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Lorine Niedecker’s work finds itself interspersed within the second wave of the feminist movement in America. This movement is characterized by its generalized focus on family and home inequalities, as well as inequalities in the workplace. Niedecker’s poetry clearly displays these same sorts of themes, lending her poetry to the long list of writers talking about the polarizing subject of the day.

As an example of this second wave feminism in her work, the poem “Wilderness” can be looked at as a prime example of her personal fear due to domestic inequalities in her life. She writes:

You are the man
You are my other country
and I find it hard going

You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm

the torrent to raise the river
to float the wounded doe

In this poem, the fear of being regarded and treated as the weaker sex in the relationship is apparent. The first stanza creates a gulf of distance between the two sexes. She states in line one, in the accusatory fourth wall breaking manner, that her subject is the male reader. Niedecker proceeds first to describe the man as another country, separate from her. This would suggest a reference to the traditional gender spheres and how they are expected to be separate. In line three, she finds it hard going to breach these boundaries and associate with the man. These boundaries cause difficulty for her social movement.

In the second stanza, Niedecker discusses the issue of domestic violence involving males against women. The metaphor of the prickly pear for the man suggests that getting near to them will always be matched with pain. The man, the accused reader in this case, is prone to getting angry easily at the woman, which devolves disagreements into “sudden violent storms” (Niedecker line 5). This establishes that Niedecker’s speaker is living in fear of possibly disturbing the man, even in her own home or with her own family.

The final stanza is a continuation of the second in the torrent of violence but focuses on the helpless nature of the woman. The speaker metamorphizes herself as the wounded doe in the river. The man is still the storm, growing in violence with problems that take shape as dangerous river that drowns the wounded doe. The doe can’t swim because it’s wounded, so it must suffer the consequence of man in the river and succumb to the violent torrent of his place.

By establishing itself as a poem during the 1970’s that depicts that distinct lack of power women had in the relationship, and the fear in which they lived, Niedecker’s poem is able to transcend second wave feminism and be utilized by the more recent fourth wave. The fourth wave feminist movement focuses most on the empowerment of women. This poem acts as an example of the powerlessness that women can experience in a male-dominated and psychologically or physically abusive relationship. The poem speaker situation presents a valid representation of the fear women could possibly endure, which society should rise above from. The accusatory nature of breaking the fourth wall also gives the poem an active element, engaging the male reader as the problem and forcing them to look at their own relationships and how they treat their partners.

Though Niedecker wrote this poem during the second wave feminist movement, it resonates well today as a forward moving statement and element of fourth wave feminist interests.

Works Cited

Niedecker, Lorine. “Wilderness.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,
~ 25 minute read

I was embarking on a little journey into literary criticism last month and I figured I ought to try my hand out at applying a couple of them side-by-side to compare differences in theory. In this exercise, I utilized Angela Carter's graphic reinterpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood story, entitled "The Company of Wolves." It's a fantastic story out of a thematically intense collection, and well worth the stop by to read. You can find it here: The Company of Wolves . I suggest reading the story before taking on this article. It's only about a fifteen minute read.

Without further ado...

Comparing New Criticism and Feminism Through Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”

Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves,” found in the collection The Bloody Chamber, is a thematically dense Gothic fantasy tale of a metaphorically innocent and fragile young girl taking a trip to her grandmother’s house amidst a hungry forest of wolves and werewolves. Rife with symbology and oppositional metamorphoses, this story allows for multiple theoretical interpretations of its text. This essay will first address the symbolic New Criticism approach which finds organic unity in the binary clash between civilization and the wild, then it will utilize many of the same symbols with new interpretations under the Feminist criticism to support the female triumph over the voracious patriarchal system found in the story.

“The Company of Wolves” a tale of layered metamorphoses culminating in a union between fearful civilization and the bestial tension of the wild. The symbology in the color red, clothing, and traditional values is shed in the binary opposition of the werewolf’s metamorphosis against the coming-of-age metamorphosis of the young woman. The story finds its thematic unity in the shedding of civilized tradition and the bestial union between wolf and its supposed prey, signifying the cathartic nature of permitting the animalistic release of the character’s sexual desires.

At the core of the story lies its thematic dependence on the metamorphosis. Carter begins with the werewolf’s metamorphosis in evil and violence. She writes stories of civilization’s fear of the wolves by describing them as “carnivore incarnate” (Carter line 3), the embodiment of a perfect predator, and by stating “the wolf is worst because it cannot listen to reason” (Carter lines 41-42). Unlike all the other menaces of the uncivilized world, the wolf will devour your body without pause as it has no interest in pity or regard; it is purely a wild creature of natural cruelty. The first story of transformation is that of the hunter’s prey. After the hunter tracks down a particularly menacing wolf and traps it, he cuts off its head and paws only for it to turn back into “the bloody trunk of a man, headless, footless, dying, dead” (Carter lines 90-91). This establishes the transformation of the fear inducing beast into that of the weakness of humankind when it is conquered by other men, giving the hunter the wolfish nature of the predator instead of the actual beast. Carter proceeds then to the tale of the newlywed husband and wife. Her description of the first husband on return from being lost for years to the wolves suggests misery in bestial form, that the wildness of the wolf wasn’t a willful transformation but instead that forced curse on his person. He is described as “in rags and his hair hung down his back and never saw a comb, alive with lice” (Carter lines 141-142). The matted, lice-ridden hair suggest constant misery, a misery that will be seen with the final werewolf in the tale as the fake hunter. He comes making demands of his wife who left him thinking he was dead only to find that civilization moved on without him while he took his animal form. When he is hacked up by the second husband in familial defense, once again the reader sees the wolf’s body transform to that of a man. Carter’s series of indicatively suspect ideas on how the werewolf comes to be tells the reader of civilization’s misunderstanding of what makes a wolf and what makes a man.

Carter writes “Seven years is a werewolf’s natural span but if you burn his human clothing you condemn him to wolfishness for the rest of his life, so old wives hereabouts think it some protection to throw a hat or an apron at the werewolf, as if clothes made the man…Before he can become a wolf, the lycanthrope strips stark naked” (Carter lines 166-171, 175-176). In this quote the reader meets one of the most important symbols in the story: clothing. Clothing as an image represents the civilization’s covering over their bodies. This covers their natural form from others being able to observe their desires and impulses, hiding their metamorphosis into adulthood. The werewolf must strip naked and cast-off civilization because it is a beast of the purely emblematic wild. To see such an event would be death for the observer, as the violent and sexualized distortion of the human body into that of their bestial desire would be too much for the civilized human to endure. This is seen in the overtly sexualized imagery when the hunter werewolf consumes the grandmother with the emphasis on the size of the naked hunter’s genitals. The lack of clothes is a metaphor for the abandoning of society. However, its curse lies in its untamed nature. With the casting off of the society, the werewolf welcomes the insatiable desire for violence, sometimes metaphorically in conjunction with that of a desire for sex. Their nakedness which reveals their animalistic form therefore is a punishment of embodied desire unfulfilled. Carter here also presents her first thematic challenge to the reader when she states, “as if clothes made the man” (Carter line 171). As is seen by the hunter hacking the werewolf apart to reveal a man, or the second husband chopping the first in wolf form until it turns to the wedding night image, the wolf appears to have always been apart of the man under the guise of civilized clothing.

After the stark introduction on the conflicted transformation of the man and the wolf, the reader is met with the metamorphosis of the girl to womanhood. Carter writes of her description as “her the red shawl that, today, has the ominous if brilliant look of blood on snow; her breasts have just begun to swell; her hair is like lint, so fair it hardly makes a shadow on her pale forehead; her cheeks are an emblematic scarlet and white and she has just started her woman’s bleeding” (Carter lines 206-212). Red is the symbol of coming-of-age in Carter’s tale. It contrasts the purity of cleanly white and lightly flaxen colors, which are a metaphor for virginity and innocence. Since she is untouched by man and sheltered by her family from the wild nature of the cruel environment, she is purity embodied visually. Her sheltering has prevented her true fear of the world and her sexuality though because she hasn’t been exposed to it and has no regard for what society says she is supposed to be afraid of. The red on her shoulders is symbolic of her womanhood transition, just as the reshaping of her body from adolescence. Here too, Carter sexualizes the human form, but in the context of a woman. She talks of the swelling of breasts just as she had mentioned the genitalia of the werewolf, providing a gendered opposition between the perfect form of the civilized woman against the wild and haggard form of a ravenous beast man. Yet she is clothed and wears her symbolic transition upon her shawl like a signal in opposition to the purity of the white environment she enters.

In meeting on the road, the girl and the hunter trade false perceptions and deceive one another in attempts to fulfill the final requirements of their metamorphosis. The girl “is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system” (Carter lines 215-219) and therefore is desirous to break free of the sexual innocence of her youth. When she meets the hunter, she finds herself attracted sexually to him, allowing his challenge for a kiss if he arrives at her grandmother’s before she does. “She wanted to dawdle on her way to make sure the handsome gentleman would win his wager” (Carter lines 297-299) allowing her a step closer to fulfilling her transition to womanhood.

The hunter, conversely, takes a cruel pleasure in his game of the hunt. He seeks a double meal of devouring the girl and her grandmother to fulfill his violent desires. In his sly tricks and impersonations, he seeks to fulfill his own metamorphosis of desire fulfillment to appease the wolfish hunger of his person and become comfortable in his true wolf skin. He is the predator and the weakness of the old woman, as well as the innocence of the girl, are his prey. His guise is of a civilized...
(~6 minute read)

In his third and most important definition, Edward Said defines Orientalism by stating that "(it) can be discussed and a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." (Said). He goes on to prove through the rest of his book, Orientalism, how Western cultures, especially French and English, have been consistently trying to dominate Asian nations culturally through this perspective bias. David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly challenges the Orientalism bias by reversing this cultural conjecture of the Asian woman being subdued and manipulated by the Western man, displacing the genders of both Gallimard and Song to have the Westerner manipulated instead.

After Song performs “Butterfly” at the opera house during their first meeting, Hwang sets the course for revealing this Western bias of Orientalism. Gallimard professes his adoration for Song’s performance and the story of the piece, which Song rejects by stating “it’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” (Hwang). Said’s definition of Orientalism fits here because in the song “Butterfly” the submissive party is both Asian and a woman, giving gender to the culture, and Pinkerton is a cruel Westerner, taking the role of the dominant male. Song rejects that message and sentiment, hating the story and attributing it to a fantasy that the Western world developed over the Far East. Gallimard then affirms that the bias exists by speaking directly to the audience saying “so much for protecting her in my big Western arms” (Hwang). The Chinese woman does not want to be protected by the French man and thereby breaks the expectation that he and his culture had of her to position herself in the submissive state. This rejection is of Song as a man of Asian descent, before he plays the part of the submissive woman specifically manipulating Gallimard and the Western perspective.

As the play progresses, Song further establishes this acting role of the submissive, and sometimes abandoned, mistress for Gallimard, but the viewer is let in on the secret that Gallimard is the one being manipulated. He is led to believe that he is the one in control of the relationship, but Song is just using him for years on end to feed the Chinese government classified information. Song plays the Orientalist mindset of Gallimard in Song’s favor, allowing the author to expose the blindness brought on by the bias. In a conversation between Ms. Chin and Song, Song states that “All he wants is for her to submit. Once a woman submits, a man is always ready to become ‘generous’” (Hwang). Song is describing not only the relationship between Gallimard and themself, but also that of the gendered regions. By using genders, the viewer can understand the relationship of the West with the East by looking at the bias through analogy. Song understands this bias through the scope of Orientalism. By playing within the bounds of this Western bias, Song can control Gallimard into loving them and eventually passing classified documents willing to them.

The critical description of Orientalism as it applies to the relationship comes during the trial of Gallimard where Song states “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated – because a woman can’t think for herself” (Hwang). This comes in the description of why Song was able to convince Gallimard that he was a woman. Song was able to play his Western domination fantasy in a physical representation of the gendered struggle between nations. He continues “he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was…a woman. And being Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (Hwang). The judge Toulon, not being able to understand how that applies, affirms that Toulon’s Western male heritage still sees the Asian man in the Oriental sense as a female to be controlled. Song directly lays out that imperialistic tendencies in perspective towards the Asian nations and shows why they are easily manipulated. By assuming the perfect form of the gender-biased Western perspective, Song took on the role of the fantasy Gallimard was looking for and was able to use this to his advantage, even though he was a man. Earlier on, Song states that “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act” (Hwang), indicating that because Song is secretly a man he understands completely the Western male perspective and is able to manipulate it to his needs.

The reversal reaches its conclusion in the revelation that Song is indeed a man to Gallimard, though he likely already knew. Song reveals his manipulation in a triumphant stance, bearing himself naked in front of Gallimard, but Gallimard laughs instead of looking at this in horror. Gallimard tells Song “Get out of here! Tonight, I’ve finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy!” (Hwang). Since Gallimard is the embodiment of the Oriental perspective, he chooses to live within the bounds of his Orientalist view, refusing to see Song as the man he is and instead believe in the fantastical act. Gallimard shows the intentional cultural blindness of the West to the East in order to maintain the idea that the people of the West, primarily men, are somehow dominant to the people of the East. He struggles to maintain this view even in the face of defeat. Song is metaphorically standing up against the Orientalism by showing the Asian culture as male, defeating the bias held by some European nations so consistently. Gallimard’s refusal to acknowledge this shows how the Western culture is not able to cut its deeply set bias even in the face of its error, opting for the illusion of their dominance.

The suicide of Gallimard in the end is significant because it defines to what end Orientalism has met. With Gallimard defined as the Orientalist, the reversal of gender upon himself and the necessity of his death is defined. The perspective is flawed in practice and led to the manipulation of Gallimard. When describing his spy actions and deception of Gallimard, Song tells Toulon “That’s why you’ll lose in all your dealings with the East” (Hwang). Song and the Eastern cultures can play this racial perspective to their advantage. The East understood far before the West that Oriental bias made the fantasy obvious and the control simplistic. By Song playing his part, they were able to subvert the West who believed to be in dominion over them and come out victorious. Gallimard therefore must commit suicide as Butterfly did in the song and complete the reversal of the one who was dominated. His death is the death of Orientalism, as the world becomes increasingly aware of the foolish and blind manner the Western sphere defined the East. Through Hwang’s play, gender and racial differences are leveled and Orientalism is broken.

Works Cited

1). Hwang, D. H. (1989). M. Butterfly. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

2). Said, E. W. (2004). Orientalism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
(~4 minutes read)

What is your story about? What makes your story unique?

This is called the PREMISE, and it can take many forms. Logline, tagline, elevator-pitch, blurb, query... all of them draw on the premise to make a stranger want to read your book. Your premise sums up your story in the least number of possible words. If you know your premise, you'll know what you're writing about, and a stranger at the busstop will as well, if he asks you, 'Hey cool, you're a writer! What are you writing?'

A premise is not the same as THEME. While a premise is necessary and intrinsic to a successful story, specific to your characters and their struggles within the plot, theme is not. It is the mood and moral that transcends plot and character struggles and overlies your story like mist which you only get aware of in retrospect. What matters so much to you that you'll spend rather a lot of hours writing this beast? This is your theme.

But when someone asks you what your story is about, they don't want to hear about your motivation. They want (in most cases) a bite-sized sentence. So tell me about your unique story in 27 words. These 27 words are called a LOGLINE, and when I encounter them I should know why I need to read your story before others. Start with the Who, What, When, Where, and Why? Or with the hero, situation, goal, villain, disaster. That there's no set formula makes life interesting.

Condense those 27 words into a TAGLINE that you can use at the backcover of your book. (e.g. Lord of the Rings: One ring to rule them all.) Remember the last bestseller? I bet it shows one sentence at the top of its backcover that made you think 'Yeah, I'll read that one', even before your eyes skim the rest of the backcover. A tagline will also come in handy when you want to market your book on social media or your author's webspace.

Points of note for the tagline: Be careful of negative phrasing. Don't mislead. Make it memorable. Express confidence: People want to read your book. They picked it out from all the other millions. They are just about to open the first page. You are a superstar!

While we're talking about the topic of social media and marketing, an AUTHOR TAGLINE is always a good idea. What kind of stories do you write? Humour? Fluffy Romance? Dark and twisted Fantasy? Brand yourself, and your following will know that you are their kind of author. The same rules as for a tagline apply to your brand as author. Readers may not remember your name, but hopefully they'll remember your tagline.

But we digress. Back to our story. Next, what's your story about in less than 20 words and words you'd actually use spoken aloud. This's called an ELEVATOR PITCH, and you have until the elevator reaches the next level to get the interest of the agent of your dreams. What about your book sticks in the agent's mind when he/she exits the elevator? Surely you're not going to tell him 'Well, it's complicated. You see, there's this girl who is really a werewolf in disguise but she has these issues...' and ping, the doors open and—the agent makes his escape. (Nothing against werewolves by the way. This is just an example of how not to go about pitching.)

With the elevator pitch, you might notice similarities to your logline, but you can and should craft them distinct from each other. Speaking is different than writing, and what looks lovely and compelling in written words, might sound awkward spoken aloud. Write the elevator pitch in words you actually would use, being stuck in an elevator. And then memorise them. Tomorrow, a stranger on the bus might ask you what you're writing. He might be an agent in disguise. What are you going to tell him?

Give me next a two-sentence introduction on a cover letter. Tell me what your story is about in two sentences (which might or might not be the same as what you wrote in the logline). Make it colourful and engaging. It might or might not be the premise of your story.

Make me impatient to read your book by a proper QUERY in less than 750 words. Three paragraphs. Should be manageable, right? Think of your query as an introduction to your book, though a query is not about what happens but about stakes. If you tell me the ending, why should I spend time to read your book? Don't give me solutions. I want to be curious. Depending on the complexity of your book, stop when the magnitude of your hero's task looms and the stakes are clear.

There's no set recipe to how to write your query, and if you are struggling, look to or go to our query-critique section of WF .

And then there's BACKBLURB, which's going to be on the backcover of your book. It's a query condensed, because you can't fit 750 words in. Keep the word count down, but the tension high.

And finally we come to something every author I know hates because it's not creative writing at all: A two-page SYNOPSIS, which is a dull, blow-by-blow factual account of what happens. Keep out all the fluff. Resist the temptation to write for a reaction. The synopsis shows the agent (and editor. and yourself.) if you have a proper story arc. Condensed into two pages, it's easy to see if your story has meat and bone and if it's worth being taken on. Outliners should be familiar with the concept, but even for pantsers like me it helps to keep all the threads of my story in mind. Really. You can actually do it while writing your story; as you're finishing a chapter, each time write down what happens. Copy+paste them all together, and you have your synopsis.

On you go. I hope you're not confused anymore.

Have you finished your book, or are you still writing? If the latter... happy blurb writing, next time you procrastinate.
(~5 minutes read)

Show, Don't Tell, and Exposition

'Show, Don't Tell' is a storytelling technique for creating an experience for the reader. It aims to shift the reader emotionally closer to the story. Done well, it should involve the reader on a visceral level in the story and let him take part in the narrative by evoking sensory details.

'Show' or 'Tell' is the difference between Narration (Show) that gives a sense of physicality, interactions, emotions, and feeling what happens to the character; and Narrative Summary (Tell) that is used for exposition and engages the intellect. Telling is a narrative shortcut that compresses time while Showing is nearer to real-story-time. In and by themselves, narrative summary is not bad and even necessary sometimes, but...

Paul asked Pauline to marry him and she said 'No'. Is that good storytelling? No? Were you expecting something else? Well, you should be feeling betrayed, but not at Pauline—at the author. He cheated you out of an experience.

Before you now think 'Okay, gotcha, I'll never tell anything again' I need to say that, as with all things in writing, there are times when narrative summary has its place. Read on for when; and... what is 'telling' anyway?

(Narrative Summary) TELLING is:
  • BASIC SENSORY words: hear, see, smell,... these words tell the reader about sensory input into the protagonist. They're objective, without inflection.
  • BASIC INTROSPECTIVE words: seems, feel, think, wonder, belief, know, decides, notice, and their derivatives.
  • BASIC EMOTIONAL words: Happy, sad, angry, frustrated,...
All of them tell the reader how a character feels or think but don't let the reader experience the emotion himself. They are called filtering words.

Maybe you think that if only you avoid filtering and use stronger words, you'll be showing. Not so. I'd argue that if you're telling something to the reader, you're using exposition—describing something—on a personal level, but which still 'tells'. e.g. Your writing will be a bit more colourful when you say 'elated' instead of 'happy', but you still tell me what the character feels.

'Telling' means widening the narrative distance. It feels safe, because we're interacting with our own surroundings in the same way. If someone asks you how you feel, you answer "I'm happy," maybe. You tell your friend how you feel. You don't describe the elation you feel when you look up at the sky and it widens and widens until you think you can embrace the whole horizon and do anything, have everything within reach. 'Happy' can mean so many things, and maybe you thought I meant something completely different when you heared me tell you 'I'm happy'. The same happens in writing. When you let your character say 'I'm happy' and then go on to explain why he's happy so the reader gets the correct picture, why aren't you showing the reader the exact emotion he should experience right from the start?

That's exactly what you have to do in writing when you want to show.

Some other ways a writer increases—sometimes unconsciously—narrative distance is by telling about the intention (e.g. picking up the phone to call someone) in order/an attempt to...

Or telling that something comes before, then, or after something else. Suddenly and as soon as, hits the same groove. They disrupt the narrative and take the reader out of story-real-time. Look out for a follow-up article about editing and immediacy of the narrative.

In writing, when you're telling, you lack confidence. Tell, and you'll be safe. Say it through exposition, because then you won't have to feel. It's always a good idea to use strong words that best describe the experience of the character; just don't stop there. Good stuff always takes a stand. In writing, there's no place for timidity. Show me the truth. Show me lies. I don't care, but show me.

(Narrative) SHOWING is:
For starters, use strong verbs and specific nouns: A tree isn't specific, but a willow is. Are adjectives and adverbs showing or telling? Often, they are placeholders for what actually happens, so again: show me what they mean to the character, specifically, in this moment. Replace them with a description of how your characters experiences the moment. Give me details (check out the article on 'Details in Writing'). Word of caution though: Too many details aren't good either. Don't go and stick an adjectives (or more than one) to every noun within reach. Choose which ones describe best and use only them.

Create a sense of setting: The crunch of leaves under my shoes, the sensual impressions of raindrops hitting my skin... You're not interrupting the scene, you're helping me visualise. Take your time with description. Don't rush. Savour the moment. Don't minimise. Using strong words doesn't mean you should rush. Details, details. Well chosen. Use a character's physicality to give the reader the sense of being there when the setting interacts with the character, like the discomfort of rain.
Using Narrative Summary for storywide pacing:

Done right, action and dialogue scenes are showing. Dialogue and action expand time, in sync with your feelings. It creates a sense of the character by body language: Can you tell if someone has a crush just by the way his body shifts? Punctuate scenes with action and then close in on the reaction (check out the article 'Dialogue Done Right'). Movies zoom in on a particular detail after an emotionally revealing scene e.g. the guy's face after the girl rejects his marriage proposal.

But scene after intense scene of action and dialogue gets exhausting. And when you want to give readers a break, you need narrative summary because it varies rhythm and texture of the narrative. It also takes efficient care of repetitive actions, glosses over unimportant events while telling the reader that they're there, or it covers time that's too long or devoid of dramatic tension.

Also, narrative summary can be necessary and revealing when it states clearly what happened in the previous scene. Maybe your character had a highly emotional moment and now digests what happened.

And the take-away message? Don't give your reader information, give them experiences with Show AND Tell.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Brown & Dave King, HarperCollins, 2004)
(~5 Minute Read)

A poem often starts as a singular image, a momentary expression of an impressionable scene or object on the poet’s mind. It speaks to them, whatever it may be, in a way that demands preservation and presentation in words. They want to share this image in their own way in which they experienced it, enlivening the image with a temperate bath of various senses to draw the reader into their understanding. To do this, the poet must employ not only a range of senses to draw them into the poem, but also give it life through using those images to enhance tone and theme.

As a base example for how this is done with an expert hand, Theodore Roethke’s Root Cellar provides a solid start. His poem comes alive with its imagery.

Theodore Roethke
Root Cellar (1948)

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

At first the reader may notice; Roethke doesn’t rely on meter or rhyme to pace the poem. It’s free verse, not even maintaining the syllable count per line. And yet, it flows slowly and smoothly in its prosaic imagery that carry the reader off into a living jungle of stillness and rot. Every line is new image or a continuation of the previously introduced, letting the experience speak the message to the reader.

The very first line establishes the ‘living death’ aspect which is held through the poem. By letting the reader know that “Nothing would sleep in that cellar,” Roethke establishes that the inhabitants of the cellar, maybe even the structure itself, is constantly living and moving. He then contrasts this life with an image of rot: “dank as a ditch.” The room is wet, sweaty with the heat and slime one feels when they lay in an old run-off ditch. It’s alive, but uncomfortable. With the personification of the “bulbs…hunting” in the next line, it seems that even the unnatural, human developed objects are contributing to the action by being given an active role. They’re a source of light stifled by the darkness, eliciting the death tones of the uncomfortable ditch they are desperate to escape.

Descriptive word choice and simile bring the image of the next three lines alive. The loose reeds growing out of rotted boxes are likened to that of snakes in the jungle. The previous image of the wet ditch and the canopied darkness the bulbs experience set the large stage for the reeds to become animated. Roethke uses key words like “obscenely” and “evil” to add to the darkness, adding a macabre depth to the denizens of his fateful root cellar.

By the sixth line, Roethke moves beyond touch and sight to have the reader experience smell. In a fantastic use of the word “congress,” the poet establishes a buffet of smells for the reader to appreciate and fill the airspace of the envisioned root cellar with. His next line-up of objects rapid fire familiar feelings and smells of objects that have sat for too long. Roots and wood have become have eaten detritus and by the wet wood planks the reader can feel and smell that bacterial slime of old, wet wood being eaten away by detritivores as they await their inevitable fate.

Line ten gives the reader one last authorial interjection as to the theme. Roethke states “Nothing would give up on life” which tells the reader this is an uncomfortable existence. The rot is a perpetual blight on all the senses of the beholder. It repulses directly by making the reader experience uncomfortable natural items eating away at the human ones left in place to rot. By the final line, the dirt floor of the cellar is even a living creature. The image carries with it a perpetuity of life from the Earth contrasted on the abandon of human endeavors left behind. The root cellar was likely once a useful storage, but in its abandonment, it is in the process of being reclaimed. The images of repulsion have a natural draw of wonder in the darkness of a jungle. The cycles of nature will press on, reclaiming the still death of the human created cellar into a living and breathing ecosystem.

Roethke’s poem shows the reader how to effectively portray theme and tone through only a few dictatorial pushes from the author’s voice and primarily active imagery. The images take on multiple levels of interpretation and images, portraying both their literal image and their metaphorical likeness that gradually controls the themes. It’s a living, breathing creation through words that transports the reader an effectively transmits Roethke’s sensory intake.

In the reader’s own poetry, effective use of imagery like Roethke’s can be critical to the effectivity of the poem. For an image-centric poem, the images must speak for themselves. A multiplicity of meaning behind the images in conjunction with the other surrounding images allows the meaning of the poem to be derived through a metaphorical sense. With Roethke, the recurring contrast of life in death achieves verisimilitude through the conversion of human abandon back to natural conditions. The reader not only understands that the poet observes the thematic element, but first-hand experiences it with them.

This is the art to be mastered in image-centric poetry. Let the reader be devoured by the onslaught of imagery, exposing them to all the senses the poet desires to be immersive, then layer them together in progression to tell their own story. Let the images in conjunction speak for themselves as a group, entering only minor dictations on tonal direction. The poet should use key adjectives and adverbs for these descriptors sparingly, as to allow for subtlety. The best poems of these images are desirous of their readers to dig for their own conclusions. The poet, as Roethke has done with Root Cellar, shouldn’t cast too much directorial oversight, but instead give gentle nudges, allowing the reader the pleasure of developing meaning in the poem themselves.

The more active a participant a reader is, the more willing they are to except the poet’s experience developed for them on the page.

Works Cited

Roethke, Theodore. The Lost Son and Other Poems. Doubleday and Company, 1948.
(~6 min read)

For the purpose of this article, dialogue is an alive, action-alike, realistic way to reveal new information about character and/or plot and thus it should carry tension (from 'Make a Scene' by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Writer's Digest Books 2008). To that end, dialogue can destabilise or demand action—which is almost the same if you ask me.


Dialogue consists of the spoken part and the dialogue tag, which tells us who does the speaking.
  • Dialogue tags: Is a phrase that precedes, intersects, or follows dialogue and includes the word 'said' or one of its synonyms (asked, yelled, muttered, screamed,...).
When used right, dialogue tags should be near invisible, except when they shouldn't as in...
  • Action beats - huge topic coming!
An action beat is a standalone sentence, designed to break apart dialogue. It's a powerful tool for structuring dialogue. See the last example, when Paul sits down? This is an action beat, because it belongs with the dialogue. See later for further information.
Some articles talk about 'speaker attributes', and they're not to be confused with dialogue tags, because speaker attributes are stuff we infer about the speaker from how something is said, or what actually is said. A line like "Don't you dare loom!" tells me that the speaker is annoyed at the dialogue partner for appearing big and intimidating. We can use dialogue to show the reader new information without it being obvious. Usually, the dialogue portion of the speech is about showing, while the dialogue tag is the telling part. Even when you now think that action beats are better (and they are, usually, because of showing) than dialogue tags, don't go and do away with dialogue tags entirely. It's not necessary to only write dialogue with action beats. Sometimes it's enough to just let the reader know who's speaking with a simple dialogue tag.

Verbal communication and what goes on in terms of body language can tell us what's going on inside and outside an character (thinking, feeling, processing, or knowing), but also mask what's going on. If you write the dialogue and action beats well, when a character asks his boss for a pay raise, the boss (and the reader) will see small signs that the character's not confident he deserves it. These kind of exchanges are fraught with tension, and rightly so. They propel the story forward in all directions.

Other times, the dialogue will be open and honest, and we'll feel your protagonist relax among friends who support him onto death and beyond. Done well, dialogue is a powerful tool for characterisation. Don't leave me with only smiles, shouts, and hugs.

Examples of an emotionally revealing dialogue is if your protagonist goes quiet or chatty, he deliberately misunderstands his dialogue partner, or maybe he contradict things he himself has said in the past. And his dialogue partners? If they catch these undercurrents, they'll get that something has changed and it might give them pause.

But whatever the ends of your dialogue, choose words your character would choose. Ask yourself which kind of conversation this is and how the characters relate to each other. Do they have specific quirks you can infuse their dialogue with? Something a bit subtle is mirroring patterns. Maybe they mirror each other in words. Maybe you cross your legs when your dialogue partner does. Even body language sometimes mirrors your dialogue partner. These are great tools for characterisation and action beats.

A word of caution about action beats here: Everyone has crutches that he/she uses over and over. My characters are often smiling or balling fists. Or propping themselves up against the wall. When you've written your dialogue scene, go back and look it over with specific regard to those and change them to fresh actions.

And a second caution: Don't use action beats to detail setting, except when it's a tool for characterisation. When a character does something during dialogue, you have the opportunity to—briefly—show me the layout of the room they're in. Maybe Pauline moves her chair over to the fireplace because it's cold. Or Paul flips the lightswitch and a single-bulb dangles forlorn from the ceiling.

So how to do dialogue right, or wrong? First we need to pay attention to the MECHANICS and punctuation, everyone's favourite topic.
  • Punctuation and ways to vary dialogue
Dialogue tags are Paul said or Pauline asked. They can be given after, before the dialogue, or in the middle of the dialogue. You can vary where you place the dialogue tags. They don't always have to come at the beginning, nor do they have to come at the end. Sometimes they are in the middle:
There's no rule if you should write "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," Paul said. or "Welcome to our introduction to dialogue," said Paul. I'd argue that 'said Paul' sounds a bit old-fashioned, but that's something you can hash out with your editor.

When a dialogue tag comes after an exclamation or a question mark, don't capitalise the dialogue tag.

The above were easy. The next ones are not so much:
  • Let the reader know who's speaking.
Sarcasm off. Your readers need to know immediately who's speaking, not only at the end of a long paragraph. Imagine you've just turned the radio on and someone gives a campaign speech. You need to wait until the radio announcer tells you who's said what you just heard, right? Well, we're not on radio. We can avoid the prolonged agony.
I didn't put a dialogue tag in the above line; but eliminating them can easily confuse your readers about who's speaking, so make absolutely sure the reader attributes the dialogue to the correct person. And the easiest way to avoid confusion is to break a new line, use dialogue tags, and put them near the dialogue.

Talking head syndrome is when you write unaccounted dialogue and the reader gets confused who says what. A rule of thumb for unaccounted dialogue is three lines, no more. You need strong characters' voices if it goes on longer, but if in doubt... ask someone else for critique.
  • A word on dashes and ellipses:
An ellipse (three full-stops in sequence) can be used as trailing off, while an em-dash (the long dash, not to be confused with the slightly shorter en-dash) shows a sudden cutoff.
In the following, I'll list some ERRORS that are common enough to have found their way into writing craft books like Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Browne & Dave King, William Morrow Imprint, 2004). Some examples are taken from this book.
  • Overexplanation and redundancy:
How often do you need to tell the reader that Paul really, truly doesn't want to?
The next one is a bit more subtle:
When the dialogue itself conveys emotion, don't prop it up with adjectives/adverbs in character description to tell the reader how it's said. Here, the perennial discussion about adverbs comes into its full glory, so watch out for these little beasties. Overexplanation can also hide in a longer line of dialogue that explains the character's emotions when we'd be better feel it with...
(~10 Minute Read)

In the conservative nature of horror film and literature, audiences have come to know and expect certain tropes to appear consistently to fulfill their pleasure in those entertainment mediums. This is most especially true in the sub-genre of the slasher. The ‘Final Girl’ is a trope viewers and readers have become accustomed with since its original inception in the nineteen sixties with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Ever since, it has become pervasive to the genre in works like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Liebesman) and Halloween (Carpenter). But the trope has evolved due to its flexibility and reflexive nature from that inception to the present.

In contemporary literature, Riley Sager’s slasher novel Final Girls presents the reader with a main character that is presumed to be a ‘Final Girl’ at the very beginning, starting the story after the massacre of Pine Cottage had already occurred. The author reverses the structure of the standard plot right away, throwing the reader’s expectation of the trope off-balance. This initial reversal becomes an ongoing process throughout the book. Sager uses the reader’s bias towards the ‘Final Girl’ trope to undermine their expectations of the character and mask the familiar slasher plot while commenting on the trope itself.

In nineteen eighty-seven, Carol Clover, in her landmark essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” defined the ‘Final Girl.’ She told the reader that “the Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality” (Clover, 211). From the inception of her contemporary presence in the novel Final Girls, Sager’s main character Quincy is presented in quite the opposite fashion. She is shown as a rich, Upper West Side New York native who has an affinity for baking and blogging while her boyfriend she’s intent on marrying is out being a defense attorney. This isn’t the typical description of a ‘Final Girl’ type character according to Clover because it doesn’t fit the mold of the adolescent male stand-in. She is instead presented as still struggling with the events. Clover states that a ‘Final Girl’ is supposed to present “smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters” (Clover, 204), but instead Quincy projects the lack of ability to do much of anything, even struggling at the more feminine tasks she sets out to do on her own and perpetuating a Xanax addiction that worsens as the novel progresses. Though Quincy’s narration describes herself as being one of these character tropes, she acts the opposite. Her presence and demeanor are very feminine from the onset and take the role of a victim rather than a survivor, the survivor being the more male identifiable character according to Clover.

Another important rejection of the trope defined by Clover is that of sexual abstinence. The ‘Final Girls’ in most of these older slasher movies are the ones who don’t have sex, while those “who seek or engage in unauthorized sex amounts to a generic imperative of the slasher film” (Clover, 200) are the ones who are almost always killed. Quincy has sex often in Sager’s story, and most of the time it is unfulfilling for her. She narrates her desires to be with more rough men of her college days than the man she is currently with. She even has sex outside of her relationship, which in the spirit of slasher films, designates her as a girl who the reader expects to die. This extra-relationship sexual act is also later identified to be with the actual killer of Pine Cottage, rejecting Clover’s argument for the description of a ‘Final Girl’ and what it means to the story because it firmly plants Quincy in the feminine gender. Therefore, the male audience can’t directly identify with Quincy as a stand-in for the male perspective because they now view her in a sexually penetrative way.

This old description of the ‘Final Girl’ that appeared consistently during the seventies and eighties and shaped viewer biases of the trope just doesn’t fit Sager’s character in Quincy. Instead, Final Girls takes on more of a relation to the slashers of the late nineties like Scream (Craven). Alexandra West, in her article on late ninety’s slashers, tells the reader that these “slashers would expand the very characters that 80s horror took for granted. By tying the site of horror directly to the would-be victims, the ‘90s slasher would create a template in which the freedom, survival and desire of the 'Final Girl' (as well as her friends) was dependent on subduing the killer” (West). Sager’s story is much less interested in exemplifying the dangers pressed on the ‘Final Girl’ in physical conflict than it is in placing the reader along with her as the center of attention in character. His novel is less atmospheric, as would be seen in films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The story instead finding its home in the character-driven first-person perspective of Quincy, the supposed ‘Final Girl.’

Sager’s novel is fully aware of the trope it’s following, even electing to take on the trope designation as the title. This is consistent with West’s description of the ninety’s slasher in that “these films would not just work by being scary, they had to acknowledge audience expectations” (West). Like Scream, Final Girls acknowledges its own trope from the start, describing it to the reader as if it were a notable title character. From that point, Sager’s audience feels that they know the character and what to expect from her, though the story is developing after the event. As Sager unwinds this comfort in knowledge by rejecting the Clover description of the ‘Final Girl’ as was described earlier, the knowledgeable reader in the genre would become suspicious as she doesn’t fit the mold.

The main reason Quincy can’t embrace this status yet is because the process is actually incomplete, but this is unknown to the reader for the majority of the novel. Quincy isn’t a ‘Final Girl’ because the killer hasn’t actually been put down and she subconsciously knows this. Instead, she was saved by him, which is yet another feminine trait given by Clover. The suspicion then falls on Quincy in being the actual murderer, since it is still unknown to the reader that her secret is that she isn’t a ‘Final Girl.’ She refuses to acknowledge or remember anything that happened other than the initial screams and being ‘rescued.’ This confusion in what the character actually is is presented by Sager through Clover’s idea that there is a “’certain link’ that puts killer and Final Girl on terms…(that) is more than ‘sexual repression.’ It is also shared masculinity…and also a shared femininity” (Clover, 210). The reader distrusts Quincy’s nature because she doesn’t fit the biased expectation for the trope, leading them to believe the opposite. Sager plays into this directly in multiple scenes by never directly stating she isn’t the killer.

He drives the misdirection by scenes such as the interview with the police investigators a week after the Pine Cottage massacre. Here, Quincy acts completely out of character for a ‘Final Girl,’ saying that she fails to remember the crime through the constant pressuring of Detective Cole. Cole states he doesn’t believe her, continuing “not one bit. But we’re going to find out the truth eventually” (Sager, 317-318) and takes on the role of the reader in their distrust of her character. The detective acts like a guide for the reader to continue their mistrust of Quincy. At this point, Quincy takes on a very gender mute role, neither acting the feminine part completely, as she shows a strange strength in independence and control, nor taking the role a male as she maintains her story of failed memory and being saved. When she hugs Coop in distress at the close of the interview, this solidifies their non-binding gender as one in the same. Sager uses this to drive the reader into believing a more sinister plot from Quincy, setting up the potential murderer further as he gives proper motive for her. Then when the reader believes they’re about to see Quincy become the murderer, she drops the knife.

When the knife drops, the mask Sager creates for the plot that she is the killer drops and her ‘Final Girl’ status resumes questionably, which leads the reader on a road to discover she was never a ‘Final Girl’ to begin with. This was heavily implied earlier with a sense of misdirection because of the assumed killer status. Quincy idolizes some of Tina’s (believed to be Sam at time) independence as a ‘Final Girl.’ In thinking about Tina’s tattoo of ‘Survivor’ inked on her wrist, Quincy writes this same identifier in marker on her wrist. It washes off in the...
(~7 Minute Read)

We want our story to be gripping. We want it to stay in our reader's minds. We want to entertain, we want to challenge, we want to fire our reader's passion so that they'll read our next story.

But writing away doesn't necessarily result in a story people want to read. Sometimes it does, but more often I'm left with a lot of words that lack... something. It's the 'something' I want to talk about now.

I don't know if you will agree with me at the end of this post, but the following is condensed from 'Writing the Heart of your Story' (C.S. Larkin, Ubiquitous Press 2014), 'The Emotional Craft of Fiction (Donald Maas, Writers' Digest Books 2016), 'Save the Cat' (Blake Snyder, Publishers Group UK, 2005), and 'Outlining your Novel' (K.M. Weiland, PenForASword 2011), in no particular order. It's a lot to take in, and all of the bullet points deserve a dedicated article, so... stay tuned for refinements in later ones.

The first questions every new writer inevitably ask themselves when they embark on a brand new, sparkling story are...
  • What is the plot? (What's it about?)
  • Who do I want as viewpoint character? (Who's it about?)
Sadly, most inexperinced writers stop here, and then cynics (or publishers, or agents) will ask one or more of the following: Why should I care; So what; and/or Why does it matter? Let's examine them for a moment.
  • If you have to field the question 'Why should I care', it means you failed to make the protagonist multi-dimensional. Give your protagonist faults but don't stop there. Every character has backstory, a childhood or grown-up experiences that hurt him or her and which created a need that this person has. As opposed to a 'want' that is more superficial, like pursuing an exalted career (want) for the security it brings (need).
  • 'So what' really asks if the struggles your protagonist faces are not only personal but general to your story world (does something happen to change your story world? Is something different after the events of your story?), or the opposite, if the plot is not only about some nebulous goal like saving the world but means something deeply personal to the protagonist as well (Is there a lesson that your protagonist learns as he goes through your plot? Does it make him a different human being?) Both, general and personal change should take place.
  • And 'Why does it matter' means 'Is there a more general lesson, something that will enhance the reader's life afterwards?'. Is there a moral? What question does the story ask? What feeling should the reader have at the end? If you the writer show me a bit of life I've missed, an experience that I haven't had, a lesson that will resonate with me after I've read through to 'The End', then I'll remember your story when others fade.
Let's examine a storyline in detail: How a horde of cavemen defeated the wholly mammoth instructs as well as makes for a gripping evening around the campfire. The listeners get entertained and learned something new. Right here, you have two things a story needs:
  • Tension, which is not dependent on change, but when change happens you always have tension. And when you have tension in your story (and you've made your protagonist relatable), the reader will care about your story;
  • Something that the reader takes away from it, entertainment or new information. The Premise.
What more do you need? What about theme?

Theme is the underlying truth in your story; and truth comes from the Author’s Stakes: What do you want to write about? What does matter so much to you that you'll spend rather a lot of hours with this story? A reader can tell if the author writes passionately. These stories carry more weight than others. Now, you needn't write a memoir or make your protagonist a template of yourself, but it does mean that in your story there should be a grain of truth, however it is shaped.

And before we go on to examine Characters and Plot in detail, let's spend a moment on SETTING. Consider
  • What would we love about this world?
  • What is it like; and what is it Not Like?
Your world must come alive for you, the protagonist, and only then will it come alive for the reader as well. It takes the reader somewhere else, gives him the feeling to be in another place. A story alive with details will be remembered. A surgeon's office and a glass of whiskey will do. Or a framed certificate that gathers dust behind the wedding photograph.

A story rips you from your home and shows you a different life. Make the setting complex so I can imagine myself there and yes, detailed, because details are what define a story. Describe it to me so when I close my eyes, I can see this room/garden/landscape as real. For more on details, read the article on 'Details in Writing'.

See it? Good. Then we can go on to CHARACTERS:

The big question here is 'who carries the story'? I'll write an article about characters as well. Later.

Who is this person? I'm not asking for stuff like you might find in a character questionary (colour of hair and eyes, likes/dislikes, and friendships), but more character-defining questions:
  • Opinions, attitudes, frustrations, and values
  • Principles (strong conscious values that are not to be compromised)
  • Core beliefs (what is the truth the protagonists believes without examination, often something unconscious, ties in with his past and background)
  • Greatest fear (what makes your protagonist vulnerable, defined by past and background)
  • Self-Lie (what he doesn't accept about himself)
  • Facade and Self-image (the image he's presenting to the world)
A three-dimensional character has all or most of the above, and it gives you the opportunity to make the plot a personal challenge to them.

Your characters all want something, fight for something. And what your protagonist unconsciously fights for is the Spiritual Dramatic Goal. The protagonist can have any number of personal stakes, but what he yearns for but can't admit carries the story.

However, your protagonist doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are secondary characters who may help or hinder him. What would a secondary character’s life look like without the protagonist? Consider how each of them stands to the protagonist. What do they like, what do they hate about each other? Even the best friendship is fraught with misunderstandings and small conflicts.

And even beside other people, your protagonist has had a life growing up before your story, and he has memories that are associated with a certain stone that fits neatly in the palm of his hand, or the smell of freshly baked bread. Include these small details in your story and it'll be the better for it, because they matter to your protagonist. Don't let him go through the world as a bystander.

Your world changes the protagonist, and great people shouldn't leave the world unchanged. We're writing about great people aren't we? Of course we are. Whether your protagonist lives a quiet life in the suburbs or is the manager of an international company, everyone has a story to tell. Even the smallest and most insignificant of your characters can enrich the lives of your readers.

The last thing I want to talk about is PLOT. I'll stay away from structure (three-act or whatever because that's a big topic and beyond the scope of this article), but just some thoughts here:

Plot is what happens when the protagonist goes through the story and leaves mayhem in his wake. Or when the story happens to the protagonist and again mayhem results (but your protagonist should get perceived as active, not passive). Be careful with chances because when they happen too often, it takes away from the reality of the story. How often in real life do you get a lucky break? Exactly. Everything in your story should be linked by either deed or thought in action and reaction. Check out the related article on 'Paragraphs and Pacing'.

It's not all one plot either: You can employ ever smaller subplots that trigger the breakdown. With every obstacle your protagonist encounters, his temper will rise, like a boiling kettle. The trigger for the breakdown at the climax can be something as insignificant as a leaking faucet. Bonus points if that's a symbol of your protagonists unconscious self-lie. Imagine a cascade: Not only a big stone tumbling down the mountainside is a problem, but the smaller ones accompanying it grow into a landslide until they level a village.

And finally, what is the plot goal, the Major Dramatic Question? What are the Public Stakes? What happens when the protagonist fails to the world...
(~8 Minute Read)

Writers, whether for scripts or other fiction, make a lot of mistakes with depicting military members. Sometimes to the point that it gets so obnoxiously cliché or romanticized that it is hard to watch or read. We’ve all seen the Army private going through the ‘coming-of-age’ to callousness in killing. Or some Tom Cruise flyboy doing whatever the Hell he wants in a jet with only a slap on the wrist and some wildly plot armored circumstance to make his actions necessary. They are laughable at best, cringe inducing at worst. They are about as tired as is tolerable and it is time to look at remodeling the stock of these characters.

You know you have a real problem when Wikipedia has a stock list of these characters.

This list has been robbed from so heavily that it has become pervasive in public thought over the military members themselves. One would think that to be an enormous problem. I think it poses quite a bit of opportunity.

Everyone knows battles in war movies and novels. Warzones and firefights are mechanical in writing. The reader realizes the strain and tension of their beloved MC pinned by some bunker to a fate unknown. But they can also see you still have 200 pages left in your book, so the character probably will be just fine. That’s tension lost, and at that point you’re just going through the motions that will likely resolve in a few friendly deaths for drama and the struggle main character dealing with the pain. Yeah, yeah…been there, done that. How about we try something a lot different.

Let’s write a story that’s main focus isn’t guns blazing with R. Lee Ermey articulating obscenities in the background. Let’s look at building the military member as a dynamic character. The opportunity we can find is in depicting them as the odd sub-culture that they really are. So, here is a list of what to look for when creating these characters to prevent you from feeding the Hollywood cliché machine.

1). Military Culture is its Own Animal.

First, let’s kill something that has been rolling around for a while from article writers that just doesn’t sit well with me: military members are just people. Sorry friends, they really really aren’t. They come in as regular people, likely a bit on the patriotic side. But when they get through the grind of basic or bootcamp and enter the world of the larger military, they are forever changed. Not into a machine, but into something a bit outside the mainstream.

What most people miss is that the American military is a conglomeration of cultures formed into an amorphous mass that the government tries the form fit into their own box but fails.

Complicated? You're right.

Think of it in a simpler way. How about you take a couple of military members that have been in for a while, we’ll say an always-in-boots Texan, a New Yorker who says “Facts B” and “Dead-ass” every five minutes, and a former gang member from LA trying to recant through religion. Next, we’ll have those three training a boot from Minnesota who spent his weekends boating and fishing competitively. They’ll mold that guy over time into a boot wearing, “dead-ass” speaking, church on Sunday attending punk who still boats and fishes any weekend he gets the chance. Stick all these cultures in a room every day for long hours on end, they’ll meld.

Now, I’m sure you’re saying boot camp is supposed to break that down and build them up with specific values. You’re right, it is supposed to. In some respects, it is successful. It will instill a fear of authoritarian retribution, a toughness in spirit that let’s them work through immense physical stress, and a commitment to each other. But it doesn’t turn them into the order following machine, and it does quite a number on their mental health. We’ll get to the comedy of that, because it is at the heart of military sub-culture.

When you’re attempting to develop such a character, base the character’s actions on where they came from first and foremost. What that means is that they had goals and lives before the military that led up to that point. And as far as I’ve seen, those goals were rarely just to get signed up for the military first. Maybe it is different on the officer side, but from an enlisted perspective they usually ended up there from other parts of their lives not working out. In fiction, these goals don’t need to be directly said and set in the writing, but they can be the groundwork behind the character’s decision-making processes.

To effectively start writing a military character, set their background in the non-military environment. Sure, some do want to join with all their heart, but write to yourself why that is. What makes them so adamant about subjecting themselves to that sort of hardship for so long? And keep in mind, most kids who spend all primary and secondary school in junior military programs get to bootcamp and drop out. It never is what they expected it to be.

When you’ve got who they are before the military set, think of who they encountered daily after they’ve been in. This determines a good portion of what their military personality will be.

2). Their Comedy is Incredibly Dark, with Good Reason.

No. The reason is not the threat of death. At least not in peace time. It’s the understanding of the constant misery that comes with the job and knowing how much longer they have left to endure it. Four or five years for an initial contract is actually a pretty long time. They make it through boot camp and the absolute irritation of those places and find they still have most of that time left.

Think of that. One to three months of absolute misery and irritation in initial training, then coming out to a greater military service to find that everyone finds them utterly worthless. If you’re looking for self-esteem growth, you won’t find it there.

So, they drink oftentimes, and make a whole lot of bad decisions. Then they drink some more. Those bad decisions make for their best comedy. Narcissism and masochism are staples in military humor.

Take for example a hungover boot who forgets his tools out on the flight line for the third time that week. Queue an ass chewing from higher, which always brings joy to everyone else. Then comes a laundry list of painful tasks for said boot to slave over to the point of crying and failure throughout the day. Everyone will likely watch, setting out lawn furniture in Okinawa to see the poor bastard soaked sweat running from jet to jet, stumbling across the airfield in delirium. They’ll remember their own moments of this pain and love it.

Then they’ll all get together that night and drink it away as a family, joking and telling stories of their own moments.

Self-deprecation becomes the standard as they endure the struggle. That struggle they come to love. It’s a downward spiral of drinking and smoking into oblivion day-to-day, only living for the chance to persevere over the pain next day. They know most the tasks they’re doing are just training exercises that don’t matter. Doing all these incredible feats of endurance and long hours, sometimes seven days a week, for something that likely will be meaningless.

It leads to recklessness on unheard of levels.

In your writing, this means a number of things for the character’s development. They are very likely to be a bit offensive in their language unless they have good reason not to be. The sarcasm in humor is damn near constant, to the point that people can speak entirely in sarcastic comments like “Best day of my life!” and have everyone know immediately that they mean the opposite. The dialogue is mostly joking, hiding a lot behind the words they say. Depending on first person or third perspective, the pain of the characters is often hidden, fissuring at critical times but sutured easily through this sort of dark humor.

Spend less time with the buddy-buddy aspects of the military speech and more with the violent and crass in-fighting and joking. It’s a difficult thing to understand, I know, but the military tends to work in opposites regarding emotional response. A great reference for understanding this is the series Generation Kill. It is set during war time, but it displays military humor very close to how it is.

3). Military members all have specific jobs.

On to something a bit more particular. And also done wrong so so so often. Every military member has a specific job they were essentially ‘hired’ for.

They are coded and a part of their career the entire enlistment. An AC-130 turbo-prop engine mechanic is only an AC-130 engine mechanic. A pilot of an F-18 is a pilot of only an F-18. You get the picture, I’m sure. Unless your character is in the Marine Corps, which gets a minor amount of infantry training before setting out on their real job, they are basically hired to do only that job. It’s like working for any company in...
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