Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TAKING CHARGE OF COLOR: The Beauty of the Leash

(NOTE: Well Delilah was a woman fine and fair / She had good looks and coal black hair / Delilah, she came to Samson’s mind / The first he saw this woman that looked so fine / Delilah, she set down on Samson’s knee / Said tell me where your strength lies if you please / She spoke so kind, she talked so fair / ‘Till Samson said “Delilah, you can cut off my hair / You can shave my head, clean as my hand / And my strength ‘come as natural as any a man” / If I had my way / If I had my way in this wicked world / If I had my way / I would tear this old building down)

A story is more than a collection of sentences arranged on the page. It must include the reader, make them experience what goes on between the characters, or when using first person, be the character. How this is done is by choosing the right word or phrase; piling on adjectives is as useless as buying dance shoes for a mollusk. A snail remains a snail regardless of how much encouragement it is given.

What is the punch and bounce that makes writing lively? This is called color. Editors and writing teachers ask for more color with comments in margins of manuscripts, and mean more description. A wall can be a white wall, a brown wall, a broken plaster wall, or glass brick wall. Other comments will follow if the specifics of the wall miss reflecting the scene, characters, and action.


The Crayola box is far from empty. Sitting in front with a sharp point is your friend the metaphor. These can be dismal, like John Bunyan’s “the slough of despond,” and also slip into the cheery, “happy as a clam.” (This has nothing to do with the mollusk mentioned above; clams are bivalves and very tasty when steamed with garlic and white wine. Besides, the phrase, “as useless as,” makes this an analogy instead of a metaphor. ) Metaphors can make the abstract more concrete, as in “Bernice tumbled off the mountain of Ira’s indifference.” To only say he was indifferent makes the interrelation of the characters abstract. Using a metaphor makes the emotional state concrete, gives a sense of striving to overcome this obstacle, and shows the wreckage caused by pursuing this haughty twit.

One metaphor in one paragraph is enough. When the following paragraph has a sentence like, “The cold war between Bernice and Ira soon escalated into mutually assured destruction,” this obscures the relationship between the two and the story dissolves into a collection of nifty lines with other stuff in between that is forgotten. Using strong metaphors calls for a surgeon’s touch, placing them right where they need to be, and when.

Think of the metaphor as an active analogy where you take out the boring “as” and make the thing real. Since metaphors are figures of speech there are divisions to make it easier on academics and those without a stable relationship. Allegory is an extended metaphor that illuminates an important part of the subject. Catachresis is a mixed metaphor used on purpose. The parable is an extended metaphor that comes off as an anecdote and teaches a moral lesson for those who need the lesson or a slathering of unfamiliar morality.


No mention of metaphors is complete without a tip of the hat and nod and wink to poet and raconteur Jonathan Williams. He created the four words per line form in the mid-1980s and below is an excerpt from his “Poem Beginning with Five Words by Gerard Manley Hopkins.” We miss you, Jonathan. Think of what you could do with Michelle Bachmann.

beauty’s what bites you
on the butt and
don't leave a hickey
on monday morning we
must be kind to
jesse helms you must
brake for senior republican
senators from north carolina


During uncertain economic times, the best and most inexpensive companion is a book. No restaurant reservations, no taxi fares, and no regrets. Better than a book is a book about books, especially publishing them. Jump and run to the nearest independent bookstore for one copy, or several, of THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH (Cypress House, $13.95). Inside are thrills and chills without the unsightly parade of zombies, vampires, and Republicans. Online readers can click over to www.indiebound.com for books when and how they want.

NEXT: De-worming Makes New Friends

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