Notes From Purgatory: Writing With Relativity


There are many factors to consider when composing a concise story with ample depth.  Choosing the right words during the writing process and cutting the fat when editing are certainly key, no doubt, but to really interweave a descriptive, multilayered story, an author must construct subtle references and allusions within the story itself.


Just as a comedian will reference an earlier punchline (called a “call-back”) for an unexpected laugh, the writer must use metaphors, motifs, and other word clues to reference different elements of a story.  A well-spun metaphor can subtly foreshadow upcoming conflicts or call back prior story points so that, when a story is reread, the reader is then able to pick up on these hints and, more often than not, has an enjoyable experience putting together the pieces that had previously been hidden.


In this way, the writer can construct a story that, on its basic level, is enjoyable.  With some well-placed references and allusions, however, the story can be enriched with hidden depth that opens into an entire network of secrets that were there all along.  The author is giving the reader the option of diving in if they want to commit the time.  If not, well, there’s always a great story to be read regardless of its depth, right?


As an example of this relativity, say I’m writing a ghost story about a family who sunk their last dime into a farmhouse that they later find to be haunted (original, right?).  The twist ending is that the family died in a nasty car wreck on moving day.  We can plant subtle hints to this ending with a variety of word choices and metaphoric descriptions.  Perhaps when the family pulls up to the house with the moving truck, we describe the scene thusly:


The kids, Todd and Emily, were the first out of the moving truck after their father had killed the engine.  They barely glanced up at the wide windows as they sprinted to the front door, both determined to get the bedroom in the attic.  As they went, Michael and his wife, Alice, stepped out into the smell of the harvest that seemed to pervade the entire county.  The aroma was hearty and made them forget the troubles they’d left behind in Kansas City.


“This is where we start our new life,” Michael said.  Alice flashed him her youthful grin before turning to their new house, both of them wondering just where their kids had gone.


Michael’s declaration, of course, is ironic considering they’re all dead by then, but the reader doesn’t know that because we haven’t really given anything away.  We were dropping subtle hints.  When the story is reread, however, the reader might pick up on the phrase “their father had killed the engine” or “start our new life” and think “Oh!  I see what you did there!”  And, really, the entire story will prove itself to be the family “forgetting the troubles they’d left behind” because, in essence, they’ve forgotten their troublesome deaths until the story comes full circle and they make their discovery.


See? Readers love those little nods and using such referencing proves how well an author truly knows his or her story.


In this vain, metaphors, similes, and other like modes of descriptions should relate to the story in some way.  If a writer used “the man was a mountain” in a medieval story about a rebellious clan of knights, there should probably be a reason otherwise the description seems out of place.  Is there an important mountain range in the story?  Is the element of earth featured?  Was the man a miner in his past life?  Every description should be relevant and relative and, most of all, subtle.


For the most part, try to give your readers doors instead of keys.  After all, even before a door is opened, a peek can be taken through its keyhole.

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