Posted in General, writing

An Overview of Symbolism

There are a lot of powerful tools in literature and writing, and when you’re discussing abstract themes, symbolism is absolutely one of them. If you want the dictionary definition, symbolism is using imagery, comparison and characterization to represent non-concrete themes. While that sums it up nicely however, symbolism goes a little farther than that.

In some cases, symbolism is also used to represent specific elements of a story. It also happens in real-life as well. Here in America, we have state birds, state flowers, and in my home state of Arizona, our capital city uses a particular mythical symbol: that of the phoenix. New Zealand does the same thing with the delightful kiwi bird, adopting ‘kiwi’ as an name for its native and local citizens. If you’re looking for examples of this on the page, look no farther than Game of Thrones, with the dire wolves of House Stark, or the mocking jay from Hunger Games that Katniss Everdeen is both represented by and represents herself. There are thousands of other examples, both real and figurative.

Using symbolism isn’t particularly complicated. Recurrent imagery allows you to lace a piece with a theme or meaning, but it also means that whenever you use that particular image, readers are liable to pick up on that. You’ve probably heard the joke about the teacher describing how the author meant a character was sad and depressed because the curtains in the room were blue. That’s symbolism at work.

Another way symbolism works is through comparison, and frequently in figurative language. Often anger is symbolized by blades, knives or steel. Characters with ‘steely’ gazes are angry, upset or ready to destroy an obstacle. Those with sharp voices are similarly in unpleasant and unhappy moods.

When using symbolism, you need to be aware that regardless of what you use, it is very much influenced by connotations. Doves a symbol of peace, however they are very similar and related to the maligned pigeons who might end up as symbols of city overcrowding and filth.

Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Terrain

Part of worldbuilding is understanding the terrain. By definition, terrain covers all of the physical aspects of the world: mountains, canyons, plains, rivers, ponds and every other form of landmark you could imagine. Depending on your story, terrain itself may impact what characters can do when traveling. Regardless, terrain can have a massive impact on the ways and the resources people use to build their homes.

There are multiple types of terrain and each one presents unique challenges to life and civilization. Most of them also break down into smaller sub-types.

Mountains are frequent obstacles to travel. Their peaks also present challenges based around elevation such as lack of breathable oxygen, which reduces the amount of life found near the top. Mountain peaks also tend to be much colder. Both they and the slopes below have danger from avalanche and storms.

Slopes however are angled and cause water to run off. Because of their grade they make movement much harder. Hiking trails are often excellent examples of the sort of struggles you might face living on a slope daily. This unevenness also adds a challenge when building shelter. Slopes can also have rockfalls and mudslides collapse parts out from under them.

Valleys by contrast are often full of vegetation and life. These are the places where most mountain lakes and streams will eventually run to as they’re the low points between two mountains or mountain ranges. Although easier to travel through, they also have to contend with mass amounts of wind redirected by the surrounding mountains.

Forests have a larger variety of life and vegetation, which provides plenty of resources for your fictional people. Dense forests like rain forests and jungles having higher biodiversity. A medium or sparse forest will have less diversity in their flora and fauna, and sparse forests in particular may function as a transitional area between forest and other surrounding terrain. Regardless of the density fallen trees and undergrowth provide plenty of traveling obstacles while concerns such as fire create weather-related dangers.

Plains breakdown into two main types. Grasslands support larger animals such as bison, antelope and other herd animals, which in turn provide for larger predators such as lions and coyotes. There’s often smaller animals as well such as a mice and insects which attract their own share of animal predators. Flooding and wildfires are very serious weather concerns for grasslands.

Farmlands are often man-made plains. They may have been cleared out from another type of terrain, or converted from grassland. Because of the nature of farmland in which plants typically don’t remain where they are for more than a few years at a time (the exception to this being orchards), loosened soil adds in the threat of dust storms and soil erosion during rain.

Deserts are primarily defined by very little precipitation. Although the popular and most common form of them are hot and dry, there are also tundras to consider when thinking of deserts. These are cold places which have short growth seasons, reducing the amount of flora found there. Because of their temperature, exposure to the elements can be just as deadly in a tundra as it can in any other desert.

Sandy and rocky deserts are better known forms of desert. They are both hot, arid landscapes, but the difference is largely in the composition of the soil. Rocky deserts may occur closer to mountains where the mountains can block or redirect rainfall from reaching the desert beyond. Sandy deserts are often comprised mostly of sand and can form near rocky deserts, near mountains or towards the center of a continent and especially along equatorial lines. Dust storms and flash floods are very real dangers alongside exposure and dehydration.

Knowing what sort of challenges comes with your terrain helps understand what resources and struggles any civilization faces as well as finding suitable places for fictional animals.

Posted in writing

Filler Words

One of the biggest struggles with being a writer is length. If a story is too short, you risk readers being confused. If it’s too long, you might have a harder time getting it published and bought. Today I’m focusing on the long end of that scale, and one of the reasons why you might have a few too many words: filler words.

Filler words are those words in a sentence that don’t actually add anything to the meaning. In the worst case scenario, they’re taking up space and lowering your writing strength. Sometimes spotting them can be tricky, but there are a few that are constant fillers.

That is one of those words that you toss into a sentence without thinking too much about it, which is where it causes trouble. A lot of times, that can be completely removed with no complaints. Observe:

  • I hope that the awards ceremony goes smoothly.
  • I hope the awards ceremony goes smoothly.

That does have a purpose, but it’s also a multi-use word. It can be used as a pronoun, adverb and a conjunction. It also has it’s uses for determining specifics (his wife is that woman over there) which is why there are times you need ‘that’ in a sentence.

As a general rule of thumb, if you’re using that as a conjunction (she said that she was happy) or to mean ‘very’ (it wasn’t that far away) the chance is good you can cut it out. As with any general rule however, keep in mind that there are always exceptions, so use your sense and when in doubt, read both versions of your sentence aloud.

Just is another word that gets tossed in without much thought, and like the above, it can often be completely removed. The trouble with removing just often comes down to context, largely because it can mean multiple things.

  1. Adjective; meaning something that is fair and morally right.
  2. Adverb; meaning exactly (it’s just what we need), recently (I just came through the door) or barely (she just made the winning goal), only (he was just interested in looks), and possibly (it might just work).

Context is key to dealing with just. As with any adverb, there are times when it’s necessary. In the case of meaning ‘recently’ it can help clarify meaning with one word instead of three.

  • I just came through the door.
  • I came through the door a moment ago.

Almost, unlike our above two examples, isn’t just thrown into writing. It’s not so much filler as it is a weakener. Why? Because a lot of times it’s used as a descriptor even though it means ‘for the most part.’ That means every time you see it in a sentence, the thing described isn’t quite what it’s being said. To clarify:

  • The sun was almost bright.
  • Her clothes were almost clean.
  • The evening was almost dark out. 

In all three of the above sentences the inclusion of ‘almost’ weakens the writing by implying that something is not what it’s being said. Is the sun bright? Yes, unless overcast. Are her clothes clean? Yes, most likely. Is the evening dark, or is it darkening? If it’s dark, get rid of the ‘almost’. If it’s in the process of turning dark, use another word. In some cases, the removal might require some rewriting, but it generally strengthens the sentence overall.

When you come across ‘almost’ ask yourself if the description is accurate. If your answer is ‘yes’ then drop the almost. If your answer is no, check that you’ve written with the strongest possible words.

Most -ly words are actually adverbs. Quickly. Softly. Highly. Persistently. These are all adverbs, and like any other adverb, they have a time and place, but when you come across them in as fillers, they can be one of two things.

  1. Out of place. Adverbs are used to modify other words. That is their job. But, some of them have no place being used with particular verbs. If you whisper, you’re already speaking quietly, or softly. Adding either of those onto your whisper is unnecessary–the word itself means to speak softly. Both quietly and softly would out of place when used with whisper or even murmur because they aren’t modifying the verb, they’re just restating the built-in description.
  2. They weaken writing. Just like ‘almost’ can weaken your sentence, -ly words aren’t the strongest option, and their inclusion can bloat your word count while they pretend to be useful. An example: necessarily. It means something is vital or inevitable. Yet it often gets tacked onto not, which again, means something isn’t quite what it’s stated or what it appears. For example: This isn’t necessarily a bad outcome. By dropping ‘necessarily’ you retain the base meaning of the sentence: the outcome isn’t bad.

In general, most -ly words can indicate you need to choose a different word. Ran quickly is redundant, but sprinted, dashed or darted are strong words. This isn’t always the case however. Persistently hissing indicates that something is hissing, and doing so on a regular basis.

There are several other filler words. You may also find that you overuse certain words that aren’t fillers. I’m terrible for just, smile and back. The latter two aren’t fillers normally, they’re just not the strongest options in every case, which means I end up falling back on weaker words, like a lot of -ly words to clarify or describe.

What are some of your filler words?

Posted in Stories, writing

Plot: Daring Enterprise

The daring enterprise plot is a classic and a common staple of many adventure stories and even a few fantasy epics as well. While versatile in genres, it is also well-suited to plot-driven stories. You can check out some of the other plot scenarios here.

  • A leader overpowers an adversary in order to take an object.

Although there’s not a lot of space for characters, their roles within this plot are fairly clear cut which makes it ideal for plot-driven stories. As a leader the character’s goal is to get a hold of the object. As an adversary, the goal is to protect the object and keep it out of the other’s hands.

As a main plot, this particular scenario focuses heavily on the act of overpowering and the steps taken to get that object. In this case, the object might be little more than a McGuffin used to help drive conflict.

When used as a minor plot however, it can take a back seat to character development and becomes more of a background objective for a character in their arc. This forces the object to have a very good reason for being desirable, and often forces your characters to have a deeper motivation for getting into a conflict with their adversary.

Posted in writing

Plot: Revolt

Revolt as a plot is a common staple of dealing with tyrannical powers. It’s a staple of epics because it provides a broad space to work in. You can check out some of the other plot scenarios here.

  • A cruel power is plotted against by the revolutionary.

The set-up for the revolt plot gives a lot of room to play with. Not only does it give you the option to use it as a plot- or character-driven situation, but also has plenty of room for multiple characters. The cruel power is often a dictator or tyrant, but there is little reason why you can’t use an entire system as the cruel power. The revolutionary might indeed be your freedom fighters and rebels, or it might only be a single character who dares to stand up and make a change.

As a plot-driven situation you can afford a few more static characters. The focus should be on the things the revolutionary does to try and overthrow the power, and how the power in question reacts.

As a character-driven scenario, a revolt plot provides a tense and conflict-rich area to test your characters. Think not just about about the major goals here, but about the smaller ones each character brings to the table and how those goals conflict and interfere with each other.