The Symbolic Paradox In Storytelling

Symbolic Paradox

By ‘symbolic paradox’ I mean the symbolic equivalent of a contronym. A contronym is a word with two directly opposite meanings. For example, ‘cleave’ means to separate or cut with a tool, but also means to be in close contact with. To separate and to join, at once.

An ‘idea’ can also work like a contronym. And when it is utilised in a work of fiction to convey a certain meaning or tone, then we can call it a symbol.

It’s interesting to see how paradoxical symbols come about. In some cases, we can even track the history (e.g. edelweiss).

The paradoxical symbol is an especially useful symbol for storytellers, because there is simply more meaning to mine, and also because the symbol web can never be black and white. Paradoxical symbolism is especially useful when you wish your narrator to avoid coming down on one side or the other, or when expressing ideas such as ‘life is complicated’, ‘sometimes no choice is the right one’.

EXAMPLES OF THE SYMBOLIC PARADOX

BLACKBERRIES

Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. See “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx for an example of the blackberry in action.

BROOMSTICKS

Broomsticks are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, broomsticks turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Via witchcraft stories, women are given the literal freedom to fly.

CATS

Gods to the Egyptians, but demoted to demons by the time of the medieval witch-craze.

HERBS AND DRUGS

The most famous herbs utilised by witches all lead double lives. Mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade are hallucinogenic in small doses, deadly in large ones.

EDELWEISS

This paper about the Edelweiss explain in detail the history of its symbolism. Unfortunately, a benign, positive symbol can flip when something terrible happens to humanity. What started out as an alpine symbol, with associations of whiteness and inaccessibility. Unfortunately, this was a perfect symbol for the Nazi movement.

SECRECY

According to witchcraft, which is full of symbolic paradox, secrecy brings spiritual power, which is also why so little of its texts and methods exist today. (Plus because the witch craze, of course.) Secrecy decreases one’s power.

But secrecy can also increase any kind of power, whether that power is spiritual or destructive.

Keeping silent in certain circumstances, such as when a survivor, can cause severe damage. Yet as Daniel Dennett (the philosopher) has said, we must withhold the full extent of our desires from others to avoid exposing ourselves as wholly vulnerable, and therefore easily exploited.

SPECTACLES

Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.

— Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde

YELLOW

Warm summers, happiness. But also old age See Annie Proulx’s short story “Bedrock” for an example of this double symbol in action.

 

Man Crawling Out Of Trees by Annie Proulx

Man Crawling Out Of Trees graphic

“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in her Bad Dirt collection (2004). Many of the stories in this collection are in the tall story, brutal, regional, humorous tradition, and readers who don’t share Proulx’s sense of humour haven’t connected to these stories as well as they connected to earlier ones. But “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is not one of the light-hearted, comic stories of Bad Dirt. This is one of the ‘substantial’ ones.

The characters in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” are more reminiscent of a typically Alice Munro short story — Mitchell and Eugenie are a middle class couple who started out in New York City, had a second home all the while in Vermont, in which the wife goes to classes on how to attract birds to the backyard and her own business. Proulx tends to focus on rural characters, with middle- to upper-class newcomers as counterpoint rather than the main focus. Continue reading “Man Crawling Out Of Trees by Annie Proulx”

Silence by Alice Munro

Silence Alice Munro

“Silence” is a short story by Alice Munro, one of three in a triptych about a woman called Juliet. The first are “Chance” and “Soon“.

All three are published in the Runaway collection (2004).

[“Silence”] brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations.

Corinne Bigot

Read “Silence” online at The New Yorker.

Structurally, “Silence” is a mythic journey which spans approximately half of a woman’s entire life. The story opens with Juliet off on a trip in order to find information. Along the way she meets allies, opponents (most are a mixture of both), then returns ‘home’ a changed person after solving part of the mystery and learning something important about herself.

Usually when I break down a story into classic seven step structure, there’s a fairly clear line between each step. One masterful thing about work of Alice Munro: the lines are not there. “Silence” makes an excellent case study of a short story in which the ‘Self-revelation’ phase melts in to the ‘New Equilibrium’ stage. The reader keeps having revelation after revelation, then bang, there’s the big gut punch, right at the end. Continue reading “Silence by Alice Munro”

The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

The Train To Timbuctoo

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Trains are found in literature more than trains are ridden in real life. And perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place:

The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.

Secrets of the New York City Subway

Trains are an example of a heterotopia. For more on that see this post.

French philosopher Michael Foucault had a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.

Foucault

When it comes to writers and picking things to function as symbolic, that which is multi-layered is ripe for the picking. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

TRAINS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatization of spriritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphoriacal as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is of course the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform.

You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations.

Another, for an adult audience (inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret), is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

Other memorable bus station scenes for me happen in Mr Holland’s Opus and in Hud, where there is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

TRAINS AND JAPAN

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Trains afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

In Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

TRAINS IN KATHERINE MANSFIELD

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape”, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidently meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

TRAINS IN ALICE MUNRO

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, my favourite being “Chance”.

 

 

 

Secrets and Scams in Storytelling

When telling a story, the following is non-negotiable: Your character must have some kind of plan. There really are no exceptions to this rule.

There are some caveats, such as when your main character is a passive sort of character, in which case another character will make the plan which kicks them out of passivity. (Often it’s the opponent.)

But a story with no plan is not a story.

There’s a specific kind of plan which, as screenwriting guru John Truby has pointed out, audiences really go for. The scam. In her Watching email, NYT writer Margaret Lyons shares her own passion for the scam:

Dear Watchers,
My passion for scams and hoaxes continues unabated, and I’m not alone. I finally had a chance to watch both Fyre Festival docs last week — both flawed; both interesting — and I was also delighted to see that ABC News has a new podcast about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. And now, perhaps the best of all scams: A literary scam. This New Yorker piece about the novelist Dan Mallory’s “trail of deceptions” is going to power my whole week.
If you would like to sing “oh my scammy, whammy mammy,” now is the time to rewatch “Mr. Show.”

We hate scammers in real life, but we love to read about scamming plans in our fiction. Perhaps this is wish-fulfilment. We like to fantasise about getting our own back on the those who have wronged us.

The scam is closely related to two other storytelling terms/techniques:

Here’s what Truby says about scams.

Audiences love to be fooled, so make use of plans and scams to extend your plot.

  • The average writer doesn’t realise one of the first keys to plot is your hero’s plan.
  • Plan is a set of guidelines the hero is going to use to beat the opponent and reach the goal.
  • In really good [stories], this plan is often a scam. A scam is simply a plan that involves deception.

A scam isn’t just a single trick that the hero plays on the opponent. A scam is actually a campaign of trickery. It’s a complex sequence of tricks that surprises not only the opposition, it surprises the audience.

When you use a scam, it gives you more plot. A scam involves deception. The scam ties in with the trickster character, in turn tying in with the surprises you get from your opponent. All of these provide a substantial plot. Plot is the area where most writers are weakest.

Films that make use of the scam are varied. Some are serious films:

  • The Dark Knight
  • The Godfather
  • The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Die Hard
  • The Usual Suspects
  • But scam is even more important in comedy genres:
  • Wedding Crashers
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Tootsie

The main characters in Orphan Black and The Killing regularly use scams to achieve their goals, by dressing up, telling lies — but the audience knows that it’s all to a worthy end.

WILL ANY SCAM DO?

An audience accepts scams from some characters more than others, and your typical, conservative audience has little tolerance for certain kinds of scams.

In Breaking Bad, Skylar uses a scam to get Ted out of trouble, which many (sexist?) viewers interpret as an ‘unworthy cause’, since she’s married to Walt, and therefore should be loyal only to Walt.’

Children tend to have a higher tolerance for scammer heroes than gatekeeper adults, many of whom believe storybook heroes need to model good behaviour.

SCAMS AND PLANS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

In children’s literature, baddies who plot evil are often foiled by a child or a childlike creature who saves the day. As in films for adults, some of these plots are serious and some are comical.

Almost every children’s story involves a scam scene, regardless of what we call it:

    • The entire Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and all of the child sleuth grandchild books, in which groups of children outwit smalltime crooks.
    • Matilda — Roald Dahl absoluetely loved scams. Scams form the entire plot points of Matilda and the Twits. But every one of his books involves a scam of some kind, in which the young hero gets back at the opponent. David Walliams writes in the same tradition.
    • Ramona Quimby hides her report card in the freezer because her older sister Beezus’s is always perfect, showing her own school achievements up.
    • Jesse Aarons in The Bridge To Terabithia really wants to go with his music teacher to the museum, so when his mother is half asleep when he asks permission to go, he isn’t really concerned that she may not have even heard him.
    • Mildred Hubble from The Worst Witch series is constantly foiled in the second book in the series by a newcomer (Enid) who Mildred is supposed to be in charge of. This newcomer is full of mischief, which is interesting because she doesn’t really mean to cause trouble for Mildred, she is simply blundering her way through the strict rules of the boarding school for witches, breaking lots of rules.
    • The Pokey Little Puppy — Like Peter Rabbit, this is the character children fall in love with, even though he is doing exactly as his mother tells him not to. Perhaps we like these animals so much because they are justly punished.
    • Room On The Broom — through their own creativity, all of the passengers of the broom display great team work and fool the baddie to save the benevolent witch.
    • The Wee Wishy Woman of Nickety Nackety Noo-noo-noo by Joy Cowley saves her own bacon by fooling her captor into eating a stew made of glue. This is a classic fairytale ending — the clever trickster character gets away, similar to tales such as Hansel and Gretel, who fool the wicked witch by sticking out a chicken bone instead of a finger, and then by feigning ignorance about how to climb into an oven.
    • Holden Caulfield from Catcher In The Rye might be called the father of Ferris Bueller, taking off from school and doing his own thing.
    • Eleanor and Park each deceive themselves about how much they like each other, and then when they realise this, they must deceive certain adults in their lives. Is this the romance equivalent of a scam? I consider it as such.
    • The Fish in This Is Not My Hat has already stolen the hat at the beginning of the picture book, which shows initiative. In We Found A Hat, one tortoise fantasises about scamming his friend, but ultimately realises that this would ruin the friendship.
    • The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None Of His Business is basically a revenge story in which a mole gets his own back by shitting on someone else.
    • Wolf Comes To Town is all about a wicked wolf who dresses up as respectable people in order to do very bad things. (Truby calls these plots ‘switch stories’.) This particular form of deception fails to go unpunished, though, which may explain why this children’s picture book went out of print.
    • Artemis Fowl behaves badly, stealing fairy gold, but is undeniably attractive as a character because he goes after what he wants even if it’s illegal. He’s also very proud of himself.

But children’s authors aren’t usually encouraged to make use of ‘scams’, as such. I haven’t seen the word used. But I have heard advice to make use of ‘secrets’, the close cousin of the scam.

SECRETS

In children’s literature, think in terms of ‘secrets’ rather than ‘scams’.

Children’s book editor Cheryl Klein advises that child protagonists should have secrets:

Let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so. …It could be a secret the narrator knows and is keeping from the reader…Or it could be a secret the characters have to find out.

Klein points out that the genre of mystery novels require secrets and offers the example of Lemony Snicket, an example of a narrator who has a secret but refuses to tell the reader what it is.

Other child(like) characters with secrets:

  • Claude the dog goes off on his adventures when his owners are at work, so they never know what he’s been up to.
  • The Secret Seven were called ‘secret’ because they never told their parents (or other children outside the club) exactly what went down in their crime-busting world.
  • The storyteller character of Looking For Alaska by John Green keeps a secret from the reader and the structure of the book lets the reader know that we are counting down to a big reveal.
  • Billy in Where The Red Fern Grows has a secret — he sneaks off to buy a puppy after saving up a lot of pocket money, even though his family needs it

Are secrets more common in chapter books (and up) than in picture books? It seems so, since it’s harder to find examples of picture book characters who keep secrets. Since toddlers and young children are completely reliant upon their caregivers, the degree to which child protagonists keep secrets will depend on the age of the ideal reader, with the deepest darkest secrets being kept by YA protagonists.

Klein offers a caution about secrets when crafting the plot:

The answer to the secret has to have a significance equal to the effort the reader has invested in it.

 

The Electric Grandmother and Resonant Imagery

The Electric Grandmother is basically a Twilight Zone episode for kids.

The teleplay (and a short story adaptation of “I Sing The Body Electric”) was written by Ray Bradbury, and was later remade by the Disney Channel as a full-length Made for TV movie called “The Electric Grandmother”.

TV Tropes

 

The Twilight Zone for a contemporary audience is of course Black Mirror. I wonder if Charlie Brooker watched “The Electric Grandmother” growing up, as well as The Twilight Zone. “The Electric Grandmother” reminds me very much of “Be Right Back“, in which a woman orders a synthetic version of her deceased boyfriend.

I’m not the first to have noticed this, and Charlie Brooker counts The Twilight Zone as one of his influences.

It took me a few minutes to place the father, played by Edward Herrmann, who later played the grandfather in Gilmore girls.

The friend who shared this via YouTube remembers The Electric Grandmother fondly, and hadn’t forgotten the songs. Apart from the songs, the most resonant scene, remembered long after the name of the story and the plot is forgotten, is the one where the grandmother squirts milk from her forefinger.

grandmother finger milk

Every story needs a resonant scene like this — one which the audience remembers after details are long gone.

This Milk Finger scene resonates for several reasons:

  • The audience hasn’t seen this exact thing before.
  • Memory experts advise people to put dissonant things together in order to remember them. For instance, if you want to remember to buy cabbage at the supermarket, imagine the entire supermarket made out of hollowed-out cabbage. We can utilise this when telling stories, too. And next time you need to remember milk at the supermarket, maybe think of yourself squirting milk from your finger, like this scene from The Electric Grandmother.
  • This milk finger scene is the first time the audience sees what The Electric Grandmother can do. Until this point, the electric version of the grandmother has seemed just like the dead one.

RESONANT IMAGERY IN STORYTELLING

Is there terminology writers use to describe ‘the part of a story which remains with the audience’ forever?

At Fiction Writers Review, Elizabeth Meyer writes of ‘strange objects’, which is a good term for this:

Strange objects, objects that exist beyond our expectations, do all the work of ordinary objects; but by making the imagination work harder, by requiring the reader to see beyond the everyday, they also create an even more thorough engagement with the text. In “Congress” by Joy Williams and “Sewing for the Heart” by Yoko Ogawa, bizarre objects play dominant roles. In both stories, strange objects serve to mesmerize the reader as well as the characters themselves. Their strangeness fixes our attention, drawing us with curiosity deeper into the narrative while also revealing more submerged themes within the texts and illuminating the characters around them.

Strange Objects Part One

Part Two is here.

Meyer has gone further than the object itself, linking it to what I’ve also heard described as the ‘symbol web’. Though I’m not sure the milk finger in The Electric Grandmother is especially symbolic. It’s just… weird and memorable. In literary work for adults, I would certainly expect the strange object to be linked to the symbol web.

Related to all this, David Lynch uses a term called ‘The Eye Of The Duck’ to describe a critical moment in film.

I’m not sure Lynch would describe the Milk Finger image in The Electric Grandmother as an example of what he’s talking about, but it’s the closest I’ve come so far to a description of these moments/images in a story which feel perfect, and perfectly memorable.

He used the phrase in an interview with the “Daily David”, in which Lynch talks to an audience about storytelling stuff. You can also see it on YouTube.

Why does he call it that? Because when you look at a duck, you feel like its eye couldn’t be placed anywhere else on its body. The eye of the duck feels like it’s in exactly the right place.

Lynch compares film as a whole with the body of a duck and claims that every film has a scene that can be compared to the eye of a duck on a metaphorical level. The placement of the eye, the jewel, within a duck’s body is crucial because it would not make sense anywhere else. It “feels correct” and completes the overall appearance of the body. The very same thing applies to a film (the “body”) and a certain scene (the “eye”).

An eye of the duck scene is not necessarily readily identifiable.

The Eye Of The Duck is not always critical to advancing the plot forward. The insights they convey do not necessarily affect the story of the film to a great deal. Instead it affects the way the audience perceives the film. It’s a concept used by writers who don’t really believe in story structure. David Lynch has said that he eschews traditional story structure. These people (Chatman is another one) believes that an audience provides structure to a story if they need one.

(Others say that although David Lynch prides himself on having no structure to his stories, he actually follows story structure pretty conventionally.)

It will be the scene which sticks in your memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest. For me, an eye-of-the-duck Twin Peaks moment is the dancing dwarf in the red room, but I also remember the phrase, “It’s on the turn” to describe a piece of fruit (and use it often).

Lynch’s medium is film and TV, but Flaubert came up with a very similar phrase to describe ‘the exact word or phrasing’ in a text: le mot juste.

HOW TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN EYE OF THE DUCK

Lynch advises storytellers to remain open to ideas. Sometimes something suddenly feels complete after a new idea, when you’d assumed it was finished before. Dive within. This ‘eye of the duck’ doesn’t come from the intellect but from intuition.

“Stay true to the ideas. If you love them stay true to them… Maybe some fish comes that is not part of this dinner. Put it away and save it for another time… If something needs to be said twice there’s a feeling, a knowing that it’s correct… Stay on your toes because a thing isn’t finished until it’s finished.”

This is important advice because sometimes, in this age of minimalism, writers are urged to cut, cut, cut. But sometimes, even if a scene exists purely for its aesthetic value — not because it adds obviously to plot, character, theme or setting — you should still keep it there.

 

The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)

THE BLUE HOTEL stephen crane

“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica

I recently took a close look at “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield. By coincidence I came across “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, which is a similar case study in some respects: Continue reading “The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)”

Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?

Schitt's Creek

Schitt’s Creek is a CBC sitcom written by father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy. You’ll either find it funny or you won’t — I think it’s the funniest thing on Netflix at the moment.

That said, I agree with all the reviewers who’ve said something like this:

Season 1 is decent, but Season 2 is where it really takes off.

NYT, Margaret Lyons

From a writing point of view, it’s interesting to consider why this show took an entire season to really get funny. Continue reading “Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?”