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.