your mind. Brand names too, can be made memorable with alliteration: Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Range Rover, Mr Muscle. It’s also the reason why I never give names to characters which sound too much alike, particularly the initial letter/sound; too easy for the reader to mix them up in the mind.

Used too often in prose, alliteration can make for clotted language. Phonemes that appear frequently will stand out, and have your audience wondering if there’s some message that they’re missing. Unless there are particular words/phrases you want to drive home, try to avoid overdoing it. That being said, alliteration can make for some truly memorable scenes in prose; as can its counterpart, homoioteleuton:

“He ran quickly and the ice flowed sleekly”
“Someone should call attention to his lack of premeditation.”

Suffixes such as -ing (leaving, beating) -ence, -ly -ance and -ion are often used in this repetitive pattern, to reinforce a connection between words and create a striking rhythm.

Where traditional rhyme uses both consonants and vowels to mark itself out, assonance deals with the latter. It is the echo of internal vowel-sounds, when placed in good proximity of each other. As with alliteration, it’s concerned more with the sound of the letters concerned; these hook onto each other to create another form of near rhyme (particularly when the surrounding consonants do not meet well.) I find that this technique often “rounds out” otherwise hard-sounding words, as of flesh lining bones:

“In sinuous folds of cities old and grim,
Where all things, even horror, turn to grace,
I follow, in obedience to my whim,
Strange, feeble, charming creatures round the place.” – The Little Old Women, Baudelaire.

Though more commonly found in verse, assonance can have a striking effect when used in prose:

“It was a damp April day, with long diagonal clouds over the Albishorn and water inert in the low places – pg 132 Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dissonance is the intentional disruption of rhythm and sound, to jarring effect. In music, it’s the discord of notes, a lack of harmony; in writing, it can snarl up the reading/speaking process, forcing the audience to focus on the imagery involved:

“In a soil thick with snails and rich as grease
I’ve longed to dig myself a good deep grave
There to stretch my old bones at ease – Baudelaire, The Gladly Dead.

The vowel sounds are elongated, as of stretching out to sleep, to die, to be laid to rest. By contrast, the consonants are thick and cloying; there’s a predilection for the /k/ and /g/ phonemes, which lie heavy in the mouth, evocative of heavy soil that clings to the shovel, to the boots … and of age, the cares of the world, dragging the weary soul down. What’s most striking is the dissonant rhythm created, as the vowels and consonants butt up against one another – the scrape of the shovel through the vowels, coming up upon obstacles such as stones and snails, the soil “thick as grease.”

Sibilance is the hissing effect caused by English phonemes (s), (sh), (z), and (zh). It can take various roles, depending on context – the soothing of a mother’s voice to a child:

“Hush hush little plush
Mama’s near you through the night
Hush hush little plush
Everything will be alright.” – The Mouse and his Child, Russell Hoban.

the sultry atmosphere of a summer evening, calm and pleasant:

‘Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The silent time of midnight
Shines sweetly everywhere.” – Moonlight, summer moonlight, Emily Bronte.

Used in prose, it can evoke connotations of pathos or tension relative to a character or scene. In Watership Down, a particular scene which always stands out for me is the arrival of the Sandleford rabbits at the warren of wires. When a native rabbit is called upon to recite poetry at a get-together, it can be no coincidence that his very name, Silverweed, encapsulates the desperately sad atmosphere of his warren. Sibilance plays a large part in his spoken verse, to unsettling effect:

“The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver…
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit…
Where are you going, stream? Far far away
Beyond the heather, sliding away all night.
Take me with you, stream, away in the starlight…” – pg 113, Watership Down, Richard Adams.

There is also the presence of assonance in the repetition of the /a/ /o/ phonemes, and homoioteleuton in the -ing suffix – these create a wistful, flowing sensation, as of the wind carrying souls away into the night, leaving behind those who must stay in a numb state of non-life. Silverweed’s tone is almost plaintive; he and the other rabbits of his warren have not only accepted their fate, but almost look forward to the release found in death, because of it. Pipkin’s remark best sums it up:
“I’ll tell you how they strike me. They all seem terribly sad. I can’t think why, when they’re so big and strong and have this beautiful warren. But they put me in mind of trees in November.”

Compare this pathos with the stark atmosphere found in the use of sibilance in the world of Harry Potter. The language of snakes is a spitfire hissing, and known here as Parseltongue. Put into the context of the novel, the use of sibilance creates a tense atmosphere, where the very mention of snakes is connotative of wrongdoing:

“‘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.

Whether for poetry or prose, these are but some sound techniques that can be used to enhance your writing. Audience perspective of a character can be influenced by “their” choice of words, the phonemes resounding with connotative imagery; a scene can be made memorable by the emotional effect of pronouncing each word used to describe it. An atmosphere heavy with tension and thick consonants; a death delivered in whispering sibilance, as of a ghost passing over.
Sometimes, no matter how small the passage, it’s the sheer pleasure of finding music in the positioning of words, the relation of their phonemes to one another:

“There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

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Writing Reality: Location and Time

04/11/2013 at 05:45 (Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Listening to Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, I’m always struck by a particular stanza:

Have you seen the old man
Outside the Seaman’s Mission
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

It reminds me of what first drew me to the city, embedded it in my heart – apart from the obvious beauty of a silken blue scarf on the horizon, one that all too soon knots itself about the throat in a toxic beauty of pollution. I used to travel into London with my mother to meet my father after work, so my memories are mostly of windows set into antiquated walls that blurred past the train, their golden glow seeming like diamond eyes to my excited ones, though the lives held behind would be working late into an evening full of blue-black shadows.

As I’ve got older, the shine of the city hasn’t diminished, only shifted perspective. I often take walking trips across its myriad streets, one borough to another, all alive with individuality and the traits of whoever happens to live there. Though it’s come to my attention more recently (as a writer), that an environment can inform the personality habits/quirks of a resident, as much as the latter influences the state of their home/workplace.

So while wandering, I take in the welcome glow of polished windows and pub signs, the huddled figures in doorways they can never hope to enter but which offer temporary shelter from the wind. There are those who’ll return to the same park bench each day on their lunch break, out of comfortable habit and to feel a niche of Home; or perhaps to escape the mundane nature of this. Depending on what they have to hand, what their circumstances are, they’ll feed or fend off the ever-present pigeon clouds that alight and clatter away by turns, in that bird’s daze of checkered tree-light and traffic noise.

All these impressions, so many more, tangle me up whenever I visit. I find my eyes lingering on the hidden places of the world, the random moments and meetings, rather than rising as they once did to the glaring lights and tourist eyecandy; the teeth of stone, steel and glass. Hooked alley corners, small pockets of greenery, the shadows that smell of a thousand borrowed cuisines; though these often ring with a binman’s calls, and provide more shelter for that hunched shape of one still evading what had them leave their old life behind
(if they had one at all.)

All under an indifferent sky. Freedom is a hard-won prize.

I use the city as an example for its diversity, but you’ll have your own influences, your own icons and symbolism. When writing a location, framing a fictional narrative about a setting in which your characters exist, how often do you stop to wonder about its influence upon their lives – direct and indirect – how it informs their movements, lifestyle choices, emotional responses?

There are things I’ve had to consider in more depth, when writing my novel. As it’s set mainly in one town (fictional, “Reighton”) and is caught between timeframes of past and present (filtered through two first-person narratives, with additional input from secondary sources) it’s become necessary for me to know that environment inside out. I use that analogy again, of taking a clock to pieces to know its mechanism – should the need arise, I have the same resources to hand for taking Reighton apart, assessing how a relevant plot point can be made where it links to a contextual detail.

Just as characterization hinges upon traits and layered memories, a location may develop a personality of its own. Opinions differ greatly about Reighton, depending on a character’s stance in life and more importantly, what impact the town has had upon them. There are families with generational roots deep in its history, who feel a frustrated affection for its once-great past and sadness for its seemingly stark future. Their ancestors were the pivotal force behind Reighton’s conception, first as a farming community along the river Rei, then – with the arrival of a powerful outside influence – as a multifaceted, prosperous clayworks. The latter effectively put Reighton on the map; it became part of a successful commuter belt.

When the clay business collapsed, those families whose lives had twined about it were left to the whim of the council and any investors who happened to pass through, seeing a trick of hasty housing for yet more commuters. The factories and warehouses now lie barren, the old rail line is a playground for the children, who most likely will never know full-time employment. The once-bustling town is, in its present setting, a shadow of itself; this breeds apathy in some, a fierce desire to escape in others … and in a few of the kid-gangs, a somewhat delusional belief that because the outside world has no need for them, they can in turn inwards and become small Gods.

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To achieve all of these plot points – to give them logos as well as pathos – I look for what has influenced my own life. A year spent on the Dole in a town of dying economy, well, that certainly features heavily; as do those childhood days of playing down the abandoned rail line in my old home town.

I wanted to find how these environmental issues might dictate certain character behaviours. In Reighton, lack of work has seen a rise in petty theft and muggings, but also an increase in the tight community ethic. It’s very much an Us vs. Them scenario, with the weary locals – after several decades of declining means and a ream of broken promises from their council – near to breaking point. Morale is low, community-spirit is high, and a thin copper wire of tension runs around the whole town, from the more affluent East side (where the commuter-belt / wealthier locals are, in newer estates or the antiquated mansions of their ancestors), to the impoverished West side of the river, in which many a generation of ex-clayworkers has lived and died.

I pulled influences from my old town, inverting the history of a local parish where I once lived, to add credible details to the history of Reighton. Ridgewood, in the East Sussex town of Uckfield, served as the location for a clayworking pottery through the 19th/20th centuries. As a child, I had no concept of this remarkably layered history; what my friends and I saw were the remnants, two great pits left in the ground for us to play hide-and-seek in, Murder in the Dark, and to sled across when the snow fell on the slopes. My memory of that time is rich with the bittersweet smell of hawthorns, and the wide bowl of open sky; standing on the rim of the larger pit and often finding old discarded hand tools; the proud possessions of whoever once toiled over the clay.

It was a fine playground for any child, and has since been converted into a Millennium Green nature reserve, to preserve it for future generations. Its past is now being brought to light, as when I grew old enough to find an interest in the finer details of my locality, there was little to come by. Said details have made up much of the framework for both my novel’s narrative, and the foundations on which they stand. My local library’s archives were also a priceless resource – use your own wherever possible, particularly to learn the structuring of a town across generations, to gain an insight into environmental and economical patterns (e.g. many towns begin life alongside a river, arable land and/or a major trade-link road.)

Often, character lifestyle choices will be based upon what they’ve learned through a progression of experiences – parental influence, education, home and work environments. A series of locations may well mirror this.

“Mickey was about twenty-six, short, with a small moustache on a pasty face. The romance and glory of his life were behind him. The romance was still the warm East, where he had been a clerk in a rubber firm, and the glory had been the divine facility of living, women and drinking. Now he was unemployed, and wore an overcoat along the hard, frozen plains of Earl’s Court, where he lived on and with his mother… he was famous for his drunkenness locally, being particularly welcome in drinking circles… because by his excesses, he put his companions in countenance, making their own excesses seem small in comparison.” – Pg 42, Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton.

Symbolism can be brought into the act too, once a fictional setting becomes as well-known to you as the reality you walk through; these shadowy messages start to appear in the corners of the bigger picture. Huddled shapes in the doorways of grand houses; a newspaper of today, blowing up the road being built for tomorrow; and indeed, the succession of wealth unto celebrity, an endless parade of tomorrows for as long as both hold out:

“No one wore costumes on the night of her engagement party at the Racquet & Tennis Club, but in the ballroom of that club, that limestone manse sitting like a sphinx on Park Avenue … you didn’t need costumes to have a masque ball. Everyone knew their role and played it… Their names were written in gold leaf on mahogany plaques across the walls of the changing rooms, Whitneys, Phippses, Rockefellers, and they bathed naked together in the Turkish bath and played obscure racquet sports passed down from Bourbon kings and sealed billion-dollar deals with clinks of glasses over lunch. And at these parties, if you were not a member, you were a guest and set your face stern to conceal your awe. You were solemn to foil discovery of the wonder that mugged you of your confidence… then into the grand ballroom that invited you to look down on who you had been just moments before, on the street below. You hated loving being there, and you struggled to conceal yourself, and all of a sudden, you were in costume.” – Pgs 1-2, Mergers and Acquisitions, Dana Vachon.

One of my characters, Garth Hakken Sr., is forever in and out of prison. He is part of the forgotten Reighton generations on the West side, but chose not to go quietly into poverty – his is a life of scrap-metal and shady deals, to keep his family fed. His acclimatization to both this darker side of life, and the legal consequences set against him, inform his thoughts and behaviour. He walks with his head tucked in, as a boxer will to avoid a punch; his tall frame is somewhat curved over, movements neat and confined, to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and out of sheer practicality – he’s spent a good deal of time in a cramped cell.

Do your characters aspire to fit in on a social level, or – due to the level of danger in their surroundings – have they learned to act upon instinct and disappear, before fear takes over? To what extent do socio-economical matters impact upon their lives? How have circumstances changed them from the blush of youth, into the pale years of age; do they wear these marks of another time for all to see, a proud symbol diminished by the world’s neglect?

 photo fbb7ad4c-54f4-447b-99eb-25e39a5048ac_zps5e231911.jpg

Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears
In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care

These are considerations to make – running parallel with research for a setting/environment – for potential advancement of plot, based upon what drives a character to react as they do.

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Writing Reality: Method Writing (Through their Eyes)

14/10/2013 at 05:45 (Method Writing, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I am a method writer.

It’s hardly a new concept; a literary adaptation of the emotionally charged technique used by thespians on stage and screen. Method actors bounce light off of the mirror of personal inflection, bringing into focus the characters they wish to embody as well as portray; they seek “imagination, senses and emotions to conceive of characters with unique and original behavior,” brought about by “performances grounded in the human truth of the moment”.

Which isn’t a million miles away from what writers are after.

Some film directors are known to use/have used versions of the Method, to induce a necessary emotional state in their cast. While working on The Shining, Stanley Kubrick “had his cast watch Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, to put them in the right frame of mind.” This is channeling external creativity, as a form of pseudo-mood input.

Before settling to write, I’ll use the same technique, as well as several others to create a mood within myself that’s relative to a scene and/or narrative voice. Creative outlets – music, film, literature – of similar genres and mood, can be filtered through personal memories to tap into an induced emotional state. The audience only sees the end results, of course. The inspiration stays hidden in the wings, whispering cues.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t maintain a steady mood pattern. We tend to oscillate between whatever’s going on in the immediate day-to-day, and the sort of abstracts that prey on anyone’s mind (existence, climate change, world domination, economy, etc.) That’s before we even get close to creative input, either imposed on us or sought out to entertain ourselves. Picking up a book and reading a few passages on my work break, can cause a U-turn for whatever mood I was in – from wistful (fantasy) to dialed-down sharp (science fiction, crime thriller). Which is fine, so long as I wasn’t intending to preserve the former mood for later writing.

Contrary to popular belief, the Method doesn’t need 24 hour submersion. Prior to writing, I’ll have a “build-up” of mood and character, and will become very careful who and what I allow in through the filters. There’s no call to be rude; it’s just a Fading Out from the real world for an hour or so, prior to and during writing. This is “closing the door”, and for me it’s not only about shutting off external noise. It’s damage limitation where mood is concerned; whatever I hear on the news, read in a book or feel for a song, might colour my writing with an unintended atmosphere. Working with synaesthesia, where sound and mood appear in colours, there’s always the chance that I’ll inadvertently write a character’s “warm” mood too “cool” because of a blue song going on a loop in my head.

A difficult day, a trying time of life, can make all the difference between a good and bad writing experience. If you’re aware of emotional flux, take responsibility for your moods and writing – work them around each other. Work them to your advantage, to avoid writing-blackout. I tend to keep several projects on-the-go at once, all of which have different genres, setting and tone. This allows for a margin of success; more chance of hitting the right note at any point in life.

Look to film directors for affirmation in doing this. If necessary, they’re prepared to work off the cuff, shooting non-linear scenes and forgoing a chronological framework, in favour of getting the best out of the cast and setting(s.) Sometimes the season is out of kilter with the plot; freak weather patterns can emerge. War can break out. A cast member might sicken. A piece of equipment may require updating. To avoid wasting time, other scenes will be filmed instead; the results edited together later.

Use this technique in your writing. Don’t feel bad for working outside a standard chronology of events. Life happens. If your mood fits one scene and not another, why waste it for the sake of keeping to narrative structure? You’ll find an enhanced sense of attachment to your characters; their actions/reactions can become symbolic of your own, and vice versa. A setting can seem your home-base, your emotional playground (or indeed, your personal hell.) The story will feel bound up in your own life-narrative. If it gets the work done – and as long as you take care to leave bread-crumb notes of what goes where – the audience isn’t going to know any better. They may be more likely to feel the story reverberate with what you were going through at the time, though only in emotional terms – the details remain your own.

Generally speaking, real life doesn’t allow for a sudden drop-of-the-hat reaction to a writing mood. I’m lucky enough to have few responsibilities or plays on my time outside of work, and can generally settle to a routine. This has its merits and drawbacks – it’s easy to get complacent. A writer would do well to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to test whether a character’s emotions and mindset are so easy to grasp when set against an entirely alien backdrop.

This is a useful technique when a story’s in pre-development. Take the early outline of a character – their name and whatever specifications are to hand – and write them into a scene of high emotional intensity. It can be outside of the story itself if you wish; I personally like setting characters in a war zone, or at the site of a volcanic eruption. It’s when we’re emotionally stripped raw, that true idiosyncrasies and flaws come to light.

Get to know your phone’s video/audio recording app. With the afore-mentioned dramatic scenes, I find recording vocal inflections and references to mannerisms (facial expressions, paralinguistic features like body language) priceless. Record whatever ad-libs come, symbolic references, interaction with other characters etc – these can all help to develop and strengthen a character’s voice, both in mannerisms and speech. Ideas are often triggered just by speaking in freeflow; the beauty of the app being, you can replay your thoughts at a later time.

A soundtrack crafted around a character’s personality can help enhance and inspire their thought patterns, actions and reactions. When listening to my iPod, a lyric may hangnail in my mind as something a character could relate to – either in general mindset, or at a particular point in their lives. This entry was an early compilation for my novel, End of the Line, when it was in its first draft. Songs attached themselves to characters and scenes along the way.

When creating your own soundtrack, make a point of heading tracklists with a characters’ name, adding notations as to which song is relevant to which scene. Then when it comes time to continue from where you’ve left off – particularly if real life has forced you to quit mid-scene – give that tracklist a listen, either before or during the writing process. It helps to define individual soundscapes for a narrative voice, for each chapter-scene.

This is equivalent to a film’s diegetic / non-diegetic sound; that is, what a character hears in their environment or prefers to listen to, as opposed to what sounds are outside the film-universe, laid over what is being filmed; outside the narrative construct and a character’s experience, but audible to the audience.

Put in a literary context, your Method soundtrack can be layered with the aesthetic and tone of a character – any song you feel fits their personality – as well as sounds mirroring unique reactions to a situation. Try subverting your own expectations of tone by shifting abruptly between a character or object’s signature “theme”, while writing a change in atmosphere and events. The resulting juxtaposition can really get under the skin, becoming symbolic:


(Hellraiser: Deader, Rick Bota)

You might even feel jangled enough to write this crossover into a scene, to evoke the same symbolic tension in your audience:

“What he heard was the clear, clarion call of a trumpet, its music cold as the air from the snow-covered mountains of his homeland. Pure and crisp, the trumpet call rose bravely above the darkness and death and despair, to pierce his heart.
Sturm answered the trumpet’s call with a glad battle cry…Again the trumpet sounded, and again Sturm answered, but this time his voice faltered, for the trumpet call he heard had changed tone. No longer sweet and pure, it was braying and harsh and shrill.
No! thought Sturm in horror as he neared the dragon. Those were the horns of the enemy! He had been lured into a trap! Around him now he could see draconian soldiers, creeping from behind the dragon, laughing cruelly at his gullibility… Fear knotted Sturm’s stomach; his skin grew cold and clammy. The horn call sounded a third time, terrible and evil. It was all over. It had all been for nothing. Death, ignominious defeat awaited him.” – pgs 121/122, “Dragons of Winter Night,” Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.

Sometimes, circumstances can’t be passed over for writing. It becomes essential to jot down whatever notes you can, to later reactivate whatever you were feeling at the time an idea hit, or an inspirational scene was witnessed. This is memory-sense recall. The idea of key words was, for me, inspired by Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. In the narrative, a girl writes the word “orange” on a scrap of paper, to carry as a constant reminder of one blissful afternoon spent with her family:

“Meg and Claire looked at each other. They could hear the clock over the stove, ticking. They could hear doves in the courtyard. They wanted this moment to last forever. The sunlight was orange. They had to remember that. Meg would make certain they did. She fetched a piece of paper and wrote down the word orange, then folded the paper in half. They could cut up pears and write down all of the colours of the light and listen to people laugh and smell the blooms on the chestnut tree and forget about the rest of the world… they would have this memory of sitting in the kitchen, being happy.” – pg 133, The Story Sisters

You’re looking to evoke the same emotional response you felt, by reading the sensory words and remembering exactly how the light was, what smells were in the air, how the air moved about you. This is Realism – walking back through time, recreating scenes from your life to bring scenes to the page. Reread old blog entries and that of friends, to engage once again with how you once felt in a situation similar to what a character might be going through.

Keeping a diary or journal framed in a character’s voice is a priceless component of Method writing. I regularly dip into the thoughts of protagonists by jotting down notes from their lives – mundane events, love interests, secret fears etc. I often write short poems through a character’s perspective, if they’re so inclined to do so. These may or may not enter the narrative proper; but they’re handy to have on the side, as a means of slipping in and out of character. Connections sometimes leap out of nowhere – things that were not apparent to me at the time of serious writing, but which become strikingly relevant when framed in a looser context.

Free-fall writing is equivalent to dropping stones down a well, listening for the splash. These are stream-of-consciousness sessions, which may or may not have an immediate bearing on an ongoing project, but are written in the style and tone of a piece I’ll be currently working on. These short blog entries are often framed in a character’s voice, or run parallel to its tone, and will sit adjacent to the actual story like a slip-road to a motorway. They are exercises in writing to music, spurts of creative output, for the sheer joy of imagery and often frantic emotional output. Words wind about and through the music, snagging lyrics and tugging them along for the ride, taking leaps between my own thoughts and that of a character. These entries are examples of the freeform style.

The end result often resembles a wordy Pollock painting, but they’re my most honest work next to life-blog entries. All formality, all boring thoughts of perspective and chronology, go out the window. Sessions like this are good for loosening the writing limbs before opening an actual project, or just to shake up the imagination – and they’re great for getting into character / setting tone.

This is Method writing to me. Preparation for what lies ahead; getting comfortable in a character’s perspective, picking up the narrative reins; grasping the sense of what an imaginary world is like, drawing on relevant personal experiences to colour up and enhance a mood and/or theme. Flipping the timer to let inspiration run between reality and fantasy.

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Writing Reality: Symbolism and Motifs

07/10/2013 at 05:30 (Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Symbols are a fundamental aspect of life as well as literature, running parallel with the realism of events and narrative. They represent something else, are defined as “objects, characters, figures, or colours used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.” Standing alone in terms of what they represent, they act in lieu of wordy descriptions. Look around, and you’re bound to find a sign or object functioning as an informative snapshot of what a part of your environment means / does. Some symbols are employed to work in a universal sense, for a wider audience – whether stuck up in a cleaning cupboard or in a firefighter’s office, the symbols relative to COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health)
Hazard_Symbols

mean the same thing – they are an appeal to the senses of the viewer, with basic and comprehensible images used to help them avoid danger. This is particularly handy when crossing language-barriers.

It can’t be ignored that symbolism is as subjective a literary device as any other, especially where imagery is concerned. There are no cut and dried answers. What may represent one cultural / religious aspect to a number of people, can be interpreted very differently elsewhere. The colour red in Western cultures is generally accepted to represent intensity of feelings (Holly Golightly describes having the “mean reds” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and peril, or the inference of it (road signs giving orders. e.g. speed limits, are red circles, and mainly prohibitive.)

But in Japan, the colour red is significant of luck and prosperity, particularly when teamed with white. The national flag is made up of a red circle on a white background, and is known colloquially as “Hinomaru” (“the sun’s circle”); Japan (“Nihon”) is thereby known as the “Land of the Rising Sun”. The sun has positive connotations for its life-giving qualities, but subjectivity can break this symbol down further in terms of cultural beliefs, e.g. as a source of photosynthesis for crops to grow, or a heavenly deity, etc.

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In writing, symbols and motifs create an alternate message that runs in the background of your more direct approach – narrative, characterization, dialogue. Were you to stick predominantly with these aspects, a story could soon begin to resemble a screenplay or technical manual, full of information but little colour. The trick is to keep the audience semi-aware of what is going on, where imagery is involved – I can’t emphasize enough the need for understatement. The worst possible reaction from the audience would be to slam the book shut, cursing an enormous bear-trap of a symbol they saw ahead on the path – one gleaming through the leaves, barely covered and shining with teeth to pierce their suspension of disbelief. It’s a surefire way to piss off a collective.

Ideally, a symbol doesn’t choke up the narrative; it drops into the subconscious-flowerbed and sews its idea in the minds of the audience, waiting for realization to grow by degrees, or not at all. You yourself may not explicitly know where the plot is going yet, what the characters have to say or what they mean to one another – there’s little point working in the weave of symbolism when the construct isn’t yet safe. More often than not, their observations will crystallize the nuances of symbolism without you even realizing. What one character “reads into” as a sign, another may not; the same holds true for the audience, where it’s the completion of an image via 50/50 perspective – what you, the creator, intended and what the reader (through experience and personal beliefs) chooses to see and relates back to the narrative and characters.

Often, a charged event will be marked symbolically. In the Dragonlance series, the three Gods of magic are represented by colours: White (Good), Red (Neutral) and Black (Evil). Mages studying and practicing the arts of a God, must adhere solely to that colour in terms of the robes they wear, marking their allegiance. A symbolic event for a mage is the changing colour of their robes:

“‘Our bargain remains. What? You ask for more?’ Raistlin was silent for a moment, then he sighed. ‘Name it!’
For long moments, the mage listened, absorbing. Caramon, watching him with loving anxiety, saw his brother’s thin metallic-tinged face grow deathly pale. Raistlin closed his eyes, swallowing as though drinking his bitter herbal brew. Finally he bowed his head.
‘I accept’
Caramon cried out in horror as he saw Raistlin’s robes, the red robes that marked his neutrality in the world, begin to deepen to crimson, then darken to a blood red, and then darken more – to black.” – pg 110, Dragons of Winter Night, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman.
Note the relative connotations too – “crimson” and “blood”, denoting danger/violence, deepening further to the black of night/death.

Look to your own reality for inspiration. What do you see everyday which, when placed in a changing-circumstance context (an “off” day, a moment of true clarity after walking out of a job, the death of a loved one or birth of a child) turns the mundane and ordinary into something blindingly meaningful, and somehow relative to your life?

In my novel End of the Line, I make a point of citing several instances in which petrol rainbows go slick-sliding down rainy gutters, or where the colours turquoise and brass appear (flying ribbons, an autumn sunset.) These tend to occur with references to a missing girl, Siobhan, who is the pivot on which the novel spins. Her personality is described not so much in the words of those who knew her, but by the symbolism speckled throughout the narrative – she was “beautifully intoxicating” like the smell and texture of petrol, slippery with the danger and effervescence of its colours. She preyed on the minds of men and boys while in town, eluding them all (for their own good, too.)

Similarly, I reworked the myth of the blue rose to become symbolic of another character – a girl-woman, a wanderer between worlds, whose pleasant and intelligent nature is at once appealing and frustratingly mysterious. She is impossible to pin down to any one time or place. The blue rose tattoo at her shoulder is symbolic of an elusive nature; it’s also the burden/blessing she carries. As the rose genus cannot naturally produce the Delphinidin pigment necessary for this hue, it’s reliant on synthetic production and yet has maintained its status as a near-universal symbol of the unattainable, the mysterious.

When referencing their growth, I put a further slant on this pathos by having them bloom almost exclusively on the graves of those bound in a love-bond with people left behind. The rose itself feeds the bond while carrying the message of eternity. By virtue of this, the rose won’t die whether at growth or cut and carried (the character referenced has a blue rose crushed and mixed into her tattoo’s ink, thereby marking her as one “cursed by life” until death reunites her soul with the fallen.) This becomes further subjective to the personality of the carrier – some may wander for years, uneasy in crowds but forever lonely and unable to give/receive love again; others languish and die among the blue rose garden-graves. Whatever the outcome, their choice – and it’s always a willing love-bond – sets them apart for the rest of their days alive, ensuring that the blue rose is not a gift lightly given.

Telling your audience that a man is a fraud is one thing; showing him to be so via colour symbolism, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatbsy”, can make the difference between a fairly decent narrative and a real palette of a story, full of subtext. There’s the green light on Daisy Buchanan’s dock; the continuous presence of yellow, as a veneer of gold. Yellow can represent many things – madness, gaiety, sickness, friendship. When placed in the context of Gatsby’s circumstances – particularly at the first party – it screams of little substance, and frivolity.

“‘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. With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine…” – pg 51, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Notice the use of “gold” for the quiet dignity of Jordan, as opposed to the starkness of “yellow” that exposes the girls as crude by comparison.
“‘Let’s get out,’ whispered Jordan, after a somehow wasteful and inappropriate half hour. ‘This is much too polite for me.'”

Gatsby’s recurrence of colour-coded symbolism, is a motif. While a particular symbol relates to one concept (e.g. despair shown in falling autumn leaves) a motif is a repetitive element running concurrent with narrative. In music, a motif is a passage repeated in melody and/or rhythm, to instill a certain theme in the audience consciousness. In Watership Down, Richard Adams builds up the flight from Efrafa through careful selection of symbols, to create a tension-motif with a resounding conclusion:

(Narrative) “Bigwig’s first impulse was to fight Woundwort on the spot. He realized immediately that this would be futile and would only bring the whole place around his ears. There was nothing to do but obey…”
(Symbolism) “Despite the sunset, the evening seemed heavy with cloud and among the trees it was sultry and grey. The thunder was building up.”

(Symbolism) “As they set off up the left bank, the wind began to blow in fitful, warm gusts, with a multifoliate rustling through the sedges. They had just reached the plank bridge when there came a rumble of thunder. In the intense, strange light, the plants and leaves seemed magnified…
(Narrative) ‘I think this is going to be a rough business,’ he added quietly to Hazel. ‘I don’t like it much.'”

(Narrative) ‘”Frith sees you!’ cried Bigwig. ‘You’re not fit to be called a rabbit! May Frith blast you and your foul Owsla full of bullies!’
(Symbolism) At that instant a dazzling claw of lightning streaked down the length of the sky… Immediately upon it came the thunder; a high, tearing noise, as though some huge thing were being ripped to pieces close above, which deepened and turned to enormous blows of dissolution. Then the rain fell like a waterfall.” – Watership Down, Richard Adams.

Look for concepts/themes relative to the world you’ve created; how the narrative framed within it observes and reacts. Notice how with the rabbits, the use of nature as a recurrent motif ties in with their constant prey-instinct awareness of surroundings, always alert to its signals and dangers. Their relation to symbolism pivots on contextual awareness:
“It did not occur to Hazel that there was anything unusual in this. The idea of a bridge was beyond him. He saw only a line of stout posts-and-rails on either side of the road…Hazel saw without surprise the road crossing the river. What worried him was that where it did so, there were only very narrow verges of short grass, offering no cover. His rabbits would be exposed to view and unable to bolt, except along the road.” – pg 301, Watership Down, Richard Adams

The bridge doesn’t represent a symbol of safe passage; it’s overall mass is incomprehensible in a rabbit mind. Rather, it’s dialed down to what can be understood, a lack of cover – symbolic of exposure, danger, the prey-instinct of flight kicking in.

For further commentary on symbolism in writing, read the responses 16-year-old Bruce McAllister received when he mailed a four-letter survey on the use of symbolism, to 150 accredited authors. My personal favourite has always been from Joseph Heller, Question Two
(“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”
This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.

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I want Fantasy

25/09/2013 at 21:41 (Method Writing, Personal, Writing) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


I’m in a black-purple mood tonight. My head is a beetle’s back, a monochrome night. Bonelight, moonlight. You can try and follow, but the cats have business of their own, and I follow around corners.

My shadow creep-claws the way.

My eyes are restless as my feet, it’s not something I wonder at too much. Intro to outro, extro to invert and back again. Keep the streets for me.

I was an introvert raised by extroverts. An endless parade of parties and sorority-like gags, dinners and hiding behind floor-length curtains with my nose in a book. Hiding with the cats, down by the mud-gullies and creeks, wading and climbing trees, while they sipped tea and talked Nothing.

Lonely child, now come with me
Into the wood, the dark to find
The light shall fail within your eyes;
The sweep of love is only lies.

I did not fall, nor did I stare
But found the path that we all know
Now tremble, Time, for all is fair
In love and lust, and bonelight glow.

…My darling, the story has yet begun to take hold.
Abide with me, in
Peace (something like it)
Through the mirror, the cracks
Of time, the broken watch
The sentry fallen asleep
His round not yet done, but Time
Is an angular thief
And we are but stickmen in his gaze

A puppet, a clown, a fool
A black rose, blue
A thought, turned to you
A mental shroud, an illness tau(gh)t
With what must be, with all, without.

Come. Walk. With. Me.

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