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I see a dark sail on the horizon
set under a black cloud that hides the sun.
bring me my broadsword and clear understanding.
bring me my cross of gold as a talisman.

Jethro Tull, Broadsword

It was a dark and stormy knight… ahem. My wife often watches TV (and as often as not reads and knits at the same time, leaving me in awe) while I cook in the evening. Now that’s around a corner, and I can’t – most of the time – hear the dialogue or see what is happening. This is good. Never watch a car chase while dealing with hot oil.

Still, I can hear the music, sirens (if there are any) and see the light intensity change. Look, I hunt for food, quite successfully. I notice things like that even in the periphery of my vision. I enjoy cooking, but like everything parts of it just need you to be there. So: I make up stories that fit the cues I’m getting. It’s usually very funny looking in later, and comparing the story in my head with the one on screen. There’s often a surprising degree of congruence… and that’s because the movie-makers use the music, sounds and indeed lighting intensity as symbolic cues – carrying a substantial part of the story to the audience. It’s not just dialogue, there are visual and audible cues too to broaden the ability of the movie maker to tell the story. And some ‘cues’ are so bog standard they cross over from story to story. We all KNOW what that creepy music means. We know when the lighting gets worse… something horrible is going to happen. And – if you’re not standing in the kitchen looking at the frying pan, quite a lot more carried by various cues, often used with deliberate care by the craftsman putting it together.

Now, in earlier years, even before fax machines, but somewhat after trilobites, my profession was an oral one. Story tellers made a living telling stories to audiences long before paper. They of course may have used a musical instrument, but they also had their voices (and gestures and looks) to engage that audience. Of course they also (as we know well from Snorri Sturluson’s writing down of Sagas from the Norse oral tradition (for one example) that used not only words… but the symbolism behind the words. Ran’s steed… wasn’t a horse belonging to a bloke called Ran. There were layers of ‘kennings’ carried in the stories, acting like the cinematographer’s tool-box in those words. Things the audience shared and knew, making the story bigger and more vivid.

And now – you’re a writer. A million miles removed from the tattered stranger with his catskin* cloak and twisted staff in the smoky long-hall with the wuthering of the bitter wind the only counterpoint to his tale of heroism and tragedy.

You’re just doing the same job. And, comparatively, he had it easy. He could see his audience, pull faces at them

You only have words.

Words, fortunately, are massively evocative powerful things (at least, unless they they’re misused until they lose their power – like ‘racist/sexist/homophobe’ or when their meaning is abused –it’s not spying, it is ‘using an informant’. When it is obviously spying, then ‘using an informant’ becomes ‘spying. This sort of nonsense ought to be anathema to any writer, no matter what their politics. It’s like using a scalpel to open tin cans. It’s never going to be much use as a scalpel again, and it does a lousy job as a can opener.)

Now why words are so powerful is more about their function within the human mind than merely what they are. Words are symbols for associations – just as the spooky music or low lighting and the hint of movement is in that movie. BUT words –especially written words — carry in the way you put them together a plethora of associations to the mind, information about images, smells, feeling, textures, deeds and so much more. And words don’t ONLY convey one meaning, one association. Used right, they can make an entire movie scene look dull.

As I’ve said before, great poets can show you how that is done. But then, great poets – like great short story writers – are rare and it’s a hard skill that needs practicing. Not everyone is a Kipling. Love him or loathe him he was a master-craftsman at using words to stir images and emotions – and, more importantly, he was a populist at it. He didn’t do it for the rarefied few at the Olympian heights of literature. He wrote for – and was popular with – a wide range of people. Yes, that meant the Olympians sneered. What has changed?

So it makes sense, to me anyway to realize that words and their selection are more than just words. They’re manipulating the picture formed (like the spooky music) by bringing extra associations to the table. At one time, when Western English education was more cohesive and more focused on the classical sources that was slightly easier. A black sail on the horizon… would have taken the reader straight to Theseus and his ship returning from the Minotaur, with the hero presumed dead, and Aegeus committing suicide. I’d bet that less than 1:10 school children would pick it up now.

Anyway – I was reading the Ian Anderson lyrics above. The song, seriously is an almond for a parrot compared to some of his greatest ones – but what it is a great example of using symbols and associations to paint a much bigger picture, to play on simple keys that unlock basic instincts –

‘bless with a hard heart those who surround me.
bless the women and children who firm our hands.’

If you’re an ordinary Joe like me, with a wife and kids and all they mean to me… the words may be trite, but they work at a basic level.

For that I will call for my broadsword.

And weave that sort symbolism and its associations into your story and yes, the literary may sneer. But the great mass of readers will love you.

*the accoutrement of choice for a magic worker. You think claiming to be gender-queer in an environment where that gets you a lift as a way to get ahead is a new technique? Think again.







  1. Evocative language. Its funny, I read “bring me my broad sword” and immediately flashed on Richard Burton saying “Broad sword calling Danny Boy” from “Where Eagles Dare”.

    As to the “literary,” I’ve noted elsewhere that they have had to break out the thesaurus to find ever more hyperbolic language since November 2016. This is true in other countries than the USA as well. Canadian “ahtistes” have run out of words for “bad” and “wrong.” They ran through English AND French ages ago. Sadly they lack the education to resort to ancient Greek and Latin.

    Of late they are reduced to scraping through the comments here and using random thoughts to create their blog posts. Word penury, as it were. ~:D

    June 4, 2018
  2. “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Immediately rang bells.

    June 4, 2018
    • Modern cinema/TV is likely the new version of classic literature for the masses. People reference scenes of their favorite shows now instead of referencing classic literary scenes.

      June 4, 2018
      • Read the book about eleventeen times before I ever saw the movie. I still recall it as the work that introduced me to the word “lugubrious.”

        June 4, 2018
      • Draven #

        yep, and sometimes we don’t get them.. like, Archer references now, or Friends references 20 years ago…

        June 4, 2018
  3. Funnily enough, I was listening to the audiobook version ot “Time Enough For Love” today, and was flabbergasted by how much RAH had influenced me. I swear to Dog, he influenced me in ways I have never realized. One of my characters is named Dora. Wonder why?

    June 4, 2018
  4. C4C

    June 4, 2018
  5. Brett Baker #

    One reason for the decline of basic references is that most people don’t want to be literate. It’s easier to watch or listen than read. More people would listen to an audio book version of Greek epics than read them. Let’s face it, those of us who like to read are different than the il/post-literate masses.

    June 4, 2018
    • Robin Munn #

      I’d dispute that there’s any meaningful difference between unabridged audiobooks and reading the same text on a page. (Abridged audiobooks are a whole ‘nother thing, of course). In both cases, you’re taking in the words and then using your mind to build a picture of what’s happening: whether the words come in via the eyes or the ears makes very little difference.

      Now, if you had restricted your argument to “easier to watch than read”, I’d agree with you. There’s a vast cognitive difference between watching a TV show and reading a book / listening to an audiobook. The TV show allows you to be mentally passive and just absorb what you’re seeing with no mental effort required*, whereas reading a printed book or listening to an audiobook forces you to engage the imagination.

      * Some people are able to make mental effort when watching TV shows, to say “Hey wait a minute, wasn’t he just on Io last week? How come he’s on Europa now with no explanation? Plot hole!”. But the TV show doesn’t require that effort, unlike the book.

      June 4, 2018
      • Well, I’m a reader – but also a watcher. When watching, yes, I’m in a mood to be passive (some would call that “temporarily mentally challenged” – happens to the best of us).

        Of course, then I watch an undubbed anime, and I’m trying to do both at the same time. Which gives me a headache!

        When it gets really painful is when I accidentally leave subtitles on for a dubbed show – and the subtitles don’t match the dubbing…

        June 5, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        I have a bug in my sensory processing. Reading is much easier and faster than listening to the same words.

        June 5, 2018
        • Robin Munn #

          Yeah, I should probably have qualified my statement by saying “For most people there’s no meaningful difference,” because some people do process one input pathway (audio vs. words on a page) better than the -other.

          And also, for just about everyone who reads a lot (pretty much everyone who regularly comments here, in other words) reading is faster than listening. Which is why most of us use audiobooks in situations where reading isn’t practical: driving, or doing work with our hands that doesn’t require a lot of brain engagement. (For example, I can listen to an audiobook when I’m doing the dishes or folding laundry, but I can’t listen to an audiobook when I’m programming: I need the verbal-processing part of my brain for programming, and if I pay attention to the audiobook I’ll do a bad job of programming.) What I’m disputing isn’t that reading is faster than listening, but the assertion that Brett Baker made (by implication, he didn’t say so explicitly) that listening to audiobooks is less good (by some measure of good) than reading the same book in words-on-a-page form.

          June 6, 2018
  6. In college, one year, I signed up for a class covering ancient Greek and Roman lit … just so that I could ‘pick’ up on all the classical references in later English lit. Useful it was – wonder if any English department still offers a general overview course like that…

    June 4, 2018
    • Honestly, I think that’s a large part of why so much modern poetry reads like navel-gazing fluff. They don’t have that well of references to draw upon, and poetry only works well when you can layer in references. “Like the sign of a donkey above an Athenian tavern” (the approximation of an actual line of modern poetry that made me come to that conclusion) has no use as a metaphor or simile because it’s a reference that nobody is going to get. (Especially since I think it was thrown in as a tourist-style reference.)

      June 4, 2018
  7. Mike Houst #

    I estimate the need for about 36 medium-sized cats to make a decent sized catskin cloak with hood.

    Keep in mind the social consequences of using Felis silvestris catus for fur can be extremely dire; even if you source them through places that euthanize unwanted pets.

    June 4, 2018
    • Synova #

      In one of Heyer’s books there’s a reference to a fellow’s catskin vest. I tried to figure out what that was but couldn’t manage to find the information anywhere. A vest with vertical stripes?

      June 4, 2018
      • Jimmy Yarde?

        June 4, 2018
        • Synova #

          Yes! So… a vest with vertical stripes?

          June 5, 2018
  8. lfox328 #

    My husband and I have been binge-watching Black Lightning. We’d not seen it before.
    It is both episodic and with a long story arc. Characters are neither complete heroes nor utter villains.
    Yesterday, when I was watching part of the first season, I noticed a phrase used “by any means necessary”. It fit into the story seamlessly, and was not jarring.
    However, after reading this, I realized that the target audience (Black/Woke people) would respond with a visceral thrill to those words. And, hence, the story would capture their emotions, in a way that The Flash would not.

    June 4, 2018
    • Draven #

      I find Black Lightning kind of depressing

      June 4, 2018
  9. Terry Sanders #

    I once sang Robin Hood ballads at a party (the restaurant recruited a few SCA types for a pittance) and ran into a gentleman who’d actually studied the tropes and cues of fhat period.

    Example: If the protagonist puts his back to an oak and his foot against a thorn, the story is about to change drastically.

    In the Robin Hood ballad I was singing, he was surrounded by the Bishop’s men, so he did the above–and then “from underneath his ragged cloak/drew out a bugle horn.” Needless to say, “Robin Is Trapped” suddenly became “The Merry Men Have Guests for Dinner.”

    I later ran across another in which the mistreated young woman flees into the forest, does the above–and faints, and dies, thus turning the chase scene into a proper tragic denouement.

    Soundtracks and their equivalent do go back a ways.

    June 4, 2018
  10. mrsizer #

    I think it may be worse than you think. Not only do people not make references like that any longer, they no longer even know what the word “allusion” means.

    June 4, 2018
  11. A literary writer from twenty years ago wrote a book whose title led me to imagine that cherry pie would play a part in the tale. When there was no cherry pie I was furious and have refused to consider ever since that said author has anything worthwhile to offer.

    June 4, 2018
  12. Mary #

    He could see his audience, pull faces at them

    OTOH, he couldn’t revise.

    June 4, 2018
    • Oh, you could revise – but that was for the next audience. At least for professionals. There is nothing sadder than watching an amateur comedian try to resuscitate a joke that has died.

      June 5, 2018
    • Having been in front of a live audience, there are tricks you can pull to adjust as you go. You can tweak the story as you go along if the audience seems to be growing bored or wants more of a certain character. I’ve run into verbal story tellers who insist the story must be told identically every time. They tend to be hosed if they don’t get a good initial read on their audience. Pantsing can be a distinct advantage with a live audience.

      June 5, 2018

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