Tag Archives: symbolism in writing

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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NaNoWriMo 2019 Week 1 – six days in #amwriting

Today we are 6 days into National Novel Writing Month. Every November, we begin to lose some of our writing companions at this point. They may drop out without explanation. Some will admit they can’t write 1,667 words a day, let alone at all.

For everyone, the first days of euphoria are fading. That rush, that incredible feeling of “We can do this if we all pull together,” has worn off.

Now, when faced with the reality of what this challenge really means, the first round of writers who fail, quit the game.

All that means is they aren’t ready to write their novel. These people can sit at the keyboard and go gung-ho for a few paragraphs or even a few pages.

But then they hit a wall. They have nothing; their story is written. In their minds, they hear crickets.

It’s not a crime. It just means they aren’t ready to write a novel in thirty days. If they keep writing at whatever pace they are comfortable, they will get a novel written.

It helps to know that not every story is a novel. I have several short stories that I thought were novels when I had the idea to write them.

But at 6000 words, they were finished, and there was nothing more to say.

Some of us have the tools to soldier on through the doldrums and to write a novel in 30 days.

This is the point where discipline and a little planning really help. For me, knowing what I need to include helps me get the book written.

But even though I write to an outline, things come along that must be included or removed. My novel is a contemporary Gothic drama about a group of writers and artists. Symbols are really important in this because they create an atmosphere of darkness and gloom. I was writing along, when suddenly dragons cropped up, filling a void, and deepening my storyline.

As a child, my protagonist’s favorite book, the Hobbit, portrayed dragons as symbols of deceit, of impending doom, and harbingers of death. Thus, dragons are subliminal warnings to her. She subconsciously notices when they appear as

  • A dragon pendant.
  • Dragon shaped clouds.
  • A rock shaped like a dragon.
  • Shrubs trimmed to look like dragons.
  • Toy dragons in every giftshop window.
  • Dragon t-shirts.
  • Dragon tattoos.
  • Dragon earrings.

So, even though this novel is not fantasy, dragons play a large part in offering my protagonist subliminal clues about the unstated threat the antagonist poses, and in creating the Gothic atmosphere of the story.

Did I hear someone ask what makes a story Gothic?

  • You need an oppressive atmosphere, populated with characters who each conceal dark secrets.
  • Strong undercurrents of emotion, positive and negative, shade each conversation, giving clues to who the characters really are and what their role is in the drama.
  • Some obvious clues as to who has good intentions and who plots evil are false, but the real clues are hidden in plain sight.
  • At times, the protagonist feels hints of evil lurking just out of sight but can’t identify them.
  • Subliminal symbols ratchet up the sense of dread, fear that something terrible will happen.

So far, this has been a fun novel to write. And, so far, it looks like it will make it to novel length—60,000 words or so is my goal.

When I laid down the outline, I didn’t have that subliminal signal down, other than cracked and broken objects in the scenery. Mirrors reflecting images reflected in other mirrors also figure prominently, but I knew those signs alone weren’t enough to create the sense of foreboding this tale deserves.

I knew something truly symbolic of deceit would make itself known to me, and it did in the form of a silver dragon pendant habitually worn by the antagonist. That led to me thinking about the many ways in which dragons could become allegories in this novel.

What will emerge next? I don’t know. I’m 18,000 words into it, and it has already undergone a radical evolution. Still, the inciting incident and all the plot points as originally outlined remain the same, as does the ending.

I love it when I can put symbolism and allegory to work. The first draft of my dark, Gothic drama is on track.


Credits and Attributions:

Smaug, illustration by David Demaret, 2012. David Demaret [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Smaug par David Demaret.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Smaug_par_David_Demaret.jpg&oldid=346075444 (accessed November 5, 2019).

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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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Sculpting the second draft #amwriting

The end of NaNoWriMo approaches. Many novels have been written, and many are still incomplete. And when we do finally write the last words, we will get that happy-dance feeling, that moment where the world is singing.

Following that burst of joy, we have the urge to immediately share it. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it.

We need to gain some distance from our work to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometime this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel, only to have it never be published.

So, when we do get back to our manuscript, where do we start so we can avoid the failed novel syndrome? I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is clear when you look at that old ms.  I didn’t know that we are like sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product–it really is our block of clay.

I know—you see a complete novel, but trust me, others won’t see what you do in it, just yet. When a sculptor sees a block of clay, she also sees what it can become. She begins scraping the layers away, and that is what we must do.

We scrape the layers away scene by scene. As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
  5. Strung together, these scenes form the entire story arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

If somewhere near the middle you discover that you have lost the overall plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happens to me for several reasons.

First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I can

  • Go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
  • Try to figure out why the plot has failed.

More often, I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin?

Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a quest for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the name “MacGuffin” in the 1930s. 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. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The Maltese Falcon is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The object of the quest might not be 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 and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown. The true quest is not for the object. It is for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence.

As we are peeling back the layers of our rough draft, what symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story that we can work with? Once we identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we must amplify it. Symbolism is a powerful tool and is part of the subtext that pushes the story forward. In my opinion, one of the most masterful uses of symbolism happens in the film, The Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.

Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we are sharpening the final product, scraping away from this part and adding over here, rewording and redefining as we go.

Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become clearer to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not just anyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the true story that needs to be told. It also takes practice. Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.

A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

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