Category Archives: Figurative Language

The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

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I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


Same Difference

The Prompt:

Page 39 of Room to Write asks us to draw at least 25 comparisons between 2 different things:  something that’s around you right now, and something else that’s either an object, person, or concept.

I’m going to compare the old Victorian church outside my window to marriage 😉

Response:

1.  Soulful, can inspire

2.  Houses both joy and grief

3.  Immense, sometimes imposing

4.  Intricately constructed; always something new to see from a different angle

5.  What appears outside is not always indicative of/relevant to what’s occurring inside

6.  Wears with time

7.  Built one brick at a time

8.  Requires faith and commitment

9.  Can be alive with song and community

10. Is empty when neglected, hollow and echoey

11. Fundamentally the same structure throughout time, yet must adapt the way it operates to change

12.  Needs to be scheduled into a busy life

13.  The lushness surrounding it periodically gets chopped away, but does grow back, and more lushly for it

14.  Is a vessel of new life, on varying levels

15.  You get out of it what you put into it

16.  Can house hypocrisy

17.  Can’t please everyone all of the time

18.  Needs constant maintenance

19.  Provides sanctuary

20.  Provides education

21.  Requires attentiveness—not just hearing, but listening

22.  Requires reciprocal communication

23.  Requires an open heart and mind

24.  Cannot operate without thankless hard work

25.  Comes around collecting, making you pay now and then

Reflection:

These were the first 25 things to come to mind, and I’m sure that some of them are redundant with each other—I found it getting really hard by around 18 or so!  A very fun and brain-flexing activity, though, when trying to assess all that is similar between things otherwise so dissimilar to one another.  Writing involves an abundance of comparisons, after all, as such devices as metaphor and simile help us communicate more vividly and stylistically, drawing parallels within the universe to illustrate the connectedness of all things.


Slippery When Wet

Just returned from a long bank holiday weekend camping in Devon with some pleasant drives and strolls through Somerset and the Cotswolds as well.  The English countryside with its rolling patchwork of greens and yellows and occasional puffs of white sheep and dairy cows—all accessorized in dense hedges or stony walls and cottages—is certainly an isle of inspiration for a writer.  Be they grasses or cobbles underfoot, the paths one treads here are a return to the natural state and the fundamentals on which we build our lives and stories.

The last writing prompt I followed involved fire; today’s regards that other element that seemed to so dominate my camping trip, whether it surged onto the coastal sands or pattered against our tent in the night.  I speak, of course, of water.

The Prompt:

Page 31 of Room to Write asks us to “write about water: tap water, ocean water, rain water, any water or experience or dream of water that has both wet and whetted [our] imagination.”   Well, I’ve written about my water dreams already, so I’ll try not to be too redundant here…

Response:

WATER.  It multiplies the Mogwai or signals an approaching T-Rex, melts the Wicked Witch or freezes Leonardo to Kate Winslet.  It helps kids slip-n-slide and makes T-shirt contests more interesting.  It conforms to the shape of its container and yields both its clarity and taste to the color and flavor of what enters it; yet I would not call it submissive.  No, it fills the container’s inner space to empty it of air and weigh it down, and it dilutes the efficacy of what it absorbs, dissipating it in its solvency whenever it can play this advantage.  It carves canyons and fjords in its liquid and solid states, eroding away in its slow, subtle way of feigning innocence.  Water cleanses away the toxins, rinses the filth; it quenches our thirst and hydrates our cells.  It cools or it scalds, it cleans or it floods; it can keep us afloat with its density or yank us down with its current, hold us up on a wave or crush us under a whitecap.  It ebbs, it flows, it dips, it swells.  It can flush out mortal life or baptize into one everlasting.  In its glassy calm, its surface can reflect our being and the wonder of the skies as it refracts the perceptions that penetrate deeper.  Water contains mystery in its depths, holding it beyond the reach of light, and yet what it sprays forth to glitter in the sun can somehow reveal all the answers.

Reflection:

Water has always fascinated me…as a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid, and as an adult, I found a new way of communing with it when I learned to sail (the capsizing drill in 50-degree Fahrenheit Lake Michigan being one bonding session I could have done without…it was less fun the second time around when the main sail came down on top of me and trapped me underwater—not to fear!  I was an apt pupil and remembered my survival strategy :)).

Anyways, I find I often allude to water in my writing as analogous to emotions and circumstances, playing on the ways it can be a subduing or overwhelming force, an annoyance like a leaking faucet, or perhaps a current that sweeps my characters along the tributaries that lead into their destinies.  It’s a recurring motif, for example, from the very beginning to the very last sentence of my Sixteen Candles fan-fiction to play on the unfortunate fact that the narrator is literally unable to drink from the water fountain in the movie, which parallels her deeper “thirst” as she comes of age:

“Here [Sam] had the smartest guy in my physics club falling all over himself to impress her, saturating her ego with his deluge of compliments, but she gets all haughty and tense, as though struggling to ignore the persistent drip of Chinese water torture.

Girls like her just rinse and spit. They’ll spit out a mouthful and have the nerve to complain that they’re thirsty.”

I also can’t help but think of this element at the pen-tips of the pros, such as the way Stephen Crane wields water in his short story, “The Open Boat”:

“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.”

No matter how light or heavy the content of a story, there seems to be an abyss of options for describing water or using it metaphorically, especially as it shares the complex dualities of fire that I’ve discussed previously.  In this way, it is a tap that could never run dry, so to speak.

So I’m curious—what are examples of water imagery that you have found effective, either in your own or others’ writing?


Fire Walk With Me

The Prompt:

Given the prevalent symbolism of fire across centuries of story-telling, page 30 of Room to Write asks us to share “a personal story, memory, or belief about fire.”  Or, we can conduct a freewriting beginning with the word “fire” and let it spread from there.

Response:

FIRE.  It takes life and sustains life.  It guides our sight through darkness or blinds us to what else we might find in shadow, revealing and concealing.  It illuminates our romance and dances upon the page.  Fire attracts the moth and repels the mosquito; it swallows the air and laps up the tinder that shelters us, spiriting it away in climbing smoke, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  It licks our bones clean and sterilizes the needle, preens the prairie grasses and purifies the water.  It  casts menace upon our faces when lighting us from beneath, yet shrouds in angelic glow when lighting us from behind.  Fire converts raw food into nourishment for our bodies, or consumes nourishment for our souls into raw emotion.  It is an exclamation that will clear a room within seconds or signal a gathering to share stories round its warmth.  It thaws, it soothes, it burns, it chars; it can fuel our hope or ignite our dread.  It can whisper to us in crackles and snaps, promising safety and comfort in a cold, barren landscape, or it can hiss at us like wind against our eardrums or a stampede rumbling down the hillside to crush us.  Fire is an element embracing our passions, sweeping exponentially in our lust or our anger until it sizzles into dowsing foam or, when there’s nothing more upon which it can feed, coughs its smoldering death rattle as glowing cinders close their eyes on a bed of black.

Reflection:

Ah, this prompt brought me back to my teaching days, when fire was so often imagery to analyzeI’ve actually used this exact same activity in class so that students could reflect on what connotations fire held for them.  And, as I can see above, I personally muse over the dualities of fire in all its functions and figurative implications.

This dichotomy is evident in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, in which fire goes from being a symbol of a romantic love to that of recklessness:

“O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” – Romeo commenting on Juliet’s beauty

“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” – The Friar commenting on R&J’s impetuous actions

In just writing about it above, I found how naturally anthropomorphism came, describing fire in terms of carrying out human/animal actions—e.g., “laps up,” “licks,” “preens,” “whisper,” “coughs,” etc.  This immediately brings to mind the figurative and descriptive language William Golding employed to depict fire in Lord of the Flies:
“Smoke was rising here and there among the creepers that festooned the dead or dying trees.  As they watched, a flash of fire appeared at the root of one wisp, and then the smoke thickened.  Small flames stirred at the trunk of a tree and crawled away through leaves and brushwood, dividing and increasing.  One patch touched a tree trunk and scrambled up like a bright squirrel.  The smoke increased, sifted, rolled outwards.  The squirrel leapt on the wings of the wind and clung to another standing tree, eating downwards. Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw.  Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea.  At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering.  The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.  They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire.  The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them.  Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame.  The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the mountain.”
The similes and anthropomorphism above create such vivid sensory detail; this is the kind of descriptive writing to aspire for.
Okay then, your turn.  Does fire bear a personal meaning for you?  What images, emotions, or beliefs does it represent?


If I Could Talk I’d Tell You…

Sometimes what is really worth saying is what is most difficult to say.  Perhaps anyone can tell a story, but it’s the unsayable that charges the tale with compelling if not conflicting emotion.  Writers write because they have something within that is urging to be said; the challenge, though (and the reason why I think not just anyone can tell a good story), is articulating what we feel so strongly when there may be no direct means of doing so.  This is why people use metaphor and simile or play off the sounds of words themselves to recreate an experience that is otherwise unrelatable.

The Prompt:

To help us say the unsayable, page 23 of Room to Write asks us to “choose a feeling, idea, or experience that you haven’t been able to express to anyone no matter how hard or often you have tried.”  In trying to convey this, we are encouraged to use any of the following writing strategies:

1. Comparison – compare the sensation to a similar feeling that it reminds us of;

2. Juxtaposition – describe conflicting aspects of the sensation, side by side; and/or,

3. Rhythm – structure the words/syntax of our sentences to audibly mimic the sensation.

Response:

At times, it felt my eyes would propel from their sockets, or splash out of them with the popping burst of a water balloon breaking against blades of grass…as if I might literally ‘cry my eyes out.’  My heart felt it might split open my chest cavity like a crab leg gripped in the toothed metal of a lobster cracker; holding my heart back from rupture, however, was an opposing anvil of pressure at my sternum, compressing my breast as though I’d plunged into ever deeper waters.  The dulling of other senses was likewise like treading below the water’s surface, looking up to see the pool of light above while deliberately sinking myself toward what was cool and black, obscuring my perception of life as it actually was through the dark and refracting depths and clogging my ears to reason.  At other times, it was like being strained through a sieve, dispersing the atoms of my being into the broader environment, a melding into the background as I soaked into the carpeting or evaporated into the walls, becoming more and more transparent from my own sight.  A water-logged cadaver deadened by apathy alternating with the quick-pulsing, hyperventilating, lurching engine of emotion that, either way, spun me off the road and left me paralyzed in the ditch, tangled within the weeds where no one could see or hear me.  This is what depression felt like.

Reflection:

Yeesh, I feel like gulping for air after trying to re-feel the sensation of a dark, momentary blip in my life.  Thank goodness this experience was temporary, triggered by a few too many life changes that occurred at once—good changes overall, granted, but changes nonetheless that entailed adjustment and sacrifice.  Ah, the bittersweetness of life…but as I learned in Istanbul’s bazaars last autumn, it is good for their elaborately woven Turkish carpets to be trodden on, as it only makes the knots stronger.  And thus we all strengthen into something of more beauty just when we may want to pity ourselves for being stepped on.

In any case, while I don’t have any issues talking about it (I prefer to, actually, as being able to speak of it in the past tense makes me revel in the happiness of my present and optimism for my future), I never feel I can adequately get the experience across.  And I can’t say for certain I’ve done so here, nor really approached it in the way that Bonni Goldberg has asked; all I can say is that I wrote what came to me most readily, and I know I could rewrite it through various other lenses.

I didn’t deliberately attempt rhythm, but if I want to grasp for sound effects, I detect some unintended assonance and alliteration in the penultimate sentence:  the repeated “aw” sound in “water-logged” that draws out the words like the slowed feeling of trying to run under water, the interspersed “a” and “eh” sounds in “cadaver deadened by apathy” that sound listless and whiney, then the “d” sound in “cadaver deadened” that falls with dull thuds.  The action words with strong, snapping consonants and short “i” sounds that follow (“quickpulsing, hyperventilating”) seem to then speed up the sentence a bit.  At least that’s my take on it…or maybe I’m just making this all up as I go along 😉  But seriously, though, although my little analysis here might be stretching because I didn’t try to strategically embed devices like this, I point out these examples just to show how the sound of language could be used for certain effects, and obviously more effectively when done on purpose.  I think this is at least the 2nd time I’ve bypassed rhythm as a writing technique in my responses, so I really need to start challenging myself more in this area.

But enough about me.  How might you say the unsayable?


Exploring Form

The Prompt:

Addressing our existing or yet-to-be-created written pieces, page 7 of Room to Write gives us two options:

1)  We can compose a new piece of writing without considering what form it will take–that is, approach writing organically and allow the words to dictate their structure, not be boxed into it.  The idea is that writers do not and should not try to slot themselves into a specific category of writing–essayists can be poets, poets can be journalists, vice versa and etc., etc.  We may be hindering our writing by forcing it into a convention and, even worse, we may be regarding ourselves as failures when we do not succeed in one genre without giving consideration to how we might flourish in another.

2)  Spinning off #1, we may instead choose to select a piece we’ve already written in some form or another and rewrite it following an alternative genre:  e.g., short story, poem, essay, performance monologue, creative nonfiction, or children’s story.

Given my yammering about my 4th grade poetry anthology in a previous post, I’m going to choose Door #2 and convert one of my existing prose snippets into a poem.  It’s not a form that I gravitate to naturally, and I can’t recall any poetry I’ve written since high school (usually of the lovesick teenager variety in my diary) except maybe a sonnet in grad school.  So the piece that I am transforming below is something I freewrote and later revised in preparation for inserting into my current book project if it ends up fitting in anywhere.

Response:

Late night bath—

The drain releases overhead.

*

Flipping pages,

Pausing for a moment’s thought,

Eyes drift unconsciously

To where it nests,

An evening bag in her line of sight.

Eyes plucked from pensive pause,

They focus yet still do not,

Enrapt are they in the celestial body

Of the beading

As though staring into milky heavens,

A private observatory of unrestricted skies,

Free of constellation form

And twinkling the more for it.

*

Lens zooms in,

Eyes and mind allured,

And only then an awareness

Of rising volume and intensity.

Water trickling,

Encompassing her

About her

Around her

Within her

Deafening her

Drops stream then bead

On her skin

Blood courses with new coolness.

*

Close-up transcends

stationary to tracking

As she rises

Approaches

The dazzling hexagon,

Its glittering lid swept open

Its reflective remnants stared into

Seeking out that which sought

Until

In a flicker irretrievable

She sees them:

*

Fogged green

And glaring back.

Reflection:

I’m not sure what I think of this.  It’s nothing profound, but surely something that if I truly sought to perfect as a poem, I could go through countless revisions and take it into even further directions.  The original piece is intended for a larger work, so it begs the question whether it can stand alone in poetic genre.  I tend to think that it can, as the poetic form allows–if not effectively requires–gaps in the story as it’s explicitly told, instructing the individual reader’s imagination to construct implicit meaning to allow the tale to flow within one’s own interpretation.

I obviously did not take my prose piece word for word, and in deconstructing and reconstructing it in this way, I found myself deleting prepositions left and right and allowing myself to shift into  passive voice at times–the beauty of poetry, after all, is that unless you’re writing a traditional one that wears a corset of rules as a sonnet does, there is no strict convention.  It does not have to rhyme, it does not have to allot a certain number of syllables per line (not to discount the genius that is Shakespeare’s mastery of iambic pentameter), it does not matter how long or short each line or stanza is (sounding a “barbaric yawp” to you, Whitman!), and grammar and punctuation are a free-for-all (Miss Dickenson, what a rebel in petticoats you were).  On this last point, what I did have a hard time with was the punctuation–even knowing that it was entirely up to me and how I deemed it supported my words best, I still gravitated toward conventional mechanics in that respect.  Judging when to insert line breaks, however, came more easily, as it’s such a simple yet effective visual tool for emphasizing words and phrases via isolation versus italics, caps, or bold font.

This exercise also brought my attention to the poetic devices already embedded in my original piece, which reassures me that I am incorporating a variety of such in my prose to hopefully better appeal to the senses and facilitate understanding–the ones I spy in particular (and which are color-coded in the poem above) are metaphor, simile, anthropomorphism, alliteration, and assonance.  The fact that I did not need to intentionally plant them into the poem for the sake of the activity tells me that I am listening to my words as I write them and endeavoring to paint mental pictures.  It is not always that these come through in a first pass, however–actually, while it’s wondrous when they come naturally, it would be too inhibiting to constantly be deliberate in incorporating them when first generating new writing.  Instead, it’s good to approach writing the way Goldberg seems to be encouraging us to (and as exemplified in this Dead Poet’s Society clip), by letting go and riding with the current on the first draft.  Subsequent revision is then our opportunity for elaborating with detailed description and devices where needed.


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