Tag Archives: bible

Chiastic Structure: Nice To See You, To See You Nice

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Chiastic structure, or ring structure to give its less formal name, is the prose equivalent of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Which, for those of you less interested in poetic form, is, I grant you, not much of a clarification. Okay, let’s start again.

Rhyming Scheme

The first half (the octave) of a Petrarchan Sonnet has a very simple rhyming scheme: A B B A. Example, courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Chiastic structure is usually drawn in a cross like this

Chiastic structure is often drawn like this

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Now, obviously you can’t make your story structure rhyme. In prose, this is about ideas, scene themes (or, if you want to really play it down to the granular level, actual sentences) being repeated in reverse order to bring the audience back to the same point as they started from but with hopefully a new angle or appreciation for that starting point. Think of the heroic journey – that is, in itself, a basic example of chiastic structure. From a plot structure perspective, one of the simplest examples is Milton’s Paradise Lost:

A: Satan’s sinful actions

B: Entry into Paradise

C: War in heaven (destruction)
C: Creation of the world

B: Loss of paradise

A: Humankind’s sinful actions

So, sin – paradise – destruction/creation – paradise – sin. Which, actually, is a point to note: you can go way beyond A B B A. Milton has A B C; the story of Noah’s Ark has A – J:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20 )

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)
J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H: Animals (9:2,3)

G: Food (9:3,4)

F: All living creatures (9:10a)

E: Ark (9:10b)

D: No flood in future (9:11)

C: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Purpose in Prose

Chiastic structure has its origins in oral poetry, with a dual purpose of 1) reminding the poet where he was supposed to be getting back to (no, seriously) and 2) making parts of the poem self-contained so they could be recited as stand-alone sections. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are riddled with chiastic structured sections, as is the Old Testament, the Qu’ran, the Torah, and pieces like Beowulf.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgIn more modern literature, it’s much more about fulfilling audience expectations. We like symmetry, whether we consciously notice its presence or not. The symmetry of chiastic structure therefore provides a very satisfying sense of closure to a story. The reader remembers this scene or idea from the opening and therefore recognises it as an acceptable ending. Like the hero, the reader has travelled on a circular journey and arrived home with a new understanding of that same old idea. This links very strongly into the causal chains stuff that I talked about last year.

JK Rowling deliberately used chiastic structure in the Harry Potter series. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead. But it’s been, y’know, a while so I figure I’m allowed.) Lupin and Tonks die to mirror the death of James and Lily Potter, as casualties and consequences of war. At the beginning, Hagrid carries Harry away from where Voldemort killed his parents and delivers him to his new home at Privet Drive; at the end, Hagrid carries Harry from the Forbidden Forest where Voldemort ‘killed’ him and delivers him to his friends at Hogwarts.

One potential pitfall (I’m all about the p-based alliteration today, apparently) to be aware of is balancing the demands of chiastic structure against the actual story. If your characters want to do something that breaks the ring cycle, do you let them? Or do you stick to the plan? Rowling is on record as having said that Voldemort should have killed Hagrid, but she needed him alive to carry Harry out of the forest. There isn’t a right or a wrong approach to this, but bear in mind that readers will see and think about character actions. They won’t necessarily even notice your carefully crafted symmetry.

Man Was Not Meant To Know: Destruction & Unnatural Power

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I came across this recently:

By all means watch the whole thing, but it’s the point that starts at 2:50 that really caught my attention. The part where he talks about how male characters may cause destruction, but female characters will cause destruction. The more common statement is that male characters fight or destroy and female characters create or nurture, so this made me wonder. The video suggests that he’s backing his claim up with two examples – Eve and Pandora. There are a number of others in Classical literature (Medea, Medusa, Salome, et al) and many in modern. But there are just as many who don’t comply with this so-called ‘inevitable destruction’ pattern.

Nonetheless, it’s an interesting characteristic trait – the idea that unnatural power, or at least power which is gained or wielded unnaturally, will inevitably go wrong. We have it over and over in our stories, usually as a warning. Don’t do deals with the Devil, don’t mess about with gamma rays, don’t chant ‘Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagnand never succumb to the temptation to raise the dead. Frequently science (or magic – same difference) is the bad guy, which is odd when you think about our real-life trust in scientific progress. But even this is inconsistent, as Science Gone Wrong is where we get many of our superheroes from and there’s no end of good magical practitioners. So what’s really going on here?

1) Beware the Other

So many stories are driven by fear of the Other – the culture or race or individual who doesn’t fit into the ‘norm’ and is therefore vilified as dangerous. In a patriarchal society, women can be counted as other; in a human society, aliens definitely do. This is an oft-repeated lesson, designed to unite local societies so they work better together. A good (easy) way of delineating between normal and other is powers/technology. Anyone from normal society who utilises other powers could therefore be considered a traitor. Obviously it goes wrong.

2) Ignorance is bad, m’kay?

Know your limits, or at least something about what you’re getting into. This fits a bit better with the real-life pro-science stance. The bad guy is the one who doesn’t fully do his research before trying to manipulate ultimate cosmic power. These stories teach caution and thoroughness, both of which are good survival traits. At this point the power is not inherently destructive – the problem is in the ignorance of the wielder.

3) Ignorance is… good?plant6s

There are things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Forbidden knowledge is very common: the apple tree in Eden, the maenad celebrations of the Bacchanalia, the traits of the Dark Side. Interestingly, sometimes this suggests that there’s power that women are supposed to wield (which goes against the whole ‘women with power are unnatural’ thing in the video above) and it only becomes dangerous if men surrender their ignorance. I’m reaching for the lesson in this one, but the best I can come up with is ‘mind your own business and stay out of other people’s space’.

Now, the raptor has made the point that ‘the golden period of science as a force for relentless good probably peaked in the 60’s. It has been reversed since then. Think public responses to nuclear power, GM crops and vaccinations – there isn’t the same blanket support there once was.’ Progress for the sake of progress is certainly no longer okay, and has led to stories like I, Robot and the Resident Evil franchise. We have become more wary as a society, both of destruction and its potential causes. Possibly because our way of life is more dependent on easily disrupted technology and we’re therefore more fearful of having to manage without? Just speculating here. But it does make me wonder whether our confidence in society’s robustness directly impacts our attitude to power.

That was all slightly rambly, due to me working out most of my opinions on the page as I wrote them. What do you guys think about all this?

I Need A Hero: The Evolution of the Protagonist

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Brace yourselves, people. I’m going to try and get both philosophical and political.

Literary Development

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThe development of the lead figure that we recognise today as the ‘hero’ is quite well documented, at least in technical terms. Popular opinion puts it in Greece, when the conceits of tragic theatre moved from a declaimer plus chorus to the arrival of an actual character being portrayed on stage by an actor (traditionally said to be Thespis). Things developed from there, with Aeschylus including a second and then a third speaking character in the play, and lo – the idea of a protagonist was born.

Well, not quite. Yes, the word ‘protagonist’ is a Greek one and literally means ‘one who plays the first part’. But it didn’t start in the 6th Century BC. Way before then, people were writing tales with leading heroes in them – the eponymous figure in the Persian Epic of Gilgames, Rama in the Indian Ramayana, and all the wealth of Egyptian and Chinese mythology, to name just a few.

The idea of a hero – a central figure in the story – has been around for a very, very long time. In all that time, down the ages and in different cultures, how has he changed? Different times and people need different things from their heroes, and uphold very different values. By our modern lights, Gilgames was obnoxiously arrogant, Achilles was a brutal spoiled brat, Romeo was (let’s be honest) a bit of a moron, and Biggles was racist. Our ideas of what constitutes a hero have had to evolve with social development.

Political & Social Influence

That’s the reactive approach. What about the proactive, when the role of the protagonist has been deliberately altered to make a statement? Before the New Testament, the idea of the messiah included fiery invective and warrior-like leadership. Not something the Romans would have tolerated in the 1st Century AD – it would probably have led to genocide. Instead the population is presented with a very different kind of hero, one suited to the times. I’m not going to go into whether Jesus was a literary, historical or divine figure. The point is that the deliberate inversion of the expected role of the hero informed the behaviour of the populace, and thus shaped history.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

The hero they need or the hero they deserve? Batman knew the difference.

Sometimes the protagonist represents the vox populi; sometimes it influences it. In the latter case, it’s almost always political. The smart politicians use them as a way in with the voters; the really smart ones use them to change society. This isn’t new. It isn’t even new to this side of the year 0 A.D. Achilles was used to make a point about acceptable behaviour in modern Greek society (the point basically boils down to ‘we’re not demi-gods any more, don’t be dicks’). Greek plays were used either by politicians to sway popular opinion, or against them to unseat them from power.

The protagonist is a powerful weapon. They are the figures we identify with, believe in and want to emulate. That brings me back to how they have naturally evolved, as what we believe in and identify with has changed. A hero in the Classical sword-fighting, city-state against city-state world is necessarily different to a hero in WW2, and both are different to modern-day heroism. Courage and patriotism are no longer the highest qualities it’s possible to possess – you need to include some multicultural sensitivity in there.

The Heroic Monomyth

In the 1920s and onwards, Carl Jung began building his concept of Jungian archetypes. This bought into the idea that heroes are instantly identifiable figures to the human psyche, but separated out different types. The differences were necessary to speak to subsections of the audience – different cultures, classes and so on. Different protagonists are needed for different stories. This separation seems pretty obvious to us now. So obvious, in fact, that we miss a fundamental underlying point.

The monomyth is a theory put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (although he nicked the term from James Joyce). It postulates that the figure of the hero is so fundamental to human storytelling that it exists in a recognisably similar shape throughout multiple cultures, despite those cultures and the beliefs within them being vastly different.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of wonder: forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.   ~ Joseph Cambell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The details change – they have to, in order for the audience to fully engage with the protagonist – but the central heroic figure always fulfils the same basic function. Why is that? What is it about our psyche that needs such a role presented to us over and over and over again, in a billion different ways? Because, despite the modernisation of the protagonist and the evolution of what heroism actually means, we’re still using the same monomythic figure.

Addressing Gender

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

If you pull my hair, I will bitch-slap you with this frying pan.

This blog post has contained a statistically disproportionate level of ‘he’s. There’s been plenty of studies into the role of the hero, both literary and historical, but what about the heroine? How has the female protagonist evolved over time? There’s no question that she has. From being the passive prize in the tower, or reward for great deeds, she has very slowly grown to be an agent in her own right. Having started from such different origins, does she fulfil a fundamentally different role to that of the male protagonist? Or has she become the same figure but with different curves? How has the empowering of the literary woman either impacted or been used by politics? And how far behind her male counterpart does she still lag, if at all?

I don’t know the answers to those, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts.

There’s a ton more stuff to talk about on this subject but I reckon I’ve rambled on long enough for one post. Here’s a good place to start reading and maybe I’ll come back to the topic at a later date.

Right Word at the Write Time

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I am very grateful that English is my first language. I had enough trouble trying to learn languages that are mostly internally consistent, and feel very sorry for anyone learning the chaos that is English.

At the same time, I love this language. It’s so packed with history – words leftover from the Norman invasion, tons of Latin from the Romans and medieval church, hangovers from the Vikings, and a whole rag bag of stuff from even further afield. Etmyology is a lot of fun in English.

Idioms and phrases hold fantastic little pieces of history. ‘Room to swing a cat’, for example, refers to the space required to use a cat o’ nine tails or whip on some poor offending deckhand in the navy. ‘Testimony’ comes from the custom in Ancient Rome of men placing their right hand on their testicles when taking an oath.

I promise I’m not making that up.

There’s a dangerous tendency in sci-fi and fantasy for writers to invent exotic-sounding words and names to add to the ‘otherness’ of their setting. This can work well but it requires careful handling. You have to balance interesting and cool with clarity. If your word, despite being new, is understandable then no worries. If not, or if you use a lot of them, your reader is going to be left scratching his head or, worse, lose interest altogether. As a rule of thumb I generally reckon that if it isn’t necessary, don’t use it. There are plenty of perfectly servicable words and names available in the English language, especially if you make use of a more old-fashioned vocabulary as well. If they wanted to read a book on astro-physics, there’s plenty available. What they’re after from you is a story.

Of course, using existing words doesn’t always fix the problem. It can be very easy, especially in fantasy, to slip into a highly stylised and/or archaic voice. Again, it’s a question of balance. This can work beautifully, especially if you’re using it in contrast with more modern language to establish different time periods or character ages. If you start hammering readers over the head with a thesaurus, though, it’s time to sit back and consider what’s actually necessary. With all due and humble respect to the genius of Tolkien, Return of the King is a prime offender. In places, it’s like reading a particularly challenging bit of the Old Testament. I acknowledge that some people may choose to do that for pleasure, but I’m not one of them.

I’m having a lot of fun at the moment with different styles of language in narrative voice. Just changing the vocabulary or style of speech can instantly give the reader a flavour of different cultures and periods, without you having to go into descriptive details that disrupt the pacing. Language can be a character, and it can do more to tell a story than just use words.

Tools & Top Tips

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Today I intend to be useful to others, as others have been useful to me, and share some of my writing resources. There are tons of articles, websites, books, podcasts, magazines, courses and general know-it-alls out there to assist the amateur writer and the resulting plethora of choice means it can be tough to find something actually useful (see previous comments on white noise). Now, I’m not saying that the following links will be of value to anyone else, but these are all resources that I use on a regular (i.e. weekly or more) basis. I hope they help!

NAMES

The controversy around character and place names in fantasy writing is an old and bitter argument, and I’m not going to go into it in detail. Suffice to say that random punctuation in a name is neither big nor clever, and you should also try to avoid names that look like you’ve sieved the vowels out of the alphabet. If you have trouble thinking up strong, memorable, pronounceable names then a really good place to start is the Old Testament (don’t worry if you don’t have a copy – Wikipedia lists them all). Alternatively, I offer for your delectation and delight a website called Godchecker. It doesn’t just do gods, it also has heroes and saints from a million different cultures complete with comedy descriptions. You can search by culture, by meaning, by alphabet… you need never recourse to bizarre apostrophes again.

STRUCTURE

Last weekend a friend recommended a free podcast called Writing Excuses – ’15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart’. They cover everything from flora and fauna in a fantasy setting to how good guys go bad. It’s a bit rambling occasionally, and not every episode is gold-plated, but there’s definitely enough in there to offer everyone a helping hand. Their episode on brevity managed to break the writer’s block I’ve been suffering. I can’t give it a higher recommendation than that. Season 7 is currently available free on iTunes, and every back episode can be listened to on their website.

EDITING

The curse of every writer. You get to the end of your story – it’s done and finished, it’s your beautiful baby – and then you have to go back to the beginning and start tearing it apart. I hate it and never used to do it. Then about five years ago someone loaned me a copy of Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I read it from cover to cover and then bought my own copy which now lives in my handbag. It has honestly changed my writing style from the bones up, given me a lot of guidance (and, as a result, confidence) in structure, and not once did I feel lectured. There are tons of books on writing out there – this is the only one I’ve ever recommended. You can read the first chapter on Amazon, and then decide for yourself.

GETTING PUBLISHED

Okay, this isn’t exactly a resource so much as an opportunity but I figured I’d include it here. Mr. Terry Pratchett is running a competition for first-time fantasy novelists called Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now. The deadline is 31st December 2012 and the word count is 80k-150k. Details are on his website. Competition will doubtless be tough but it’s an incredible opportunity to kick off your writing career. Go for it. I will be.

All the Talking in the World

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I’ve talked about the global country of social media before, and I suspect it’s something I will come back to more than once as it’s become such a dominating force. The rise of social media has impacted almost every part of our lives in some way, meaning we have had to redefine etiquette – how do you unfriend someone politely? – behaviour, and even relationships. If you can keep up with someone’s life by watching their Facebook status’ go by, requiring little to no effort from you, are you still really in touch? If you chat to someone online a lot, but have never actually met them face to face, what kind of relationship is that?

This brings me onto the subject of voice. I’ve already talked about the impact of the narrator’s voice in stories, but it goes further than that – what voice do you use, either consciously or subconsciously, in different situations?  You wouldn’t address a business meeting using the same vocabulary or mannerisms as when talking to your mates down the pub, after all. The same goes for media: your choice of communication channel will directly impact the language and style of your speech.

A close friend recently commented that he would not have guessed this blog was me if he hadn’t known already, because the tone and style of language is so different to my day-to-day conversation. It’s a common phenomenon that people are very different online. Some have more confidence because they are not face-to-face, some are less adept at socialising because they cannot take cues from body language, some are more open and some are less. Relationships will therefore be different.

There seems to be a growing trend of using social media for everything – relationships, business, marketing, hobbies, etc etc. I may be in the minority here but I happen to think this is not the right approach. You still have to choose your voice and your channel. Twitter, for example, is not a good marketing tool (no matter what my boss might think). The updates go past so quickly, the space is restrictive, and there is so much white noise on there that people are not going to bother reading something boring. The more noise there is, the louder you have to shout to be heard and no one will listen if all you’re shouting is ‘get your hot dogs here’.

This idea of global communication is not new. Go back to the Old Testament and you’ve got the classic Tower of Babel story. Just after the Flood, everyone tried to live together and speak the same language – an approach that was confounded by God because of the risk that ‘nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’ (Genesis 11:6) Compare this to the Invisible Children Kony 2012 campaign, and the movement they created. We aren’t there yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

Storytelling as an Historical Source

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I live with a history raptor. Obviously all raptors are historical, but this one has also studied history which makes him a history² raptor. (Although not a square raptor. That would be weird.) Being a classicist myself, that gives us lots of common interest but there is one area where we fundamentally disagree: the use of literature in the study of history.

Just to clarify, we are making a definite distinction between works of ‘history’ – i.e. written as historical accounts at the time, such as Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – and works of ‘literature’, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Homer’s Odyssey. The former is clearly of use in the study of history, even if we don’t always accept it as accurate. Even the Father of History, Herodotus himself, can be accepted into the ranks of historically useful works, despite his crazy stories about the giant nocturnal gold-digging ants of Persia (Book 3:102-105).

No, what we fall out over is the relevance of contemporary stories to the study of contemporary society. The raptor says that fictional stories can tell us little or nothing about the events of the time. I disagree – they can offer fundamental insights into how people thought, what they were worried about, how society worked on a personal level, religion, politics and art.

Take fables as an example. The lessons they teach demonstrate the values of the time (although, to be honest, quite a lot of Aesop’s Fables seem to boil down to ‘don’t be an idiot’). The parables in the New Testament give a clear indication of the social morals of the time, and also insights into how society behaved (the attitude towards Samaritans, for example). Homer’s epics show all kinds of things about the structure of Greek society, the values of honour and fame, and how the gods were viewed.


I’m not suggesting they are the only source, or even (necessarily) the primary, but I do strongly believe that you can’t study history without studying the stories of the time. It’s a huge generalisation, but I’d go so far as to say that history is what people did. Storytelling is how they thought.