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Modifiers III: Painting Pictures – Minimalism, the Use of Symbolism and Other Creative Innovations

Posted by CW64 on June 24, 2010

Modifiers not only serve in grammatical and syntactical matters; they serve in creative ones as well. As a matter of fact, many modifiers are employed strictly for creative purposes.

Among the many creative modifiers are symbolism, metaphors, similes and analogies. These concepts allow writers to form allusions through comparison and imagery, and usually through minimal expression, which is preferable.

Symbolism refers to the use of emblems and other signs intended to promote certain meanings or ideas essential to supporting the premise of a passage or a story. The universal stock of symbols is virtually unlimited; a symbol exists to represent virtually any and every idea mentally conceivable. The creative writer not only conjures up known symbols (that which readers find familiar), but also devises her/his own symbols. Therein lies the challenge as far as creative writing is concerned—to invoke colorful images, sounds, tastes, flavors, feelings, sensations and moods through terms and expressions that are fresh and unique, not to mention applicable to a given situation, and to ensure they are clear and understood.

Take for example the following passage describing a given location:

Grand Haven is a pleasant place, so serene and laid-back. This quaint little Oceanside town boasts such a peaceful and friendly atmosphere that it has absolutely no history of crime whatsoever.

This sounds like a fabulous place to live, doesn’t it? Well, it can sound even better and more . . . alive with the use of a symbol to sum up the entire sentiment. Of course, it has to be the right symbol, applicable to the feeling and mood of the setting. Let’s try to enhance the description above with a choice symbol:

Grand Haven is paradise on the sea!

Not only does the symbol ‘paradise’ capture the feel for the place, but it does so in fewer words (the original passage has 31; the revision has 7). Said symbol also adds further dimension to the description than the original statement, meaning that the symbol—‘paradise’—says more about Grand Haven than the actual description does, namely that the setting is somehow comparable to, say, the wonderfully mystical lost land of Atlantis—that’s how grand the place is.

Notice, too, that the statement is succinct and grabs the reader’s attention by producing the one unified image embodied in the original description. One key word does this (because ‘paradise’ is a symbol for the perfect place), although “on the sea” provides the addition of the distant horizon and crystal-blue water lapping on a stretch of white sandy shoreline. The creative twist changes ‘paradise’ to ‘paradise on the sea’—a unique symbol that conveys a ‘big picture’ with so much vividness and depth.

One can argue that ‘paradise’ is also a metaphor. Indeed many such concepts do work as both symbols and metaphors, since both allude to meaningful imagery.

Yes, one can insist that ‘paradise on the sea’ is a metaphor, and indeed it is. I never argued that symbols and metaphors are different in reference or usage, although, technically, they are (symbols are more emblematic, such as a stop sign, whereas metaphors compare similar things and ideas for the sake of description or creating imagery or both). Alternately, symbols can describe and produce an image, and metaphors can also serve as a representation. The stop sign above, though a symbol, can be used as a metaphor when describing an idea such as an obstacle that stops forward motion in the plot of a story: “There was a stop sign in the road. W needed another solution.” Sometimes these crossovers, or overlaps in role-playing, can be blurred, but the ideas and senses produced are, regardless, powerful and effective, not to mention uniquely colorful. In the end, that’s the ultimate objective.

As for the metaphor, this can be anything—characters, specific or generic (Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Superman, a bum in the park, a model); animals (dog, lion, caribou, moose, leopard, bear and giraffe), occupations (firemen, boxers, baseball players, etc.); raw materials (e.g. cardboard, wood, metal, concrete, dirt, air, smog and plastic); objects bearing certain consistencies in weight, size and shape; sounds (such as car horns, cows mooing and blowing wind); textural samples (sandpaper, gravel, plush, marble, paper, cotton, gauze and sharp glass); natural phenomena (mountains, meadows, flowers, planets, bodies of water and sunsets). That is why metaphors are so fantastic—the possibilities are endless!

The following passage involves a variety of metaphors.This is done in a minimal use of words, yet the description is clear and complete:

Eddie Rivera strutted from the corner of the room, a shadow emerging from darkness. He was the man, the ringer of ringers! Twenty-five and the king of kings. His tall, lean figure gleamed like a white marble statue. “When don’t we make money,” he smirked. “It’s so easy, man. The first two or three hundred bucks is a guarantee.” He coolly lit a cigarette.

In this excerpt, not only is Eddie’s character established, but the readers can discern the narrator’s perception of the character as well; the metaphors employed allow the writer and reader to get inside the heads of both the narrator and the character described.

Similes work the same way; that is they describe through comparison. These are distinguished by a ‘side-by-side’ linear correlation instead of the direct composite identifying form of association for which metaphors are known. Word tags such as “as _________as” or “like _____________,” where the simile is inserted in the line, allow a reference to maintain its actual identity while simultaneously assuming its applied comparison.

In the above example, Eddie has contrasts that are sensible and understood by the narrator. He is young like an adolescent yet as majestic as royalty due to his confidence, experience and superior skill at his game. This described allusion is clear in both metaphor and simile.

Sometimes, only a single word can be chosen to satisfactorily capture the description of a character, place or thing, involving both internal makeup and physical appearance. Despite what you might think, however, the one-word descriptive is the most difficult because finding the most ideal modifier requires the writer to determine which word or term serves best to carry out the intended purpose of description.

Okay, which word would best describe Eddie above? Let’s go through a possible list of words and test each one . . .

‘King’? Well, he is a king to the narrator (not to mention others in the story), and it brings to mind the sense of regalia he projects. The problem with this term, however, is that is doesn’t allude to Eddie’s youth or other essential attributes, such as his white suit. Furthermore, ‘King’ conjures up trimmed velvet and a crown, which are inconsistent with Eddie’s actual appearance.

‘Statue’? Well, this conveys the respect the young man receives from others for his abilities, so much that they pay homage to him—a sense of stateliness. Still, the word does not clarify what kind of statue. The “gleaming white” is essential here to specify appearance, especially since his white suit is significant regarding his character and his skill at the game. Since ‘statue’ does not necessarily, or clearly, project these other inferences, it likely won’t work solo either.

‘Marble’? Ah, this adds a few important traits to the mix—that of confidence and elegance, both solid like stone, not to mention the aforesaid reference to the tribute given to him, which suggests a “larger than life” view shared by those around him. Still, ‘statue’ projects this perception as well, so ‘marble’ in itself is unable to work alone (marble what? And what does it look like?).

‘Shadow’? This word does convey a sense of mysteriousness that makes the character intriguing, but that’s about it; it says nothing else beyond that, especially since there is more to Eddie than his mystique.

‘Adolescent’? No, this word alone brings forth an image of a youth without any indication of his confidence, arrogance or the admiration of others toward him.

‘Regal/Regalia’? Like ‘king’ above, this reference brings about an image of a velvet-donning king with a crown. Although he is viewed as such by his friends, Eddie doesn’t actually appear that way, since he is wearing his “gleaming white” suit.

‘Royalty’? The same allusion described directly above applies here as well.

‘Ringer’? Aaaah, okay! This term clues the reader in on that status for which the character is known. A ‘ringer’ refers to an expert in some area, especially sports. In this case, it’s billiards. His dialogue speaks of making money. That would mean that he’s a hustler, and by his “gleaming white” suite, a good one. Still, does the term “ringer” alone do it? It doesn’t describe his appearance or the area in which he is an expert. (This information is revealed through the context of the scene, so maybe the word for which we’re searching does not necessarily require embodying that particular trait). This choice also clarifies why others admire him, hence the phrase “ringer of ringers,” but that phrase consists of three words. Still, there’s nothing else to come from this modifier that could project enough of the character for him to be whole, vivid and real (i.e. three-dimensional).

Then which word would capture every important aspect of this character? We have used every word from his description above. His depth and various dimensions do come through with effort from these words combined, yet none of them individually boasts the all-encompassing information necessary to stand as the sole descriptor.

So which word should it be? Do you know?

This isn’t easy, is it? This is another great reason why a writer should know her/his characters intimately before writing. Who said that creative writing never required thinking? Think again.

In the meantime, why not share your ideas here?

Analogies are basically large metaphors; that is, they represent cases in which an entire story, event or circumstance serves as a metaphoric modifier. For example, the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is “Chernobl all over again,” where the latter illustrates the severity of the former through comparison because they both were tragedies that got out-of-hand and caused significant damage over a vast area.

As far as writing goes, however, you can draw on similar instances in literature or other well known events to offer substantive depth and meaning to a passage. Another example refers to an underdog who steals from the wealthy to give to the poor as “a Modern-Day Robin Hood.” The comparison not only enhances the description, but also paints the underdog as either a victim who is treated unjustly by law enforcement or a hero who is trying to help the downtrodden.

Creative expression in writing is so dynamic that anything is possible. Whether involving references that are singular or combined, or allusions simple or complex, everything works together, strung from the single word through clauses and phrases and flowing paragraphs, like spiraling yarn. Whatever is to be conceived requires both writer and reader in ongoing collaboration, with a balance of insight and imagination, in order to be effective in both comprehension and execution.

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