Thursday, May 24, 2012

Not Telling But Showing: Emotion in Writing

Emotions are complex. They're Rorschach tests on people's faces. But conveying them through writing? That's harder. Much harder.

Take the following for example:

Jasper's birthday had arrived. Kayla and Simon were overjoyed, having never given up hope that their father would make it to this day. They hugged him tight and told him they were proud. His grandson brought in the birthday cake. Jasper grinned from ear to ear. He was alive. His family loved him. He beat cancer. Everything was perfect.

We could do that. It's easy. It's simple.

It's also cheating. And lazy.

How do I know? I did it. I do it. The first draft of my novel was riddled with simplistic emotional responses to external stimuli. Worse, I repeated the same images with the same characters. Over and over and over.

With few exceptions, fiction writers are called upon to show and not tell each emotion. Some of the tools we use to do this are dialog, setting, and descriptive action.

Let's revisit Jasper and his birthday cake:

Jasper's birthday had finally arrived. The other 364 days didn't matter. This one did.

In the small kitchen, the refrigerator hummed. The clock ticked. The other sounds slept. Still, the air buzzed. Kayla and Simon wrapped their arms around their father, squeezing their eyes shut. They transferred all their memories, all their life into the elderly man. 

Jasper never thought this day would happen. His doctors didn't either. But Kayla and Simon planned it anyway.

Seventy-five years old. The pancreatic cancer would take Jasper before this day, his oncologist had warned. Jasper proved her wrong.

A small boy shuffled into the room, biting his lip, and moving in slow jerks. He carried a perfectly shaped cloud of icing and delicate pastry. A candle-created bonfire illuminated the words "Only The Strong Survive."

Jasper didn't count the candles. He didn't need to.

"Happy birthday, Pop-Pop," the boy said after he set the cake down on the table.

"You did it, Dad," Kayla said, gripping his shoulder.

"We knew you would," Simon added.

After they all sang "Happy Birthday," Jasper lifted his fork with a steady hand. A strong hand. That first bite, that one chunk of bliss, came with sugar-infused victory.

Okay. We could find better tweaks. I'm sure you get the picture, though. Setting, dialog, and descriptive action will do a better job than simply telling readers what characters are feeling.

In this vein of showing and not telling, I'll bring up a new writer's reference that I've found helpful.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have put together a wonderful writer's reference entitled The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. What makes it so fantastic is that it not only helps describe emotions in a compelling way, but writers like myself can use this book as a tool to show emotions without merely telling readers what the emotion is. It helps avoid descriptive repetition as well. It's great during the first draft of a novel, especially when we are more prone to keep writing as opposed to mining our brains for that perfect turn of phrase. As a result, the rewrite is less taxing.

The book's table of contents easily identifies the desired emotion and then takes the reader to the relevant section. The authors intelligently divide each section into different categories that demonstrate different methods of conveying an emotion. For example, after locating "Sadness" in the Table of Contents, the reader is directed to the appropriate section where the emotion is defined and then separated into the following categories: Physical Signals, Internal Sensations, Mental Responses, and Cues of Acute or Long-Term Sadness. Each category then lists numerous examples. If the emotion is one that can escalate into another emotion, that's indicated as well. The authors also include helpful writer's tips to lend a bit more verisimilitude to a character's emotions.

If you've found other great writer's references, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear about what's out there.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Hysterical Miracle Friday

Supernatural. Paranormal. Angels. Demons. Possession.

It doesn't always have to be doom and gloom around here. So, for some Friday entertainment, please let me introduce Hysterical Miracle Friday.

What's so funny, Buddha?          by Lavoview

A pole dancer with soul; seven or eight of them.

Here's a paranormal treat to get the blood pumping and the heart racing. According to Wendy Reardon, a pole dancing instructor at the Gypsy Rose in Boston, her dance studio is haunted by seven to eight ghosts. She has even gone so far as to name some of them who she claims come in different shapes and sizes. There's Bullet who, appropriately enough, looks like a bullet. There's Blinky. He blinks in and out of sight. What else are you going to name him? There's Thriller, too. He made an appearance when Wendy danced to the song of the same name. Could it be the King of Pop?

It seems a little unfair that Bullet, Blinky, and the rest of the gang get free dance lessons, though.

Get tested...for Demonic Possession?

Ever thought standardized tests were evil? Well, here's proof that they're at least second cousins. Head over to Bob Larson's website and take the 21 question challenge to determine how likely you are to be possessed by a demon. The catch? It's gonna cost you $9.95! Doh! Fella's gotta eat, right?

Rev. Bob Larson is a modern day Van Helsing. He's a demon fighter and exorcist who claims to have come into more contact with demons than anyone alive. His newest claim is that Jezebel is attacking him with ferocity.

Ohhh, noes! Not ferocity!

Larson claims that Jezebel has launched a series of personal attacks. She's out to destroy him. But, you can help, according to his website. Just donate $5,000, $1,000, $500, $200, $100 or whatever you can to aid this holy warrior. Stop Jezebel's ferocity! Throw some green his way and then, "Poof!" she's gone.

Oh, check out this news report covering Larson and his work. It's a hoot!

If you have any of your own Hysterical Miracles to share, please do in the comments below.

Happy Hysterical Miracle Friday!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Passive Voice: Break its freaking neck!

I'm not a writing authority. Far from it.

This post and future ones like it shouldn't be taken as Scribbler Dogma. What follows are hellish potholes in my own writing that I managed to fill during edits. If it helps anyone in their own work, then, "Yay," I say. If all it serves to do is provide a Laurel and Hardy-esque view into my writing world, then may the pianos fall and the laughs commence.

Bad writing becomes famous meme. So, there's hope?

For mortal writers, especially new ones, bad writing is probably inevitable at the early stages. For example, seven aborted novels reside in my desk. They're souvenirs of a guilty conscience. My inner critic has choked the life out of them.

Why? I reread the word jumbles that tumble out of my head. Masochism at its finest.

What my inner critic sees is a comical buffet of crapola. He's merciless with his jibes and taunts. The budding novel then takes an unceremonious trip to the vault of dead prose. It still lays buried there with the hopes and dreams of similar would-be novels, fallen brothers in arms. (By the way, I murdered my inner critic. That's right.)

So, what was it that turned on my inner critic's megaphone? Passive voice.

"We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice-that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'" - Sydney Harris

If you're a proficient writer or grammarian, good for you, you can spot the slothful word vomit that is passive voice. To you, it'll stick out like a priest in a strip club. To the rest of us, well, we have to hear it, develop an ear for it.

We can notice the sound, because it's not all that different than a slap in the face.

Here's an example of toilet-bowl writing:

"The first to light up was the limestone lamp next to the bench closest to me. The light was dim at first."

Ugh! There are three big problems with these two sentences: 1) Passive voice in the first sentence; 2) repetition of the word "light"; and 3) there are two sentences when one will do. So, here is how I changed it:

"The limestone lamp next to me pulsed a dim glow."

Is it perfect? Heck no. But it sounds much better than it did before. You'll also notice I squashed the word "light" altogether. Repetition is bad, mmmm-kay?

As I discover more writing gems, I'll share them here. If you laugh, then, "Score!" You've just been entertained.

Have you noticed bad writing in your work? Please feel free to provide tips and tricks to better writing.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Deus ex Star Wars?

Happy Star Wars Day!

So, in honor of this happy day, religious themes in Star Wars, anyone?

Darth Vader is a variation of Dark Father. Coincidence? Luke's last name is Skywalker. Fluke? Darth Vader was once a well-intentioned Jedi that fell from grace. Happy accident?

You decide.

Here are a few similarities to religion that make us think:

Christianity - As in many stories (The Matrix comes to mind) the main character, Luke Skywalker, is propped up as a Jesus figure, a messiah, that is destined to save the world. He begins as a humble farmer  that, because of circumstances beyond his control, is launched into a series of events that lead to his destiny.

Like Jesus, the Dark Side tempts Luke. Vader wants him to join the Dark Side, promising immense power in return. It's the Temptation of Luke.

There are mountains of Christian connections in the movies that I won't get into here. They've been done to death. Below are some lesser-known similarities.

Judaism -  During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Jews waive the lulav, a long and straight palm branch. It symbolizes the unity of the Jews. There is a correlation there to the light saber, which is symbolic of the unity of the Jedi. It's interesting to note that lulav storage involves fitting two plastic cones together over the lulav, making it look like a light saber. Although, I wouldn't count on it to sever a hand.

Also, according to Ben Kenobi, "the force surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy." This is reminiscent of the lulav song "Hashem is Here":
Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.
Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.
Up, up, down, down, right, left and all around, here, there and everywhere,
that’s where he can be found.

Scraps: Yoda is hebrew for "the one who knows." The name Chewbacca sounds an awful lot like the Hebrew ts'va-chah, which means to scream or growl. I think Chewy did a lot of that, no? Finally, didn't we all think "Bar Mitzvah!" when C3PO was hoisted into the air on a chair while the Ewoks held him captive?

Zen Buddhism - Alright, so Kenobi's description of the Force also applies to Buddhism. And, yes, many of these themes can fit nicely into several religions. Force push me, why don't you?

Probably the two most notable aspects of Buddhism in Star Wars are the concepts of the Force and a Jedi's lack of attachments. In Buddhist teachings, attachments lead to wanting, which leads to suffering when those wants are not fulfilled (Which leads to the Dark Side?). Same goes for Jedi. Padme asked Anakin if Jedi are allowed to love. Anakin said that such attachments were verboten. Okay, he didn't use that word, but we know he meant it. What he did say was, attachment and possession are forbidden and that compassion was central to a Jedi's life. In other words, no big screen televisions for Jedis. You'll have to get your soap opera fix elsewhere, Yoda. Another example of no attachments is seen at Yoda's place. I mean, come on, that place was a hovel, right?

Buddhists also teach compassion. One cannot obtain true elightenment without it. In Star Wars, Luke's decision to take his father's mask off instead of slicing and dicing is the ultimate example of compassion found in the movie. Dare we say, it is the most memorable moment of all the movies.

Scraps: Padme means "lotus" in the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum."

There are plenty of other religions that have their holy fingers in the Star Wars pie. Taoism (Yin and Yang) and Zoroastrianism (duality of Good vs Evil) are two others.
George Lucas himself has stated in numerous interviews that he pulls themes and concepts from various religions.

What other religions can you spot? What are the themes?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Religion Awesomeness: Sikhism

I'm fascinated with religions of the world. They provide some of the most in-depth glances into the human condition. They are filled with magic, conflict, evil, murder, hope, and mysticism: all components that make up a good story. There's no getting around it. That's just the way it is. You don't have to believe in a religion to find it interesting.

From time to time, I'll post about certain religions that have caught my attention. In my writing, I take elements of religion and incorporate them into my stories to add a sliver of reality while maintaining the integrity of the more fantastic elements.

So, for today's post: Sikhism.

The Khanda is the Sikh universal symbol.

Sikhism originated in India roughly 500 years ago. For a religion, it's a youngster. In that short amount of time, however, it has become the fifth largest religion in the world. With over 20 million Sikhs worldwide, it's a powerhouse. That's a boatload of people all focusing their faith on the same set of standards and beliefs. (See how this relates to my Novel Concept in my previous post on faith.)

Without going into too much detail, Sikhism is a monotheistic religion that holds everyone as equals. Also, it's a religion that teaches religious freedom. Everyone is free to find their own path to God.

The Sikh Kirpan is of particular interest to me.

Sikh Kirpan

The Kirpan is usually a hooked blade ranging in 5 inches to 3 feet in length. It is one of the five articles of faith that baptised Sikhs are supposed to have on them at all times. The Kirpan is special because of what it symbolizes: readiness to protect the weak and defend against injustice. It's a tangible representation of the Sikh's warrior spirit. Unless the Kirpan is being used to help others, it's to remain sheathed.

I've enjoyed learning about this religion so much that the Kirpan and other references have found their way into a novel I'm working on.There are many more inspiring elements to this religion and its system of beliefs that I can't possibly do it justice in a blog post.

Are there any religions or specific religious beliefs that you have found fascinating? Please leave a comment and let me know.