Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Non-Existents

There are many words that we as English-speakers use that are not English. I am sure you are aware of many of these. What you may, perhaps, not be aware of is how many words we use that are not English--nor any other language, for that matter.

English is a constantly evolving language. Nobody spoke it at the Tower of Babel because it came into being less than two thousand years ago. English speakers are excessive borrowers and the language we speak now includes words from thousands of other languages, including German, Latin, French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish--even Swahili and Hindustani.

I am not adverse to the creation of new words. The contraction ‘ain’t’ should, in my opinion, be added to the dictionary as a contraction of ‘am not’ (especially useful when saying ‘ain’t I?’). Likewise, inventing useful words that have no synonyms already in English is, to my mind, a legitimate public service. For instance, if one is an honorary member of a group, he is enrolled honourarily.

On the other hand, I am not in favour of creating new and ignorant-sounding expressions in replacement of excellent previously-existent English words. The following is a list of such words that have passed into common usage but are not considered correct and will not be found in most dictionaries.

The word “another” is a determiner and is made up of the two English words “an” and “other.” Some people are confused by its construction and think it is made up of “a” and “nother,” and they sometimes split it into these two parts, especially if a second modifier is involved. The most common result of this is “a whole nother.” Sometimes the a is left off through sheer laziness, as in “Gimme ‘nother one of them cookies.” The word “nother” does not exist and there is never a good reason for using it since we may easily use either of the correct words “other” or “another” instead.

This is a mis-spelling of the two words “all” and “right” changed into a contraction. I think the confusion arises from words like “already” or “altogether.” The correct expression is, of course, “all right.” No more, no less.

This odd little word appears to have originated in the 1830s or 1840s as an abbreviation (in its original spelling “OK”) of “oll korrect,” and was made popular by American presidential candidate Martin Van Buren in his campaign slogan “vote for O.K.” (derived from his nickname, Old Kinderhook). But this is mostly conjecture and nobody seems to be completely sure where the word really comes from. It is certain that it originated in America and therefore it has been quintessentially and almost exclusively an American adjective until the twentieth century. The word has now passed into common usage under two spellings. “Okay” however does not appear to be the original spelling, stands for nothing and means nothing on its own account, and is withal clumsier than the two-letter variant. Therefore, in the interests of standardisation, I recommend simply spelling this word “OK.” It belongs in the category of informal English (a.k.a. American) and is therefore only acceptable in informal writing or in dialogue.

I have never seen this word in print but I have heard it said often, as in “vica versa” (in which the “c” is soft). I searched a Latin dictionary and could not find this word. I also searched an English dictionary, which did not contain it either. The correct phrase is “vice versa.”

This word is actually found in some dictionaries as an obsolete form of the word “height,” but it is not used in most English-speaking countries and is proscribed in America. The confusion apparently arises from related words like “length,” “width,” and “depth.” “Height” is easier to pronounce and more efficient, having fewer letters, besides being standard.

This word has now passed into common usage. You will not only find it in some dictionaries, but also on every fuel truck, petrol pump, and can of hairspray. It is not a word! The real word is “inflammable” and comes from the Latin word “inflammare.” Apparently, the people who write the warning-skull-and-crossbones-signs thought that ignorant people would read this word and think that the “in” meant that the substance could not catch on fire. Of course it is good to be cautious, especially where ignorant people are concerned, but I still do not consider this a legitimate reason for mis-spelling an excellent word.

I refuse to accept this word. It is yet another example of ignorant people drawing ignorant conclusions from the way a word sounds. Apparently, said persons confused ‘regardless’ with ‘irrespective,’ resulting in this clumsy hybrid. It is never necessary to use this word and there is no logical reason why it should be added to the dictionary. It does not even possess the recommendation of being a safety device.

This incorrect form of the verb sneak is an example of how an irregular verb can pass into common usage. Another example is ‘dove’ as an irregular past tense of dive.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Variations on a Theme

I understand that it is a common literary technique to begin a discourse about one subject by writing about a separate and completely different one, and so arrive by a sort of backwards shuffle at what one intended to discuss all along. The practicality of this device lies in that one thing often cannot be viewed correctly except in the light of another. Sometimes a thing cannot be viewed at all except in the light of something else.

In a story, as in life, there is what can be seen and what cannot. The events and characters of a story are easily grasped--they are, though fictional, concrete. Children often have no difficulty understanding what happens in a story. This is the part that appeals to them because they are still learning about the world and the sort of things that happen in it.

Adults already know what can and can’t happen in the world (or at least think they do) and are more interested in how the world works. They respond more readily to the unseen part of the story--the messages and ideas contained in it.

Between these two groups of people I take a neutral stance. I do not wish to state an opinion as to which part of literature is more important--the story or the message--because I rather incline to the belief that both are very necessary. You may divorce one from the other but the results are manifestly unsatisfactory. What, after all, makes a story real and credible but a truism? And what makes a truth come alive but a story?

And so we come to literary theme, which is a message or concept illustrated by a story. A theme is usually the author’s view of some aspect of the universe; sometimes it is a moral or a principle, although more often it is less definite. A theme can be something as vague as “imagination” or the relationship between brothers. And themes are multitudinous and various, including anything from childhood and growing up to lost causes or the pursuit of happiness.

The themes in a story belong to the story and are an inextricable part of it. The setting, the problems, what the characters think and feel and what they do in the story, all relate to and collaborate with the theme. The themes play their part in the story just as the characters and setting do, influencing the plot and the audience’s response to the story.

Those who are fond of classical music are likely familiar with musical theme. This sort of theme is a short piece of music, usually a melody, that a larger musical work is based on. The theme recurs throughout the piece and, as you listen, you’ll hear it pop up again and again, sometimes unexpectedly, but always recognisably. In music the theme sometimes signifies a person or a thing, but more often it is an idea. Each time the theme returns, it brings us back to the central idea of the work.

Literary theme is rather like that. A theme recurs throughout the story and whenever it appears the reader knows that the author wants to draw his attention to something important.

But themes are often subtle, not being explicitly stated. To discern themes, it is often necessary to search for them by analyzing the concrete portion of the story. Why do the characters do what they do? What makes the setting unique? What consequences result from choices made by the characters? The answers to these questions usually have something to do with the themes involved.

Many of the greatest literary works of all time contain timeless and universal themes and it is these themes that lie at the very centre of the work. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, treats the themes of guilt and expiation, and the consequences of concealing one’s sin. One of the major themes in Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo is revenge and how it affects the innocent as well as the guilty. In Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, a major theme is true and false friendship.

It is in a great measure due to the themes contained in them that these works are considered great classics, although because of the depth of the same themes, these works tend to have an avid following only among an intellectual few.

An author’s purpose in his choice of themes can be varied. Dickens’s novels, for instance, contain many different themes, including poverty, the suffering of children, and the senselessness and destructiveness of certain institutions (such as debtor’s prison or the court of Chancery). Dickens chose these themes because he wanted to draw people’s attention to problems in the world around them and to impell them to change these problems.

An author may wish to propagate one of his views on life, society, world government, stamp collecting, etc. Books are an excellent way to put one’s own ideas in other people’s heads, and story books especially so.

A story alone will probably never change the way a person thinks about a particular idea. It is the ideas in the story that make him reassess his own views. An author presents ideas in a form that makes his own opinions about them seem plausible, whether or not they are actually correct. Life can take on many forms in fiction apart from the true one.

A story illustrates an idea. Usually the main theme of a story is embodied in the story’s main problem. For instance, say that one wished to treat the theme of What Is Really Important in Life. In order to do this, one might conceive a story in which the protagonist becomes very rich and buys everything he ever wanted, but finds out in the end that he still lacks the most important thing. Or, one might write a story about a man who loses everything but at the end finds something so wonderful that he realises that all the rest wasn’t important.

Theme is very closely connected to the story, but there is one great difference between the two, for at the end of the story the problems are overcome, but the themes still remain, requiring us to think about our own actions in light of the truths in the story. The story may be over but the lessons of the story, the larger ideas and principles, continue to influence the minds and hearts of the people who read the story.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mood: the Unseen Setting

I have done it a thousand times. I will be writing a story and creating the setting. I know what I am seeing, but I have trouble getting the words just right so that my audience will be able to see it as well. At last everything is just to my mind and I sit back to read my handiwork in a leisurely manner. Two minutes later I have erased the whole thing and am re-writing furiously.

What was the trouble with it? It wasn’t the right place.

No, there was nothing wrong with the setting. The castle, or cottage, or country was just where I wanted it to be; the trouble was with the description--a certain flat, voiceless, stale account that the most courageous reader would skip or, even supposing him capable of reading it through, would come away with a very vague impression of where he just was.

And yet, it was not the setting that was lacking, nor even, necessarily, the words I chose to describe it. It was a sort of invisible, intangible quality which every place has--and there is a different one for every single place on earth--that impresses the viewer and places a pin in his mental map that interprets itself as, ‘I have been here.’

One’s memories of a scene or event are often connected more strongly with the way it made him feel than with how it actually looked. Therefore, conveying the “feel” of places and occurrences in a story leaves the audience with a stronger impression. This invisible impression is called mood.

Mood is the emotional setting--not only of a place or event--but of the whole story. It is what tells the audience what to expect from the book. Mood and Setting are similar and work together quite often to create an over-all “feel” to the written work. Because it is not spelled out in a description but is only hinted at through allusions and mental associations, mood can be very difficult to communicate. How do you make your audience feel what you are feeling? This is a skill that is not easily acquired, but only learned through determination and much study.

In the first place, there are many different kinds of moods, just as there are many kinds of settings or genres of fiction. Some of the more common moods are


--but there are many, many more--just about as many as you can think up. The type (or types) of mood you use will depend on what sort of story you are writing.

For instance, in an adventurous story, the mood might be light-hearted and carefree, with an element of danger and suspense. In a child’s story, a bright and playful and probably not too serious mood would be employed. In a horror story, the mood would be very dark and foreboding, possibly even depressing.

In a long story an author would likely make use of many different moods for different parts of the story, but he would have a few over-all moods to keep the story cohesive.

Mood affects the audience’s perceptions of a story. For instance, place the protagonist in an old house at night. He is alone. Suddenly, he hears a loud clanging sound.

From this setting the audience can draw many inferences about what is going to happen in the story. If the mood is lonely and frightening, the audience may think the clanging is coming from burglars who are trying to break into the house. If the mood is spooky, they may expect a ghost to appear, rattling a chain. A reminiscent mood may cause them to think that the clock has merely begun to strike, and no mood at all may inspire no stronger suspicion than that the garbage collector is rattling the lids of the garbage cans outside the back door.

So we see that mood is very important. But the question remains, how to create it?

Mood is made up collectively of an observer’s perspective, personal interests, and memories, conscious and subconscious. An author will allude to things that his audience will be familiar with in order to help them feel what he wants them to. He may say, ‘The place was as dry and empty as if all the air had been sucked away by a vacuum cleaner.’ Or he may say simply, ‘In that atmosphere I was turning into a piece of dried beef;’ thus playing on the audience’s subconscious associations.

There are several different tools available to an author when setting the mood--these include dialogue, descriptive words, and even action.

Take the following excerpt from The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge:

It was all silver. Upon each side of them the trunks of tall trees rose from grass so silvered by the moonlight that it glimmered like water. The trees were not thickly planted, and beautiful glades opened between them, showing glimpses of an ebony sky set with silver stars. Nothing moved. It was all quite still, as though enchanted under the moon. The silvery tracery of twigs and branches above the silver tree trunks was so delicate that the moonlight sifted through it like a fine film of silver dust.

In this passage the author uses descriptive language to set the mood, creating an atmosphere of mystery and fantasy. The words she chose--nouns such as “glade,” “moonlight,” “tracery,” and “film;” verbs like “silvered,” “glimmered,” and “enchanted;” and adjectives like “ebony,” “silvery,” and “delicate;” not only describe what the scene looks like, but create associations in our minds--the stillness of a moonlit forest at night, stars on an ebony sky like spangles on black velvet. . . these pictures come to our minds through a few well-chosen words.

Note the use made of colour. The frequent reference to silver is intentional and suggests a fairy-tale-like delicacy, or the silver embossing on ancient illuminated manuscripts. Colour plays a large role in mood. Warm colours are usually reassuring, while cool or dark colours carry a sense of danger. Bright colours can be cheerful, but in a certain context (such as a night-club setting) they can also be garish and stifling. Pale colours can give us the sense of weakness and innocence; they can also convey the sense of shallowness and insipidity.

Sensory words convey sensations to the reader. The most common sensory words authors use are those connected with sight--how something looked (these would include colours, shapes, lights and shadows, and motion). But there are four other senses, and words that appeal to these are often more powerful because of being infrequently used.

Words that appeal to the sense of hearing are often onomatopoetic--they imitate the way something sounds, like “crack,” “clank,” “scuffle,” etc. Words like “low,” or “sharp” when describing sounds appeal to our acoustic sense as well. For the sense of smell, good descriptive words include “strong,” “sweet,” “fresh,” or “bracing.” To use a smell that the audience is familiar with is stronger and more provocative, however (i.e. fields after rain; freshly-mown grass). The sense of touch is appealed to by words describing textures, hot and cold, and internal feelings like hunger or nervousness (in the passage above, the “fine film of silver dust” is so sensory that we can almost feel the moonlight). Taste is also an important sense although it is not referred to often: telling about a character consuming ham and eggs definitely plays on the audience’s senses--especially if they are hungry--and the taste of blood in a character’s mouth immediately conveys a sensation of pain and panic.

The sound of words also plays a part. Harsh-sounding words such as “glare,” or “scratch” create tension and are useful in sections with conflict, while softer words like “fulsome,” or “smooth” contribute to the flow of the account and create a sense of quiet or well-being to the reader. Alliteration can add interest and a poetic feel to description--some examples of alliteration in the previously-quoted passage are “sky set with silver stars” and “fine film.”

It is not with just one of these techniques, but a collection of them that Elizabeth Goudge was able to paint, not only a picture, but a whole sensory experience for the reader. This picture is pretty but puzzling. Those woods seem to hold some strange and beautiful secret. If you read the rest of the story, you discover that they do conceal a secret and the author prepares the audience for this by the mood of the story.

Here is another excerpt, this time from Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co.:

They wrapped themselves lovingly about the boy, thrust him to the opened window, and drew down the sash to the nape of his neck. With an equal swiftness they tied his thumbs together behind his back with a piece of twine, and then, because he kicked furiously, removed his shoes.

Mr. Prout happened to find him a few minutes later, guillotined and helpless, surrounded by a convulsed crowd who would not assist.

Stalky, in an upper form-room, had gathered himself allies against vengeance. Orrin presently tore up at the head of a boarding party, and the form-room grew one fog of dust through which boys wrestled, stamped, shouted, and yelled. A desk was carried away in the tumult, a knot of warriors reeled into and split a door-panel, a window was broken, and a gas-jet fell. Under cover of the confusion the three escaped to the corridor, whence they called in and sent up passers-by to the fray.

Here the author uses the events in the story to set a mood of mischief, rough-and-tumble, and naughty schoolboys. The audience, whether or not they understand perfectly what is happening, enter at once into the feel of the story.

In sections such as this with fast-paced action, the author usually employs a host of strong and exciting verbs and adverbs (the boys “reeled,” Orrin “tore up,”--and, when helplessly guillotined, “kicked furiously”).

It is important to keep the action moving and to not stop to wallow in a slew of details. Kipling did this admirably in devoting no more than two sentences to an explanation of how Stalky, McTurk, and Beetle incapacitated Orrin. Kipling never tells the audience more than they need to know. This taciturnity on his part sometimes occasions re-readings of certain sections of his story, but it conveys the mood of sarcasm, informality, and even savagery of boys in a boys’ school.

Supposing the author had instead chosen for this segment a quiet, conventional boarding-school setting where the pupils contented themselves with throwing paper-wads. The mood thus created would be incongruous with the rest of the story, in which the boys do little else besides misbehave.

Another way to create mood is through dialogue. In the following extract from Charles Dickens’s short story, The Haunted Man, the author sets a ghostly and phantasmal mood through what the characters say.

. . . At length he spoke; without moving or lifting up his face.
‘Here again!’ he said.
‘Here again!’ replied the Phantom.
‘I see you in the fire,’ said the haunted man; ‘I hear you in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night.’
The Phantom moved its head, assenting.
‘Why do you come to haunt me thus?’
‘I come as I am called,’ replied the Ghost.
‘No. Unbidden,’ exclaimed the Chemist.
‘Unbidden be it,’ said the Spectre. ‘It is enough. I am here.’

The chills should be running down your spine! The language Dickens uses in this interchange is archaic and almost melodramatic and would sound out-of-place in most stories set from the nineteenth century onwards, but here, in a fireside chat with a ghost, it fits perfectly. If the chemist had spoken every-day English, it would not likely have created the same impression of horror and despair. The mood is more than spooky--it presents a man terrorized by memories of a tragedy in his past (embodied symbolically in a phantom) and the inescapability of the effects of that tragedy. We feel the hopelessness, the futility, and the cold chill of the ghostly visitant--exactly what Dickens intended.

Setting also plays a role in creating mood (I told you they worked together!). Sometimes the mere setting of a piece, if exotic or dramatic, intimates to the audience the mood the author intends the story to have. The following excerpt is from Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle. The setting of this story is the castle of a robber-baron in medieval Germany.

The great house in the centre was the Baron’s Hall, the part to the left was called the Roderhausen; between the two stood a huge square pile, rising dizzily up into the clear air high above the rest--the great Melchior Tower.

At the top clustered a jumble of buildings hanging high aloft in the windy space; a crooked, wooden belfry, a tall, narrow watch-tower, and a rude wooden house that clung partly to the roof of the great tower and partly to the walls.

From the chimney of this crazy hut a thin thread of smoke would now and then rise into the air, for there were folk living far up in that empty, airy desert, and oftentimes wild, uncouth little children were seen playing on the edge of the dizzy height, or sitting with their bare legs hanging down over the sheer depths, as they gazed below at what was going on in the court-yard. There they sat, just as little children in the town might sit upon their father’s door-step; and as the sparrows might fly around the feet of the little town children, so the circling flocks of rooks and daws flew around the feet of these air-born creatures.

The glimpse we get of the setting in this extract gives us a sense of austerity, danger, and vulnerability. First of all, the names of the buildings, being Germanic, sound harsh and gloomy. Secondly, the tower is very high and dangerous, yet there are children living in this tower who sit with their legs hanging over the edge of the gulf! We feel that life in this setting is precarious at best--especially for children.

Howard Pyle’s story is of a young and sensitive boy, and we instinctively feel that surviving in this type of setting is going to be an ordeal for him. This is the feeling the author intended to convey.

If Howard Pyle had placed his protagonist in a monastery (which he does for the early part of the story) instead of this stolid castle, the mood--and the plot as well because the two are related--would have ended up being very different. The mood would probably have communicated a sense of escape from evil rather than of facing and conquering it.

As we enter upon this setting, we have a feel of what is to come. The mood, in turn, helps us understand the setting better.

Yet another way to create mood is through the characters. This occurs when the author tells the story from the character’s perspective and shows the audience a character’s thoughts and feelings. The following excerpt from The Guns of Navarone, although not written in first person, takes place inside the protagonist’s mind and shows exactly what and how he is feeling.

For the first time Mallory thought of himself. Not with bitterness or self-pity or regret that it was all over. He thought of himself only as the leader of this party, his responsibility for the present situation. It’s my fault, he told himself over and over again, it’s all my fault. I brought them here. I made them come. . . . There was nothing he could do, no more than the others were doing, and they were just waiting for the end. But he was the leader, he thought dully, he should be planning something, he should be doing something. . . But there was nothing he could do.

The author of this story, Alistair Maclean, likes to get inside his characters heads and find out exactly what they are thinking. By showing how the character is feeling, the author is able to make the audience feel the same way.

Repetition is used extensively in this segment. When we think, our thoughts are often repetitive. I am not sure why this is true--perhaps it is because we think so fast that we can’t keep up with ourselves, or perhaps our minds simply work better in ‘repeat mode’--however it is, the repetition here makes it obvious that this is an exchange between the character and himself.

Repetition also serves in the above excerpt to give a sense of urgency. If you have not read the rest of this story, you probably don’t know what is going on, but very likely you have gotten the impression that it is something bad.

The character’s emotions are also important. Mallory is not worried about himself or the fact that he is about to die (in a shipwreck, in case you’re curious); he is instead struggling under the weight of a leader’s responsibilities. He feels that he has failed, and he feels that it is up to him to save the operation, while realising that this is impossible. We as the audience share his sense of danger, impending catastrophe, and utter helplessness. We feel the same things that Mallory feels. We share his mood. We are able to step into the story and take part in it with him.

This is, after all, the most important reason for creating mood--so that the audience can participate in the story. The mood you create will greatly influence what the story is and how the audience sees it. Whoever ends up reading your book will mentally ingest it into a mind already full of subconscious biases and associations. As you learn what these are and how they make a person think (and the best person to learn from is yourself), you will begin to understand how to use them to the best advantage. You will begin to communicate with clarity to your audience and your stories will come to life. When a reader feels at the end of a story as if it had all happened to him, then you have succeeded as an author of fiction.

-A. P.