Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Theme-Symbolism Integration Part 5 - How To Create Using SHOW DON'T TELL

Theme-Symbolism Integration
 Part 5
How To Create Using SHOW DON'T TELL
 Jacqueline Lichtenberg  

Here is the article, published August 2015, that we'll discuss today.  It contains the clue to solving a fiction writer's income problem.


Here are the previous posts on use of theme.  Keep all these points on THEME in mind while reading about the comparison of Trump and Reagan in that redstate.com article.  (yes, it's a far right website, but this particular article reveals a truth writers need to absorb and use to crack the income problem.)

Foundation Posts on Use of Theme:



-- on structuring nested Themes into a novel.

-- defining the terminology I use in these posts to distinguish plot from story and why they are indistinguishable.


-- compares use of Theme in a movie with the use in a Novel.

-- explains something arcane about how to create a symbol to explain a truly Alien Civilization to modern Human readers.

Remember, I pointed out that fiction writers in general do not even make minimum wage if you consider the hours spent vs the income over the years.  You need to get up to where they are making blockbuster movies from your books to have a decent wage, and when that happens at the end of your  career, they tax your income as if you always made that amount and always will.

They cancelled the provision in the tax code that writers always depended on to allow them to recoup the losses on time invested.

It was called Income Averaging, and allowed you to pay taxes on your average income over the previous 5 years, not on the "windfall" that comes through when your publisher suddenly decides (probably because of a writer's organization audit) to pay what they've owed you for 10 years.

As a result, fiction writers are trapped in pauper status virtually forever.

To smooth out income and make up the difference, most fiction writers do something else to earn a living.

One way out of the trap is to write non-fiction as a "work-for-hire" which earns you current income as wages, not royalties.

Here is where I discuss that:


Here is the point that redstate.com article makes that applies to fiction writing, and how to create using SHOW DON'T TELL.  It also ILLUSTRATES (shows without telling) exactly why fiction writers must master this technique.

Someone else had a talent for doing this. Ronald Reagan. (heads up, if you accuse me of saying Trump is another Reagan I swear by the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress that I will ban you)

From Hedrick Smith’s epic and under-appreciated 1987 book The Power Game: How Washington Works.
This is the set up. CBS News’ Lesley Stahl was convinced that Ronald Reagan is an empty suit. A nincompoop. Someone who was skating along on imagery and who was pretty shallow and inconsequential. So during the 1984 campaign they took advantage of Reagan’s visit to a flag factory to use that as a metaphor for just how bad Reagan was. This is some of the text from the television report (what follows are jpgs via Google Books because I don’t have access to my library right now).

---------------end quote----------

Here are the png images included in that article excerpted from Google Books.  I recommend you look up this book on Google Books or Kindle or whatever.  It was a best seller for a reason.  You can make your fortune using your fiction skills to write books like this one.  Here are the 3 excerpts the article writer chose to include, without the comments interpolated between.  I recommend you read the actual article on redstate.com (nevermind, just read it.  It won't kill you to read it.)

----------excerpts from Google Books----------------

-----------end excerpts----------------

-------QUOTE from redstate.com article-------------

The reason Stahl had to rely on those visuals for her hit piece was because Reagan and his staff carefully stage managed the visual aspect of all of his appearances. They knew, as Scott Adams says up top, that the visual is about 10 : 1 in impact when compared to the verbal. No matter what Reagan said, the imagery was going to be what the television viewer remembered.

This is what people are failing to understand about Trump. The political class thinks he is a buffoon (a buffoon who could buy and sell his critics by the truckload, mind you) because he refuses to play by the traditional rules. As Leon pointed out, he is operating so far outside the political experience of the rest of the field that no one is even sure how to attack or criticize him. The media can criticize Trump for tossing this Ramos character but to do it they have to show the video. Once they show the video, no one hears what they say because Trump dominates the imagery and the conversation.

The way Trump handled Ramos should be the way all of our candidates handle the mindless gotcha questions like those that characterized the first GOP debate.

-----------END QUOTE-------------

I remember reading The Power Game: How Washington Works, full of "Aha!" moments.

This one, however, did not surface in my mind until I saw this article flick by me on Flipboard.com where I collect items on various topics of interest to fiction writers:

So here's the point.  Mastering SHOW DON'T TELL, mastering what screenwriters call "story in pictures" -- mastering the non-verbal arts -- is the real key to communication.

will save your butt as a writer.

I can't emphasize that enough. It's a series on screenwriting but it is the key to novel writing, for exactly the reasons sited in this redstate.com article.

Words,  vocabulary, spelling and grammar, lexicon, all of that matters.  It matters vitally.  It makes all the difference.  But "difference" from what?

The difference from confusion, mixed messages, which vitiate the effect of your Conflict and Resolution.

The visuals you select, all of them without exception, must precisely and exactly illustrate and depict your theme -- the theme and the images must say the same thing, or you get the effect described in The Power Game: How Washington Works, and the effect Donald Trump produced evicting a reporter from his press conference.

People, readers, accept and believe the images and ignore the denotation of the words.

First comes the visuals.  They penetrate the mind, connect to the autonomic nervous system, elevate and activate and communicate with the animal brain.  After that point, the only words that are "heard" are the ones that agree with, expound upon, and adorn the image.

Yes, words are mere decoration wrapped around visuals.

There are animals with far superior vision to humans, but most of them are predators with fairly small brains and one focus, hunting.

Humans are multi-purpose creatures, flexible -- which is why we survived the last Ice Age and can survive the coming Global Warming whatever the reasons for the shift in conditions.  (we can, but will we? -- that's the question fiction writers play with: "Will we?"  "Will we?" is all about politics.)

So what do our multi-purpose eyes and brains glean from images?

What element of a novel does the basic-animal-brain extract from a wall of type, an impenetrable page of fiction in words?

There's a linkage, a series of synapses, that young people either develop -- or not -- at a certain age when they can learn languages and reading.

Pretty much by age 7 or so, the ability to create these synapses begins to wane -- and it's fairly gone by age 10.

With vast effort, such things can be learned later, but the effort is vast so the reward has to be obvious.

Watching someone staring at pages in a book, (or an e-reader) for hours and snarling at interruptions does not convey the magnitude of the reward.

What happens when you read print?

You interpret.

The brain cells involved in grasping the words hand off the "meaning" extracted from the black squiggles on the page to other parts of the brain.  The synapse we're talking about here is the hand-off of language to images.

When people who love to read fiction immerse in a book, they SEE the images, smell the smells, feel the velvet tingles -- senses engage.

Words translate into the activation of other senses.  It isn't strong as if you were actually seeing the image.  It's a bit "removed" so it is easier to read about something ugly or repellent, and still feel as you would if you had actually seen it -- just not so strong you have to run vomit.


Using the words that tickle the visual cortex for the reader is what a writer does for a living.

Symbolism is all about visuals.

If a word becomes a symbol, then it is stylized -- you use a special font to register a trademarked word.  You can't trademark a lexicon word, but you can trademark the image of a word.

The IMAGE triggers the associations to the company or product, but the lexicon word does not.

That is the nature of humans.  Writers are artists who know how to use that nature.

The images you choose to evoke with your words are the "symbolism" component of your romance story and your romance plot.

What the symbols mean and why you need them in your novel is called the "Theme" component of your work of art.

You don't TELL the theme; you SHOW the theme in symbolic images.  If you tell the theme and say THIS IS WHAT I MEAN! but the images say something different, the images will be believed and the words ignored.

The symbolism is more compelling than any word, just as with the Reagan/Trump comparison in this article from redstate.com.

Donald Trump is a businessman, a graduate of a premier business school.  I'm fairly sure they don't teach the art of fiction writing to such Business Majors.

But they do teach THE ART OF THE DEAL.  That's the famous book Donald Trump wrote that you should read to learn how to write dialogue scenes.

Here it is in Kindle.

Donald Trump's book is as popular and informative as The Power Game: How Washington Works.

Put the two together, you have a Romance Novel of gigantic proportions - sex and politics, power and fame.

Dealing, negotiating, is an art.

You don't get what you deserve.  You get what you negotiate.

Everyone knows this truth, but few think about it consciously or articulate it.  It is stored in memory as the dejected posture of the loser walking away from a meeting, being fired from a cushy job, or being rejected by a lover.  

Therefore, you as a fiction writer can use negotiating in scene structure.  And you the non-fiction writer can use negotiating in speech writing.

Speech writing is akin to writing a sex scene.  Think about that.  Listen to some famous speeches and graph the emotional peaks and valleys, overlay that graph on a graph of a famous sex scene and see how they match exactly.  It's called wooing an audience for a reason.

If you are writing a dialogue scene, the Characters are negotiating -- i.e. they are at war, they are in Conflict, they are at cross-purposes, they are communicating in words, but they will each be understanding what is really happening via imagery-symbols.

They call that, in theatrical stage writing, "business."

"Business" is actions that have nothing to do with what is being said, but everything to do with what is meant.

An old fashioned example of "Business" is how famous, sexy actors and actresses added sexual innuendo and power-talk to dull dialogue scenes by lighting a cigarette then mashing it out on the floor, punctuating the end of the scene.  Today, they play with their smartphones.

Negotiations turn on actions, and the visual impact of actions within the cultural context of the Characters.

When Trump just quietly nodded to his Security guy to remove the fractious reporter, that was a visual symbol of power.  It was an actor using "Business" to convey meaning without words.  It was the entire theme of his campaign in one tiny movement of his head - power, greatness, decisiveness.  When he immediately announced he'd be bringing that reporter back to get his turn at asking questions, and then did that with great aplomb, he used show-don't-tell to illustrate the theme of reasonableness and compassion.  At the end of the exchange, when the reporter admitted that Donald Trump was correct in one assertion, Trump praised that reporter for his honesty and invited him to lunch.

Most observers agree, it was not scripted but spontaneous on Trump's part.  But screenwriters recognized the underlying "scene structure" template, and all viewers saw (visually) Trump in the role of the Main Character, even maybe the Hero or possibly the Villain depending on what other visuals they had absorbed.  Trump knew what to do and how to "play" that scene just as Reagan did -- because he'd played that scene many times before.  That's why he did it so smoothly.

There was another such scene that deserves consideration as you learn how to create using show don't tell.  It is the famous one when a shoe was thrown at President Bush during a press conference in Iraq in 2008.

To the USA audience, it was a stupid act of aggression of no meaning except to illustrate the boorishness of the uncivilized people.  To the Iraqi audience to whom turning the sole of a shoe toward someone is an unforgivable insult, Bush's reaction showed them that the USA culture is stupid and weak, without moral fiber.

Both audiences saw the same IMAGE -- each extracted a different THEME.

You can do that between a human from Earth and an Alien from Elsewhere if you create the Alien civilization using theme-symbolism integration to the point where you can show-don't-tell the meaning on a non-verbal level.

Your Alien may "play the scene" out of practiced habit, and your human can totally miss the point, causing the human to take actions that cause the Alien a lot of trouble at home.

Here is another neuroscience article from August 2015 to consider.  We know how images affect people, but we don't know all the mechanism behind that.  So when creating your alien species, mull over some of the research like this:


Theme-symbolism integration is the secret to getting a reader of a page of text to burst out laughing or melt down sobbing.  It's just words -- but the meaning blossoms into parts of the brain that have no words.  That's the most powerful part of the brain, the real decision making part.  Most of the time, words just "rationalize" the decision the "gut" has already made.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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