Clever Metaphors

It’s really easy to come up with old, rehashed metaphors. 

Some of them are habit, things that are part of our everyday language.  He’s dog tired. She was all skin and bones.  There are common comparisons, which can be worded well but still feel overused.  He looked at a cloudless sky when he gazed into her eyes.  Honestly, we’re so used to making and hearing analogies (and similes and metaphors) that it is fairly straightforward to use an existing one.  It’s lazy, but we do it. 

It’s much more difficult to come up with new, clever metaphors.  The challenges arise from several places.  First, an author has to be familiar with the common and frequently used comparisons to be able to avoid them.  If you don’t know something is worn out, it might sound clever to you.  Fortunately, this one can be avoided with a piece of advice that authors hear all the time – read a lot.

Another hurdle for authors who want to create a fresh comparison is finding something fresh to compare.  There are lots of people writing and creating, and only so many things that share common traits.   Just recognize that someone else has probably already used that comparison.  As long as it’s not overused and already tired, your readers will still appreciate it. 

Two other difficulties relate to the reader.  A metaphor can’t be too obscure, or the reader won’t understand it, which defeats the purpose.  If I said someone spoke with all the eloquence of a heron, a reader with limited bird knowledge might not realize it was an insult.  The other obscurity concern is the risk that the two items being compared won’t actually be comparable.  This will just make the reader confused, or turn into a belabored metaphor that requires too much explanation to be effective.  I could make a comparison between a shopping mall and a tide pool, but unless I plan to spend several paragraphs describing the relationship, it won’t be clear to many people.  This one is easy to address; think about your readers’ knowledge level from time to time, and you should be fine.

Of course, even if we come up with something new and clever, we can fall into our own odd habits as authors.  I make a lot of bird comparisons, because it is an area in which I have some experience.   I also used “celery” to describe green dresses a lot in the original Butterflies – I have no idea why – and I’m sure I have other habits that I haven’t realized yet. 

As long as we aren’t lazy and use the same stuff everyone else has used, I think we’ll all be okay.

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Getting Rid of a Character

I’ve spent most of today watching episodes of Burn Notice.  (It’s been a nice little Season 6 marathon, thanks to Netflix.)  The last couple of episodes have seen the departure of some of the people we’ve come to know, if not love, and it got me thinking about how we as authors rid ourselves of characters in novels.

What?  You never need to get rid of a character in your story?  Pish.  Peripheral characters wear out their welcome, henchmen have to be disposed of, redshirts need to be sacrificed.  Even beloved secondary characters must be let go if they are preventing our protagonist from reaching a goal or developing independence.  (Dumbledore, anyone?)  These folks don’t always have to die, but they do need to leave the stage.

Here are a few ways that you can help someone to their exit.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to add your own in the comments!

Death
Ah, death.  This is a classic way of getting rid of a character, especially if you want them to be permanently gone.  (Of course, depending on your method of killing someone off, you could explain it away and bring them back.  Gandalf, anyone?)  This leaves a lot of room for creativity as well as plot advancement.  Shot by a sniper?  Sure.  Poison in their wine?  Why not?  Nasty lab accident?  If you’ve got a lab handy and don’t mind collateral damage, might as well.  Passed away quietly in their sleep?  Aren’t you a sweetheart.  Besides getting rid of someone for good, it also shows your readers that you’re not afraid of bringing in a little death when you need it.

Otherwise Indisposed
If you’re not interested in killing someone (maybe you need her later, or he just isn’t worth making a scene) there are always methods for making a character unavailable.  She could be injured or ill, and confined to a hospital.  He could get arrested, or be ordered to stay home by a spouse.  I recommend caution if you are contemplating kidnapping; depending on your protagonist, you might become obliged to rescue the hostage.  Overall, though, this method of eliminating someone gives you a lot of latitude.  You can write a scene describing what happened, or just have another character mention it in passing.

Called Away
This one works particularly well for tertiary or peripheral characters.  They have lives outside of that of your main character, and sometimes those lives become more important.  Military personnel can be deployed elsewhere and law enforcement can be reassigned.  People can get new jobs, or their families can move away.  Keep in mind that you can either let them depart gracefully when they are no longer needed, or you can take advantage of this to leave your protagonist in the lurch at a critical time.

Dismissal/Parting Ways
This is the “Later, dude, thanks for your help” or “It was so nice to meet you” option.  Sometimes characters just go their separate ways; lives change, people graduate and go to different colleges, the airplane lands and the friendly chit-chat is over.  If one character works for another, or is subordinate in some way, the boss can let the unnecessary person go from the project (and the story).  Both of these methods can be done either in a friendly way or a hostile one, and it’s up to you as an author to shape the impact on any characters left in the tale.

Honestly, most of the time there is a natural way for you to get your unnecessary characters out of the picture, and you won’t have to analyze the how and why.  You may be asked by a reader to explain the choice, but by then you should be able to consider what you did and discover why (if you don’t know already).  It is fun to think about, though!

…Which is another word for irritating

The animals that live in my house are bothering me tonight.  (Well, okay, it’s two of the three.  Fish aren’t really capable of much annoyance.)

I mentioned to my dog at one point that he was being irksome; I then told him (since he clearly didn’t know) that it was another word for irritating.  I then started to list other fun synonyms that he could be: annoying, bothersome, a pest.

It did make me laugh at myself a bit, since I was defining a word for my dog.  It also got me thinking about synonyms!

If you are a writer, you should have a thesaurus.  I happen to use one online, rather than a print one, but it works just as well.  Better, perhaps, because then I don’t have to go fetch it when I need a word!  It is quite handy when you are trying to describe something; I also depend on it when I am hoping to avoid using the same word multiple times in a paragraph.

Of course, I don’t recommend that you use it inappropriately.  Trying to find the biggest word possible for something is not the same as choosing the best synonym.  Let’s take an example of describing a woman wearing a red dress.  “Her body was sheathed in skin-hugging scarlet” gives you a pretty specific image.  “The ingenue was caparisoned in a frock of cerise” just sounds pretentious.  Plus, if you know what the words mean (and their typical use) the combination doesn’t exactly work.  If that happens, you either end up looking like you don’t know what you’re doing (which is probably the opposite of what you were looking for) or your character ends up seeming very silly.

A thesaurus can be awesome for finding the best word for your sentence, but remember that even synonyms have different tones and slightly different meanings.  Knowledgeable readers will know the subtle difference between dauntless and stalwart, and the word you choose can impact the impression they have of the character you are describing.

A Big Piece of Paper

I need to get a big piece of paper.  I’m not talking legal size (8.5 x 14), or even ledger (11 x 17).  No, I need something that’s a couple of feet wide and several feet long.

Why do I need such a sheet of paper, and what does it have to do with writing?

Easy.  I need to build a timeline.

It’s a funny thing that I’ve learned about myself; I’m typically an auditory learner, but when it comes to my spatial and mathematical skills, visual rules.  I can’t take verbal directions, I need to see a map.  And when it comes to the chronological layout of the Butterflies overhaul, I need a giant timeline!

Right now I really need the timeline for two reasons.  I need to decide the order of some of Mara’s story that isn’t time-specific, so I’d like to have her chronology worked out.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem like one thing builds on another until you try to piece them together with other things!  I also want to finalize where in the story the book ends, and for that I need to visualize how it will overlap with the other two (probably three) books that occur in the same timeframe.

Even the decision on what will happen in which book requires a timeline!  Will the fourth book go back as far as the first three?  I know it will have to include some time overlap.  Plus, there are two stories from separate books that intertwine before the rest of the lines come together, so I need to figure out how to work that in as well.

Every time I start to play with these details, I come back to the need for a timeline.  This weekend, I’m getting a roll of paper!

Starting with the right stuff

Tonight I made a fancy grilled cheese with ingredients that I got at the local farmer’s market.  I made something similar last week, so I was very hopeful for dinner.

It turns out that the pieces I used this week weren’t quite right.  I like all three ingredients – handmade Nordic bread, locally made dill cheddar cheese, and heirloom tomatoes.  The end result isn’t great, and I think the bread is the problem.  I’m still enjoying it, but it’s not as good as last week’s sandwich.  (If you’re curious, last week was pumpernickel, not Nordic, and the cheese was store-bought shredded Italian.  The tomatoes were the same.)

This has implications for writing, which is why I’m mentioning it here.  A good novel takes lots of pieces, and they need to fit together effectively.  Certain writing styles lend themselves to certain stories.  Particular characters are suited for specific tales, and tie back to the writing style as well.  If you have a stoic character, you can’t write with a lot of dialog, and a focused, low-action tale needs a deft hand with detail.

If your story isn’t quite working, take a look back and see if changing point of view, writing style, or even rebuilding a character can help.  Sometimes swapping out one ingredient makes all the difference.

Holidays

Today is Easter!  I’m guessing that you noticed, and perhaps you are celebrating in one or more of the myriad ways possible.  I think a holiday like this is a great time to think about how to use holidays in writing.

Holidays are generally linked to a few specific concepts.  Many are religious, which you can tell by the etymology of the word holiday.  (Just look at it – it clearly started life as Holy Day.)  Some commemorate past events, like birthdays and battles.  There are also the holidays that mark specific current events, like the end of harvest or the first day of spring, although these are less common in our modern lives.

If you write fantasy, like I do, you have a couple of options.  It’s your world, after all.  You can be fairly true to medieval European traditions and use major Christian holidays.  Keep in mind that if you have the holidays, you need to have the religion and attendant trappings as part of your society, and vice versa.   The same thing goes with a world based on any other real culture, and their affiliated religious practices and holidays.  If you choose to deviate from the European model (or any other actual culture) for your world, you can develop your own holidays.  Just remember that some things, like harvest, are significant to any agriculture society, so using those is a good place to start.

Holidays aren’t necessary to a story, so don’t feel like you have to use them.  Most of our days are not holidays, and the same goes for the characters in a book or movie.  A holiday does give people a change, something out of their routine, which may be useful in helping to set up events in a tale.  Just remember that it’s your world, so you don’t have to use the same holidays you celebrate in your life.

A Book Review – sort of

I just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Now, there are many reviews out there of this book, I’m sure, and I’m very much behind the times as this is my first time to read the book.  This is not exactly a book review, per se, so much as a few thoughts that I have about it.

I’ll try not to share spoilers, for those of you who might want to read it and are even more behind the times than me.  🙂

My first reaction on the first page was “Wow, this is in first-person present tense.”  This is significant because most books are third-person (of varying knowledge levels) and past tense.  It works, though, since the best person to tell the story is the main character, and the present tense makes it more immediate.

Another thing I noticed were the commas, or perhaps a lack thereof.  I’ve discussed in the past how commas can be optional, and I prefer to use more rather than less, so this is not terrible.  There were also occasional sentences that would require a second read on my part, because they were written as people speak, not as they write.  Namely, there were a lot of fragments.  Again, this worked, as the general feeling of the book was that the main character was telling you the story.  It’s okay for it to be written as if spoken, especially since it came across not as a lack of technique but as a carefully thought-out choice.

I know, you’re thinking, “Okay, Leigh, enough with the technical writing stuff.  What about the plot?  The characters?”  Unlike technique, these are more subjective and personal-opinion related.  Plus, I don’t want to spoil it!  That said, here are a couple quick reactions.

I like the main character, and I think that all of the key players are well-created.  There’s a couple that I would have liked to know a bit more about, but that’s always the case in a novel with a large cast.  Most importantly to me, I cared about what happened to the characters.  This is what drives me through a book.

The plot concept is interesting while at the same time gruesome.  (Minor spoiler alert, but most of the following is learned early on.)  I don’t know how I feel about a country that finds it entertaining to pit 24 randomly chosen boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18 against each other in a fight to the death.  The concept (kids battling it out) was disturbing enough before I started reading the book; add to it that this is basically their equivalent of reality TV and it’s a lot disturbing.  I think this is where the value of first-person from a character you care about comes in.  This isn’t you enjoying the same gruesome spectator role as the viewers in the novel.   This is you accompanying a girl as she tries to survive the spectacle.  As a reader, the emotion involved in those two viewpoints are very different.  You can be disgusted by the concept without feeling disgusted at yourself.

So there are my initial reactions to reading The Hunger Games.  I’m ready for the next book (it’s a trilogy, you know) which is a good sign.  It means I’m still attached to the characters and I care about what happens to them.

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