Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Prizes and Props - Objects that enhance your story

One way to bring a reader into a story is through specific objects. In film, you just have propmaster gin up an impressive Ark of the Covenant or a sled named Rosebud. In a novel, you need to imagine the item well, get the words right, and feature it in the right context. Before The Maltese Falcon was a film, Hammett had created the bird in his novel. Before film existed, Arthur needed to extract a sword from a stone.

When the object is central to the plot, it might be considered a prize. Prizes need to be described in ways that is clear enough to capture the imagination while still leaving out enough details so the reader can gain some ownership. Ideally, such an object will not be mundane. It will connect with myth as surely as the Holy Grail. Getting the words right means including materials, textures, and perhaps a sense of weight.

Oddly enough, the prize also needs to have good, strong, active verbs attached to it. Usually, this is connected with what the prize can do for whomever can capture it.

The context in which an object is presented is also vital to making it memorable. One tradition is to reveal a little bit at a time, but, as with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it may be that a mini-lecture of the history and properties would be needed.

INDY It all has to do with the Ark of the Covenant.
(The Army guys look mystified)
The chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.

Now it’s the Army men who are impressed. 

An Egyptian pharoah stole the Ark
from Jerusalem and took it back to the city of Tanis. A short time later, Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a year. But before that, the Pharoah had the Ark hidden away in a secret chamber called the Well of the Souls. Which is where the Staff of Ra comes in.

Indy moves to the blackboard and makes a quick sketch to give a rough idea of the system as he describes it. (And we get a glimpse of what an interesting and enthusiastic teacher he must be)

The timing has to be early enough so the readers are not frustrated but not before it would be interesting or understood to be important. As a writer, this is where the best choices for narration need to be made. The narration may need to take place in a fresh setting and it may need to be broken up in some way. In dialogue, arguments and confusion between characters can help you to avoid lumps and add turns that engage the reader.

What I call props are other things that are not at the center of the story but raise questions, identify characters, provide a clue, refocus attention (and, in a mystery, my legitimately mislead the reader), and make space more specific.

Props, in some way, draw attention to themselves. While they shouldn't overwhelm the story, they are meant to be noticed. The same aspects used to make a prize distinctive can be used to make props stand out. A few good props, handled with care, can add pop to a story as surely as a powerful metaphor, a poetic line of narration, and a memorable quip. And, like these other items in your literary bag of tricks, they need to be used with restraint and placed where they can enhance rather than distract from the story. 

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