Category: Skills Page 1 of 2

5 Tips for Using Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part V (conclusion): Always Remember Context

  TIP #5 Use context to recognize, understand, and interpret literal and metaphorical language.

Historical, social, cultural, and biblical contexts are essential for understanding literal and metaphorical elements in speech and writing. Accurate understanding should come before interpretation!

A cropped photo automatically demands interpretation, zeroing in on details the user wants to emphasize while excluding others. In a close-up of young children searching the ground, viewers might wonder what they’re doing, Is someone making them work? Have they lost something?

contrast to cropped image

The full view shows a pumpkin patch, revealing that what could have been a scene for concern is actually a fun seasonal activity as they retrieve their rings for the Bottle Toss.

Interpretation occurs everywhere humans communicate, with family and friends, social media, neighborhood, church, or workplace.

Language and human experience are inextricably connected. Within a culture, people share many common reference points: history, background, arts, stories, symbols, celebrations, beliefs, and values. Yet misunderstandings or differences of opinion occur frequently. Some produce laughter, others confusion, hurt feelings, angry outbursts or even violence. The more important a subject, the more problematic differences of interpretation become.

EXAMPLES from children’s stories

You Are Special (Max Lucado) presents a message popular in many children’s books today, with one critical difference. Secular authors tell children their self-worth is based on themselves: “I’m enough as I am,” says Charlie Mackesy in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. While this sounds comforting, the claim has no underlying foundation. Lucado’s message based on Christian context adds the missing element: “You are special because I [God] made you. And I don’t make mistakes.”

In Ramona the Pest, Ramona’s mention of “The Dawnzer Lee Light” song seems ridiculous to her fifth-grade sister. But in kindergarten context, misunderstanding the words of the national anthem is perfectly understandable.

Connections to children’s real lives

Stories describing war offend some adults. Some reject historical acts or attitudes that don’t fit their 21st-century ideas. We may want to shelter children from harsh realities. The truth is that many children today face dysfunction, even violence. Stories about love, safety, and God’s provision are important. We also want to bring children the message that God is real, good, and loving even if their environment lacks love, safety, or basic needs.

Context is essential. Stories about ideal families, neighborhoods, or schools may not seem genuine to kids who experience conflicts in those settings. What is our audience for the specific message of a book or article? Real readers meet our characters and situations, hear their voices, and imagine themselves in these worlds. Our own imagination unconnected to real problems in kids’ worlds may offer escapism – but not the gospel truth calling us to be “in the world but not of the world.”

Writing, reading, and interpreting stories

Some teach that “art” has no right or wrong meaning – a song, poem, story, or picture means whatever the audience thinks or feels. In matters of personal taste, we may agree that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Leaving a work’s main theme open to any interpretation is another matter.

A story portraying sibling rivalry(or differences) may include unkind comments, plots to undermine one another, jealousy, adults’ favoritism, and trivial or tragic consequences. It might encourage readers to change their own attitudes and behavior even if an offending person does not. Missing context, however, might lead readers to negative interpretations:

  • leave the story believing only their sibling needs to change
  • side with one character against the other, wishing the story ended with revenge
  • miss applications to their own relationships from the culture or time period described
  • fail to empathize with characters, their motivations and feelings
  • miss hints that characters aware of problems, but not directly involved, may need to help
  • internalize and magnify pain portrayed in the story, to the point of harming themselves

[For stories with contrasting depictions of a brother’s attitude and actions toward an older or younger brother, see Much Bigger Than Martin, by Steven Kellogg and There’s Nothing to Do, by James Stevenson.]

Building context clues

We can’t control what readers take away from our stories. However, without preaching or too much “telling,” authors have tools for providing important context.

  • Characters (fictional or historical) may discover more about their own situation, finding old photos, records, previously unknown facts. Encourage readers to look beneath the surface.
  • Figurative language – narrative patterns, rhythms, sound devices, and tone — show connections between situations and characters’ feelings.
  • Symbols, analogies, and sensory description — promote awareness and empathy.
  • Irony, pathos, or humor — illustrate problems, encourage critical thinking, or help relieve tension
  • Literary, biblical, or cultural allusions — show constructive comparisons.
  • When misinterpretations or lies bring negative consequences, people and events let characters recognize their mistakes. Help readers examine their own interpretations.
  • Characters struggle with conscience as they say, do, or plot wrong responses. Help kids reconsider their own thoughts and actions.
  • Characters find “kindred spirits” who turn out to be false friends. Show the need to test before trusting.
  • Feelings of hopelessness (no choices or power) change as characters find resources like supportive people, faith in God, or hear another person’s story of escape.
  • Situations where restitution and reconciliation can begin may help readers consider these steps.
  • Characters who accept or reject good advice can remind kids to consider opinions besides their own.
  • Real or fictional stories featuring “lemons to lemonade” approaches can help kids look for options.

Series takeaway

Interpretation occurs in all forms of communication. To avoid misinterpreting (and responding wrongly), we should check our first assumptions about what another person has written or said. Do we understand correctly, or are we interpreting through a flawed lens of our own experiences without recognizing theirs? How can we improve our own interpretive skills as well as help young audiences we write for develop theirs? Writing and reading thrive as we become good communicators and audiences of literal and figurative language. We’d love to hear your stories of context and interpretation in comments below or on our social media: Facebook Write2Ignite Conference page, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

 

5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part IV

TIP#4 Recognize valid situations where literal and metaphorical meanings co-exist.

Statements may have both literal and metaphorical meanings without being ambiguous, equivocal, or contradictory.

Acronyms and acrostics, homonyms and antonyms, sound devices like alliteration and rhyme, humor, and even puns, function as literal content and also as helpful memory aids. Today’s icons, emoticons, GIFs, and memes combine devices like humor, symbol, and satire as communication shortcuts We see these in a wide variety of settings, from personal message to social media posts, advertising, and meetings.

Literal and metaphorical fusion in a class children’s tale

In Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin and his animal friends set off on an “expotition” [sic] to find the North Pole. It soon becomes apparent that they have no idea what this geographic “pole” literally is. They envision an object “stuck in the ground.” Amid this lighthearted fun at young children’s innocent misinterpretation, the group’s conclusion that they have, in fact, discovered the pole is not only a literal event but also a symbolic one.

When Roo falls into the river and is swept downstream, Pooh finds a long pole to use in rescuing him. Afterward, the characters decide that they’ve accomplished their mission. Placing the pole in the ground, they name it the “North Pole” and label it with a sign attributing its discovery to Pooh. Its metaphorical significance, however, is twofold. First, it affirms the value of Pooh’s quick thinking despite his often being characterized as a “bear of little brain.” Second, it commemorates the group’s efforts to save a friend in danger. The North Pole, a literal point of geographic orientation, also frequently symbolizes an ideal destination. A. A. Milne fuses both meanings in this delightful tale.

Biblical teaching models

Numerous examples of “both/and” meanings exist in Scripture. Referring to the history of God’s covenant with Abraham, Paul explains its spiritual significance. He uses the term “allegory” in Galatians 4 to show differences between law and grace, referring to both old and new covenants and “Jerusalem.”

In Ephesians 5, Paul describes God’s design for husband-wife relationships as literal practice, but also refers allegorically in v. 32 to “Christ and the Church.”

Claims and counter-claims often focus on interpretation of literal situations, but many lead also to metaphorical expression.

  • Pharisees called Jesus a literal commandment-breaker when He healed people on the Sabbath. He stated His actual purpose to fulfill God’s law and commandments.
  • The gospel encounter when Jesus insisted that children be allowed to come to Him leads to a teaching point. As these children come to God in faith, believers of all ages must recognize their need to seek God as their Father.
  • He supplies a bountiful catch of literal fish, and calls the disciples to become “fishers of men.”

Applying biblical models in children’s and YA stories

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress uses allegory to retell the gospel as a quest journey in his own culture’s terms. Each character, place, and event represents a biblical parallel, with Christian recognizing his overpowering guilt and need to get rid of his sin “burden” as family and neighbors oppose his determination to set off for the Celestial City. At each stop along the way, readers share Christian’s experiences and find a new insight into faith, hope, doubt, failure, or commitment.

Max Lucado uses allegorical and symbolic elements to deliver literal truth in You Are Special. Stars and dots represent good and bad opinions people express about others, including the main character, Punchinello. He meets Lucia, who is immune to these “stickers” because she ignores them, instead forming her opinion of herself directly from Eli, the Maker. Her name, which means “light,” symbolizes wisdom and freedom found in the truth of God’s Word.

Questions for writers

Do stories you read or write treat literal and metaphorical references as mutually exclusive? How can children’s and YA literature help readers recognize situations in which one person, event, or object that has actually existed or happened, has added significance? Do you have a favorite example? We welcome your comments or questions below, on social media, or email: info.write2ignite@gmail.com

 

 

5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part III

 

TIP #3 Don’t avoid tough literal situations by referring to them only as metaphors.

Taking literal language metaphorically is equally problematic.                        

Kids can be masters of metaphor. Ask “Didn’t I tell you not to play in the mud?” and they answer, “We weren’t playing, we were making a snack for the frogs.” One child, sent to the principal for throwing food in the cafeteria, protested, “I didn’t throw food. I catapulted it!”  Somehow, it sounds much better to use a word with visual and historical connections to ancient weaponry.

A lesson from children’s literature

Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, a Caldecott winner by Evaline Ness, shows the danger of misrepresenting literal and metaphorical language. Sam, the opening line tells us, is a girl who is prone to lying. Instead of acknowledging her mother’s death, she says her mother is a “mermaid.” She tells everyone her cat, Bangs, can talk. But the cruelest, and most dangerous lie is the one she tells repeatedly to Tom, the little friend who believes everything she says. He longs to see the baby kangaroo she tells him she has, and each day she sends him on a wild goose chase to find it in a park or other location in their seaside town.

Tom’s problem is that he takes every word Sam says literally. Sam’s problem is that she prefers living in the metaphorical world she creates instead of in the literal world. Her father calls this “moonshine” (yes, a metaphor) and warns her that she needs to distinguish “real from moonshine.” Not until Sam’s lie nearly causes Tom’s death does she realize the importance of literal truth. This story is a great tool to help children recognize problems caused by lying.

Examples from Scripture

The Bible cautions that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life “(2 Co. 3:6}. Yet God also confronted people who rationalized a way out of literally obeying His Word. The tithe (10% of earnings are God’s) is a practice people easily find reasons to question. (God can’t really expect 10% of my income, can He? I need to pay my bills . . . ).

Jesus called out the Pharisees’ method for circumventing the commandment to “Honor your father and mother.” If they “dedicated” a resource (even herbs like mint and rue) to God, they subtracted it from their income for tithing AND funds available to care for aging parents. They called this LITERALLY complying with the commandments for giving and caring but their METAPHORICAL interpretation  produced the opposite of honoring and tithing.

The Parable of the Talents illustrates another metaphorical spin on literal words and acts. The man entrusted with only one talent does not invest it, as those given ten or five did, and return it to the master with interest. Instead, he buries it and says he’s giving back exactly what he had received. Why is the employer displeased? This employee claims literal compliance, but he has actually evaded the real command. Denying his responsibility to manage the money responsibly, he metaphorically shifts the literal assignment to “take care” of the owner’s property and replaces it with hoarding, as though both are equivalent. The master recognizes this employee’s dishonesty and calls him a “wicked servant.”

The right mix of literal and metaphorical

Like Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, anyone can fall into this sin of metaphorical word-twisting. Hoarding resources (time, money, possessions, labor) isn’t the same as being frugal and careful.

Imagination is one of God’s wonderful gifts, exercised in all kinds of art: visual, musical, theatrical, and literary. But changing literal truth into rhetorical equivocation or metaphor is different from using metaphorical language to convey truth. Some deny biblical miracles by explaining them away as metaphors. God often uses natural phenomena to bring about His will. However, accepting God’s acts only when they fit literal “rules” observed in nature, substitutes human reason for God’s, and rejects His divine attributes.

Do adults or children ever misuse language in your stories? Do they encounter others who use words carelessly or deceptively? What consequences follow, and how do readers and characters discover the need to distinguish appropriate literal and metaphorical words? Comment below, on Write2Ignite social media, or email info.write2ignite@gmail.com

Reading With My Mom

I’ve been working from home for 21 weeks. This prolonged period of isolation has given me time to reflect on happier times in life: adventures and excitement in college, friendships forged in high school, and time spent reading with my mom as a child.

Those were the good days — Mom reading to me and my brother as we snuggled up in my parents’ king-size bed, piled high with pillows and blankets.

Though we were capable of reading titles like Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children and Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, we preferred to have Mom read them to us. We’d go to the local used bookstore weekly to find new titles and were excited to find the numbers missing from our collection.

9 Tips for Writing Unforgettable Characters

According to Elaine Marie Alphin (Creating Characters Kids Will Love p. 2)

“Kids read because a magical closeness springs up between them and the characters in books and stories—the same magical closeness I felt as a child. They read because a writer has brought a character to life on the page for them.”

Every great children’s story pivots around a character who has a problem, a desire or a need. Through the events and conflicts of the story this character, by personal investment and volition, solves that problem, gains that desire (or loses it) or meets that need. In doing so, that character changes, grows or learns something.
So, how DO we create memorable characters?

For me, every story begins with the main character. I’ll be thinking “what ifs” and a character will parachute into my head. This usually gets me pretty excited! I get a rough idea of what’s going to happen to this character and how they are going to react.

Next, I get to know that character really well. Some writers do this on paper or screen. I do it mentally for picture books. I can actually “see” the character. That picture is sometimes sketchy. I learn more and more about that character as I write the story.

I try to keep the following in mind with my characters.

 

1. Is this person acting and reacting in realistic ways?
Is this really how a kid this age would think? Talk? Act? React to this situation? If not, ask kids that age how they would act or react. Or watch popular kid’s shows on TV. Or observe kids at a park, library, mall. (Careful! No stalking!)

2. Does this character have flaws?
If so, GOOD! Nobody is perfect. Do these flaws affect how they will react further down the story line? Readers can’t relate to a character who never gets in trouble, never has a mean thought, never acts sneaky, never laughs at someone else’s mistakes. If a character or their life is all good, there’s no story for me to write. My character must have room to grow in the story. Also, does my bad guy have at least one redeeming trait? One tiny grain of goodness in their soul?

3. Have I created enough CONFLICT in this kid’s life or situation?
Here is my personal nemesis. I hate conflict! But NO CONFLICT means NO STORY. Remember the elements of story? Conflicts, problems, issues, sticky situations are the blood and bone of story. No problems to face, to overcome??? YAWN!

4. Is this character someone my readers will love, or maybe hate? Can they feel for them?
If readers don’t identify with or connect with a character either positively or negatively they won’t keep reading the story.

5. Is this character bigger-than-life? Sometimes my characters start with someone I know personally, or someone I see out in public. Are they cute? Make them cuter. Funny? Make them funnier. Sneaky? Make them sneakier. EXAGGERATION, ABSURDITY, PREPOSTEROUSNESS (Yes, that is a real word.) make readers laugh and cry, tremble and shriek with your characters. And it makes them identify with your characters because they know that they themselves are not perfect either.

6. Is this character well-rounded in the story, or one dimensional? Do I SHOW (not tell) how they think? How they act? How they feel? How they speak? Do they always say the same thing? Act exactly the same way? A character who doesn’t fluctuate or change isn’t acting human, and adds nothing to the story.

7. Are each of my characters distinctive? Does the way each of them speaks and acts instantly show my reader which character is in the scene? Can I write dialogue without tags so that readers can identify who is saying each line?

8. Does my main character have one primary trait that the story focuses on? Is their story about their courage? Their fear? Their loneliness? Their optimism? Deciding this gives me a good clue as to the theme of my story. Isolating the way my main character changes identifies the theme of the story.

9. Have I built motivation into this character? Is their need, desire or problem big enough to motivate them to do the things they must do to make the story great? If not, I need to change their personality or situation enough to drive them to go after their goal.

A great story filled with action is fun to read. But if we want readers to ask for more, to keep reading the things we write, we must tell that story through amazing and unforgettable characters.

 

Now plop down in that desk chair and create someone who is unforgettable!

 

 

NEED MORE HELP?

Joyce Hostetter will be presenting on Creating Memorable Characters at our Master Class on September 19. You can find more information here. We hope to see you there!

 

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