Tag: Story-telling

By any Other Name

With apologies to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet but would it evoke the same emotional response if you called it a thorn bush?

We writers tend to obsess about words, spending hours combing the thesaurus and the internet for the one with just the right nuance and connotation. We chose the verb strode versus trod to denote a manner of movement but also a sense of mood or characterization. Every word choice in our work, especially short works like poetry, has to pack a punch. Queen Elizabeth famously follows the rule of “never explain, never complain.” If a writer finds her/himself “explaining” their story it’s probably time for a good edit. Getting the words right means explanation is unnecessary.

I got a new take on the power of words at a recent writers workshop I attended. Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, used an entirely different vocabulary to describe protagonist, antagonist, sidekicks, etc. The new labels on those stock story elements had me looking at my work in a whole other way. For example, he called the protagonist the vehicle of the story. Hence vehicle, protagonist, is the car the reader rides in for the journey from page one to the end.

I’ve read countless books and articles about making the protagonist interesting, appealing, sympathetic, flawed, wounded, redeemable . . . the list is endless. In fact, the list is so long its easy to gloss over it. But thinking of your protagonist as the vehicle of the story brings a whole other mindset to the fore. Is my protagonist a Cadillac or a jalopy or a rickshaw? Is it rusted or pristine? Does it smell of dog or baby? How many miles on the odometer? Using  a new word for protagonist rubs off the glaze of familiarity and sharpens my focus when developing the character. 

If you think of the story like a road trip all kinds of other terms crop up, like detour, accident, flat tire, hitchhiker. . . Again, looking at story elements from a different perspective gives them sharper edges, makes them more distinct.

Another standard element of story is conflict. For the longest time I couldn’t make sense of conflict. As my stories don’t involve war or fisticuffs I couldn’t see the “conflict.” Then a wise author used the word “struggle” and the mists lifted. A character struggles to find love. She struggles to be successful in her career. She struggles to become independent. I could relate to a character’s struggle, but not her conflict, even though they mean the same thing in terms of storytelling.

And speaking of character, there’s a word with many connotations. Primarily it means a person in the story, like the hero or the sidekick. But character also defines the type of person portrayed. In the old fashioned sense of the word character meant someone of upstanding reputation and merit, as in “a man of character” — or it can mean an eccentric, as in “he’s a character!”  Now, if you consider your lead character as the “conductor” of the story does it let you see him/her in a new light?

Can your antagonist be a spike belt laid across the roadway of the tale? Is the villain an imp who keeps turning the street signs around? Is your outline a recipe with a cup of love and a pinch of spice?

The mechanics of story telling don’t change regardless of the terms you use, but sometimes a different name on the rose, or the Hummer,  will jump start your creativity.







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I mentioned previously that I’m an inveterate reader of the obituary column in my local newspaper.    This week I came across a real gem, a loving remembrance of a lady who died at 101 years of age.  It was a long column, and I found myself reading every word.  The writer had detailed the life of the deceased like a story.  I learned of the moral precepts that shaped her character.  I learned of the hardship she’d endured — born at the outset of World War One, marrying during the Depression and living through World War Two.

She was widowed in middle age and had to reshape her life, returning to work when she might have been looking at retirement, learning the computer at age 70 and carrying on with her career until she reached 80 years of age.  She outlived three of her four children. The story was told with warmth and affection.  By the time I reached the end of the column, had had a fondness both for the deceased and for the son who wrote the obituary.

As a writer, I try to make my characters come alive to the reader, but details like birthdate, hair colour and profession, don’t create a personality the reader can root for.  Like the man who wrote the obituary, I need to draw a picture of my character that includes motivation (moral precepts), her reaction to events — even if the events themselves are ordinary her reaction will tell us about her.  It is the inner workings of the character’s heart and mind that bring her alive.  I’ve learned all that in various workshops I’ve attended, books I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with other writers.  But an obituary in the Saturday paper really brings the concept to life.

So, thanks to the loving son who reminded me of some basic rules of story-telling, and introduced me to a remarkable woman.  May she rest in peace.

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