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“You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary.” ~Frederick Buechner

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Building A Story World

“Physical symbols, whether secular or sacred, are intended to convey intangible truths, moral values, and spiritual values.” David McKenna

Culture (Atmosphere-Part One)

Last week we looked at the ability to communicate person to person. Language and communication within world settings will have a strong influence on the emotional safety or danger for our characters. This is often communicated in and through culture as well where a vast array of influence from the arts: crafts, food, clothing, holidays, celebrations, mores, etc. develop attitudes toward the art expressed, and those who create it. These arts portray the public expression of the people. Music and/or art can become a mirror, reflecting a spiritual alliance. It translates the character’s soul landscape for him. It can also become a bridge of communication across cultures. Sometimes responses come in action, sometimes in desire or longing, sometimes in a symbol. These images often find a ‘voice’ through music or art. When we listen to, or build, our worlds we often find its heart expressed through its art culture.

Or its absence. When we look at our own world history (across cultures) we see evidence of regimes that chose to destroy artistic expression such as slashed paintings, burned books, smashed sculptures, and destroyed architecture.

Exercise: Choose one activity and explain it to someone who has never seen it before.

Share: What was the most difficult to explain?

Friday, May 25, 2012


As we’ve discussed before memories are not always measurable according to facts. Our perceptions change with our emotional focus and we can often re-write them. Like a public eulogy or obituary we hone in on particular details and choose to keep them as our remembrance.

However the reality still exists and can break through to shatter our illusions. What we see as narrative shatters into splintered particles that lack purpose or direction.

In the movie Tree of Life, the story examines the conflicting memories of one son to his father. Sometimes his reactions appear to be shared with his brothers and at other times in complete contrast. Often the father showed extreme restraint towards this son’s emotional journey but then inexplicably over-reacted towards apparent surface issues.

A friend noted that, “The extended focus on beautiful imagery was initially arresting but then became expected and eventually laborious. I wanted the narrative to be more robust to stand up to the really significant and mesmerizing imagery in order to tie it all together in a cohesive way.”

Perhaps the movie’s intent was to leave the viewer to make their own connections and opinions, but instead left out too many real facts to engage that conversation. When we write memories into our own memoirs, or for our fictional characters, we need to both have an understanding of the root and why. Only then can we share honestly—especially when we bury parts of the story.

Journal Prompt:
Take an incident from your character’s past—perhaps childhood—and write it up from two opposite emotional perceptions. Then blend the two into your character’s memory. Can a viewer or reader tell which is the reality? If not, revise.

For example, a child remembers with fondness a special day at the fair with her father who soon after deserted the family. In reality, the father drank heavily and repeatedly put her in danger that day.

Share: What memory does your character refuse to see in its true light? Why?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Building a Story World

Typology in Social Structure

What types of social structure will best establish a foundation for growth and conflict? We’ll examine the government formats in a later session, but begin here at the basic family core. Even if your world no longer follows those principles there still has to be a remnant for or against, especially if you’re in a dystopia or utopia. Is it a patriarchal or matriarchal-based family structure? Does the fairy Queen rule or does the Chieftain?

Here’s an interesting question to start brainstorming with. What is the society’s attitude towards their children and at what point do they see them as independent? A good study of one range of criteria can be found in any BBC historic series set in the late 1880’s where some children from five up worked in appalling factory conditions on one end of the economic scale, while others were raised by servants and nannies and boarding-schools with minimal contact with their parents. This is a particular focused view of course, which doesn’t necessarily fit all the truth of that era, but the principle holds. What would an outsider looking in think of this society by watching how they care for their young?

Exercise: Choose a specific culture, historical era, and geographic location that could bolster or conflict with your story world. Apply the above questions/concepts. Become a social investigator for this timeline. What can you adapt for yourself?

Share: Did you find any surprises?

Friday, May 18, 2012


“That said perhaps the movie reflects in its rawest form what it means to be human: we carry the disjointed memories of our life (often carried in pictorial form) with the slim thread of narrative (or understanding) that barely makes sense of it all. I find the movie more compelling when viewed through this lens but no more satisfying.” Mary Loebig Giles

This thought helps me understand better my difficulty connecting emotionally with the movie Tree of Life.  Map-making into our own personal history is disjointed enough and difficult to connect, let alone transfer comprehension to another.

Even when we connect with a similar experience the process of experiencing it and moving past it will be unique. Why does one child survive a harsh upbringing with compassion and generosity and another with rage and even more brutality? Perhaps even from within the same family.

Empathy helps us to share and yet there is still a distinct difference. We draw the maps, we name the local territory, and we highlight the routes taken. Yet we color code with different symbols, danger points, or rest stops.

And the surface pristine map we draw for the world to see may bear no reality to the chasms and ravines underneath silently waiting for the tremor that will split it wide open. Emotional map making needs a light touch and winds of mercy in order to communicate. It requires courage.

Journal Prompt:

            The movie focused on one character trying to map one particular stage of his journey with specific micro memories—often out of sequence—and without explanation.

            Take one stage of either your life or your character’s, say as a young teenager or new parent or first time driver, and make a visual word map as if you were placing photographs on a sheet of paper. Then connect them with colored pens to reflect routes and the corresponding emotions.

Share: Did one particular color or situation rise to the surface? Did it surprise you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Building a Story World

Genre Typology

Each genre also has its own special qualities or typology for their heroes. The “western” qualities are just as popular now as when first introduced into literature, but now you might likely find them in outer space. The location changes but the core qualities don’t. A place to begin might be to list what you consider to be heroic qualities. Are you looking for a Batman or a John Wayne, or is your hero a parent who shows up every day. What do you consider to be the difference between a hero and a role model? These questions will help you decide where to look for the ‘types’ that will best flavor your novel with the right added depth whether you are looking in characters, plots, or setting.

Be careful not to overuse though unless you are writing them exaggerated with a purpose. Shakespeare’s use of ‘fools’ in his plays stood out in dramatic contrast to the ongoing drama, but he had a reason to portray them as such. We’re looking here at using the concept without neon lights. Think of the type as an invisible template. Then let the character follow his personal storyline.

Writing Exercise

1. Choose one character from a familiar folktale. What qualities make him/her that ‘type’?

2. Can you match those qualities to a real-life person either historically or contemporary?

3. Is this type or archetype important today? Why or why not?

4. Can you adapt this personality to a minor character in your novel?

For example: Although popular versions of The Three Little Pigs have made all the piglets male, note that the version given on does not specifically say ‘he’ for the first one. So in my adaption version the first character sent out on her own is approximately eighteen. She is slender and can pass for a boy and has gone into the world disguised as one. I might look up a list of well-known and well-written characters in disguise and make a list of common attributes. And /or I will make a list of what is required for a person to carry off such a disguise effectively and see if she matches a type.

Share: Give us the qualities you chose for your type. See if we can guess who you based them on.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Recently I watched the 2011 movie Tree of Life, which received the Palme d’Or award, the highest prize given at the Cannes Film Festival. It is described as “an American film with experimental elements.” I admit it’s a movie I couldn’t really find my way through. Or I am overwhelmed by possibilities—still trying to decide. Like reading poetry where you catch glimpses but are not sure of your interpretation. Or you can relate to some poets but not others, regardless of the quality.

The story is shared in a non-linear narrative, mostly in fragments and juxtaposed with exquisite imagery. Since my own creative process often falls under non-linear definition it’s interesting that I’m struggling. I guess I prefer a polished wrapped up movie sequence. Yet a creative metaphor does exactly what the movie has accomplished—widened out perception in order to see thing with a new perspective.

And the visual metaphors are astonishing. The ones that impacted me were the repeating birth metaphors delivered in such a wide array. Birth of a child, birth of a day—somewhat familiar yet paired with birth of a volcano, birth of a storm, seeds beginning. A silent, brief wick flicker of faith, a momentary pulse that fades in an instant and yet still returns at every opportunity for life. It hesitates, whispers encouragement, waits for an invitation and then disappears.

The flicker didn’t call attention to itself or stay long. Yet it repeated with gentle nudges never letting go.

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?" God asks in Job 38:4,7. Tree of Life opens with this quote. A question that theologians and scholars have tried to unravel for centuries.

And perhaps that’s where the metaphors connect with hope. As long as there is a search, questions, possibilities and a yearning for relationship, life grows with perception spiritually.

Journal Prompt:

 What movie have you watched where the images stayed in your thoughts long afterwards?

Share: What was the key repeating echo for you?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Building a Story World

Character Typology

Does this character description remind you of anyone in particular?

-on top of the power hierarchy but his power is not boundless

-can be still be opposed, deceived, and tricked although dangerous to do so

-in a long term marriage but has endless affairs

-does not participate in petty arguments and schemes of daily activities

-can be extremely vengeful

Based on familiar movies, my first response might be a dictator or a CEO of a vast financial/business empire, or a James Bond 007 villain. But these are some of the characteristics given in Greek mythology to Zeus. Somehow they still sound quite modern.

John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story, notes that the character Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story can be compared to a goddess, not only because of her beauty and grace but also her coldness and fierce sense of superiority to others.” We want to tap into that inner character connection—the moral or soul voice and highlight the ones that fit our characters.

Exercise: Choose an historical or scriptural character that exemplifies their moral or immoral compass based on their character description.

Share: Where might we see that ‘person’ in today’s culture?

Friday, May 4, 2012


“I suddenly understood that photography can fix eternity in a moment.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson

Looking at life close-up, or from a different perspective than everyday normal, can add a dimension of awe and wonder.  The ordinary becomes mysterious. We begin to examine the intricacy of the moment. A snowflake, a sunrise, a fingerprint—all one of a kind in a world teeming with creation.

Studying a craft we fall in love with gives a lifetime of moments. Sometimes it becomes a vocation. A puzzle to solve—a medical breakthrough—a window into a person’s life or character—all breathing with hope and possibilities.

In the movie Hugo the young boy quietly and desperately tries to unravel the mystery of the automaton his father discovered. Its repair began as a mutual bond between them and now Hugo feels he must complete it as the last connection with his father. He is certain he will discover a message in it. He alternates between fascination and frustration as he applies his growing skill to unravel the mystery behind it.   

However the mystery is not his alone, but involves others and their personal stories. The circle widens. The mystery is not something fixable like his machine, but needs interpersonal healing of memories and new beginnings. When the answer finally comes it produces so much more than Hugo or his father or the automaton’s creator could ever imagine.

A message that gathers many moments and gives a glimpse of eternity’s awe.

Journal Prompt:

              1.   What creative ability does your character turn to for discovery and study?

               2    How can the qualities of either the craft itself, or the skills your character uses be implemented into your plot?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Building a Story World

“The conscious use of mythic themes and tropes-that is elements and language that reflect either figuratively or literal use of images, symbols and folklore-is the key ingredient, allowing authors to explore realistic themes on a symbolic level.” Julie Bartel


Another form of language communication that crosses the personal and the cultural, as well as historical, is the language of typology. The characters, phrases and patterns we internalize through our personal histories, literature, scriptures, folk-tales, songs and culture continue to add mythic depth in our reading and our writing. We make ‘copies’ of the original typology and pass them on through the generations. Some become so familiar that they enter into everyday language as common metaphors or references, both across languages and within ethnic cultures, giving us shortcuts.
Terrible sea incidents become tied to Poseidon allusions or flood. Rainbows are considered a sign of promise around the world. Black holes immediately spell danger. So does Godzilla, regardless of the language being spoken.

We use a modern version of typology when we give social references. “They’re calling her the new Marilyn Monroe.” The allusion of course is toward the actresses’ public personae and probably has no basis in comparison to either personality.

Or one friend introduces another at her party. She confides, “Watch out for that one-he’s a flirt. Stay away from that one-he’s a wolf.” In a shorthand version the explanations are clear. With the flirt type no one gets hurt if you play by his rules, however, with the wolf type there are no rules. One gives an impression of harmless fun whereas the other is a predator. Little Red Riding Hood stories have grown cute over the years but the early versions are quite disturbing with strong undercurrents of sexual danger. Were medieval mothers trying to protect their young daughters from men in powerful positions, lord of the manor types, and so used the metaphor of familiar dangerous, hungry wolves that prowled their forests in the winter as the warning?

Exercise: Start a section in your journal notebook for types. Choose different categories such as historical icons—places or people, natural disasters, traditional folk characters, movies, songs or artists. Pick one category and list as many ‘type’s as possible under it.

Share: Either your list the list of categories you chose or the types under the one.
"The Seeker" Rachel Marks | Content Copyright Marcy Weydemuller | Site by Eagle Designs
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