Saturday, July 28, 2012

Week 31 - Contrast

29 Jul - 4 Aug: 10 Points About Contrast


If you want to emphasize something, contrast it.  This is pretty obvious when we take our holiday snaps, but how can we apply it to writing?

Consider the three main ingredients of a story: characters, plot and setting.

Let's start with character development:

1. Characters coloured with strange phobias, weird habits, or unusual philosophies, provide different avenues for conflict within a story, and provide a healthy contrast to the concrete (ie. less interesting) characters in a story.  Besides, these oddities are realistic - just think of the people you've met who turned out to have surprising quirks, hobbies or habits.  One must be careful not to overdo the idiosyncrasies though, otherwise the reader will be distracted by how many wackos are in the story.  Beware, also, the dichotomous stereotype (2012 Novel and Short Story Handbook edited by Adria Haley) such as the gangster who loves his momma.  Yes, it's a contrast, but a very predictable one.

2. In So You Want to Write, Joan Rosier-Jones looks at philosophical contrasts between characters as a way of invoking conflict.  She provides the example of a capitalist businessman meeting a bag lady.  There are plenty of other real-life examples of conflicting perspectives to chose from, e.g., the conservationist and the developer, the animal right's activist and the socialite wearing furs.

And plot:

3. James N. Frey (How To Write Damn Good Fiction) suggests enriching plot by contrasting characters with their settings.  When characters land in unfamiliar surroundings, perspective is fresh and conflict is imminent as they struggle to adapt, escape or accept.  Consider the high school princess sent to prison, the Wall Street broker in an African village or a street urchin in a palace.

4. When the reader maintains the, 'What happens next?' question, the pages keep turning.  The plot, therefore, must take inevitable but surprising turns.  At a decision point, consider the most logical outcome, and then experiment with the opposite to see how it affects plot and pace.


 And lastly, setting:

5. In Elements of Fiction Writing, Jack Bickham suggests comparing a character's new environment with an old one.  This serves to highlight a particular element of the setting as well as develop a character's perspective.  E.g., He hugged the hood of the anorak around his face and wondered what drove him from the familiar shores of Monterey to Denali in winter.

6. A setting can add intrigue and mystery to a story when it features incongruous elements, e.g., a train station platform that serves as the doorway to a wizardry school; a wardrobe that leads to a mystical world.  Need I say more?


And to finish off, here are some random points that relate to the building blocks of writing (i.e., words and ideas):

7.  Inappropriate, unexpected, or exaggerated adjectives can enhance humour.

8. Adverbs, when used, should contrast, not amplify their verbs. Roy Peter Clark asks the question: What is more effective, Killing Me Softly or Killing me Fiercely?

9.  Similarly, metaphors and similes can use contrasting images to emphasize an aspect of the thing being described, and is particularly useful for irony, e.g., as quiet as a lion.

10. And lastly, here are some definitions for contrasting techniques supplied by Peter Clark:
  • defamiliarization takes the familiar and makes it odd and interesting;
  • familiarization takes the strange and makes it comprehensible.


Exercise 61.  Make a list of characters with philosophical differences, e.g., a banker and bag-lady.  Now use their differences to write a piece of dialogue between two of them.  (From, So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 62.  Think of a ‘normal’ action or object and insert it into a ‘normal’ situation or setting but one completely out of context (e.g., a pig riding an escalator, a nun sipping tea in a snowstorm, a human skull in a children’s playground).  Now, write a story that sets the scene and then goes on to provide a logical explanation for the incongruity.

Week 32 will consider other tools used for Humour.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Week 30 - Writing Places

22 Jul - 28 Jul: Location, Location, Location

This week I was intending to talk about Contrast in writing, but yet again, I'm going to stray from the program to consider something completely different: the Writing Environment.  Or perhaps I should be asking, is there a writing environment?

I haven't been big on inviting comment, I know, but they're always welcome and I would be interested to hear what other writers think about a dedicated place to write.  Do we really need a nice desk in a special room with classical music playing in the background?

Here are my thoughts on the subject, written earlier today:


It’s Time To Write
(620 words)

      I couldn’t let this opportunity go by.  I look around me now at the writing environment that I have let myself become accustomed to, and I can’t help but giggle inwardly (as outward mirth would truly tie me in with this bizarre but strangely infectious working environment).
      I am lounging on a blue vinyl padded seat designed for five-year-olds.  It is inordinately comfortable even though my knees are somewhere up around my chest.  The keyboard of my laptop sits diagonally on my lap and the screen is pushed back to the limits of metal fatigue to discourage it from donking me in the nose as I write.
      To my immediate left is a blue, red, and yellow twisting machine about three feet tall.  A dark little girl with long hair, and wearing black and white tiger tights under a sparkly blue shirt, did three spins on the contraption, smiled at me, and raced off to the next imitation gym apparatus (which happened to be a baby bench-press with an impressive looking bar-bell that she raised with not the slightest indication of effort).
      To my right is a blue, plastic table adorned with two bead puzzles.  One consists of a flat piece of wood carved into a variety of patterns, the coloured beads extending above and below the board for the purpose of moving them through the zig-zags and spirals.  The other puzzle is 3-dimentional and requires the child to thread the beads over the swirls and whirls of brightly coloured twisted wire.  I remember the item from my own childhood, which goes to show that good ideas live... well, a long time.
      The play unit before me is a netted enclosure of ascents, jumping areas, a balloon pit, one enclosed whirly slide and two open wavy slides that I would be hesitant to go on myself as I have watched the children fly down with unexpected speed, a mix of delighted and horrified surprise on their faces.
      Unfortunately, my three-year-old daughter is too short to reach the flying-fox by herself, so I must venture into the mystical world of the child’s playground (once again, I might add), to help her with her aspirations to fly.

      That was hard work, and the heart of the play unit smelled a little funny, though I refuse to think what the odd aroma could be.  I return to my blue padded lounge, relieved that my daughter has lost interest in what she can’t ably manage herself (and I, only barely can), and has opted to torment a Filipino boy (nicely, of course) on her way to the green treadmill with little feet stenciled on the track.
      The teenager behind the counter has inexplicably loudened the music that pumps through the facility. The selection is of such a variety that I wonder who their target audience really is.  My daughter dances to the Wiggles, Rock A-Bye Bear but is not so keen on Joan Jet and The Black Heart’s, I Love Rock and Roll.  It’s nice to think that the management has catered to the tastes of parents, but quite frankly, the music is loud, and I am old.
      So today, this is my writing environment.  I have responsibilities as a parent that don’t allow me to lock myself away for hours at a time and concentrate on composition, but my daughter is happily trying to cut the dark girl’s hair with a plastic saw, and I am happily tapping away, play-writing, but working up to the more serious task of injecting conflict, suspense and other solemnly serious stuff into the first draft of my first novel.  With Shake Your Tail Feather belting in the background, and an hour left on the clock, it’s time to write.

Exercise 59. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg suggests visiting an unfamiliar place, or a familiar place with a different outlook (e.g., whilst wearing slippers, a cowboy hat, a tiara), and writing.  I'm looking forward to sitting in a cafe with a cigarette hanging from my mouth, even though I don't smoke.

Exercise 60.  Visit a different setting and experience it with all five senses.  Write down interesting sensations or observations that can be incorporated into other stories, or write a story on the experience itself. (From Rosier-Jones's So You Want to Write.)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Week 29 - Symbolism

15 Jul - 21 Jul:  But what does it all mean?

I am not a psychologist and I'm not going to pretend I know the first thing about the subject, but we all know that certain images raise certain thoughts or emotions in our mind - just look at advertising - and for the purpose of this discussion on how symbolism can be used as a tool in writing, that's all we really need to know.

As much as I intend, one day, to read the works of the classic psychologists, for now I'll borrow from Jean Rosier-Joans and others to consider Jung's Archetypes, that is, those basic, subconscious elements that shape behaviours and personalities (according to Jung).  They are worth considering when developing characters, their goals and their values, and can be strongly linked to images, just like in dreams, if we intend to use archetypal elements as major themes in a story.


 1. The Self is all that makes a person uniquewhole, and capable of change.  Symbols of individuality could be a butterfly, a rainbow or an egg.  If a story's theme is about self-discovery, coming-of-age, reform or digression, strong solitary images (the rising and setting sun, phases of the moon, a bridge), may be useful.
2. The Shadow is that underlying part of the self that motivates.  When writers dig deep into the souls of their characters, the shadow is what lives on the page.  The sins and secrets, the dreams and desires of the shadow, drive the characters to think and act in surprising but inevitable ways.

3. The Anima or the Feminine represents how a man relates to a woman.  The feminine can be symbolised as nurturing and loving; a full, round moon, a cool lake or a succulent fruit; or as something that suffocates and threatens, such as a fog, a dense forest, or a storm.

4. The Animus or the Masculine relates to how a woman interacts with a man.  Any number of phallic symbols, such as a sword or tower, are common representations of the masculine.

5. The Persona or Mask is used to protect the ego from the negative influences of the worldDialogue and narrative show the mask; point-of-view, internal dialogue and subtle descriptions of facial expression and body language expose the shadow.  If deception or loss of identity is a major theme, costumes, disguises, or disfigurements may feature in the story.

These are the major five of Jung's archetypes (as I interpret them), but Jung suggested that archetypes are unlimited.  Here are a few others:

The Paternal and Maternal archetypes highlight the protective nature of an individual.
The Child relates to vulnerability, and the need and desire to be protected.
The Hero is strong and victorious, and can also be linked to healing and peace-making.
The Wise Man is all-seeing and insightful.
The Trickster is mischievous but can also be linked to innovation and creativity.
The Adversary can be represented by death and dark symbols.

In the Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes how 'symbolic juxtaposition' appeals to the intellect as well as the emotion of the reader. He suggests rereading what we write with a view of discovering repetition of images, opportunities to use symbols in metaphors, and placing images and symbols close together, so that symbols might be pushed to the surface and made part of the effect.  They shouldn't be too subtle, but they shouldn't steer the story so that the denouement seems contrived.

Exercise 57.  Write a story that includes at least one symbol that, in your mind, represents each of Jung's major archetypes.  (Adapted from So You Want to Write by Jean Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 58.  Think of three basic symbols (e.g., an axe, the sun, a set of golden dentures) and what they could mean.  Develop characters, a plot and setting around them.  (Adapted from the Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.)


During Week 30, I'll look at using Contrast.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Week 28 - Personification

8 Jul - 14 Jul: It's Alive!
The room seemed to sit there with raised eyebrows, innocently saying ‘Yes?!' 
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
We all know that characters make a story great, but who says the characters have to be human?  Now, this may seem like a simple and obvious question (especially to crazy sci-fi writers), and I'm sure we can all think of a zillion examples of non-human characters that have made it in the mythological, religious, folk-lore and yes, literary world.  Animal Farm, Lord of the Rings, and Jungle Book are some classic examples. 

If one wants to delve into various religions, explore fables, or write science fiction, fantasy or children's stories, personification, or anthropomorphism, that is, assigning human traits to non-human forms, is an obvious tool.

But for those of us who want to keep it real, lending something a personality can also serve a role.  If we want to get extreme, consider novels such as the Perfect Storm and Twister to see what compelling stories can be woven around a 'thing' as a major character.

On a more modest scale, personification is an effective form of imagery, similar to metaphors and similes, that can add an extra oomph to a setting or scene.  And as Douglas Adams demonstrates, it can set tone, add humour and be just darn refreshing to read.

In Week 27, I looked at clich├ęs and stereotypes, and suggested using original thoughts and images to avoid those haggard expressions.  Why not think about personification, and give that dark-and-stormy night a life of its own?

Again, I turn to my trusty bookcase for examples:
Far below, the town's piers looked cheerful and dashing, and far out at sea the lights of passing ships bobbed and blinked in the dusky light.  Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson.

The sirens were wailing for a total blackout, wailing through the rain which fell in interminable tears.... The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Humming drifted out of the night.  It wasn't a gospel tune exactly, but it carried all the personality of one.  The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Whether we like our leaves to frolic or our dogs to smile, personification adds life...literally.


Exercise 55.  Personify a dog, the sea, a cloud, a derelict car, and a ship in a storm. (Taken directly from So You Want to Write by Joan Rosier-Jones.)

Exercise 56.  Use personification in a descriptive passage about a natural object (rock, leaf, grass etc), a fruit or vegetable, and a kitchen utensil.  Have the object in front of you and refer to it often.

During Week 29, I will continue with the tools that evoke thought and emotion in the reader by looking at symbolism.