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Using Symbolism in your Description!

A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 2)

 

This month we’ve been talking about Extreme Scene Makeover and diving into description.  I introduced the acronym FOCUS, a tool I use to help me write description.  We covered F-O-CU on last week’s post (here).

 

First step in writing great description is to put it through the POV of your character.  It’s all about how they feel about being there.  We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene.

 

Once you add in perspective, then you need to dig deep into the description.

 

Today, let’s talk about the final and most powerful element of FOCUS: Symbolism, and how to use it to connect your reader emotionally to the description (and thus use description as another tool for emotional layering in your scene!)

 

In your story, you’re actually trying to communicate more than with words – you’re trying to cement a feeling for them.  It’s part of the trick you play on your reader – you subtly embed a feeling, an emotion into the world that will help you build the emotions of the character.

 

Word pictures are how you’ll communicate the impact the scene has on your character, and thus, your reader.  Here’s another way to look at it:  It’s the way that your character perceives the person, place or thing, summed up in a symbol.

 

Consider this passage:

The night had turned crisp as he walked home late under the lamplights.  He’d retired the coupe in Uncle Jimmy’s garage two blocks away and carried the coat box under his arm, his collar turned up. Snow, soft, almost ethereal, drifted from the sky, turning to diamonds under the streetlights.

 

The Close up – (snow under the streetlights) is turned into a word picture that conveyed the POV character’s mood.  He’s happy. He’s giving his girlfriend this expensive coat.  And he feels like a provider.

 

The word picture conveys the feeling or mood of your character as he relates to the scene.

 

How do you find it?  How do you build it?

First, look at your descriptive nouns and verbs….they might help you find that symbol.  Snowflakes are easy – they’re white and they dazzle.  So, what else is white and dazzles?  Diamonds.

 

Once you have the Symbol, how do you apply it?

  1. Direct Association:

Dino stared at the commander, his helmet pushed back to reveal muddy, dark hair, dark blue eyes.  His face bore days of filth, grime embedded in his grizzle, and he reeked of swamp and blood and smoke.  The batter only made him appear a bona fide hero.

 

This is an easy symbolism – I just say it – he’s a hero.  Sometimes we just say the word picture right out.

 

  1. Implied: But sometimes, and better, it’s implied. It’s when we go deeper to say, what’s the meaning behind the symbol.  And, can we use it without explaining the meaning?

Consider this scene:  The POV is fleeing from his home, trapped by his past, headed to an unknown future.  In this passage, the symbol, the Albatross  signifies his desire for escape.

 

Most days, he wrapped himself into his blanket—the knitted wool a mockery against the shearing wind—and traced the mischief of the seabirds. Markos watched as the birds dipped into the troughs between the waves and let themselves be lured to the stern of the boat by children offering biscuits and smoked herring smuggled from the breakfast table. Once he’d spied an albatross, and something about the great width of its wings, riding the gales without effort, lodged a bullet in his throat.

 

Consider this implied symbol in the passage.  The POV is lying on the sidewalk after just being thrown out of a bar fight that he started. He’s ashamed and wants to just disappear:

 

He skidded across the sidewalk, rolled, and landed on his face in the blackened snow. Shards of ice cut his skin even as he lay there, breathing in blades of air. Blood ran into his mouth, his lip split. His eye burned, and he couldn’t see out of it. And when he breathed in, his body turned to flame. He rolled over, sprawling on the sidewalk, his pulse slowing enough now to taste his broken parts. Overhead the stars still winked at him, as if saying, yes, Dino, we see you. He raised his arm, his fingers slowly closing over one, the brightest, until finally, he snuffed it out.

 

He doesn’t want heaven looking at him.

 

Ask:  How can you use symbolism to convey a deeper message?  This is the heart of showing.

 

If you’d like an in-depth class on description, check out our Storyworld video series!

 

Go! Write something Brilliant!

 

smw sig without background

 

 

 

 

PS—we’re opening our highly acclaimed Online Storycrafter’s Program for new students in early September.  If you’re interested in being notified when the course opens, click HERE.

 

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If You Don’t Know What To Do, Make ‘Em Sad

Rachel HauckRiding my bike the other day, musing over my work-in-progress while also contemplating the book “The Nightingale” which I’d just finished, I realized that there is a certain sadness to the protagonist in books I love.

In books the world loves. Not morbid sadness. Not depressed. But a certain longing if you will.

Save for Elizabeth Bennett who covered her longing for true love with “snark” and piety.

In The Nightingale, the sister protagonists had a sad upbringing. Left with a minder by their father after their mother died.

In A Hundred Summers, the heroine has two points of view. One is a certain sadness and longing, wondering if she can get back the love she lost.

Girl On A Train has a desperate kind of feel, a locked in, unsettling first person narrative that’s both irritating and intriguing.

At MBT, we talk about what the character wants as a motivator when the story opens.

But the want has to come with an innate sadness.

They can’t get what they want. What they want is lost. Or unobtainable. Or perhaps undesirable. Whatever… you get my drift.

Even if the story opens on a happy occasion, we must get the sense of impending doom.

If she’s at her bridal shower, what she wants is happily ever after. She got her man. She is a month away from being married. But…

… she’s afraid happiness will never really be hers.

… an argument with her fiancé has create suspicion about a relationship at work.

…  her best friend phoned to say she couldn’t make the wedding.

Naturally suspense, thrillers, novels involving Nazi’s (hello The Nightingale) have an inherent tension and sadness.

We know what the people want: food, warmth, peace, to live their lives without fear.

But digging down to the emotional elements, it’s not enough to want for those things, they must want for more. In The Nightingale, it was healing between the sisters, and each one with their father.

For the cop hero, he “wants” to get the bad guy for fear of a reaming from his boss.

Or he has to want to get the bad guy because the last bad guy who eluded him committed a double homicide.

Or the heroine has to escape the man stalking her for own safety as well as her young daughter.

There’s the big want — the external — but there has to be the internal, emotional want and a sadness surrounding it.

If you feel your story is lacking, asking, “What’s my protagonist sad about?”

Dig into the emotional layers.

My current protagonist is sad over the death of her best friend in Afghanistan.

But as I’m writing, I can’t get to her heart. She’s too external. Being sad over her friend is good, and a component, but what is SHE really dealing with?

She has to have a personal sadness. Over her own want. Over her own desire.

I need to dig deeper. The story is ultimately about her! The death of her friend is a catalyst to find the core of my heroine.

Make sense?

So if your protagonist seems kind of shallow, talking in circles, pause to see if you’ve really discovered their inner sadness. (Note: not depression!)

Don’t worry, the journey of the story is to turn the sadness into happiness. Or at least create satisfying resolution.

Got it?

Great!

Go write something brilliant.

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A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 1)

Extreme Wordsmithing Makeover:  A Quick and Easy Tool for Writing Description (part 1)

 

This month we’ve been talking about Weak Writing Fixes and diving into description.  Last week I introduced the acronym FOCUS, a tool I use to help me write description.

 

First step in writing great description is to put it through the POV of your character.  It’s all about how they feel about being there.  We layer in their attitude while they describe the scene.

 

Once you add in perspective, then you need to dig deep into the description. I use the word FOCUS to help me break it down.

 

F= FACTS: You want to take a good look at your noun and ask:

What is it?  What is it NOT? 

 

As we start writing description, we need a baseline of what we’re looking at before we can dive into description.  One of my favorite ways to do this is to compare what the POV character is seeing against what they expect, or want to see, or what it could be.

 

This is from Sons of Thunder, one my favorite comparison scenes.

 

Markos had become a foreigner in his own skin. As if he’d left himself back on the dock or perhaps sitting in his square, white-washed window, the shutters wide, watching the sun’s blush on the waves creeping over the fishing boats and charming him to sea.

But not this sea. This sea he didn’t know, with its endless caldron of jagged valleys, edged with spittle, and at night, so black, the wind over it an endless moan. At night, the sky appeared so immense, yet miraculously intimate, it seemed he could pull the stars from their mooring. And, he’d never been so cold. A kind of chill that he couldn’t flee pressed into his bones, turning him brittle. The wind from this black, sometimes green sea—never his Ionian blue—moaned in his ears, burned his throat.

 

 

The key to seeing the object is to tell us the facts of it.  We need to know what it is.  But we also need to know only the important facts for the scene.  We don’t need to know everything, just the essentials of the elements.

 

But we need more than the Facts.  We also need to understand this with our senses.  This is where we employ those 5 senses:  I call them Observations:   O = Observations. 

 

The 5 Senses–Sight, Smell, Touch, Taste, Sound—are key to bringing the storyworld to life. 

 

Consider this passage:

 

(From Baroness) Rosie: Paris 1923

 

Rosie and Dash walked home along the Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral shining against the night, the stars above the bright lights of a grand performance.

Accordion and banjo music floated out from the cafés as they walked up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, the music mixing with the murmuring of voices of those dining on outdoor terraces. (Sound)  The moon came out to join them and hung low, peeking between the greening linden trees, the redolence of spring twining toward the blackened river. (Smell)

 

They laughed, and Rosie felt Dash slip his hand into hers. Warm and strong, he wove his fingers through hers and tucked her close to him.  (Touch)

 

 

Here’s another from the same book. The heroine is hoping to hitch a ride with a barnstormer.

 

 

Twilight skimmed the shiny wings and their sleek red bodies as she finally broke free of the departing spectators and lost herself among the airplanes, parked in a neat row before a long white tent. Inside the tent, lamplight flickered, (Sight) voices of the pilots tumbling out onto the grassy field. (Sound) Parked alongside the tent was the red roadster she’d seen barrel through town, and a truck with The Flying Stars painted on the side, a trailer attached to the back. A man in a grey jumpsuit, stained with grease sat on a running board smoking a cigarette (Taste & Smell), the ash a red eye in the encroaching darkness. A mongrel with a mangled ear lay at his feet.

She wandered between two planes, feathering her hand over the painted canvass of the wing (Touch). Bracing herself on a wheel strut, she pulled herself up to look into the cockpit.

 

 

Once we build the Facts and the Observations (Senses) we need to cement the sense the description into the reader’s head, as well as show what is important about the description to the POV character. Too many details overwhelm the reader – they don’t know where to look.  Think about a camera.  When a photographer zeros in on a subject, it finds the most unique element and frames that in the shot.  It’s the details that betray us.

 

So, going back to the acronym, we use the C.U for the Close Up. (F.O.C.U)

 

From The Help

I watch as she cuts out biscuits with a shot glass that’s never shot a thing but short dough. Behind me, the kitchen windows are propped open with Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogues. Pictures of two dollar hand mixers and mail-order toys flutter in a breeze, swollen and puckered from a decade of rain.

 

 

Sons of Thunder

More of a dangerous, even seductive scene.

 

Marcos just tried not to glance in the mirror, where the bright bulbs illuminated her array of make-up pots, jewelry, and discarded headdresses.  Or the hosiery that hung over the top of the dressing screen. 

 

 

Sons of Thunder

 

He’d filled out – well, they both had, probably, but with Markos nearly thirty, he reminded him of their father, wide shouldered, seaweed tough hands.  A square jaw, his face grizzled with whiskers, which parted at an open wound on his cheekbone.

 

(we focus on the cut)

 

 

Pick a Close Up that epitomizes the feeling you want to leave with the reader.  The cut shows the violence of war, and how tough the hero is.  He’s a survivor.

 

In the previous paragraph, we focused on the hosiery, hanging down like legs.

 

Close Ups bring the scene to life, add a sense of reality as well as texture to the story. We see it, and the close up embeds a feeling into our minds.

 

Next week we’ll talk about the final and most powerful element of FOCUS: Symbolism, and how to use it to connect your reader emotionally to the description (and thus use description as another tool for emotional layering in your scene!)

 

BUT, if you’d like an in-depth class on description, check out our Storyworld video series!

 

Go! Write something Brilliant!

 

 

 

PS—we’re opening our highly acclaimed Online Storycrafter’s Program for new students in early September.  If you’re interested in being notified when the course opens, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

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