Monday, August 26, 2013

Tool # 38: Prefer archetypes to stereotypes.

. . . Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.

Today I am featuring another chapter tidbit from Roy Peter Clark's book, "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer," published by Little, Brown and Company. You can find a copy here.

     Good writers strive for originality, and they can achieve it by standing on a foundation of narrative archetypes, a set of story expectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled in novel ways, on behalf of the reader.  Examples include:

     The journey there and back
     Winning the prize
     Winning or losing the loved one
     Loss and restoration
     The blessing becoming the curse
     Overcoming obstacles
     The wasteland restored 
     Rising from the ashes
     The ugly duckling
     The emperor has no clothes
     Descent into the underworld

My high school English teacher, Father Bernard Horst, taught me two important lessons about such archetypes.  First, he said, if a wall appears in a story, chances are it's "more than just a wall."  But, he was quick to add, when it comes to powerful writing, a symbol need not be a cymbal.  Subtlety is a writer's virtue.

     "The Dead," by Irish author James Joyce, is the take of a married man named Gabriel who learns at a holiday party that his wife is haunted by the memory of a young man.  Years earlier, Michael Furey had died for her love.  Countless times I have read the final paragraph:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey laid buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

When I first read that paragraph in college, it struck me with a force that transcended its literal meaning.  It took me years to recognize the rich texture of its symbolic iconography: the names of the archangels Gabriel and Michael; the instruments of Christ's passion ("crosses", "spears," and "thorns"); the evocation of the last days ("fall," "descent," "living and dead").  The fact that these were veiled from my first view is a virtue of the story, not a vice.  It means that Joyce did not turn symbols into cymbals.

His last words of advice?  "Use archetypes.  Don't let them use you."

Now, on to the WORKSHOP:

Discuss Father Horst's advice: a symbol need not be a cymbal.  Can you find a symbol in your work?  Is it a cymbal?

Next week: Write towards an ending. . .


  1. That's a great way to remember it, a symbol need not be a cymbal. I usually write with subtlety but find it discouraging when certain readers ask me to make my point in a more obvious way. As a reader I hate being beaten over the head with an idea and try to avoid it in my own writing. But when getting critiques, I certainly get mixed signals. Frustrating.

    1. In the end, its what you feel comfortable with, I'm convinced, Ruth. Listening to too many voices is frustrating!

  2. Replies
    1. I am so glad they are helpful, Nina! Thanks for stopping by. . .


I would love to have you comment...thanks!

Journey into the Promised Land

Journey into the Promised Land
From Egypt to Israel