Write2Ignite’s Writing Fiction Master Class is coming up Sept. 19! In just two weeks, author Joyce Moyer Hostetter will be presenting three sessions to help attendees learn more about fiction writing. Plus, the Write2Ignite team will be leading three workshops to help you apply the skills you learn during Hostetter’s sessions.
Last year, I had the joy of attending the Write2Ignite Conference at North Greenville University with my mom. We loved meeting other writers and hearing from the lineup of speakers! While I’m sad that we aren’t able to meet in person this year, there are some benefits to this Master Class being on Zoom.
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 email@example.com
TIP #2Don’t interpret literally what is supposed to be understood metaphorically.
Taking figurative language literally is a problem that leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Does the photo above depict sunshine or shadow? A literal book title based on this image might be Sunshine on the Pages or Shadows on the Pages [When Grandpa Reads]. A nonfiction book about sunshine and shadows could take this literal approach.
On the other hand, metaphorical application of either title in a fictional story might focus on various scenarios. A thunderstorm might frighten the children, and Grandpa’s reading helps calm them down until the sun comes out. Or Grandpa reads a scary story that makes them imagine being in a dark cave or forest. Suddenly, light appears – but how? who? why?
Sunshine and shadows represent different meanings in the fictional stories. So looking only for literal shadow or sunlight in these stories might prevent children from recognizing the actual message. The light and dark interplay reflect family closeness and connections, security and trust, or imagination and emotions.
Examples of metaphorical interpretation and literal misunderstanding in children’s books.
The character “Amelia Bedelia” in Peggy Parrish’s children’s books is a classic example of someone who takes EVERYTHING literally. If her employer tells her to “plant the bulbs,” she’ll have a row of planters with light bulbs instead of flower bulbs in them. If she is told to “draw the drapes,” she sits in front of them with a drawing pad instead of pulling the cords to close them. You can imagine what she does when she’s told to “pitch the tent.”
In The BerenstainBears and the Trouble with Money, Sister and Brother Bear picture a tree with dollar bills hanging all over it when Papa complains that they “must think money grows on trees!” The cubs learn to recognize figures of speech (often, associating them with their parents’ lectures). But they also learn that figures of speech can represent true and positive experiences.
Understanding biblical metaphors
Figures of speech provide visual or other sensory cues. These connect memory and emotions to help us recognize a situation’s true significance. When the prophet Nathan describes a rich man who selfishly takes a poor neighbor’s one ewe lamb instead of a sheep from his own large flock, King David is enraged at that man’s guilt. Then, Nathan drops the metaphor and reveals, “You are the man.” In that moment, David understands that God is confronting him with the deadly consequences of the sin he had tried to conceal. He repents, confesses, and prays for God to restore the fellowship David had broken. (2 Sa. 12, Ps. 51)
When Jesus calls Himself “the true vine” and His Father “the vine dresser,” the extended metaphor describes different outcomes for branches that bear or do not bear fruit (John 15:1 – 8). Clear interpretation (v. 5- 6) identifies “branches” as people who claim to follow Him. Comparing the gospel to plants, or evangelism to farming, occurs in numerous Old and New Testament passages. In a farming culture, these metaphors related to familiar scenes and processes the audience would recognize. The Bible also uses other metaphorical examples to deliver messages people need to hear. These include animals, weather, business and finance, construction, relationships and celebrations, daily work, even dirt and decay!
Where do we encounter figures of speech?
Metaphorical language occurs everywhere in daily conversation, activities, news reports, advertisements, hobbies, and entertainment like books, board games, or media. On social media, we’re constantly exposed to figures of speech (and often, disputes related to interpreting them).
How do we incorporate figurative language into stories and activities for children? Of course, we want to ground their understanding of literal meanings, but we also need to help them understand different uses of language.
An article about birds, or a story about a child finding and collecting bird feathers, will include facts about how feathers help birds. Waterproof coating, maneuvering and flight, or insulation from heat and cold are all parts of feather design. Writers may describe feathers’ size, colors, or design patterns.
A Bible story retelling that features birds, whether Noah’s raven and dove, or the ravens which fed Elijah, will focus on the literal people and events. [See an excellent example in https://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/elijah-and-the-ravens/ ] But birds also have great symbolic meaning in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 says “They that wait upon the Lord shall . . . mount up with wings like eagles . . . “ We want kids to understand that God gives endurance like the eagle’s, not to think they can literally sprout wings, jump off a roof, and fly.
If we ask a teen to “break down” a piece of furniture, intending to store it in a more compact space, there’s a chance of misunderstanding that metaphorical instruction. What if, in their excitement at the chance to destroy something (think DEMOLITION instead of “taking apart”), they literally smash and destroy it? Yes, this has actually happened to me (name withheld to protect the guilty). After a shocked reaction, I recognized my mistake in choosing an expression that could be misconstrued. As a result, I had to say goodbye to a favorite antique chair that I just wanted to fit into a smaller space for transportation.
Are we careful to distinguish our own uses of literal and metaphorical language? Do we avoid confusion in our word choices, without sacrificing word variety or linguistic richness? Depending on the age of our target audience, do we provide clear definitions without over-explaining? Do we use effective comparisons, as Jesus did, with animals, objects, or situations readers can recognize and relate to? Can our stories deliver lessons without always spelling out “the moral of the story”?
Do you have questions about metaphorical and literal language? What are you favorite figures of speech? Do you use figures of speech in your writing for children/YA? Do you have a story about literally interpreting a metaphor? Comment below, on social media, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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!
Some stories — even if written during a different time — are applicable to every generation of teens because they help with interpreting culture.
First published in 1967, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, has inspired readers for more than 50 years. Hinton, just fifteen years old when she began writing the book, was inspired by her high school experience.
“Looking back, I realize how important it was to me to have another life at that time. To be someone else,” Hinton wrote in the introduction to the novel’s platinum edition. “To deal with problems I had to face, and write my way to some sort of understanding and coping. … I desperately wanted something to read that dealt realistically with teenage life.”
As one of the first novels to be labeled a young adult novel, The Outsiders received (and continues to receive) backlash because of its reference to gang violence, underage drinking and smoking, strong language/slang, and portrayal of dysfunctional families. However, this novel proves to be a paradox, as it is simultaneously banned from school libraries and used in English classrooms across the country.
First edition of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders focuses on main character Ponyboy (Pony) Curtis, a fourteen-year-old orphan growing up as a “greaser” — named for their greasy hair — in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Throughout the book, Pony struggles to find his place in a world divided by class. As greasers, Pony, his brothers, and his friends struggle to make ends meet and often find themselves at war with Socs — wealthier teens from the other side of town.
Keep in mind that Hinton wrote this book in an effort to “write (her) way to some sort of understanding and coping” with what was happening in her own life. Published when she was just seventeen, The Outsiders is not an adult’s interpretation of teen life in the ‘60s — it is one teen’s attempt to make sense of the world around her.
I first read Hinton’s book when I was a teenager, around fifteen or sixteen. Up to that point, I’d mostly read Christian fiction, books assigned to me in school, and dystopian fiction (a popular genre in the early 2010s). The Outsiders impacted me in a different way than anything I’d ever read before because it was honest; Hinton didn’t shy away from difficult topics like domestic abuse and classism.
Hinton’s rawness and ability to face difficult topics head-on inspired much of my writing as a teen; writing about my world helped me cope, just as writing The Outsiders helped Hinton.
I’ve been thinking about this book for the past decade, wondering why it impacted me the way it did, and I think it boils down to culture.
“While it is not strictly true to say that fundamentalist (Christians) ‘condemned culture,’ full stop, perhaps it is fair to say that their attitude toward culture — their basic posture — was one of suspicion and condemnation toward any human activity not explicitly justified on biblical grounds and engaged in by fully converted Christians,” Andy Crouch wrote in his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.
This statement, along with an entire chapter examining fundamentalist Christianity’s posture toward culture, made me realize something: many fundamentalist Christians are quick to condemn anything not mentioned as holy in scripture — myself included.
Culture, for many Christians, is viewed as something that you can remove yourself from. Derived from a passage from John 17, the belief that Christians should be in the world, but not of the world is often interpreted as meaning Christians should not engage with culture. Later in John 17, Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
Executive Editor of desiringGod.org David Mathis suggests that this phrase should be interpreted as Christians being sent into the world with a mission rather than “being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.”
We cannot hide from culture — it is all around us, whether we choose to actively participate in certain activities or not. Hinton didn’t participate in gang fights or underage drinking and smoking as a teen; she was dismayed by her observations of culture. Writing The Outsiders was her way of making sense of the world around her.
It is worth noting that while The Outsiders does include the unsavory parts of teen culture in 1960s Oklahoma, it also includes positive elements of redemption, friendship, and sacrifice. It interprets, not condones, culture.
So what does this mean for us as Christian writers of children’s and young adult literature? It means that we should write truthfully about what is happening in the world. As Christians, we are on a mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not heard it. The gospel helps us make sense of the world, but it does not take us away from the world — not until eternity. It gives us something to hope for and values to live by.
Every generation of teens will face different cultural trends that they need to make sense of. Right now, we’re seeing protests against police brutality, calls for racial equality and LGBTQ rights, a receding economy, and fear from the global COVID-19 pandemic, all during a tumultuous election year. How can you help your children, teenagers, or readers interpret current events?
As a writer, you have the challenge of interpreting culture through the lens of the gospel for your readers. Don’t shy away from the messy parts of life — teens experience a lot of things that they need help interpreting. Reading your work may be what they need to understand and cope with their worlds.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.