Thursday, April 1, 2010

Writing the Symbol Sketch - Allegory, Fable, and Post-Modernism

Writing a fiction piece with symbols can be a unique challenge.  It forces us to bring together the kind of symbolic imagery expected from poetry with the focus on character demanded by fiction.  The strength of this comes in the ability to convey a lesson to your audience through allegory or even the post-modern fable - the trick is to avoid the trap of coming on so strong that the reader feels manipulated...

This unit is anchored by Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols" and Dinesen's "The Sorrow Acre."
Previously, in the discussion on Idea Poems, we brought up the idea that work of literature can carry an argument through indelible images.  In fiction, it's rare that arguments work as well as they do in poetry.  One reason for this is length - the narrower scope of poetry allows images to be focused directly, without the burden of characterization or plot.  In fiction, though, a direct argument will often flatten our characters, turning them into plasterboard pinups for whichever cause we wish to champion.

The first step, then, in writing a symbol piece in fiction is usually not the selection of the symbol - it's usually the selection of the character and a conflict.  For example, say we wanted a story about a good knight who does good things and then lives happily ever after:
Sir Brave kept his gleaming stainless steel broadsword as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel.
Right away, we know that this is a strange knight - he's carrying the kind of equipment that couldn't be manufactured back in the days of chivalry.  And it's fitting, but it doesn't tell us that much about him.  It implies good, untarnished might for a good person - in a word, someone who would be too perfect for there to be a real conflict.

We need a more complex character if this sword is to become a real symbol.  So let's give him something to worry about.  His divorce for example.  And why's he getting divorced?  Because he's never home.  He's always out fighting dragons and saving damsels and being perfect.  And his wife is not a fan of this whole "saving damsels in distress" thing.
"And how," she asked him, "do you find all these damsels?  Do you Facebook them?  Just type in 'damsel-distress-local-area'?  Hmmm?"

The knight looked up from his bench.  The sword - it had once belonged to his grandfather - was still stained with dragon's blood from that last quest.  And he still remembered the damsel he had saved.  Lydia, she was called.  If not for her, the dragon would have killed him for sure.

"Well?" his wife demanded.  "Are you going to tell me about all these hours you spend on the computer or aren't you?"

He glared up at his wife.  "I don't use Facebook," he said.  He was tired of explaining to her just how many hours of research it took to pick out a good sword.  Especially something that would replace Old Blue.  It was stainless steel, after all.  Or so it said on the handle.  "Made in Normandy," it read.  He felt like he'd spent half his life scanning the Used Swords in Kelly's Blue Book.
To be honest, this is one reason I rarely write symbol pieces myself - I usually become so caught up in developing the character or trying to find the conflict that I don't take a moment to find a good symbol.  But here, revealing the modern-day-Arthurian-knight-errant, the symbol of the sword becomes essential.  It gives us the freedom to carry this story in some different directions.  Since it is a bit surreal, it could easily fit the bill for allegory or fable:
The knight left his sword out in the rain to rust.  The next day, his wife left him.  "You never care about what it's like for me," she said.  "How would you like to be left alone for weeks at a time?"

(hence, an allegory about the importance of giving attention to those you love).
The sword leaned over toward the wife.  She was nibbling her acorn, trying to ignore the sword.

"Please, young squirrel wife, place your palm on the pommel.  You will feel the strength and fidelity of your husband's grip."

(hence, a fable about a sword trying to save its master from the court fees of an ugly divorce.  And the knight is a badger, in case you were wondering.  And he married a petite little squirrel ten years his junior thinking that she would be happy to have a heroic husband like himself.  Somehow, he had missed the whole point of social equality.)
Or, if we wanted, we could take a more post-modern approach, using the sword as a way to comment on the story itself:
The sword shouldn't have existed in this story of cars and planes and Facebook, but there it was.  And on those days when a dragon walked down the block, scooping up hybrid automobiles and throwing them through town homes, the knight would take up the sword to protect his neighbors.  But he was a knight.  And this was the sort of thing that knights did in a story featuring a stainless steel sword.
 Now, we've only talked about using one image - here, the overriding image of the sword to represent the greater theme of the story.  Let's bolster this with some secondary images:
Outside, the sky was clear and blue except for the dark shadow of nimbus clouds to the east.  Gauntlets off, he fingered his wedding band as he rode along.  He wasn't even watching the road - his trusty steed would watch for potholes and road construction.

The wedding band was smooth and hard between his fingers.  Sometimes, the sweat from combat would gather under the ring, making his skin itch.  And it wasn't even real gold - it was that fake gold he was allergic to, and sometimes it turned his skin green.

He returned his hand to the pommel of his sword.  The point hung down practically to the ground.  And on the pommel, he had tied the handkerchief from Lydia.  It was soft and pink and silk.
Note that each one of these images relates back to the conflict at hand.  The blue sky and the clouds, even, are indicative of how this knight's life is about to change.  And wedding band versus the handkerchief reveals exactly why.

So in writing your symbol sketch, remember that character and conflict should remain the dominant considerations for your fiction.  And although we haven't discussed it much, ensure that your story carries more balance than "moral."  For example, in these examples, we've seen that the knight and his wife don't really get along - it's neither entirely his fault, nor entirely his wife's fault.  If we wanted, we could easily make it entirely his fault - he could be like Tiger Woods and start "getting to know" all those damsels.  But for a complex story, it might be better to leave the situation more uncertain.  What if there is no infidelity?  What if it really is just a marriage breaking down?  It's not allegory to reveal a realistic situation with complex characters and uncertain life lessons, but it can certainly still be a symbol piece.


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