During a Q&A session after a panel discussion at the 2006 Texas Book Festival, I asked Janet Fitch (White Oleander) about the difference between literary fiction vs storytelling. Her initial answer was that literary writers cared more about their work. Since I self-identified as a storyteller who considered self-identified literary writers as somewhat pretentious, I was somewhat insulted. She used an analogy of lovingly devoting oneself to preparing a gourmet meal vs just getting food on the table.
With 14 years of perspective, slightly less defensive and marginally more reflective, I see her point. Especially after using Truby to do the heavy lifting of mining all the potential of the story to make it more powerful.
However, in my defense, starting with my first novel, I instinctively used symbols. I suspect this came from a lifelong history of reading obsessively and from growing up as a preacher’s kid, a world permeated with symbols.
- Welcome to Fred: The Mark, being the name of the main character and the birthmark/disfigurement of The Creature. Clothing and language as a marker of culture. The tree house aka Fortress of Solitude as refuge, a recurring theme throughout the series. The radio randomly bouncing between the Woodville country station and the Beaumont rock station as a symbol of Mark’s uneasy negotiation between two worlds, also a recurring symbol.
- Living with Fred: Transportation ala bike vs car, Vernon’s Pontiac, Darnell’s beat-up pickup, the Ford Falcon Mark drives off a bridge. The pagoda as a symbol of Parker’s conversion and loss of faith. Grappa as a symbol of Vernon’s lost innocence. Jake’s crossbow and underground lair.
- Postcards from Fred: Obviously (and retrospectively) the postcards as a symbol of Mark’s rocky journey through the confusing world of romantic relationships. Claire as a siren call to the counterculture.
- Escape from Fred: Photography as a symbol of Mark defaulting into life as an observer. The Captain as a symbol of the call to adventure. Mark hitchhiking to find a connection with a childhood friend as a pilgrimage to wholeness.
- Muffin Man: The most obvious symbol, the talking muffin, the meaning of which is left as an exercise for the reader. The sheriff’s modest house perched precariously on a ridge overlooking the constant reminder of his failure, the luxurious home of the judge his wife left him for. The poker games (very significant and highly choreographed for me by my resident expert, Norm). And of course, the 1964 1/2 red convertible Mustang.
The other novels also have their symbols. The difference is that post Truby, I’m more intentional about the use of symbols, But enough already. Let’s get to Truby and the current project.
Chapter 7: Symbols
Designing principle: Use the classic David vs Goliath story to show how a reclusive vagabond overcomes his nature to solve the murder of a childhood friend by exposing the crimes of the monied elite.
Theme line: It is the duty of the strong to defend the defenseless.
Story world: Urban dichotomy of downtown Austin between structures and green spaces, and the intersection of the two – homeless camps under overpasses, etc.
Symbol line: An equivalent of David’s five small stones. (Whatever that is. Now I have to integrate that into the timeline/plot. Reminiscent of using the stations of the cross as the structure for The Reluctant Saint.)
Symbolic characters: Defined by clothing and dwelling
- Jack: everyman attire, living rough
- Roger: flashy suits, expensive apartment
- Zoe: business formal, home on Ladybird Lake
- Bella: apron, diner
- Dan: judge’s robes, modest but expensive home
- Noel: detective suit, middle-class 3/2 2000 sq ft home in suburbs
Story symbol: Randall knife, from honor to dishonor to honor, show the symbol through the plot
World symbols: Nature vs civilization (green spaces vs city)
Action symbols: Food. Jack’s MRE vs Bella’s diner fare vs meals of the rich (Dan and Zoe) and the corrupt (Roger) vs the righteous (Noel, spartan, ascetic).
Object symbols: Randall knife, five smooth stones
Chart symbols across the plot line
Since I don’t know the plot line yet, I skipped over this.