Saturday, March 29, 2008

Resonating Titles

We have just seen how a resonant title lends resonance to a story (e.g., Death in the Afternoon). Resonant chapter titles do likewise. Alternatively, some authors name the parts of a novel with resonant titles.

Such titles often use metaphors or play on a familiar opposite. For example, the title "Nothing Comes to Those Who Wait" plays on the familiar opposite saying All things come to those who wait.



Sunday, March 23, 2008

Resonance of Invoking Death

Invoking death resonates because it foreshadows. You can invoke the specter of death with imagery, a metaphor, an omen, or a premonition. If the story ends with the death of your main character, invoking death at the outset really resonates.

Shakespeare invoked death in Juliet's first words about Romeo after meeting him:

Go ask his name. If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.

Shakespeare invoked death before the outset, in the titles of his tragedies, such as The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hemingway did likewise in Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Of course, you can invoke the specter of death literally too, as Shakespeare did in Hamlet's tremendous opening scene with the ghost and as Charles Dickens did with the last apparition that comes to Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."



Tuesday, March 18, 2008

"Messed-Up, Untidy" Characters

Via Curiosities at The Millions:

Richard Russo: "My fictional Eliot [Spitzer] would be complex, would contain paradoxes. He would not be a hypocrite. My Eliot would believe with his whole heart in his crusades against the corrupt and the powerful and the privileged, even as he worked studiously to undermine his legacy. Fiction can accommodate such paradoxes, provided they're explained."

I'm sorry, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Complex is a buzzword so overused that it has lost all meaning. A complex is a personality trait reflected backward, reversed, folded back in the opposite direction. For example, an inferiority complex(ed) comes off as a superiority act.

Therefore, what is more complex than a self-righteous hypocrite?

Ah, the "banality of evil" again. The "intellectual" take waters it down to "illicit sex" and says that Spitzer's worst crime is "cluelessness," "blowing it."

Oh, so he's just like the rest of us, right? How banal.

Yes, some people like reading the banal, but that's not where the money is in this market.

But I don't mean to jigger the facts; fictive Eliot will do exactly what the real Eliot has done, only my guy almost never imagines getting caught.

How can you say that when he signed into the hotel under the name of a well-known close friend and benefactor? He was setting up this close friend and benefactor to get framed for his (Spitzer's) own illegal activity.

First, I'd like to know how you are going to square this fact with your Spitzer never thinking about getting caught. Second, I'd like to know how you are going to characterize your Spitzer as a basically good man (no worse than rest of us) who just happens to do a shockingly vicious, despicable, stomach-turning thing like that TO A FRIEND AND BENEFACTOR!

Not banal. Not banal at all.

Real-life Eliot has few friends, we're told, the natural result of what some people like to call his arrogance, though my Eliot has never thought of it in those terms until now.

These are fellow Democrats who have had to work closely with him over the years. Like the Republicans who have had to work closely with John McCain, they are known to hate him but are very reticent to admit that to the press, let alone be quoted as to why. That MEANS something, because these are the people who know these men best. And their fear of speaking up about the "steamroller" is a red flag.

But you discount it. Again, fiction cannot be stranger than truth. Your Spitzer must be congruous with that fact. Nothing in the story that doesn't belong there, no extra pieces of the puzzle. It all must fit. This isn't religion, where you can just throw up your hands and say, "Well, it's a mystery."

And then the call girl must call in immediately afterward to let her handlers know she's OK and that he wasn't "difficult" this time. Just "illicit sex," right?

Now you know why very few people read literary fiction anymore: the banal ain't entertaining, and most people read to be entertained, not to be edified by the reduction of everything to the banal.

Make your characters make sense. To real people.

Richard Russo's fictional Eliot Spitzer - whom he himself says is a "messed-up, untidy" character - makes no sense at all. And it's remarkably like the fictional character many have made of the real Eliot Spitzer. A con artist who fooled the whole world with his crusader act.

The great Gatsby was great, for he loved greatly, purely.

But, especially considering how this foil of Gatsby recently tried to frame his friend and benefactor, the Attorney General of New York should go back and make sure he didn't steamroll innocent people into prison.

Make sure your characters make sense. Don't try to preach some doctrine, or you'll end up warping your characters into nebulous, banal messes like this.



Monday, March 17, 2008

Resonance of Authenticity

The imprimatur of an authority figure lends words credibility via resonance. As a novelist you can take advantage of this fact for greater authenticity. For, in a novel credibility is that all-important commodity known as suspension of disbelief.

You can make a character seem authentic by anointing him with the resonance of authority. Just have him expound on the ideas of an anointed authority he is a disciple of. For example, if the character is a general, you can make him a disciple of Napoleon; if she is a psychiatrist, you can make her a disciple of Sigmund Freud; if he is a tennis pro, you can make him a disciple of Vic Braden.

You can even achieve this authenticity by resonance with a fictitious authority figure. For example, in The Magician, Sol Stein invented a character who was a foreign-born psychiatrist. To lend him authenticity via resonance, he had this character espouse a fictitious theory proposed by a fictitious authority. This fictitious authority figure lent resonance to both the character and the theory. So much resonance that it fooled psychiatrists! To his surprise, some wrote Stein asking for directions to the professional literature on this theory.

Ah, the magical power of invoking authority.



Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Weekly Writing Prompt

Get a weekly writing prompt of three words every Wednesday at Three Word Wednesday.

This week's prompt is: Apartment, Began, Numb

See an example of how to play at Write from Karen: The Doctor is Human After All.


My eyes quickly skipped over the gloves and landed on the waste basket tucked into a hole under the counter top, the huge red triangle stating it was for hazardous materials only seemed to pulsate under the fluorescent lights.

Only can throw us overboard, because we will tend to parse it with the words that follow it, instead of the words that precede it.

Ever since I read Sol Stein remarking on the strange things writers claim their eyeballs do, sentences like this jump out at me. I am distracted from the story by the picture of eyeballs skipping over gloves and landing a waste basket. Your "gaze" might do that, but I'd be careful of naming body parts in sentences like this.

On the other hand, letting things act in the rest of the piece would improve it. For example "I felt a nervous bubble of laughter tickle the back of my throat..." would be sharper and stronger as "A nervous bubble of laughter tickled the back of my throat."

Doing so would also lend greater immediacy to the scene, because you aren't always filtering viewpoint through "I saw," "I heard," "I felt."

Nonetheless, that's the really good thing about this piece: with very little to go on, Karen keeps you in immediate scene. She does an excellent job of putting you in the narrator's skin.

In my experience, people either can write in immediate scene, or they just can't, no matter how much you explain or many examples you give. I think this is because you either "get" immediate scene or you don't. And I suspect that this, in turn, depends on whether you have the necessary imagination.

But you can strengthen your imagination the same way you strengthen a muscle - by working it. A weekly writing prompt like this is a good way to do that.



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Resonance through Reference to Religion/Invoking Authority

There are many ways to use references to religion for resonance. Poetry and literature often gain it through epigraphs. They also often gain it through Biblical allusions or through allusions to other famous words. Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory and Evan Hunter's Vespers both derive resonance from the religious reference in their titles. Actions like murder that take place at the same time (and perhaps even in the same place) as a religious ritual can thunder for you.

Big names and religious references resonate mainly by invoking authority.

You can make characters more authentic by invoking authority. But before we see how to do that, let's first see what invoking authority is.

It's best explained by a famous example.

We are told that Jesus of Nazareth was unique in that he didn't quote scripture or cite scriptural authorities as the reason people should believe what he said. Instead, he based his teaching on logic. He demonstrated the truth of his teachings in parables. Usually the parable made an everyday-life analogy to some moral issue. The punchline was, "Now, what would you do? So, what do you expect God to do?" In other words, Jesus appealed to logic: people were to see for themselves that he was correct. In this, he contrasted with other preachers, who gave no reason for what they told people to do, except that "the Bible says so" or that some famous scriptural authority said so. In other words, their argument was an appeal to authority.

You can imagine where science would be if appeals to authority were viewed as valid reason to believe anything: Einstein would have been wrong because Newton had said otherwise; Newton would have been wrong because Aristotle had said otherwise; and so on. An appeal to authority is the only argument available to people who don't have facts, reason, and logic on their side. That includes people like novelists, because they are telling fiction.

Invalid though they are, appeals to authority are potent. Show me any absurdity that was ever widely believed, and I will show you an idea backed by nothing but appeal to authority. That's what made burning people alive "the Christian thing to do," for example. Yet, invoking authority works as well today as ever. Commercial advertisers thrive on it. That's why they have a famous person endorse their product. We are to conclude that the product is good, not because of any legitimate evidence, but just because this authority figure says so. How does a TV star become an authority on motor oil? By nothing but subliminal suggestion.

The authority invoked needn't be a famous person. It can be an institution, a document, a book, or the majority. Here are some examples:
  • A Famous Person: A presidential candidate would be the better president because some actor says so.
  • An Institution: Galileo was wrong, and the earth is the center of the universe, because the Catholic Church said so.
  • A Document: Christian doctrine is the fundamental law of the land because the Declaration of Independence mentions "the Creator" and the Constitution mentions God (in the date at the end, given in the customary form of anno domini, now abbreviated as A.D.).
  • A Book: Homosexuality is evil because the Bible says so. Islamism (i.e., the rule of Islamic law) and Islamist terrorism are good because the Koran says so.
  • The Majority: America/Americans are hateful because the whole world says so.
The voice of authority resonates in the ringing ears of the "common man." Reason cannot prevail against it. It's so effective that people judge a deed, not by what it is, but rather by whodunit. They believe a thing is true/good or false/evil just because some authority figure says so. No matter how anti-logical and contrary to observation that belief is. Hence we deem an authority credible despite evidence that it's illegitimate and despite even recent dishonest conduct that destroys its credibility.

That's how powerful invoking authority is. Which is why it's the propagandist's favorite trick. So, what does a nice person like you want to use it for?

We'll see next time.