Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you'll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I'm not talking about that. No, what I'm talking about is Gaiman's willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you'll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it's totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, "He looks so natural there." Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that's actually a woman. Because, obviously, that's the way it's supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you'll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word "like" in descriptions. And, for most of us, that "like" is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I'm trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren't obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the "likes" that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone's seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what's easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won't leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn't ;) The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they're not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

6 comments:

  1. Jenny leapt like a fish bowl turtle with a fist-sized rock on his back. Thud. Squish.

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  2. Oh Oh Oh! Speaking of timing, Gaiman himself is talking about this subject - kind of - on his blog today. He just posted a piece on three of his own influences: Lewis, Tokien, and Chesterton.

    Check this out (italics mine): "Chesterton and Tolkien and Lewis were, as I’ve said, not the only writers I read between the ages of six and thirteen, but they were the authors I read over and over again; each of them played a part in building me. Without them, I cannot imagine that I would have become a writer, and certainly not a writer of fantastic fiction. I would not have understood that the best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming, nor that the majesty and the magic of belief and dreams could be a vital part of life and of writing."

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  3. His face was red as his father's hand after a spanking.

    The news fell on her like blue ice from an airplane.

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    Replies
    1. Deb, you totally need to use that second one in a story/book. Fantabulous!

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  4. Whenever I think about stuff like this I always think about this class I had when we talked about literary metaphors, I think the term was. That is to say metaphors with significance inside the framework of the story. So the red sweater example you've got there makes sense in a story where the dude has a red sweater and he has a touch-and-go relationship with the person from whence it arrived. It wouldn't work in a story without these thingies.

    More about this elsewhere, I think.

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  5. You've seen Gaiman in person???

    Sorry, what was the rest of this post about?

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