Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Perfect words to create suspense (or anything else!)

I always ask readers of this blog who privately e mail me questions to post the questions in the comments section and I'll answer them here, in public.  (Or if you don't want to be identified, I'm happy to post the question myself without using your name, and then answer it.)

This may be annoying or possibly enraging to some of you.

But here's the thing.  I have this unalterable belief that if anyone is getting anything out of my workbooks, workshops and blog, it's because I was a dance teacher - and theater director - for so many years.

Any dance teacher I ever had was ALWAYS saying - "If I talk to any person in this class the rest of you should assume I'm talking to YOU, and DO IT." 

That makes total sense to me as a teaching/learning method. Because who couldn't benefit from paying attention to the teacher/choreographer/director's corrections and doing that extra bit of polish?

So I got a question from a reader and writer this week about how I am able to use "perfect words" in my novels to create suspense and scares and atmosphere, and I wanted to answer it on the blog, for everyone who wants to to learn and discuss.

For me, there are three issues going on here and they are symbiotically entwined: the visual, the emotional, and the thematic. The words only work if they are conveying ALL THREE.

What I really encourage everyone here to do is to start thinking like a production designer.

In film (and theater) every movie has a production designer: one artist (and these people are genius level, let me tell you) who is responsible, in consultation with the director and with the help of usually a whole army of production artists) for the entire look of the film – every color, costume, prop, set choice. A production designer designs the look, but with acute understanding of how the visual can convey an emotional and thematic impact.

With a book, guess who’s the production designer? 

You are.

Take the Alien series. I could go on all week about what a perfect movie the first Alien is structurally as well, but for the purposes of this blog - it’s a perfect example of brilliant production design. The visual image systems are staggering. Take a look at those sets (created by Swiss surrealist HR Giger). What do you see? Sexual imagery everywhere. Insect imagery, a classic for horror movies. Machine imagery. Anatomical imagery: the spaceships have very human-looking spines (vertebrae and all), intestinal-looking piping, vulvic doors. And the gorgeous perversity of the design is that the look of the film combines the sexual and the insectoid, the anatomical with the mechanical, throws in some reptilian, serpentine, sea-monsterish under-the-sea-effects – to create a hellish vision that is as much a character in the film as any of the character characters.
Oh, and did I mention the labyrinth imagery? Yes, my great favorite: you’ve got a monster in a maze.

Those are very specific choices and combinations. The sexual imagery and water imagery open us up on a subconscious level and make us vulnerable to the horrors of insects, machines and death. The combination imagery also gives us a clear visual picture of a future world in which machines and humans have evolved together into a new species. It’s unique, gorgeous, and powerfully effective.

Obviously Terminator (the first) is a brilliant use of machine/insect imagery as well. And sex, right? Let's not forget that Arnold, in his prime, landed on earth completely naked.

I know I’ve just about worked these examples to death, but nobody does image systems better than Thomas Harris. Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon are serial killer novels, but Harris elevates that overworked genre to art, in no small part due to his image systems.

In Silence, Harris borrows heavily from myth and especially fairy tales. You’ve got the labyrinth/Minotaur. You’ve got a monster in a cage, a troll holding a girl in a pit (and that girl is a princess, remember: her mother is American royalty, a senator). You’ve got a twist on the “lowly peasant boy rescues the princess with the help of supernatural allies” fairy tale: Clarice is the lowly peasant who enlists the help of (one might also say apprentices to) Lecter’s wizardlike perceptions to rescue the princess. You have another twisted wizard in his cave who is trying to turn himself into a woman.

You have the insect imagery here as well, with the moths, the spiders and mice in the storage unit, and the entomologists with their insect collections in the museum, the theme of change, larva to butterfly.

In Red Dragon Harris works the animal imagery to powerful effect. The killer is not a mere man, he’s a beast. When he’s born he’s compared to a bat because of his cleft palate. He kills on a moon cycle, like a werewolf. He uses his grandmother’s false teeth, like a vampire. And let’s not forget: he’s trying to turn into a dragon.

Now, a lot of authors will just throw in random scary images. How boring and meaningless! What makes what Harris does so effective is that he has an intricate, but extremely specific and limited image system going in his books. And he combines fantastical visual and thematic imagery with very realistic and accurate police procedure.

I know, all of these examples are horror, sorry, it’s my thing - but look at The Wizard of Oz (just the brilliant contrast of the black and white world of Kansas and the Technicolor world of Oz says volumes). Look at what Barbara Kingsolver does in Prodigal Summer, where images of fecundity and the, well, prodigiousness of nature overflow off the pages, revealing characters and conflicts and themes. Look at what Robert Towne/Roman Polanski do with water in Chinatown and also, try watching that movie sometime with Oedipus in mind… the very specific parallels will blow you away.

So how do you create a visual/thematic image system equivalent to what I'm talking about in film and theater - in your books? 

Well, start by becoming more conscious of what image systems authors are working with in books and films that you love. Some readers/writers don’t care at all about visual image systems. That’s fine – whatever floats your boat. Me, with rare exceptions, I’ll toss a book within twenty pages if I don’t think the author knows what s/he’s doing visually.

What I do when I start a project, along with outlining, is to keep a list of thematic words (in my project notebook!) that convey what my story is about, to me. For my ghost story (or maybe not!)  The Harrowing it was words like: Creation, chaos, abyss, fire, forsaken, shattered, shattering, portal, door, gateway, vessel, empty, void, rage, fury, cast off, forgotten, abandoned, alone, rejected, neglected, shards, discarded… I did pages and pages of words like that.

For The Price: bargain, price, deal, winter, ice, buried, dormant, resurrection, apple, temptation, tree, garden, labyrinth, Sleeping Beauty, castle, queen, princess, prince, king, wish, grant, deal, contract, task, hell, purgatory, descent, mirror, spiral…

Some words I’ll have from the very beginning because they’re part of my own thematic DNA. But as the word lists grow, so does my understanding of the inherent themes of each particular story.

Do you see how that might start to work? Not only do you get a sense of how the story and specifc setting can look to convey your themes, but you also have a growing list of meaningful words that you can work with in your prose so that you’re constantly hitting those themes on different levels.

When I do short workshops, this is my absolute favorite quickie exercise to make a big group do: 

Brainstorm for just two or three minutes on thematic words for your story.  

People get SO EXCITED about this - I have had people stand up in a workshop and shout - "I know how he killed her!"  and "I just figured out my final scene!" after just two minutes of this brainstorming.  You are seriously missing out if you don't just TRY it.

At the same time that I’m doing my word lists, I start a collage book, and try to spend some time every week flipping through magazines and pulling photos that resonate with my story. I find Vogue, the Italian fashion mags, Vanity Fair, Premiere, Rolling Stone and of course, National Geographic, particularly good for me. I tape those photos together in a blank artists’ sketchbook (I use tape so I can move the photos around when I feel like it. If you’re more – well, if you’re neater than I am, you can also use plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder). Other people do collages on their computers with Photoshop. I am not one of those people, myself, it's too much work.

However, I do have a new obsession with the social media site Pinterest, where you can create boards and use the Pinterest button to build a visual image system for every one of your works-in-progress.  It's instant online collaging and I LOVE IT.

See what I mean here:

I'm in the process of creating image boards for every one of my books, past and current.  It’s another way of growing an image system. And it doesn’t feel like writing so you think you’re getting away with something.

Also, I know I'm constantly going on about this, but know your world myths and fairy tales! Why make up your own backstory and characters when you can tap into universally powerful archetypes? Remember, there’s no new story under the sun, so being conscious of your antecedents can help you bring out the archetypal power of the characters and themes you’re working with.

So of course you know my question for the day. What are some books and films which to you have particularly striking visual and thematic image systems? What are some of your favorite images to work with?

And - are you on Pinterest?  Are you as obsessed as I am?

- Alex 


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

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- Amazon UK

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William Mize said...

In my books, I tend to use a movie or book within the book to magnify or exemplify theme. In my first book, it was "Dances with Wolves" and "The Creature From The Black Lagoon" to focus on the outsider.
In my second, it was "The Grapes of Wrath" to sweeten up the journey theme.
As far as Pinterest goes, I'm just kind of exhausted with all the dang different social media available. I use Facebook begrudgingly, left Twitter completely, and focus on my own website and blog for content.
I DO gather photos for current and past work and use the amazing free tool called Evernote for that.
Any author who isn't using Evernote should go sit in the corner and think about the error of their ways :)

Virgilante said...

Great lessons as always. I intend to put a few photos on each of my chapter notes this time.

I've been outlining all day, and think this is a great approach. Now I have to figure out how to get more Steampunk into my Steampunk. That, and figure out how to attack a battleship from a canoe.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

William, I will have to check Evernote out. But Pinterest vs. Evernote? I've heard of Pinterest in hundreds, seriously hundreds, of casual references, now.

Evernote? You're the first time I've EVER heard of it.

These things count. It's about visibility.

William Mize said...

Oh, I've heard of it too. Trust me. I also believe that visibility is key, but to me, creating great content on my website will be the long tail, long after pinterest has gone the way of MySpace.
Evernote is a personal information collection system; similar to Microsoft's One Note. Think binders instead of folders.
To each their own preference.

Susan said...

Hi Alexandra :) I love words that create a whole world. Family. Small town. Book store. Age. Thanks for your post. It made me think :)

Janice Seagraves said...


Great ideas. You gave me a lot to think about.


Unknown said...

You just helped with a battle I was fighting with myself. As I put the final polishes on my proposal I struggled with keeping some of the imagery I loved. The story opens with a drought, dry and barren, right after the mid way point we hear thunder, the clouds are churning but no rain falls and in the final act the sky opens up and our heroes are caught in the rain. I didn’t want waste space in a synopsis on describing the environment…well I just realized why I wanted to keep the visual of the rain/lack of rain in to proposal. It is intertwined with the plot and emotional arch. So does this work? It seems like an easy way to pull all the elements together and you get to show a bit of voice in an often dry writing.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Vigilante, I envy you writing steampunk! Talk about visual candy. Have fun with it...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Susan, exactly, you see how just a few words can start to convey and entire atmosphere (FAR different from what my word lists convey!). It starts you thinking both visually and thematically.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Janice, great to hear!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Jolene! I would definitely leave the descriptions in the proposal. It puts me in your world so much more completely than NOT describing those things would do. That's partly my preference in writing, of course, but always go with your gut, too.

Chemist Ken said...

Awesome timing. I just requested an invite from Pinterest. I tend to be pretty bad with social media sites like FB or Twitter since I rarely can think of anything worth sending out to the world. But putting together a collection of pictures about my book or the concepts which led me to write the book (castles, alchemy, etc.) strikes me as a fantastic way to brainstorm.

John said...

You are a treasure! Thank you for such smarts matched with such brave generosity. There is hope...

Ellen said...

Powerful exercise! This has been a shot of adrenaline to the project I'm working on. And it adds such clarity to the process. I have a much better sense of the world of the piece now.

The great stage director Anne Bogart talks about a guy who worked on Miami Vice for however many years, and his job was to coordinate departments--script, scenic, props, costumes. He got so he would just point at stuff and go "Vice" or "not Vice."

I don't know how Bogart learned this, but it's a touchstone for her, and whether it's true or not it's a highly useful story for writers! Now I have a list, and even if it keeps growing, some stuff that occurs to me clearly isn't "Vice" and doesn't belong in the world of this play. And I have a much richer sense of the stuff that does belong!

Thanks, and may your generosity to other artists come back to you tenfold in the form of everything delicious and nourishing to your body and your soul!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ken, you'll love it! Pinterest has made it SO EASY to collect images, I may just abandon my physical collages altogether.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Of course you'd love it, Ellen. Glad it works for you.

Your "Vice/Not Vice" story reminds me of a day WAY back in the day when we were rehearsing for Ondine and Nina Ruscio was designing the show and I went with her down into that vast basement of Zellerbach to look for costumes and props. I saw her develop the look for the show right before my eyes, choosing glittery and meshy things from all of that random chaos down there that would give the show its fishy, sparkly, underwater look. It was a HUGE revelation about creating visual themes!

Paula Millhouse said...

Ditto on what Ellen said about your generosity to other artists coming back to you, Alex.

I am using the notebooks and collages, and I'm going to check out your Pintrest page - the family keeps screaming about how important Pintrest is - who knew?

The Brainstorming Words exercise is next up on my list.

Thanks, Alex, for pointing us all in the right direction artistically and thematically.

You're the best,

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paula, you're always welcome! And let me know what you think of Pinterest. Apart from the TOTALLY ADDICTIVE part, it's really such a godsend!

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Sokoloff,
While vacationing in Rome, two books, Buying a Home in Italy by David Hampshire, and your marvelous Screenwriting Tips for Authors, have led me to the same blessed conclusion: DON’T. Thank you.
Hampshire’s book details a hundred good reasons to avoid the Italian bureaucracy. Your book boils down to just one: Screenwriting is a JOB. A Los Angeles job. Although I like L.A. (Malibu and the Towers of Simon Rodia), I can’t move there; changing jobs is out of the question.
I say Tips is marvelous, for:
1) The content - master list, index cards, et al.
2) The movie breakdowns.
3) The real world description of screenwriters’ lives.
HOWEVER, and DESPITE your “infinitesimal chance” of getting my first screenplay sold, never mind produced, I’m going to try. Why? I love learning a new craft for its own sake1. And for me, writing is fun. Also, I’m in love with my script. I adapted it from my novel Ernest (Xlibris, 2001). In your term, its premise:
A New York Zippo lighter salesman foresees that
Ernest Hemingway will soon commit suicide and sets
out to cheat fate by kidnaping the legendary Papa.
Thank you especially for the refreshingly frank picture of the life Hollywood writers lead, and the contrasts between writing novels, for film, and for T.V.
Wilson White

1. I’ve published three non-fiction books, and hawking #4 -
THE FORGOTTEN ORGAN – How To Help Your Colon Do It’s Job.