Plot and Theme #amwriting

The basic premise of any story I want to write can be explained by answering eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline.

A plot idea I’ve used before as an example is an idea I’ve had rolling around for a while. I hope to write it as a novella (about 12,000 words) in November. This little tale features a pair of thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

  1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. When the story opens, they are adults. The pair has become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.
  2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.
  3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.
  5. What is the inciting incident? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:
  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to the Cardinal in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.
  1. At the midpoint, what do the protagonists want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.
  2. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s wife, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.
  3. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes. I list each possible ending as they occur to me.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What ethical dilemma will the protagonist be faced with in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

In this story, one hard moral choice I could write would be to have Scuttle pressured to become a spy for the Cardinal.

Or, he could be pressured to sell out Pip.

How would he respond to either of these situations? I could write both and choose the one that works best. If I do that, I’ll make a note of the divergent path on my outline.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

“There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.” The Buddha said it, but it’s a fundamental truth we writers of genre fantasy must consider when devising plots. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this need for a hero quite clearly.

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle, and end.

Endings are hard and complicated to write because I can see so many different outcomes. I write as many endings as I need to and save them in separate files.

Sometimes, even if we have plotted in advance, we can’t identify the central theme of the story. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, achieving all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

Regardless of the theme, the struggle must be personal. Why would Frodo and Sam go to the depths of Mordor and suffer the hardships they endured in their effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron?

Frodo and Sam saved the world because it was the only way to save The Shire and the people they loved from Sauron, who was the embodiment of evil.

No matter how careful I am when building my outline, there is always a point where I am writing by the seat of my pants. I am usually a linear plotter, but things come along that change the direction a tale goes in.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NaNoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

No matter if you are writing a NaNoWriMo novel or not, your finished novel will look vastly different from the block of stone you carved it from. Yet, it will be the core of the stone, the hidden story that was waiting for you to bring it to light.

Many times, I find myself re-evaluating a nearly complete manuscript because the story isn’t working. I go back and ask myself the same eight questions. If the story has gone in a new direction by midpoint, a different roadmap to the final scene can help you keep things logical.

However, a plot is just the frame upon which the themes of a story are supported. Knowing the main theme at the outset makes writing the first draft much easier.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Subthemes help keep the story interesting. The image at the bottom of this post is a visual tool, a circular list of themes and subthemes that I made a few years ago.

It’s a picture that you can save (right click>save as>png or jpeg) print out and tape to your desk. Whenever you have lost your way, rather than resort to a sudden influx of something far-fetched, feel free to refer back to this picture and see if a better idea presents itself.

Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to killing anyone you might need later.

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July is Camp NaNoWriMo Month #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo. Many people in my region are showing interest already. (NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month.) Why, you ask, would you want to do two NaNoWriMos in one year?

First of all, Camp is relaxed, not an ordeal. You aren’t tied to anything more than loose goals. You can choose any kind of project, whatever word count goal you feel comfortable with, and there is no pressure.

Two years ago, I declared I would write 10,000 words, which turned out to be four short stories. You could declare your intention to write as few as 100 words.

The reason camp exists is that if you plan to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, you may find it harder to make time for writing than you planned. It helps if you develop some time management skills in advance.

Writing daily is more manageable once it becomes a habit. Making the best use of your time requires a little self-discipline, something we all could use a bit more of.

If you are interested in participating, the link for that is https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-camp-nanowrimo

To participate in Camp, just announce a project, then make sure to check “Associate with a NaNoWriMo Event” and select the current Camp NaNoWriMo event.

You can announce your project starting in June for July’s Camp NaNoWriMo session.

Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start your project. You’ll be able to start tracking your writing on July 1 on their website.

When you reach your writing goal, the site will automatically confirm your win. You will receive a certificate celebrating your achievement, along with a bunch of other winner goodies.

Do you want to become part of the broader NaNoWriMo writing community?  Check out the Camp NaNoWriMo forums.

Headquarters offers authors options to start or join an existing writing group. Check out the “Writing Groups, Assemble” forum for open groups, and more.

Whenever we begin talking about NaNoWriMo, I always feel the need to mention saving your files.

If you are a new author, or unfamiliar with using a computer or electronic notepad, saving your files is an important habit to develop. If you value your hard work, you won’t be lazy or slapdash about this.

  1. Even if you don’t have a title, name your manuscript with a good, descriptive working title, such as The_Dinosaur_Story. You can call it something else later.
  2. Never delete a manuscript. If you suddenly decide you need to make such radical changes that you need to start over, save it in the same master file but with a new descriptive name: The_Dinosaur_Story_version_2.  Save each new version separately so that if you change your mind, you don’t lose work you might need later.
  3. Losing your files is a traumatic experience. Some authors lose several years of work in a surprise computer crash – an unimaginable tragedy. Entire manuscripts can go missing when a thumb-drive is lost, or a hard drive is corrupted.

You must save regularly. If you are using a Chromebook or working out of Microsoft’s OneDrive, this won’t be a problem. However, if you’re using an ordinary word-processing program such as Word or Open Office, you do need to be conscientious.

I use a file hosting service. I have a lot of images on file, so I pay for an expanded version, but they do have a free version that offers you as much storage as a thumb drive. I like using a file hosting service because my work can’t be lost or misplaced, and is always accessible from my desktop, laptop, or Android. I work out of those files, so they are automatically saved and are where I want them when I close my programs.

You can use any storage system that is free to you–Google Drive, OneDrive, or a standard portable USB flash drive.

Save regularly.

Did I mention that you should save consistently?

Did I suggest that you DON’T put off saving to a backup of some sort? PLEASE, do it every day before you close your files.

The manuscript I am currently working on is set in the Tower of Bones world. I’m on Version 11, just so you know. Sometimes a significant section has to be rewritten as it doesn’t fit the original intent of the story.

All the previous versions are good but took the story in the wrong direction. With character name changes, two of my outtakes became novellas set in that world.

The option to repurpose work that no longer fits is why I never discard any manuscript.

My next series will cover the way I devise a plot, build a world, and create characters. I take a couple of days to do these things.

Many of these things are basic, and perhaps you have your own system. Or maybe you prefer to write by the seat of your pants. That is the way I write poetry, so I understand “the joy of pantsing,” and I will talk about that too.

In my case, if I have the idea for a novel, good prep means I don’t lose sight of my story arc when I sit down to write it in November.

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#FineArtFriday: The Money Changer and His Wife by Quentin Matsys, 1514

  • Artist: Quentin Matsys  (1456/1466–1530)
  • Title: The Moneylender and his Wife
  • Date: 1514
  • Medium: oil on panel
  • Dimensions: Height: 70.5 cm (27.7 in)
  • Current location: Louvre Museum
  • Inscriptions: Signature and date

The Money Changer and His Wife is a 1514 oil on panel painting by the Flemish renaissance artist Quentin Matsys.

What I love about this painting:

The colors are rich and vivid, and the lines sharp and clean. The artist included the smallest details in the prayer book, the pewter plate in the background, and the crystal jar by the man’s right hand, showing a prosperous, well-educated young couple. In some ways, Matsys’ style reminds me of the work of the lesser known Flemish painter, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who was born long after Matsys’ death, but whose original works also leaned toward caricatures and grotesques.

About this painting, via Wikipedia:

A man, who is weighing the jewels and pieces of gold on the table in front of him, sits next to his wife who is reading a book of devotion with an illustration of the Virgin and Child. The couple is not dressed as members of nobility, but rather as well-to-do burghers of Antwerp, where the painting was made. At the time, Antwerp had grown with the influx of many southern immigrants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Among this international community there was a demand for money-changers and money-lenders, as international commerce was increasing in the port city.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Most early accounts of Matsys’ life are composed primarily of legend and very little contemporary accounts exist of the nature of his activities or character. According to J. Molanus’ Historiae Lovaniensium, Matsys is known to be a native of Leuven with humble beginnings as an ironsmith. One of four children, Matsys was born to Joost Matsys (d. 1483) and Catherine van Kincken sometime between 4 April and 10 September 1466. Legend states that Matsys abandoned his career as a blacksmith to woo his wife, who found painting to be a more romantic profession, though Karel van Mander claimed this to be false, and the real reason was a sickness during which he was too weak to work at the smithy and instead decorated prints for the carnival celebrations.

Matsys work is considered to contain strong religious feeling—characteristic of traditional Flemish works—and is accompanied by a realism that often favored the grotesque. Matsys’ firmness of outline, clear modelling and thorough finish of detail stem from Van de Weyden’s influence; from the Van Eycks and Memling by way of Dirck Bouts, the glowing richness of transparent pigments. Matsys’ works generally reflect earnestness in expression, minutely detailed renderings, and subdued effects in light and shade. Like most Flemish artists of the time he paid a great deal of attention to jewelry, edging of garments, and ornamentation in general.


Credits and Attributions:

The Money Changer and His Wife by  Quentin Matsys, 1514 Public domain. The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Money Changer and His Wife,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Money_Changer_and_His_Wife&oldid=937629150 (accessed June 26, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Quentin Matsys,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Quentin_Matsys&oldid=960328863 (accessed June 26, 2020).

 

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Emotion: it’s complicated, part 2 #amwriting

 

Authors are regularly admonished to “show-don’t-tell.” Let’s ignore the know-it-all bludgeoning you with that rule for the moment, because nothing is worse than an unbalanced narrative.

 

If you have no idea how to begin showing the underlying emotions of your characters, a useful handbook that offers a jumping-off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters. They will offer nine or ten suggestions that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions.

Do your readers a favor. Choose only one physical indicator per emotion per scene.

Showing must be balanced with some telling, or it becomes all about eye-rolling and forehead creasing. Showing mixed with telling makes for a smoother narrative.

Some telling can be done in conversations, through internal thoughts, and the observations of others in a scene.

Writing emotions is a balancing act. Most times, you can get away without dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought.

If you only show the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion, you only wrote half the story.

When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral (physical) level. In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds.

Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions. However, facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.

Visceral reactions are involuntary.

We can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding.

We might be able to hide our reactions from others, but we can’t stop how these emotions feel.

This internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on. You must tell the reader the character’s face went hot, or their stomach knotted up.

One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
  2. Follow up with a ‘thought’ response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
  3. Third, finish up with body language.

Severe emotional shock strikes us physically with a three-way punch:

  • disbelief—the OMG moment
  • knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!”
  • disassociation—a coping or defense mechanism meant to minimize or help a person tolerate stress.

 

When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because ‘mild’ is boring. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance—small gestures show the attitude and normal condition of the character.

 

However, strong emotions are compelling. Highly charged situations are strengthened by the way we write the emotional experience.

If you want to emphasize a particular chemistry between two characters, good or bad, employing their visceral reactions is the way to do so.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level.

They don’t merely write, “He smiled.” Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of lips curving up or pulling down beneath twinkling, hard-eyed glares. Eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, shoulders slump and hands tremble, dimples pop, eyes spark—and so on and so on.

Taken individually and combined with other clues, some description is necessary.

However, nothing is more aggravating than trying to enjoy a narrative where facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

This is why I feel as concerned with what is happening to my characters internally as I do about describing the outward display.

Combining the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal) requires thought. We struggle to balance showing the external with telling the internal so that the reader isn’t baldly told what to experience.

We write it, and sweat over it, searching for the right words to show what we intend. Many times, we come back later and rewrite it.

By using this twofold approach of mixing showing with telling, we hope the reader will become immersed in the lives of our characters.

Some emotions are complicated and deeply personal, difficult to show, and even more challenging to express internally. These are the gut-wrenching moments that make our work speak to the reader.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our protagonist.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is critical.

WHY does the character react in that way? Emotions without cause have no basis for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential.

The emotion hits and the character is processing it.

That is the moment to slip in a brief mention of the backstory. That way, you avoid an info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the information needed to make the emotion real.

Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants are powerful.

Use forceful words, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for people you currently have no story for. Just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

The key is to practice writing emotions, and you may find a later use for these practice characters. The more we practice this aspect of the craft, the better we get at it.

And the more we write, the more individual and recognizable our writing-voice becomes.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1881 via Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=363278568 (accessed June 23, 2020).

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Emotion: it’s complicated #amwriting

When we discuss our work with other writers, the word mood is sometimes used interchangeably with atmosphere. I see those two aspects of story as conjoined twins, marching along together. They are separate but intertwined so closely that they seem as one.

Mood happens in the background over the length of the story. Mood allows the emotions the writer instills into the story to be more specific, more intensely colored.

Atmosphere is also long-term but is part of worldbuilding. Atmosphere is conveyed by setting, which affects the overall mood of a piece.

Together, atmosphere and mood have the power to intensify the reader’s impression of the emotions experienced by the characters.

Emotion is immediate, short term. It exists in the foreground but works best when in conjunction with the overall atmosphere/mood.

Robert McKee, one of my favorite teachers on craft, tells us that “emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative.”

As we read, we become invested in the characters and experience their emotional highs and lows. These transitions range in intensity from subtle to forceful.  I like books where emotions are dynamic, but where the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Despite being comprised of only four letters, mood is a vast word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Emotions that are undermotivated lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is flat. We have deep, personal reasons for our passions and hates, and so must our characters.

Thus, emotions drive the characters’ actions and create a sense of urgency. If we don’t feel some emotional intensity connected to the deeds and actions taken by our protagonists, we don’t care about them.

In Martha Grimes’ book, The Knowledge, a man, wearing a bright red scarf, steps out of a taxi in front of a nightclub. He has barely left the vehicle when he shoots and kills a couple who are waiting to get in. This is an apparently random act. Why?

Martha Grimes shows us this scene through the taxi driver’s eyes. We experience it in his shocked disbelief and horror.

Then, making no effort to disguise himself, the shooter gets back in the cab and forces the driver (at gunpoint) to take him to Waterloo Station.

All during the ride, we feel the driver’s terror, applaud his resourcefulness, and hope like hell he won’t be murdered.

In a stunning, baffling end to that scene, the man pays the driver, gives him a large tip, and disappears into the crowd at Waterloo and walks straight to the parking lot.

The assassin then gets into a Porsche and drives to Heathrow, where he casually boards a plane to Dubai. Before takeoff, he unwittingly helps an underage detective who is following him become a stowaway on the flight.

What? Why?

I need to know why, and I need to know right now! This story is compelling because it is about emotions as much as it is about the action.

Which is more important, mood or emotion?

Both and neither.

The emotions our characters experience have an effect on the overall mood and atmosphere of a story.

In turn, as I showed in my post, Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation, the atmosphere of a particular environment has a significant effect on the characters’ personal mood.

Just as in real life, the individual moods of our characters collectively affect the emotional state of the group.

We know that emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again. Experiencing intense emotion should change a character’s values. Characters should have an arc to their lives, over which they either grow or regress.

This is part of the inferential layer as the audience must infer (or deduce) the experience. Our task is to make the emotions real, but not maudlin.

You can’t tell a reader how to feel. Readers must experience what the character feels and understand their reasons and motives on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created through the setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), the attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and the descriptions.

Although atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry. Mood is established to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.

In other words, the setting can contribute to the atmosphere. However, setting is only a place. Setting is context, not atmosphere.

How is atmosphere separate from setting? It’s part of the world, the environment, right? It’s just worldbuilding.

Yes and no. Atmosphere is associated with the environment but is a created ambiance, written to evoke a specific frame of mind or emotion in the reader.

Atmosphere is created of layers and applied to the setting. It is comprised of the odors, ambient sounds, and visuals you write into the environment. It is influenced by how you write the characters’ moods and emotions as they move through the setting.

Atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece.

From the first line of the first paragraph of a story, we want to establish the feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

Robert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. Happy, sad, neutral—the overall environmental mood is no substitute for the characters’ emotions. However, the two, overall mood and emotion, must work together to draw the reader in.

This inferential layer of any story is the place where we have connected the dots and drawn an outline that shows what our story is.

Filling the outline of the story with color requires thought on our part. Emotions are the colors we use to show a picture.

In my next post we’ll discuss the tricky dance of show and tell—the art of conveying specific emotions without bludgeoning the reader with them.


Credits and Attributions:

Much of my information comes from watching seminar-videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and YouTube University is a free resource for the struggling author. His book,  “Story” by Robert McKee, is a core textbook of my personal library. Robert McKee on YouTube

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=895686542 (accessed July 7, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Self Portrait, Rembrandt 1659

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, commonly known simply as Rembrandt, is considered the finest artist of the 17th century. Some art historians consider him the finest artist in the history of art, and the most important artist in Dutch art history.

Speaking strictly as a Rembrandt fangirl and abject admirer, I consider his self-portraits to be more honest than those of any other artist.

Quote from Wikipedia: His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.

This honesty comes across in all his works featuring himself as the subject, even those where he portrays himself as a shepherd or the prodigal son. Each portrait shows an aspect of his personality, his sense of humor, his affection for his first wife, Saskia, who was the love of his life, and his wry acceptance of his own human frailties.

Money was a mystery to Rembrandt. He had no understanding of a budget, mishandled his son’s inheritance, spent far more than he earned, and didn’t pay his taxes. In short he was always in trouble with the authorities, always skirting the edges of disaster.

Rembrandt knew he was talented, but didn’t see himself as a creative genius. He was just a man with a passion for art, who lived beyond his means and died a pauper, as did Mozart, and as do most artists and authors.

I feel I know this man, more so than I do the person he was in his earlier self-portraits. He’s matured, lost some of the brashness of his youth. When I observe the man in this self-portrait, painted ten years before his death, I see a good-humored man just trying to live a frequently difficult life as well as he can. His face is lined and blemished, not as handsome as he once was. But his eyes seem both kind and familiar, filled with the understanding that comes from living with all one’s heart and experiencing both great joy and deep sorrow.

The art of Rembrandt van Rijn shows us his world as he saw it. Others may disagree with me, but I feel his greatest gift was the ability to convey personality with each portrait. This gift allowed him to portray every person he painted as they really were, blemished and yet beautiful. This is a gift he taught his students, and they were able to copy his style quite effectively, making discerning his true work difficult even for the experts.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Rembrandt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rembrandt&oldid=844357531(accessed June 8, 2018).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-Portrait – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=292800848 (accessed June 8, 2018).

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Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances, they can become repetitive. Sometimes, the thesaurus that comes with my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

For that reason, I have both the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. When I find myself searching for an alternative word, I refer to these books.

I find it saves time to refer to the hard copy book rather than the internet. However, that is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. Having good reference books at hand keeps my attention on my work, rather than surfing the net.

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true—there only a few basic plots from which all stories are derived, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Ian Chadwick offers us this observation in his article, Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

 Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there are six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

Rebellion Against ‘The One’

Mystery

So, yes, we are all telling the same stories, and we all must use words with the same meanings, but we sound different on the page.

Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The words I use might mean the same as those you use, but I might choose a different form of it.

Take the word loud:

  • Noisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have – www.PowerThesaurus.com  lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

When we write, we are building a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances. We want to convey our idea of the mood and atmosphere as well as the information. What ambiance does the setting convey, and how can our word choices add depth to that feeling?

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Don’t get too creative, though. Do your readers a favor and use words that are common enough that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand the narrative.

Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive. Hostile, confrontational, surly—many common words convey different shades of the meaning in a more straightforward, more powerful way.

This is not to say that less commonly used words should be ignored. Your prose should never be “dumbed-down.”

The point is, don’t use words that my Texan editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known.

The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use pretentious words to seem smarter than the average person. This obnoxious habit turns potential readers away, as no one likes to be talked down to.

When it comes to word selection, consider the image you want to convey as if you were an artist. Make an effort to find the right words to show the story.

Words are the paint you will use to draw the picture for the reader. Plot, no matter how well constructed, is only a framework for the story.

As a reader progresses through a narrative, their imaginations supply images about the people and the events. The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The reader’s experience is made richer or poorer by the words you choose.

If you build your story out of words that evoke powerful images, they will get to know the characters, feel as if they live in that world, and absorb the events more quickly.

They will be compelled to keep turning the page.

As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who aren’t afraid to choose their words.


Credits and Attributions:

Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots? by Ian Chadwick © 2017 Scripturient. http://ianchadwick.com/blog/three-six-seven-nine-how-many-basic-plots/ (accessed 16 June 2020).

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Mood and Atmosphere: Where Inference meets Interpretation #amwriting

Mood and atmosphere exist in the inferential layer of the story. They are two separate but entwined forces that form subliminal impressions in the awareness of the reader. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to deploy inference in such a way that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, they can effortlessly understand where the author was going with that thought.

The aspects we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference, a word-picture that is shown rather than bluntly stated. Writers infer, readers interpret.

Books have two authors. The first author is obviously the writer.

The second author is intangible, a ghost, and doesn’t influence the story until after it is published. It is the intended reader whose imagination will recreate the story as they read the words on the page.

How a reader feels the emotion and absorbs the atmosphere is the interpretive layer.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful, or it becomes maudlin. A character’s mood is an emotional backdrop that begins with their experiences. It encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story.

The way emotional inference is conveyed on the page determines the success or failure of the author’s intention.

Let’s explore one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment, and it will include some supernatural elements. In classic Gothic novels, these elements are circumstantial and often later proven to be figments of the protagonist’s mind.

Also, the word Gothic in a novel description means a story will be fraught with emotion and intensity, and take place in a dark, forbidding setting.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing. These form the inferential layer.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

This is because the reader has suffered through emotions in real life and can easily recognize and relate to a character’s experience.

Consequently, for the atmosphere and mood of a setting to affect the reader’s interpretation of a story, the author must convey a sense of familiarity to a place the reader has never been.

“Familiar” does not mean safe or comforting. It means the elements of the environment are recognizable on a subliminal level, something the reader can understand without having experienced it, or being bluntly told.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the emotional experience of the story specific. The atmosphere of a setting is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

However, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood, and the right mood can help you articulate the specific emotions.

In Wuthering Heights, the atmosphere contributes to and magnifies certain characters’ obsessions. It lays bare hate, selfishness, and revenge. These elements are demonstrated in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.

The Gothic aspects of Wuthering Heights expose how upper-class Victorians benefitted from and perpetuated gender inequality within their society.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. These desolate places are wild and starkly beautiful. They are vast expanses, which although high in elevation, are dangerously boggy. These moorlands are often made of peat, a high-carbon-content muck composed of decomposing vegetation.

About Dartmoor, via Wikipedia:

Much more rain falls on Dartmoor than in the surrounding lowlands. As much of the national park is covered in thick layers of peat (decaying vegetation), the rain is usually absorbed quickly and distributed slowly, so the moor is rarely dry. In areas where water accumulates, dangerous bogs or mires can result. Some of these, topped with bright green moss, are known to locals as “feather beds” or “quakers” because they can shift (or ‘quake’) beneath a person’s feet. Quakers result from sphagnum moss growing over the water that accumulates in the hollows in the granite. [1]

Historically, we find many accounts of people drowning in bogs. Moorlands, as a setting for a novel, present a recognizable danger. People and animals are known to stumble into waterlogged places and drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times throughout the novel.

Thus, the environment of the moors sets the mood by raising the specter of murderous, untamed nature. Setting the story in that environment immediately implies infertility and death.

Another aspect of this setting that contributes to the atmosphere is graphic: Moorland is visually the same wherever you look, so the lack of visible landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In this novel, the setting conveys a powerful emotion: the fear of being both lost and trapped.

Most of the action occurs at Wuthering Heights, which is the manor from which the novel takes its name. The neighboring house, where other scenes are set, is Thrushcross Grange. They are neighbors, but a vast stretch of moorland lies between the two houses. These houses are far from neighboring towns, in their words, “far from the stir of society.” Distance emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood. Brontë made each house symbolic of its inhabitants.

Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be intense, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands.

Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are closer to town, and are passive, civilized, and calm.

That underlying threat of danger in the environment affects the mood and emotions of the characters. It affects the overall atmosphere of the novel.

Thus, before we are even introduced to the characters’ motives or the plot, we find that the mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

And so, to wind this up, atmosphere and mood are intertwined. They are fundamental aspects of the inferential and interpretive layers of the story and getting them right takes a bit of work.

But making the effort can result in a novel that is deep and well worth reading.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dartmoor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dartmoor&oldid=959755158 (accessed June 14, 2020).

Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm by George Lambert. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:George Lambert – Moorland Landscape with Rainstorm (1751).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:George_Lambert_-_Moorland_Landscape_with_Rainstorm_(1751).jpg&oldid=234912081 (accessed July 16, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Home, Sweet Home by Winslow Homer (reprise)

We now live in challenging times with the pandemic and social upheavals occupying our conscious minds and social media. I’ve chosen to revisit one of Winslow Homer‘s most poignant images as a reminder of our humanity, that we can come together and be better than we were.

Homer traveled with the Union Army, but the story of the moving event that he depicted in this painting is told by a Confederate soldier who was present. That story follows, toward the bottom of this article.

Home, Sweet Home is one of the most famous paintings of the American Civil War, depicting a moment in time, painted by Winslow Homer. On opposite shores of the Rappahannock River, opposing armies are caught up in an awareness of brotherhood, as music becomes the medium that lays bare the humanity of the soldiers on both sides.

Winslow Homer was best known for his landscapes featuring the many moods of the ocean, but he also painted many iconic images of that turbulent time before, during, and after the American Civil War. His art captures a sense of familiarity, a feeling that the viewer knows these people and their stories intimately.

Wikipedia says, “Harper’s (magazine) sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.

“Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer’s expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to particular critical acclaim; it was quickly sold and the artist was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865.[10]”

The story behind the painting, Home, Sweet Home, is told poignantly in the autobiography, Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson, who served in the Confederate Army.

“The Yankee band would play the popular airs of theirs amid much yelling and cheering; our bands would do the same with the same result. Towards the wind-up the Yankee band struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Cheers were immense. When they stopped our band struck up “Dixie,” and everything went wild. When they finished this, both bands, with one accord and simultaneously, struck up “Home, Sweet Home.” There was not a sound from anywhere until the tune was finished and it then seemed as if everybody had gone crazy. I never saw anything to compare with it. Both sides were cheering, jumping up and throwing up hats and doing everything which tended to show enthusiasm. This lasted for at least a half hour. I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

Quote from: Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (1910)


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Winslow Homer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winslow_Homer&oldid=817253575 (accessed January 4, 2018).

Home, Sweet Home: “Had we not had the river between us,” posted by Marek,  https://civilwarfolkmusic.com/2013/12/15/1862-home-sweet-home/ accessed 04 January 2018.

Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (published 1910 by Columbia, S.C., The State Company)

Home, Sweet Home (oil on canvas) by Winslow Homer – circa 1863 | Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed 04 January 2018.

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The Inferential layer: A wide layer of unknown quantity #amwriting

The inferential layer lies just below the surface of our story. Here is where we attempt to show why Chekhov’s gun hangs on the wall. We insert small clues in the early pages, hints that raise the specter of chance, the suspicion that the weapon will be fired.

We offer conflicting hints that might explain who will fire it and show their journey to the place in the story where they squeeze the trigger.

Who will take down the gun and fire it? Which of several possibilities will be the victim?

And when the gun finally does go off, everything that has gone before, all the hints and allegations—it all comes together in the reader’s mind.

The inferential layer of any story, not just murder mysteries, is the realm of conjecture and suggestion.

In this part, the pieces of the puzzle are placed on the table, seemingly randomly.

We insert implications along with a few false clues about the core problem, hoping the reader will draw their own conclusions. If they guess wrong, we hope they aren’t disappointed.

The path to the moment of the final event should be logical but complicated. Perhaps no one knows precisely what led to it, but your task is to fill the layer with clues, hints, and allegations.

This is where inference and implication are good tools to employ. If the reader is given hints regarding the deeper story, they will stay with it, hoping to uncover more information on the next page or the one after that.

Humans are as curious and tenacious as cats.

The apparent story is displayed on the surface. Perhaps you bought a sci-fi book featuring a murder on a space station.

As you get deeper into the narrative, you might discover a profound philosophical story folded within the outward mystery.

Consider an envelope with the word “murder” written on it.  Inside is a folded note, and when that is opened, you find only one word, “avenger.” The story of the murder is the plot, the outer shell.

Folded within the first note is a smaller folded note, one with the words “honor,” “betrayal,” and “abandonment” written on it. We’ll say that in this case, an officer’s overconfidence is the “what,” the mechanism that starts the dominoes falling toward the inciting incident.

And finally, the core note, folded in the shape of an origami swan. When you unfold it, you see only one word: “sin.”

Whose sin? What sin? Why is it so egregious that someone had to die for it? The dominoes stop falling here: An older brother’s death in a preventable accident is the why of the story.

In reading the inferential layer of the story, readers open the metaphorical envelope, draw out the notes, and begin deducing the meaning of what is about to happen.

Serious readers want this layer to mean something on a level that isn’t obvious. They want to experience that feeling of triumph for having caught the meaning. That surge of endorphins keeps them involved and makes them want more of your work.

Murder is not confined to political thrillers and cozy mysteries. It’s an event that can be written into any kind of setting, from romance to sci-fi to fantasy, and makes for brilliant westerns.

In this story, grief is our theme. Grief is an emotion common to the human experience, and one we can all relate to.

But it’s not the only theme in this story. There could be one or more supporting themes, all of which add substance and depth to it:

  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • War
  • Bullying/Abuse

Supporting themes are shown through:

  • Actions taken by the characters
  • Random thoughts and conversations
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting

Symbolism in the visual setting can reinforce the overall theme and the subthemes. Dark objects, sharp objects, photographs, private mementos—take, for example, a locket containing the picture of a deceased brother as a young cadet.

These are subtle nuances and don’t work well if they are shoved out into the open.

Imagine: the MC is dressing for her shift. She picks up the locket, opens it, and gazes at the picture before she closes it and puts it around her neck, concealing it under her shipsuit. She goes to her job on the bridge, where she does the work of a science officer, and the day begins uneventfully. The reader is introduced to the other players, all of whom seem like good people with no dark secrets.

The scene with the locket is a good clue that some more profound event is in the works.

Getting the hints into the story so that they are just visible but not glaring requires thought and careful planning.

We have to be cautious about how we apply this layer. Not too much, because readers of all genres love to puzzle things out for themselves.

Yet, we need to insert some clues as to the fundamental cause of the murder, or the reader will be left with the dreaded “WTF?” reaction—something we never want.

This layer is best applied in the second draft of a novel. Because the story is written, you know just what clues the reader will need.

Foreknowledge is good. Armed with the logical plot, the author can instill the subtler hints and also insert the occasional misdirection while keeping the flow of the story plausible.

That quality of intrigue and plausibility is what I as reader will seek out when I am in the mood for a good sci-fi novel.

One of my favorite sci-fi novels is 1992’s Starliner, by David Drake, an action adventure written in a leisurely style. Politics, racism, and the privilege of class and wealth dominate this tale of a cruise gone bad.

Drake applies the sort of attention to detail that one might find in an Agatha Christie novel, if she had decided to write political thrillers set in interstellar space. In some ways, despite being solidly sci-fi, it’s a period piece.

When I look at the many layers that make up this book, I see a classic example of the inferential layer done right.

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