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Archive for the ‘wordswordswords’ Category

concrete

Odd how some words just jump out at you when you least expect it. I came across the word concrete recently while reading and its context made me pause.

We talk about communicating in concrete terms, concrete images, concrete language. Hard, solid concrete, meant to take a pounding and retain the shape it was poured into. As opposed to vague or ethereal, when you fall upon the concrete it hits you hard. You would not confuse it for anything else.

In writing characters it becomes essential then to make them as concrete as possible, to mold them into form and make it impossible not t notice them. If they are to be remembered there can be nothing soft about them, not about their appearance, not about their manners, not about their thoughts. They can behave in fuzzy and confused ways, but all within the confines of their given shape.

When you insist on examples you are asking for the concrete to set. When you are looking for absolute proof you want it to be concrete when it arrives. No one asks for this clarification to come in the form of mushy asphalt.

But what is concrete?

By definition, concrete is a mixture of aggregate, cement, and water. Aggregate itself is just a mixture of course matter like slag and stone and sand. The cement that binds the aggregate is a powder that hardens as it dries after being mixed with water. The process is about as mysterious as making bricks from mud, but in creating characters we are creating them from this mud as well. We pull together specific traits of behavior, an aggregate of attributes if you will, and bind them within a physical concrete of appearance that, when fully-formed and hardened in the reader’s mind, become vividly certain.

These attributes (actions) and appearances (descriptions) are their skin and bones. Nouns and verbs, structured and hard-baked, these are what make characters concrete.

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If you’re an adult of a certain age there are advertising catchphrases that will resonate with you. They belong to that world of late-night direct-marketing infomercial that, in their heyday, could sell you both a product and goofball entertainment in 60 seconds or less. Inventor/entrepreneur Ron Popeil may have created the iconic gadgets from this era – beginning the Pocket Fisherman and a bottle cutter that turned wine bottles into goblets all the way up to the Showcase Rostisserie – but the advertising catchphrases that have become commonplace belong to The Ginsu Guys, Ed Valenti and Barry Beecher.

Isn’t that amazing?

I only learned about The Ginsu Guys recently in an article looking back on people we lost in 2012 which claimed Barry Beecher. It hadn’t occurred to me that a vast majority of these catchphrases almost instantly entered into our cultural memory so instantly that they seemed to have always been there, just dormant beneath the surface. It interests me as a writer because it speaks to this idea that we are all looking to tell a story so memorable, so instantly recognizable, that it spawns its own launchpad for ridicule and satire… and in a weird way, total respect.

But wait! There’s more!

In school, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to spout any of these catchphrases as a verbal rim shot in conversation. Sometimes said sarcastically, sometime in earnest, sometimes simply to have something to say, you never had to explain yourself when you tagged a conversation though sometimes you had to endure a withering glance you didn’t happen to be the alpha in your little group.

Act now and you’ll also get…

But what makes these phrases stick in the first place? It isn’t some new arrangement of words no one had ever thought before, or even the exuberance of the delivery, but a combination of word and image that underscores the best aspects of storytelling. Yes, storytelling. Because the ideal marriage of word and image is when two seemingly disparate elements combine to create something new. Granted, much what these commercials do is bad storytelling in that they both tell you what they are showing, but there is a strange synergy at work where neither element works without the other. Without the sound/words you are treated to images of a tortured knife hammered into a log then forced to slice a loaf of bread and then a ham. Without images you are told it can saw through a nail and then slice a pineapple. These claims seem both preposterous and absurd on their own, but when combined somehow they are elevated into something greater than the sum of their parts. Laughable, because no one would ever chop a tree down with a knife they were planning to next slice tomatoes with, astounding, because the knife does what they say it does. Isn’t that the hope of good writing, that it can show the improbable, the laughable, and yet still be memorable, new, astounding.

Not sold in stores!

This merging of storytelling and advertising, it’s all about selling something, isn’t it? Not just selling units or books, but about selling the consumer on the need to believe in what is being presented. If you don’t need a set of kitchen knives with a 50 year guarantee then no commercial is going to make you want to go out and buy some, but they do make you aware of the possibilities of what’s available in the world. Storytelling can, and should, do more of that, “selling” a world of irresistible possibilities that are impossible to forget.

Call now!

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