The Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond – Symbolism #amwriting

The Word-Pond is dark, and near the bottom the waters are murky. It’s hard to find your way, but knowing the theme gives us a diver’s guide-rope to hold onto.

We’ve identified the theme, but we need to strengthen it. We want to add depth to our narrative, but wonder how. This becomes easier when we remember that theme, mood, and atmosphere work closely together.

An important tool in our writer’s toolbox is Symbolism. It is an aspect of Story that helps create mood, atmosphere, and supports and strengthens the theme. When a little thought is applied to how you place it, symbolism becomes a subtle tool that speaks subliminally to the reader.

Intentionally placing symbolic objects in the setting influences the characters’ emotional mood. It represents the theme and will help reinforce the desired atmosphere without your having to resort to an info dump.

Words can have subtle meanings beyond the obvious, when used as allegories. Using allegory in the narrative offers images for the reading mind to see and understand.

So, what is an allegory? An allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words.

The storytelling in The Matrix series of movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the multilayered theme of humankind, machine, fate, and free will. The theme is represented with heavy symbolism in:

  • The names of the characters,
  • The words used in conversations
  • The androgynous clothes they wear

Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. Inside The Matrix, the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens. In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.

In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.

Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.

The reader/viewer infers the mood and atmosphere by virtue of embedded symbolic clues, hints that also strengthen the theme.

One of my works-in-progress that is in its infancy is a contemporary novel. I want to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the  21st century. I can only do this through the use of allegory. I will have to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie, keeping the symbolism in mind.

In this novel’s case, I have several character threads that converge in the large themes of trust and fidelity. It’s a multilayered piece, and each layer has its own sub-theme

  • Social responsibility.
  • Ethics and the lengths we will go to achieve a goal.
  • What constitutes family, nurture or nature?

Making good use of symbolism and allegory will be critical if I want to convey the mood and the atmosphere without resorting to an info dump.

Just to be clear, a plan is not always required because sometimes the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme in itself.

If you are lucky, the theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. This strong theme will whisper suggestions and symbols to you as you create the world and the visual environment.

In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects in the setting
  • Conversations

We try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. As you do so, consider how you can insert small allegories and symbols to support your theme.

The casual reader doesn’t notice symbolism on a conscious level. However, dedicated readers will, and that is what will keep them reading. Dedicated readers love work that holds up on closer examination, enjoying work that has layers of depth.

Yet, for the casual reader, it is all there, making the imaginary surface look and feel real, solid, and concrete.


Credits and Attributions

The Matrix movie poster, © 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (US, Canada, Bahamas and Bermuda); © 1999 Village Roadshow Films Limited. (All Other Territories) Fair Use

The Temptation of St Anthony, Joos van Craesbeeck ca. 1650 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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The Interpretive Layer of the Word-Pond: Theme

Deep within the narrative, mingling with other heavier aspects of Story and sinking to the bottom of the Word-Pond is theme. A fundamental underpinning of the story, theme can be a tricky fish to get a grip on. Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

According to Wikipedia:

A theme is different from the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.”

The themes explored in the films might be “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.” [1]

In other words, 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.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story, supports and gives meaning to the plot. On the surface, each of the different commercial literary genres looks different. Each genre is deliberately tailored to fit a wide variety of niche readers. Yet, from shelf to shelf, we will find commonalities, themes that all stories tell in one way or another.

Genre is the bookstore label guiding a reader to the shelf containing books they are most likely to enjoy.

But some aspects of Story are universal and independent—they roam through all the genres from children’s books to literary fiction and connect them.

Theme is a universal feature of Story.

We all recognize Romance as a theme. It can be the major theme or a supporting theme. Romantic love is a defining feature of the genre of Romance. But what are some different aspects of love that can be found in every genre from fantasy to sci-fi, to horror, to crime fiction?

  • Love gained (the fairytale romance)
  • Love lost
  • Tragic love
  • Selfish love
  • Passion
  • Brother/Sisterly love
  • Dangerous Attraction
  • Friendship
  • Parental love

Love is only one theme despite the fact an entire genre has been built around it. Others abound, large central concepts that build tension within the Story.

Here is a brief list, just a small jumping off point for your creative mind. Some are large themes that entire genres have been built around, and others are good supporting themes:

  • Separation and reunion
  • Grief
  • Nostalgia for the good old days
  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Rebellion and revolution
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Crime and Justice
  • Midlife crisis
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • The hero’s journey
  • Humanity in jeopardy
  • War
  • General dehumanization of society
  • Conspiracy
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Plagues
  • Religious intolerance
  • Abuse

Again, Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, offers us wisdom:

(Theme) can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis (hypothesis; idea)—the text’s or author’s implied worldview. [2]

Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi, or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level. When you see a dog grieving the loss of her mistress, or a husband grieving for his wife—what do you see? You can’t read their mind, so you must look for clues. What behaviors inspire empathy for their sorrow in you, the observer?

Highlighting a strong theme can be a challenge if you begin without a plan. A plan is not always required because, in some stories, the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme. The theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

Other times, it is difficult to decide what the underlying theme is, and the story is weak. It has no legs and won’t ring true until you find out what the underlying theme is. This requires a little mind-wandering on your part. You must ruminate on the character’s quest or dilemma. Ask yourself what the root cause of the issue is—if it is a crime, why is crime rampant. Is it a societal problem? If the core dilemma is unrequited love, what are the roadblocks to a resolution?

Themes exist in every story. However, when we are first laying down the story, themes are like your drunk uncle—they hang out in the bar until closing time when they have to weave their way home through dark alleys and the neighbor’s shrubs. When you have finished your first draft (closing time), if you still haven’t found the defining theme, look in the local bar in the first chapters for clues your subconscious mind has sprinkled throughout the story. If you still haven’t got a theme, pick one and develop it.

At the surface level of the Word-Pond, each genre looks widely different. But when you go deeper, you find that all literary genres have one thing in common: they have protagonists and side-characters who all must deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721 (accessed July 27, 2019).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed July 27, 2019).

Images:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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#FineArtFriday: Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent 1884


What I love about this Painting:

I love everything–the moody colors and textures–she needs no necklace, no jewels to prove she is someone unforgettable.

Madame X is mysterious; she is a promise unspoken.

She is dangerous the way uncharted seas are.

Her pose, the elegance of the black dress, the turn of her head—this portrait shouts “Here is a woman to be reckoned with.” Everyone who knew Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau said that in this Portrait of Madame X, American expatriate artist  John Singer Sargent captured something real, something true about the woman, something well beyond the unashamed sexuality of the portrait.

About this painting, via Wikipedia:

(John Singer Sargent’s) most controversial work, Portrait of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) (1884) is now considered one of his best works, and was the artist’s personal favorite; he stated in 1915, “I suppose it is the best thing I have done.” When unveiled in Paris at the 1884 Salon, it aroused such a negative reaction that it likely prompted Sargent’s move to London. Sargent’s self-confidence had led him to attempt a risqué experiment in portraiture—but this time it unexpectedly backfired. The painting was not commissioned by her and he pursued her for the opportunity, quite unlike most of his portrait work where clients sought him out. Sargent wrote to a common acquaintance:

I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. …you might tell her that I am a man of prodigious talent.

It took well over a year to complete the painting. The first version of the portrait of Madame Gautreau, with the famously plunging neckline, white-powdered skin, and arrogantly cocked head, featured an intentionally suggestive off-the-shoulder dress strap, on her right side only, which made the overall effect more daring and sensual. Sargent repainted the strap to its expected over-the-shoulder position to try to dampen the furor, but the damage had been done. French commissions dried up and he told his friend Edmund Gosse in 1885 that he contemplated giving up painting for music or business.

Writing of the reaction of visitors, Judith Gautier observed:

“Is it a woman? a chimera, the figure of a unicorn rearing as on a heraldic coat of arms or perhaps the work of some oriental decorative artist to whom the human form is forbidden and who, wishing to be reminded of woman, has drawn the delicious arabesque? No, it is none of these things, but rather the precise image of a modern woman scrupulously drawn by a painter who is a master of his art.”


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “John Singer Sargent,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid=904608954 (accessed July 25, 2019).

Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), by John Singer Sargent, 1884 PD|100

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884 (unfree frame crop).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg&oldid=358225955 (accessed July 25, 2019).

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The Depths of the Word-Pond: Archetypes #amwriting

Down at the bottom, lodged in the mud of the Word-Pond we call Story are the foundations, the underpinnings. One of these foundations is archetype.

An archetype is an ancient pattern, describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with different cultures, yet our myths and legends share these common, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

I am a great fan of both Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, and the hero’s journey is central to much of my work. In his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.

Quote from Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

There are other archetypal characters that we find in all sorts of guises. Consider the “wise old man/woman/mentor.” This character exists in the stories of all ancient cultures, offering advice, and pushing the protagonist to achieve the goal. The mentor is Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch—or even a small, green dispenser of wisdom called Yoda.

Psychology says that an archetype is a recognizable behavioral pattern. In a story, the archetypal character is the embodiment/reflection of that familiar pattern of behavior.

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology, or literary canon.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change

Christopher Booker, author of The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, tells us that the following basic archetypes underpin the plots of all stories:

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

We feel comfortable with these basic recognizable plots, no matter how differently they are presented to us. They are peopled with characters we feel we know, friends who occupy the familiar traditional roles. Even in a non-heroic story, we have these archetypes:

Take The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The archetype of the plot is a Quest.

On the surface, this is a detective novel, a thriller, nothing at all like The Hobbit, which is an obvious quest tale. However, The Maltese Falcon most definitely is a quest tale.

Yes, it’s a quest with a twist.

The object of the quest is a black statuette of significant value. However, the statue itself is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations—in this case, the quest changes Sam’s life. The sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The object of the quest was not the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade (the hero) and Brigid O’Shaunessy (the shapeshifter/trickster), two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

So, The Hobbit and The Maltese Falcon begin with the same character archetype of the unintentional hero. Bilbo (the hero) is hired to steal the Arkenstone back from a Dragon for Thorin (the trickster) and the dwarves, and Sam Spade is hired to obtain the Maltese Falcon for Brigid O’Shaunessy.

In both tales, another archetypal role that appears is that of the mentor: Bilbo has Gandalf the Wizard, and Sam Spade has Caspar Gutman. Despite their very different personalities and reasons for offering wisdom, both are mentors.

The fundamental stories are the same: the hero endures hardship to acquire an object (the Maltese Falcon or the Arkenstone) but finds that the object is no longer that important. Sam never acquires the true Maltese Falcon but finds out who really killed his business partner. He loses much in the process and emerges a different man.

Bilbo also loses his naïveté, and after all the work of finally finding it, he hides the Arkenstone because of Thorin’s uncharitable actions toward the Wood-elves and the Lake-men who have suffered from the Dragon’s depredations.

Despite the similarities on the level of archetypes, these are radically different novels.

And that is the beauty of the deeper level of the story. Something so fundamentally similar as plot archetypes and character archetypes can be written so differently that the same story emerges completely unique and wildly dissimilar from others based on that archetype.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more of what archetypes are and how they fit into the story:

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Archetype,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Archetype&oldid=906671691 (accessed July 23, 2019).

Christopher Booker (2004). The seven basic plots: why we tell stories. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0826452092. OCLC 57131450.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608  (accessed July 23, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016  (accessed July 23, 2019).

 

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Deeper into the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

For the last two weeks, we have discussed how, in the word-pond that we call Story, below the surface is the wide layer of unknown quantity: the Inferential Layer.

But as we go deeper, we discover the vast expanse of words is comprised of many smaller, less obvious layers of varying temperatures and clarity.

We sink past the sharks of Emotion and the intangibles of Atmosphere and Mood. There we discover a murky layer where the visibility goes away, and it’s difficult to find your way. Deeper down, below the slightly too-warm danger zone of mawkish show-don’t-tell, lies the cold, silty layer where Inference and Implication come into play.

Consider the oft repeated mantra of Chekhov’s Gun:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” [1]

In this dark, eerie layer, we show why Chekhov’s gun is on the wall through the actions of our characters. We imply reasons to show why the weapon was fired. We offer ideas to explain how the shooter comes to the place in the story where they took the gun from the wall and squeezed the trigger.

But we don’t baldly state in chapter one that “Bob was a jealous bastard.” We slowly dole out these implications in Bob’s conversations and mental dialogue. We show the visuals of his demeanor and his actions, and let the reader draw their own conclusions.

In the best stories, the path to the moment the gun was fired is complicated. Perhaps no one knows exactly what led to it. As the author, your task is to fill the middle of this story-pond with clues: broad hints and allegations. This is where Inference and Implication come into play, the two aspects of Story that give the inferential layer its name.

You can only infer something from clues offered to you. The author presents clues, and you interpret the meaning.

You can only imply something to someone. In our case, we are offering clues to the reader.

One meaning is displayed on the surface, but deeper down, you enclose the true meaning, a secret folded within the story.

For example, take an envelope and write the word “murder” on it. This is the inciting incident, the engine that drives the story. It is clear and obvious, as dead bodies always are.

Then write one word, “obsession,” on a  note. Place the note inside the envelope and seal it. Leave that note laying around for our reader, who is the sleuth, to discover. The Envelope is the story arc that encompasses the note, which is the “why” of the narrative.

That is how we convey meaning. The message (inference) is inside the envelope (story) that is gradually revealed to the reader. In reading the inferential layer of the story, they open the envelope and draw out the note, and with each clue, they deduce the meaning of what is about to happen.

The layer of implication must be done well and deftly because you want the reader to feel as if they have earned the information they are gaining. Yet, you must leave enough clues lying around that they can understand what you are implying. Readers can only extrapolate knowledge from information the author has offered them.

This is where those sharks of show-don’t-tell still lurk, waiting to make a mockery of your narrative.

Balance is crucial. Our story is like the seesaw on the playground. “Tell” is the older, heavier child—it carries a lot of weight in comparison to “Show,” that slender young visual descriptor.

If we “tell” a little and “show” a lot, we’ll keep the seesaw of the narrative balanced.

We employ this balance because we must offer the reader the framework to hang their imagination on. Making strong word choices is the key to maintaining this good balance. Lean, hard verbs and nouns that begin with consonants convey impact and lead the reader in the direction you want them to go.

On a subconscious level, serious readers want to discover something that isn’t obvious at the surface. The feeling of triumph for having caught the deeper meaning keeps them immersed in the book. It’s a surge of endorphins that makes them want more of your work.

I concede that in most Romance novels, the point of the book isn’t a deeper meaning—it’s interpersonal relationships on a surface level. However, the surge of endorphins is there with the successful completion of the star-crossed love-quest. Each of the two characters will have some air of mystery about them because the interpersonal intrigues are the story, and readers love to discover secrets.

Books for younger readers might also be less deep on this level because they don’t yet have the real-world experience to understand what is implied. The level of language must be a little more direct than in books meant for adults.

This middle layer is difficult to get a grip on. Knowledge of the craft of writing is important. How you use grammar, the tense (first person, third person, etc.) in which the piece is written, length and structure of sentences, word choices, metaphors and allegories—these aspects of an author’s voice also contribute to the feeling of depth.

And underlying all of this is the bottom layer—the Interpretive Layer. Everything thing you throw into a pond finds its way to the bottom. The things we met and passed on the way down are there:

  • Themes
  • Commentary
  • Messages
  • Symbolism

When all else fails, gravity still works.

Gravity pulls everything down to the bottom adding to the mud that eventually becomes the bedrock of our story. Everything that that drifts to the bottom becomes lodged in the soft mud along with

  • Archetypes

We haven’t discussed this aspect of the pond, but Archetypes are up next.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Chekhov’s gun,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chekhov%27s_gun&oldid=902300179  (accessed July 21, 2019).

Skagit River Mist/PFly CC-BY-SA-2.0

Sunset view from the back of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, photo by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 4.0.

 

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#FineArtFriday: The Huis Kostverloren on the Amstel by Jacob van Ruisdael ca.1660

About the Artist Via Wikipedia:

Ruisdael and his art should not be considered apart from the context of the incredible wealth and significant changes to the land that occurred during the Dutch Golden Age. In his study on 17th-century Dutch art and culture, Simon Schama remarks that “it can never be overemphasized that the period between 1550 and 1650, when the political identity of an independent Netherlands nation was being established, was also a time of dramatic physical alteration of its landscape”. Ruisdael’s depiction of nature and emergent Dutch technology are wrapped up in this. Christopher Joby places Ruisdael in the religious context of the Calvinism of the Dutch Republic. He states that landscape painting does conform to Calvin’s requirement that only what is visible may be depicted in art, and that landscape paintings such as those of Ruisdael have an epistemological value which provides further support for their use within Reformed Churches.

The art historian Yuri Kuznetsov places Ruisdael’s art in the context of the war of independence against Spain. Dutch landscape painters “were called upon to make a portrait of their homeland, twice re-won by the Dutch people – first from the sea and later from foreign invaders”. Jonathan Israel, in his study of the Dutch Republic, calls the period between 1647 and 1672 the third phase of Dutch Golden Age art, in which wealthy merchants wanted large, opulent and refined paintings, and civic leaders filled their town halls with grand displays containing republican messages.

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Artist: Jacob van Ruisdael  (1628/1629–1682)

Title: English: The Huis Kostverloren on the Amstel

Date: between 1660 and 1664

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 63 cm (24.8 ″); Width: 75.5 cm (29.7 ″)

Current Location: Amsterdam Museum


Credits and Attributions:

The Huis Kostverloren on the Amstel by Jacob van Ruisdael [Public domain]

Wikipedia contributors, “Jacob van Ruisdael,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jacob_van_Ruisdael&oldid=905931531 (accessed July 19, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:SA 38217-Het Huis Kostverloren aan de Amstel2.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:SA_38217-Het_Huis_Kostverloren_aan_de_Amstel2.jpg&oldid=326210473 (accessed July 19, 2019).

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Atmosphere and Mood, the Conjoined Twins of the Word-Pond #amwriting

Within the depths of the Word-Pond that we call Story is the inferential layer. This is the layer where the reader must infer (deduce, guess) many things, all of which form a subtle, invisible path to understanding and connecting with the story.

We have talked at length about conveying Emotions, Part 1 and Part 2. But the inferential layer is about far more than the immediate emotional condition of your characters. The mood of the piece also comes into play.

Mood and atmosphere 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. For this reason, when talking about depth in a narrative, the conjoined twins of mood and atmosphere are best discussed together.

We know that emotion is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. The overall mood also changes over the course of the story. Mood is an emotional setting that begins with the characters and their experiences, and encompasses the reader as they immerse themselves in a story. It is developed by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

Emotion is a constant force in our lives. On the page, it must be truthful and based in reality or it becomes maudlin.

The same goes for atmosphere and mood–they must feel real; solid. 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 you 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.

What do you want to convey? Let’s talk about one of the all-time masterpieces of atmosphere and mood: Wuthering Heights, the 1847 gothic novel by Emily Brontë.

Theme is the universal, fundamental ideas that are explored in a work. Theme is also an underlying aspect of mood. In Wuthering Heights, the two main themes are

  • The many aspects of love: obsession, hate, selfishness, and revenge. These are shown in the course of exploring the destructive power of obsession and fixated, unchanging love.
  • Social class, gender inequality, security and insecurity in a society where money and breeding matter.

World-building comes into it. Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks that shape the reader’s mood. They give us hints about what we should feel.  In Wuthering Heights, the landscape is comprised primarily of moors. The depiction of these desolate places is wild and starkly beautiful; wide expanses high in elevation but also boggy, as they are made of peat.

Setting the story there immediately implies infertility and death. Moorland cannot be cultivated, and the desert-like lack of landmarks makes it easy to lose your way. In some places, the land is so waterlogged a person can drown. Becoming lost and drowning is a possibility that is raised several times over the course of the story. Thus, the moors symbolize the threat posed by untamed nature.

Houses are also symbolic in the piece: most of the action in the novel occurs at Wuthering Heights (the manor from which the novel takes its name) or Thrushcross Grange. Also, much of it happens on the vast stretch of moorland that lies between the two houses. All three locations are distant from neighboring towns, most especially from “the stir of society” (London) which emphasizes the loneliness of the setting.

Each house is symbolic of its inhabitants. Those who reside at Wuthering Heights tend to be strong, wild, and passionate—untamed like the moorlands. Conversely, the characters living at Thrushcross Grange are passive, civilized, and calm.

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

The mood/atmosphere of Wuthering Heights is dark and gothic.

Words are our tools, and they are also our Jedi mind trick–properly wielded, words put the reader into the story where they live it, becoming the characters.

In this quote from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens, we see how he uses words to convey a dark, ominous mood:

“There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do.”

A gloomy setting creates an ominous atmosphere, which affects both how we perceive the characters and how they perceive themselves.

In Chapter Two of The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s opening paragraph runs like this:

About halfway between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.  

This sets the tone for what follows. In reading these passages, we know that the way we present the setting impacts the mood. Also, the overall emotional life of the characters contributes to the mood of the piece. If they are tense, worried, then the narrative takes on an ambiance of tension.

Use your Jedi mind tricks. Set that interpersonal stress in the right environment, as Brontë, Dickens, and Fitzgerald did, and write a story that will compel the reader to keep turning the page.


Credits and Attributions:

Quotes from:

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens PD|100, originally published by Chapman & Hall.

The Great Gatsby, (1925) F. Scott Fitzgerald PD|75, originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Images:

Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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).

Ellen Berry McClung, by Lloyd Branson. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Berry-ellen-mcclung-by-branson.jpg&oldid=324386360 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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Emotions: Sharks in the Word-Pond part 2 #amwriting

via buzzfeed

When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral level. Merriam Webster says:

Visceral is an adjective:

vis·​cer·​al | \ ˈvi-sə-rəl  , ˈvis-rəl\

Definition of visceral

1: felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body DEEP a visceral conviction

2: not intellectual INSTINCTIVE, UNREASONING visceral drives

3: dealing with crude or elemental emotions EARTHYvisceral novel

4: of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera SPLANCHNIC (internal organs, especially those of the abdomen) visceral organs

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, but 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 can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. It is this internal physical gut reaction that is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.

Simplicity has impact, so selecting the most powerful words to convey emotion is critical. What do we want to do with our opening paragraphs? We want to tantalize the reader.

Words are the author’s Jedi mind tricks. The right words compel the reader to turn the page because they must find out what comes next.

When choosing words with visceral and emotional impact, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants have more impact.

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.

Twenty years ago, I witnessed a horrific motorcycle accident. The young man flew by me on his bike at twice the speed limit, with his girlfriend clinging precariously behind. Both wore helmets but were dressed for a hot day in the sun, wearing cut-off shorts and tank-tops. As they passed me, I had a premonition their ride would end badly. No sooner had I registered that thought, when they blew through a red light at the next intersection and crashed into the side of a minivan at fifty miles per hour.

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.

In the slow-motion minute that the motorcycle plowed into the side of the van, I experienced those reactions in that order. In the immediate moments following the crash, I felt disbelief, which transitioned into calm disassociation. Separated from the emotion, I was able to think clearly, knew exactly what to do. Getting the medics called and the injured stabilized took priority: action overrode emotion. However, afterward, with the injured gone from the scene, I broke down, shaking so badly I was unable to drive.

When you dissect them, you will see that all emotions, from the mildest to the strongest, affect us both physically and mentally in that 1-2-3 order:

  1. Initial gut reaction
  2. Flash of mental processing
  3. Body language, expression etc.

When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because mild is boring. But strong emotions create powerful, compelling characters and highly charged situations.

But if you want to emphasize a certain chemistry between two characters, good or bad, visceral reactions on the part of your protagonist are a good way to do so.

Here are some examples of simple emotions from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it was written ninety years ago, and we all have different tastes in reading, hopefully you will see the powerful words he uses.

Here, Fitzgerald describes a feeling of hopefulness:

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees—just as things grow in fast movies—I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.

Next, he describes shock:

It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Jealousy:

Her expression was curiously familiar—it was an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable until I realized that her eyes, wide with jealous terror, were fixed not on Tom, but on Jordan Baker, whom she took to be his wife.

The discomfort of witnessing a marital squabble:

The prolonged and tumultuous argument that ended by herding us into that room eludes me, though I have a sharp physical memory that, in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs and intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back.

Fitzgerald’s prose is written in the literary style of the 1920s, but we modern writers can learn something important from him: We can convey a wide range of emotions without resorting to cliché descriptions. His words are carefully considered, deliberately chosen, powerful words intended to convey the greatest impact in the least amount of space.

  • great bursts of leaves growing on the trees
  • the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
  • an expression I had often seen on women’s faces but on Myrtle Wilson’s face it seemed purposeless and inexplicable
  • intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back

Throughout the novel, the way Fitzgerald combines words evokes emotions in the reader.

We feel shocked at the casual callousness of our protagonist and the cruelty of the others; the lack of empathy for the working class; and the hedonistic immersion into a culture where money and alcohol can get you anything you want—except love. We feel pity; we feel Nick’s remorse for the things he couldn’t change about Tom and Myrtle or Tom and Daisy, and Jay Gatsby.

We understand Gatsby’s final act of self-sacrifice, although we don’t agree with it.

We will continue the exploration of depth in the Word-Pond that is Story with a look at the influence of atmosphere/ambiance on the reader’s emotions and their perceptions.

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Edit: The accident I witnessed actually occurred in the summer of 1999. As I was writing this post, my wonky grasp of passing time incorrectly listed it as “ten years ago.” My, how time flies!


Credits and Attributions

Definition of visceral, Merriam Webster Online © 2019 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/visceral (accessed 07 July 2019)

Quotes from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. PD|75 Fair Use.

Original Cover of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, © 1925 Charles Scribner’s Sons. Cover artist: Francis Cugat. PD|75 Fair Use.

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#FineArtFriday: The Drunkard by Marc Chagall 1911

In this image, Marc Chagall manages to capture the determined self destruction of the addict. His colors are vivid, intense, and the images slightly shocking. The addict has lost his head.

About the Artist via Wikipedia Commons:

Marc Zakharovich Chagall was born Moishe Zakharovich Shagal  6 July [O.S. 24 June] 1887 – 28 March 1985). (He) was a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin. An early modernist, he was associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic format, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

Art critic Robert Hughes referred to Chagall as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century” (though Chagall saw his work as “not the dream of one people but of all humanity”). According to art historian Michael J. Lewis, Chagall was considered to be “the last survivor of the first generation of European modernists”.

Author Serena Davies writes that “By the time he died in France in 1985—the last surviving master of European modernism, outliving Joan Miró by two years—he had experienced at first hand the high hopes and crushing disappointments of the Russian revolution, and had witnessed the end of the Pale of Settlement, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the obliteration of Vitebsk, his home town, where only 118 of a population of 240,000 survived the Second World War.”


Credits and Attributions:

Marc Chagall, 1911-12, The Drunkard (Le saoul), 1912, oil on canvas. 85 x 115 cm. Private collection Der Sturm, Volume 11, Number 3, 5 June 1920, p. 41 This image is in the public domain in the United States because it was first published outside the United States prior to January 1, 1924.

Wikipedia contributors, “Marc Chagall,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marc_Chagall&oldid=903514404 (accessed July 12, 2019).

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Emotions: Sharks in the Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond #amwriting

To write characters with emotional depth, you must dive into the waters where the sharks of show-don’t-tell lurk, waiting to bite your… backside.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. They would never stoop to merely saying  “He was happy” – no! Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of happiness, anger, and spite. Their eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble; lips turn up and dimples pop; lips curve down and eyes spark—and so on and so on. When done sparingly and combined with other clues, this can work.

But… by sparingly, I mean no more than one facial change per interaction, please. Nothing is more aggravating than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

We must be as concerned with what is happening inside these poor emotional basket cases as we are about the melodramatic outward display.

Writing emotions with depth is a balancing act, and simply showing the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion is only half the story. Most times, you can get away without slo-o-o-owly dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought. Then the emotion becomes one the reader can feel too.

This is where we write from real life. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles. When you are happy, how do you feel? Energized, confident.

So now you need to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

A short list of simple, commonly used, easy to describe, surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anticipation
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Denial
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Interest
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise

Other emotions are tricky, difficult to show, and even more difficult to properly express internally. They are complicated and deeply personal, but these are the gut-wrenching emotions that make our work speak to the reader.

So, here is an even shorter list of rarely well-described, difficult to articulate, complex emotions:

  • Anguish
  • Anxiety
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Indecision
  • Jealousy
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Inadequacy
  • Powerlessness
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions that are best shown by (maybe) an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the basic emotions of your characters, a good 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, which makes the story deeper as a whole.

Just don’t go overboard. They will offer nine or ten hints that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions. But do your readers a favor: only choose one physical indicator per emotion, per scene.

Please.

Double Please. With cherries on top.

Going overboard in showing emotions makes a mockery of your characters. Subtle physical hints, along with some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons too, inspired by a flash of memory or a sensory prompt that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

  • Formerly a soldier, experienced guerrilla warfare.

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

  • Impoverished childhood, baby sister died of starvation.

Why does the sight of daisies make an old man smile?

  • The memory of the best day of his life, sixty years gone past.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. I’ve mentioned this before, but motivation is key. WHY does the character react with that emotion? Emotions that are  undermotivated have no base 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. When the emotion hits and the character is processing it—that is the moment to mention the memory in passing. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

Use powerful words that carry emotional impact in your narrative, 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 a highly charged scene.

To swim in the word-pond at the emotional level is to swim with the sharks of mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for characters you currently have no use for. I say this because just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

Practice really does make the imperfections in our writing less noticeable, and you may find a later use for these practice characters.

(edit) P.S. I forgot to mention that this subject is so large it will be continued on Monday. I will include examples of what I consider good and bad emotional scenes, and explain why I feel the way I do about them.


Credits and Attributions:

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=80715597 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg&oldid=289210320 (accessed July 10, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Judith Leyster The Proposition.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Judith_Leyster_The_Proposition.jpg&oldid=354595803 (accessed July 10, 2019).

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