Ancient Name Dropping

Alas,_poor_YorickIn the George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back, the furry Wookiee, Chewbacca, holds the head of robot C-3PO in the same way that Hamlet is usually shown holding a skull. Many people assume that Hamlet recited his fateful soliloquy “To be or not to be…” as he stared at the skull.  But, that occurs an act later. Actually, Hamlet said “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well.” Yorick was the king’s jester, a bit of comic relief serving the same purpose as the protocol droid, C-3PO. This distinction is not important to understand the point of this allusion in The Empire Strike Back.  Chewbacca was wrestling with the nature of life, death and existence, just as the doomed Danish prince did.

If you find yourself dangling too close to the edge of sanity trying to come up with the perfect words to describe your character, you can lean on what past writers have done. Allusions are the literary equivalent of name-dropping. Once, I heard an acquaintance refer to another person as an “Adonis.” Despite knowing over fifty people in common, I immediately knew who she was discussing. There was only one man in our circle handsome and charming enough to fit that comparison (and he just happened to be from Greece). Alluding to a well-known character, fictional or real, is a short cut that quickly gives the readers already developed concepts.

How do you determine to which characters or works you should make your allusions? You want to make sure enough people recognize the same literary characters that you do. Use your friendly internet to supply lists of the most famous people, both real and fictional. Then cross out anyone who wasn’t walking the earth or in a book more than one hundred years ago. Not only have you shortened your list dramatically, you have selected the people with staying power.

Is it necessary for readers to read the same books as you for this kind of name dropping to work? Not always. On almost any list of the famous classics that authors use for a source of allusions the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays sit on top. However, people who have never read either one still know that “Judas” is an epithet for a traitor, and “Romeo” describes a male with romantic intentions.

Of course, when you allude to a character from Shakespeare’s works, everyone knows that you aren’t claiming personal friendship with the playwright. But they may assume that you know his works quite well, when in truth you may not have read any of them, just like your reader. However, that is where the difficulty lies. Comparing a character to Romeo because he is old and lecherous is not the kind of romantic male that Shakespeare had in mind.  Unless your you call him “Romeo” in a sarcastic manner, readers who have actually read Romeo and Juliet may start making fun of your work, or simply stop reading it.

If you are intent on using allusions you should be well-read.  It is not enough to watch movies that pale in comparison to the work that inspired them. And, you must read the classics, not just recent best sellers. Finally, you must be aware of all the shades of behavior epitomizing the characters before you allude to them. Drawing on the already developed descriptions of classic characters will add depth to your writing. However , if used incorrectly, you simply sound pretentious.

Posted in Literary devices, Writer's resource | 1 Comment

More than what you see

Write about what?

IMG_4708 imagery2The term ‘imagery’ brings to mind, of course, images–verbal pictures that allow us to peer into the world which an author has dreamed up.  Imagery sometimes implies page after page of descriptive detail–in which case you might risk having the readers fall asleep and start dreaming up their own worlds.  But, a story without enough visual detail leaves the characters moving in an unsubstantial shadow land.

Imagery should includes more than what you see in your mind’s eye. It also needs to bring to life the sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world you have created. One of the appealing aspects of writing is that you do not have to stick with the conventional. Music can be  ultramarine blue or a person’s scent can be rough and sand papery. Using these metaphors which cross the senses is  called synesthesia, a term referring to a neurological condition in which senses…

View original post 217 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vibrant verbs

Write about what?

fun run 2Writers can throw around the terms used to describe interesting language – sensory images, unusual syntax, well-developed descriptions, and vibrant verbs. But incorporating these into writing and preserving the flow is a challenge. Recently I worked with some nascent writers trying to conjure vibrant verbs to replace the old, tired, common ones.

Actually, the common verbs are quite useful (which is why they are common). Did you ever try to carry on a conversation and not use some form of have, get, go, do or say? As the first exercise the participants had to tackle finding vivid variations of the past tense of “said” the past tense of say.

When I write dialogue I am acutely aware of how many times I have employed “said.” However, it interferes with the flow of the dialog if I have to keep stopping to search for alternate words. My own solution was to create a handy list…

View original post 323 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The forgotten sense

Write about what?

stollen d

For an recent practice in sensory description, emerging writers chose a photo from their childhood–playing on a snow drenched hill, seeking warmth in the flicker of a fireplace, or splashing in a plastic pool to escape the summer heat.  For many  the photo showed them posed in starched clothes in front of a birthday cake. As part of the exercise, they were required to use descriptors for all their senses. Well, not quiet all senses but the five major ones. However, one did include the sense of balance in the dizzying sled ride down the snow drenched hill.

When it came to illustrating the required sense of taste, almost every nascent author choose to describe something that tasted sweet. Granted humans are only suppose to be able to differentiate between five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and the newly discovered one that we have been attracted to all along, the…

View original post 308 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Creating pungent memories

Write about what?

Vanilla1webcThe sense of smell is such a powerful memory enhancer that at one time people in the training business tried to capture its potential.  However, the difficulty with using smell to help people retain what they had learned is that very few smells are considered neutral. Most smells carry an association, either with something pleasant, or unpleasant. And people do not always agree on feelings evoked  by particular smells.

For example many people enjoy the pungent smell of vanilla, especially combined with sweet overtones such as in vanilla cookies. However, long ago when I was in college, I was approached by a shuffling, old man in a grocery store as I pondered which fresh fruit would best supplement the rather insipid, college cafeteria food. There was a familiar pungent smell exuding from him as he kept pestering me.  Then, I realized what it was when the stock boy shooed him…

View original post 269 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Physiological writing

Write about what?

blush de roses et de roches aWhat exactly are physiological reactions?

Imagine you are a young teenage girl. You are waiting in the math hall, and that handsome senior with an air of indifferent confidence strolls past you on the way to calculus. Normally you are watching unseen, but today he looks you in the eye and says “Hi, how’s your day going?” Your heartbeat increases, you breath faster, you start to feel warm, and your face begins to turn red – otherwise known as blushing  – these are the physiological effects of surprise, even a pleasant surprise.

Now, imagine you are a soldier sent to scope out the number of men guarding an enemy compound. After stealthily scaling the chain link fence, you slide between the fence and building, treading softly, trying to conform to the shadows.  You can hear unintelligible conversation. Then, there is sudden silence followed by the click of a semi-automatic weapon…

View original post 287 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The foundation of world building

earth 045As a child, the stories that fascinated me the most were set in other lands. As an adult, reading passages that describe an unknown world still intrigues me. Simply throwing me into a story without a describing the setting leaves me floating in a void without stimuli, similar to floating in an isolation tank. At first this may be enjoyable experience but soon I become disoriented. I prefer the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a concrete world around me.

Basing the alternate world loosely on some existing culture or mythology transported to another time and space, does not do away with the need to flesh out the environment. That is the foundation step in world building. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R, Tolkien gave personalities of regions within Middle Earth– the humble, homey Shire, the angry Misty Mountains, the eerily unnerving Dead Marshes and delicately balanced Isengard, trying to flourish on the border of a wasteland.

Before embarking on creating your own world, you need to decide exactly what are the differences between the real world and your imaginary one. Of particular importance is the limitations imposed on it. If your world has alternate laws of physics that allow your characters to escape a sticky problem, introduce them in advance.  In the writing business  revealing solutions just-in-time is the mark of an amateur.

What kind of things need to be considered for your new world? How about a brief human geography lesson:

Population: Who lives there? Are they like earth-like people, animals and plants, or something else? If they are something else, limit your species drastically to prevent writing an alternate biology book.

Settlements: What kind of places do they live in? Metropolis, cities, villages, nomadic camps or massive hives?

Culture: How do language, religion, and education differ between groups in the society?What kind of political state predominates and  how is it organized? Even in a small group such as a family there has to be structures of leadership and division of labor.

Economics: How do the inhabitants gain sustenance, protect themselves from the elements, produce goods and trade with others? Denizens of imaginary worlds must do some kind of work to survive. What is the standard of living and quality of life in your world? Is it changing…. for better or for worse?

Medicine and Health: The medical rules depend on the species inhabiting your world and their level of development. Characters will have to deal with the challenges of illness and death.

History: This is an area that I like to spend a lot of time on which prevents me from actually writing. Most readers don’t want lengthy back stories, so it often works best just to give hints about the history as needed,  unless it is a very intriguing history.

The final challenge is informing your audience about your world without writing an alternate history at the beginning of the novel.  The rules of your world should be introduced in small doses before they are actually needed for the plot. Remember, the alternate worlds in Science Fiction and Fantasy works share more with the “real world” than they differ from it. Otherwise the world you have built would simply would not make sense to the readers.

Artwork by S.L. Listman

Posted in Literary devices, Literature, Story structure, Writer's resource | Leave a comment

The art of world building

planet saturn CI wanted to vacation on the banks of the San Antonio River as it meandered through the center of town. The river that had once created messy floods was now encased by sidewalk with a sprinkling of shaggy bald cypress trees encircled with iron grates on the banks. It was now scenic and safe. I choose a strategically placed hotel, which amazingly was built in little over 200 days. The concrete cast room units, already decorated, were stacked in place. The rooms were still very nice, just identical.

Sometimes, science fiction/fantasy authors would like to have the same kind of pre-fab world built. A world, ready for them to plug in characters and start the action. But instead of being intriguing and complex, these worlds tend to be scenic and safe, full of places that are already familiar to us. The act of world building is not easy. It means balancing the need of the readers to understand the imaginary environment with their need for action. They prefer not to read page after page of descriptions before any actions occurs.

Recently I was discussing one of my favorite fictional worlds, Middle-earth, with an avid Star Wars fan. For her it was easy to watch movies portraying other planets, but she confessed that she just couldn’t make it through the first book of Lord of the Rings.

This series was so popular when I read it that I couldn’t get a copy of the first book from the library. So, I started with the second one and was dropped right into the action. Betrayal had just split up the party carrying the infamous ring, which I knew nothing about. I had to follow the paths of the fragmented groups. However, I kept reading with the assumption that the author would tell me enough background that I could decipher what had happened. J.R.R. Tolkien did exactly that.

One of the secrets of world building is to create your world–regions, society, languages, cultures and economy—as a handy reference for yourself when writing. Then, you can start your story and slowly weave in the details. If this is too daunting a task, consider borrowing someone else’s imaginary world. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote based much of his made-up world on mythology, Germanic, Norse and Finnish. But, that did not mean that he got away without completing the tedious process of world building, and constructing the physical characteristics, flaws, and temperament of the world and its societies. A fictional world can be flat and predictable or round and well-developed, just like a character.

Art by S.L.Listman

Posted in Literary devices, Literature, Story structure, Writer's resource | 1 Comment

Superhuman weakness

Write about what?

A-fest12 004cAt one time there was a “story” circulating about a famous producer of modern supernatural fiction movies, and an unknown screen writer.

The famous producer says “I have a new idea for a movie.”

“What’s the plot?” asks the writer.

“There’s this boy, and he’s really a robot.” the producer answers.

“That’s a plot device, not a plot.” the writer responds.

The American public has an on going love affair with superheros and a lot of writers want to cash in on this. Yet, we keep on recycling the classic superheros. Why? When you give a character a supernatural powers, you can easily become preoccupied with the special ability. Every crisis that arrives is another chance to showcase the special power. Although the crowd of spectators may be astonished, the hero finds solving the problem as natural as breathing. So having a superpower does not guarantee an interesting plot, anymore than…

View original post 311 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Let students read what they want?

Write about what?

04242012semana_de_la_cultura086Reading literature in education may be on the way out. It is one of the many previous foundational skills that have been thrown aside to find a place for all the additional science, math and technology that a “competitive” county needs in this world’s economy. In a recent discussion with English teachers I found many who thought there was no problem with exposing secondary students to works written only in the last fifty years or less. Some preferred an even more recent time frame and choose nonfiction or new popular novels to give students books that they found easier to read. They were willing to give students assignments that didn’t require analysis because the author basically told the story.

What do we have to lose when we no longer require students to read works that are not easily read but have withstood the test of time? Perhaps we will be…

View original post 537 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment