Thursday, 12 January 2012

GUEST BLOG: The Ying and Yang of Fiction - John R Fultz

Everything that exists in our universe possesses a dual nature.

There is first the literal (or physical) nature. Then there is the symbolic (or ideal) nature.

This principle is nowhere more evident than in the world of literature. The events of a story, the characters, the setting, all the various elements that compose a narrative work…all of these can be analyzed from a symbolic (ideal) perspective. Sure, there’s a blazing mountain of ghosts in the hero’s path, but what does that truly MEAN? A red hawk crosses a witch’s path as she stumbles from her hovel…what is the deeper meaning of the occurrence?

I teach a combined class of English Language Arts and History called Humanities. My partner, a history teacher, continually reminds our students that it’s not enough just to know WHAT happened in history; it is far more important to know the SIGNIFICANCE of a historical event. The dual nature of events is displayed clearly in this study of the past. What did it MEAN that the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated? What was the significance of Napolean’s obsession with defeating the Russians?

To get the most out of a work of literature, a study of history, or the latest great book you’re reading, you must look beyond the literal/physical and strive to understand the symbolic/ideal elements of the story unfolding in your mind. Often such understanding is second nature to a reader—we pick up on symbolism, connections, metaphor, imagery, and other types of figurative language without even trying. These are natural tools that allow us to convey and understand comparisons, deeper connections, and meanings beyond the literal. “My love is a red, red rose,” does not have to be explained. We instinctively “get” the metaphor.

Usually writers work by instinct, weaving literal and figurative language as a loom spins cloth. Yet it’s not only about what a writer intends to put in the story. It’s also important what the reader brings to the story: life experience, education, existing tastes, prejudices, culture, and insight. When two minds (or souls) converge in the meeting of writer/reader, we find the true magic of synergy unleashed, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This is the power of literature, as well as other forms of art that involve output/receiver relationships.

When it comes to SEVEN PRINCES, a lot of people have been asking me to describe the book. Distilling years of hard work into a brief description can be a difficult process. Sure, I’ve said “It’s about blood,” and “It’s about young people living in the shadows of their legendary fathers,” and “It’s about the subjective nature of reality.” Yet none of these descriptions encapsulates what the entire novel is actually ABOUT.

On its literal/physical surface, SEVEN PRINCES is about brave, conflicted souls doing the best they can in a world full of ancient menace, strange sorcery, and brutal warfare. Yet on the symbolic/ideal side, that same novel is about love, hate, vengeance, history, family, destiny, honor, justice, betrayal, murder, romance, death, and magic.

Yet none of those statements is going to express the complete wholeness that is the book itself. There is only one way to understand that wholeness—reading the novel. When you bring your own consciousness to bear upon a work of art (such as a novel), you spark that synergy and actually join the creative process of fiction. Fiction itself possesses a dual nature: It takes both a writer who writes and a reader who reads to create the phenomenon that is a story. Like magic itself, two forces come together and create something unique and special: the experience of reading a narrative.

What I tried to do was to write the novel I most wanted to read. I’m of the belief that a writer does his best work when writing to please himself. The best rock albums are created this way as well. In fact, I believe that the very best works of art (regardless of medium or genre) are created as fulfillments of a creator’s singular vision. The manifestations of his or her obsessions. In cinema these types of storytellers are called “auteurs.” They bring a personalized vision to life onscreen and share it with a mass audience.

Writers do the same thing, only our personalized visions show up on the page, then later in the “mental theatre” of the reader’s mind. However, when it comes to writing, the reader brings far more to the story than the watcher of a movie. A lot of the “heavy lifting” is done by the reader: instead of detailed set pieces created by the work of an artisan team, the reader supplies the background visuals based solely on the writer’s choice of words and evoked imagery. In a movie, the music will often determine the mood, but when you read a book, it’s all YOU. Even the physical appearances of the characters are ultimately determined by the reader—not the writer—because words are limited.

Words carry meaning, but they are far more interpretive than pictures. This is why movies based on books are usually a let-down. Unless you make the movie yourself, how can it possibly live up to the images that book conjured in your mind with its unlimited budget and boundless special effects? Don’t get me wrong—I love movies. But reading a book will always be a more personal, and therefore a more meaningful, experience.

SEVEN PRINCES is an epic adventure waiting to happen. Like all things in our universe, it possesses a dual nature. It is equal parts Writer and Reader. Literal and Symbolic. Epic and Intimate. Real and Magical. It is an arcane spell in need of casting.

All you need to do is open the book…and start reading.


T. James said...

A really interesting post, especially about the writer trying to create mood, and using symbolism and metaphor to give the story added depth.

It's something I've experimented with in my own writing, except apparently I was too subtle as no one noticed...

I wandered if you have any tips on making symbolism/metaphor evident to the reader, without any clumsy "OI! IT'S OVER HERE!" type writing?

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...good question

Well, one way to do that is to have your viewpoint character reflect on the symbolism. A realization or epiphany that the reader shares. A momentary diversion, or a new obsession that haunts the character. The character's thoughts might only "hint" at the symbolism/metaphor, or it might reveal it completely. --JF