Writing Science Fiction: symbols

The use of symbols is a key element in creative writing.

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Symbols are settings, objects, characters or events containing layers of meaning. Beneath any literal meanings are figurative meanings that imbue the symbol with depth and significance. A common symbol encountered in literature is the ‘owl’. On one level, the owl is a feathered creature with big eyes and amazing head-turning capability; on another, figurative level, the owl is symbolic of wisdom.

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my only photo of an owl … snowy owl on the Grand Lake Meadows, December 2013

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Mention an object once and it’s a prop, sometimes with associations. Mention it twice and the reader remembers the first mention, loaded with its connotations and denotations. Mention it three times and the associations can scream, suggest elements of plot. The object has become a symbol.

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The use of symbols deepens meanings and helps the plot reverberate throughout the writing.

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In the book I am currently revising (Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod, publication date July, 2019) my male character Rist wears gloves when he is with other people. Mentioned once, they are part of his wardrobe. Mentioned twice, the gloves are associated with his inability to touch the woman he loves. Mentioned more often, those gloves are a symbol of his separation from anyone he cares about. Even when other characters wear gloves, the reader is reminded of this separation, and all the associated history.

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'hammock'
Rist, alone, wears no gloves

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When I wrote the first draft of this book, gloves had no role in the story. As often happens, the symbol, the wearing of gloves, solved a plot problem. Once I had added the gloves, their mention had strategic importance. I also realized that gloves had already been included in the plot, in an entirely unrelated way. Once the gloves became a symbol of one character’s separation from others, their further mention built on the idea of separation and lack of understanding between cultures.

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Scan_20180805.jpg

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Symbols operate like mini sub-plots throughout story.  These mini-plots echo the main plot, and, during the story, the objects change in a way that illuminates it.  The mini-plots also tend to occur in three ‘beats’, providing a beginning, middle and end.  For example, gloves are at first worn in every circumstance; when they are occasionally removed, risks are taken; later, when the gloves are removed forever, intimacy can grow between characters.

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To strengthen the use of symbols in my work, I use tables. Once I have decided which symbols will be important to my story, I build a table of symbols and note where the symbols are mentioned (the three beats) and what mini-plot is suggested. Gaps in the table suggest possible revisions.

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Object Symbol Key Occurrences

(Chapter Number)

Mini-plot
gloves separation 7 42 65 Rist must wear gloves to avoid transfer of elements of body chemistry to other people; removing the gloves represents a step in committing to Tagret.
bell home 4 29 63 the dinner bell is introduced in Meniscus: Karst Topography (September, 2018) as a symbol of missing loved ones. In Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod, bell ringing is the first warning the Village is in peril; later, the ring of the bell is a sign community members will return.
kettle family 5 33 58 the cooking kettle was introduced in Meniscus: South from Sintha and has accompanied my characters on their various adventures. When tragedy occurs, a search for the kettle is representative of a search for a missing child; when the kettle is found, there is hope for the restoration of family.

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Symbols seem to take on exaggerated importance in science fiction. Perhaps this is because of the association with fantasy where objects often have magical significance. Fantasy and science fiction plots often involve the ‘quest’ for a significant object. Although I am sure other story-telling includes powerful symbols (for example, the ‘car’ in The Great Gatsby, symbolic of wealth), science fiction and fantasy genres are particularly proud of theirs (for example, the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings). All the more reason to embed symbols with maximum significance and meaning.

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All my best!

Alexandra

(a.k.a.Jane)

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vanilla and cinnamon – aromatics and aldehydes: five ways to describe smells in your writing

If you build a world in science fiction, describing the world should involve all the senses. Of the five senses, I find sights and sounds the easiest to describe. Smells, touch and taste are more difficult. Especially in my early drafts, aromas, tactile sensations and tastes are often missing.

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Including smells in my writing is much more than writing “the market smelled like boiling cabbage.” The range of methods and words to describe smell is full of possibilities.

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Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.Gel-heads, aliens in the Meniscus series, smell disgusting. Words like oily, putrid, rank, rancid or foul would be suitable to describe their smell.

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I don’t want a story stinky with description of smells, so, in the story I am working on, I chose five places and three characters to understand in terms of their olfactory landscape.

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The challenge is to describe these places and characters in ways to bring the reader into the experience. This can be done in several ways. The writer can describe smells in terms of:

  1. Parts of speech: verbs (waft, distract, permeate, intrude, bake, fry, rot, burn), nouns (wisp, aroma, odour, pocket, fragrance, stench, stink, smell), and adjectives (moody, acrid, crisp, earthy, shrill, putrid, rancid, salty, sharp, repulsive, spicy, stale, aromatic, fetid, loamy);
  2. The classes of odours (camphoraceous, musky, floral, pungent, ethereal, minty, putrid, almond, aromatic and aniseed);
  3. The chemistry of smells: the interesting words of chemistry might not suit every story, but occasionally, used from the point of view of a character who is a chemist or a perfumer, occasional use of a chemistry term might fit. We have the smells of human waste such as butyric acid (vomit), hydrogen sulphide ( rotten eggs), valeric acid ( rancid food), and ammonia (urine). Nutty smells like popped corn, baking bread and coffee are the product of alkylprazines. Bananas and wintergreen result from esters, and chemicals of cinnamon, wintergreen and vanilla are aromatics. One of my first labs in university chemistry taught me how to extract limonene, the terpene of citrus fruit peel.
  4. Experiences connected to smells, especially universal experience. Smoky smells of fire, pungent smells of drying autumn leaves, the revolting smell of sour milk, and acrid smells of a skunk’s spray are experiences common to many readers.
  5. Characteristics not usually assigned to smell: dark or bright, lite or heavy, sharp or dull, crisp or soft, creamy or brittle, soft or hard.

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If I ‘climb inside’ my landscape, I can describe the smells of a space using the five sources listed above. Then, as I encounter the landscape in my story, I have a ready-made list of odours.

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The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells : the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp.

The woodlands on planet Meniscus have characteristic smells: the grammid trees of the Sintha Wood smell like cinnamon, like apple pie. Words like intoxicating, spicy, subtle, warm, aromatic, permeate, wisp could be used to describe the smells of this space.

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The method above can be used to describe tastes encountered in the story, or touches and sounds.

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All my best,

(have fun with your writing)

Alexandra