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November 22, 2010

Using Tokens to Enhance Story and Character Development

Photo by Lichfield District Council
Tokens are objects with symbolic value that exceeds their obvious material qualities. Gifts and mementos, badges of authority, wedding rings, and even ticket stubs can be considered tokens.  Used wisely, the tokens your characters value can add depth to both character and plot while drawing the reader into your story.  Consider the following example from John Knowles' A Separate Peace:
We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction.

Phineas was the essence of this careless peace. Not that he was unconcerned about the war. After Mr. Purd'homme left he began to dress, that is he began reaching for whatever clothes were nearest, some of them mine. Then he stopped to consider, and went over to the dresser. Out of one of the drawers, he lifted a finely woven broadcloth shirt, carefully cut, and very pink.

"What's that thing?"

"This is a tablecloth," he said out of the side of his mouth.

"No, cut it out. What is it?"

"This," he then answered with some pride, "is going to be my emblem. Ma sent it up last week. Did you ever see stuff like this, and a color like this? It doesn't even button all the way down. You have to pull it over your head, like this."

"Over your head? Pink! It makes you look like a fairy!"

"Does it?" He used this preoccupied tone when he was thinking of something more interesting than what you had said. But his mind always recorded what was said and played it back to him when there was time, so as he was buttoning the high collar in front of the mirror he said mildly, "I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone."

"You're nuts."

"Well, in case suitors begin clamoring at the door, you can tell them I'm wearing this as an emblem." He turned around to let me admire it. "I was reading in the paper that we bombed Central Europe for the first time the other day." Only someone who knew Phineas as well a I did could realize that he was not changing the subject. I waited quietly for him to make whatever fantastic connection there might be between this and his shirt. "We haven't got a flag, we can't float Old Glory proudly out the window. So I'm going to wear this, as an emblem."

He did wear it. No one else in school could have done so without some risk of having it torn from his back. When the sternest of the Summer Sessions Masters, old Mr. Patch-Withers, came up to him after history class and asked about it, I watched his drawn but pink face become pinker with amusement as Finny politely explained the meaning of the shirt.

It was hypnotism. I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn't help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying your best friend a little.

The scene involving Phineas' pink shirt is entertaining and also demonstrates Phineas' carefree confidence, his natural charm, and the narrator Gene's envy and admiration of these characteristics.  The pink shirt represents what Phineas is and what Gene wishes he could be himself.  Later in the story, Gene dresses in Phineas' clothing, and the pink shirt again provides character insights and propels the plot:

But when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams.  I was Phineas, Phineas to the life.  I even had his humorous expression on my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness.  I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny's triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again.

I didn't go down to dinner.  The sense of transformation stayed with me throughout the evening, and even when I undressed and went to bed.  That night I slept easily, and it was only on waking up that this illusion was gone, and I was confronted with myself, and what I had done to Finny. 

As today's exercise, write a scene involving a token important to one of your characters.  Examine how the character uses the token, what value it holds for him/her, and what it communicates to other characters.  Does the token add something to the plot as well as developing the character? 

November 17, 2010

Query Letters

If your manuscript's polished, and you're itching to submit it, it's time to face the dreaded query letter.  Check out my blog on query letter tips over at writersvibe.

November 15, 2010

Evening in Sorrento

Today's writing prompt is solely visual--a photo my husband snapped one night in Sorrento.  Hanging out in busy places or viewing photos like this, I often wonder about the lives and thoughts of the people I see.  Sometimes as an exercise, I'll choose one person and build a story for him/her.  To me this photo is full of stories waiting to be told. 

November 3, 2010

NaNoWriMo Begins

NaNoWriMo kicked off on Monday.  One month to finish a 50,000 word novel.  If you've never participated, I encourage you to give it a try.  I haven't put much thought or planing into my own NaNoWriMo project this year and just jumped in, beginning two different story-lines.  I can't keep up working on both so tonight it's decision time.  Gotta get to work.