Friday, February 13, 2009

Workshop: The role of language and culture in stories

I'm noticing as I look at the material here that I'm making a lot of comments about potential ways that language can influence the stories. In some cases I'm getting a reaction of "wow," and in others I'm getting "well, that doesn't work because my story has to do this."

Let me be clear: I don't expect you all to change your stories to make them about language and culture. On the other hand, language and culture can give some unexpected benefits to just about any story, and that's what I'm looking for here. Possibilities. Since language and culture are such broad areas, in many cases I'm having to feel around your descriptions of your stories, to get a better idea of where I can be of most help. So I appreciate all of your cooperation in answering questions on the workshop. Thank you.

Now I'd like to discuss some different kinds of places where language and culture can serve to enhance stories. If you read this and any element resonates with you - particularly if it's something I haven't detected or mentioned in your comments to this point - do let me know.

1. Premise
I think of premise as the basic set of assumptions that a reader needs to accept in order for a story to work. For any story (like mine, for example) that has aliens in it, the existence of some kind of alien language forms a critical part of the premise. The story itself may or may not depend on the nature of this language, but if the language sticks out as unrealistic or somehow physically or culturally impossible, that will make it difficult for readers to accept any kind of story placed in that context. The questions I've asked about channel (auditory versus visual) and about linguistic history in David's arcati world are premise-level questions.

2. Plot
This is "what happens" in the story. Language and culture influence the plot of a story if the story is specifically about language difficulty, or if language difficulty or cultural misunderstanding cause a distinct change in events at any point in the story. My own stories involve this stuff all the time. I know David has plans in this area, and I think this may also apply to K's story at certain points, with misunderstandings of the Terran versus Eyan cultures.

3. Setting
In this case I'm not talking about the physical setting, but the cultural and linguistic setting. This is something that I believe is applicable to every story. Quite often it's done well on gut feel alone, without any kind of analysis. Look for any way in which the people in your story are divided into types, and there you'll find a great opportunity to explore language and culture. This doesn't just mean how the different groups speak. It also means how they are described by others, and how they describe others; what expectations are held for them and how those expectations are explained; how their role and values are judged. This is something I've definitely seen in pyraxis' rsakk story, in K's story of Dalkans and Eyans and Terrans and how these groups perceive appropriate behavior, in Catreona's story of Plague Children and the respect with which they expect to be treated, and in wordjinn's families of djinn with their different values. I'm not sure how deeply David's gone into the divisions between the arcati, but I know the groups are there, with the guilds etc. So in this area everyone can dig in; one of the things that can help you to do that is character.

4. Character
A character is a wonderful tool for language and culture building in part because of point of view. If you want to learn about how some group of people regards the others around it, experiment with writing the answers to a set of questions from the point of view of one of the members of that group. Trying to take a point of view often makes it easier to explore the answers to language and culture questions, and value judgment questions. How does your character talk about people he or she respects? Hates? Every character has a personal history, and a personal culture (even aliens or fantasy characters without a known group from our world); these things influence character behavior and judgment in every circumstance.

5. Dialogue
By dialogue I mean how your characters talk. Do you want them to speak in British dialect? Should they speak with an accent that is indicated by alternate spellings of known words? Do they use a lot of slang? If you consider that they are speaking a foreign (usually their own) language, do you want to have that reflected at all in the way their English dialogue is written? If they're communicating on a channel that isn't auditory, such as empathic or telepathic or pheremonal signals, what information are they conveying by that means and how do you want to express that in English?

6. Voice
This one means narrator voice - the language of the voice telling the story. Whether you've got a story told in first or third person, the narrator has an identity, and that identity is indicated by the words you use to tell the story. The narrator can be an epic storyteller, or one of the characters considering his or life retrospectively, or one of the characters experiencing the story in the moment; as a character (invisible or no), the narrator has his or her own culture that is reflected in language. This element can be tricky to step back from and work with, but if you ever really want to go whole hog with an alien point of view, for example, it can be invaluable.

So for my workshop participants, please look through this list and give me your thoughts on which areas you find most promising for your own stories. Play around with the possibilities in your head, or even create an alternate story experiment file and see what kind of impact on the storyline may result from language and culture changes. You might decide you don't want to change the existing details - but you might gain a different kind of insight into the story events, and discover a change that can enhance the story's impact without detracting from your overall intent.

More soon...

A note for wordjinn: I have some comments for you after reading your blog posting (thanks for that!), but I haven't managed to put them together quite yet. I'll try to post them for you in the next day or so. Thank you for your patience.


  1. Juliette, as always you make my thoughts bubble if not downright boil. Two things right off:

    I have two viewpoint characters - briefly three, actually. Haven't smoothed that wrinkle out yet. The point is, the story feels very different to me depending on whose viewpoint I'm writing it from. One is first person, that's the one I started with. Later, the second and third viewpoints entered, both nominally third person but tight beam, so to speak. The differences in my perception of the story and the world are subtle but definite depending on whose viewpoint i'm in. Since the tale is novella length already, inching towards novel length, a total rewrite in each viewpoint would be, uh, most daunting. But, I'll try doing certain key scenes from various viewpoints.

    Second, Bronte, one of the viewpoint characters, has a distinctive slang that he uses. One of his friends uses it as well, and I don't know who picked it up from whom or if it's generational, like how I say neat where a younger person would say awsome. I do know that Emma, a shut-in, picks up the slang from Bronte. Charlie does not use this slang. Not sure why not, but I've always had the vague impression it's because he's a few years older than Bronte. He does come from a different geographical region as well and, much as it troubles me to say it, a different class background. Not that this class difference makes any difference to them, you understand, or at least not to Bronte. Charlie is uneasy for a time. But, they soon become friends. It makes a difference to Emma's father though. He can't quite grock that Emma might regard Charlie as a friend. Again, all very complicated and subtle. Seems to me that's going in the right direction, isn't it?

  2. One other method of communication I have considered for the arcati is stolen from the humble Earth octopus - the ability to change skin coloration for either background-matching camoflague or for contrasting communication patterns.

    One reason I hadn't used it (yet) is because the Lord of Astrophysics is prejudiced against arcati with the "wrong" skin colour.

    Can you guess what skin colour Talioth is? :)

    So, if they can change their colours, that makes the Lord's prejudice even sillier. But maybe that's a good thing.

    The arcati have to have a skin colour that stays when they are not trying to communicate (or camoflague themselves), so the Lord can still judge others harshly because they are not the same colour as himself.

    And it can still work with the human-tech communication idea.

  3. And on culture - as it is doubtful that the arcati written language survived after all those books drowned, I've looked at one of the staples of Earth societies where literacy was the exception rather than the norm.

    Basically, to arcati, your word is your bond. To break your word is to be seen as a nagral (the dirtiest word in the arcati language, and Talioth's mother can't quite believe that her daughter knows that word), the legendary oathbreakers who angered the gods and caused the destruction of the World As We Knew It.

    A population of land-based arcati survived, too (the kraken have been renamed spinedrifts, and are their "ships"). A misunderstanding with the humans occurs because both the marine and land arcati call each other nagral. Because both sides blame each other the war that only ended when the rising seas wiped out so much that both sides were too busy surviving to fight.

    Until now.

  4. David, IMO it's always advantagious to show up prejudice and bigotry to be precisely as silly as it is. So, go for it. The idea of changing skin color at will is intriguing in itself. Does anyone ever lose control of this ability, as when under stress, when angry, when in the grip of sexual passion?

  5. Juliette, since you obviously don't have enough to do 8) maybe it would be helpful for you to take a gander at my project. Shockingly incomplete as it is, still by difinition it itself will give you a much better idea of my problems and confusions, as well as where I'm trying to go with it, than my stumbling explanations.

    Of course, my fellow workshop participants are also welcome to read and comment.

  6. Catreona, you don't have to write scenes in different viewpoints unless you feel it will help your understanding. I already asked you to do something like this in the worldbuilding workshop with the 11 questions from the POV of the protagonist. I like what you're saying about the way people talk. Look at what you've got going on, and then try to theorize about the reasons behind it. Your subconscious will put a lot of things in the story that you hardly realize, but can capitalize on consciously if you recognize them.

  7. David,

    I think I'm starting to see what your main conflict is for your story. It's sending me back to my initial thoughts about the inundation of the Arcati world. You say that they were flooded and they genetically engineered themselves to be aquatic. If that's the case, then surely they had some plans in mind for how to maintain their language and records. What would those plans have been? Why didn't they work? Also, if some population of land dwellers survived, then the genetic engineers must have been aware of the possibility of future re-emergence. They would not have planned to make the arcati entirely non-air-breathers. Maybe something went wrong in their plans, but if they are able still to call anyone "nagral," then there has to be some plausible context for retention of the ancient language. I see what you're trying to do, and I don't want to be hard on you, but I'm seeing what look like inconsistencies in this model, and you should probably think of ways to reduce this impression, or preferably, avoid it completely.

  8. Dialogue - this is one I really want to work on. I've gotten critique from several stories that the characters' voices are inconsistent, both internally and with the world. I'm not a fan of high-fantasy speech, because it sounds so stilted, but in an attempt to write streetwise or worldly characters, they end up using modern slang that breaks the reader's immersion. I could really use some linguistically solid curse words that don't end up sounding silly.

    Voice - I've also had critique that my narrator feels flat. Not sure how much it's a cultural issue and how much an emotional one, but I'm wondering if getting more immersed in culture from the perspective of a native would help flesh out the narrator's voice.

    More later, but these two are what struck me the most.

  9. Wow, pyraxis, what great direction. Can you give me a sample, maybe 250 words, so I can look?

  10. Catreona, I agree. The sillier it looks, the better.

  11. Juliette, I'm thinking that the plans were executed in the middle of a religious/civil war. So they didn't necessarily work out as planned.

    If I go with the skin-changing (and Catreona's ideas about loss of control have got me thinking :) ), then I can create a guild with the sole purpose of remembering texts - and changing their skin colours to show the words. The written word can survive, but only as a "show and wipe away" on a living book.

    Which means that the knowledge retained is only as good as the arcati remembering it.

    The air-breathing survivors aren't there for the possibility of land re-emerging (although they would be happy to see that happen). They survived as best they could because they truly believed that their form is the one true arcati form, and the water-breathers are blasphemous.

    There is more than one type of racism.

  12. David,

    I didn't mean the air-breathing survivors are hoping for land to re-emerge. I see them as clinging to their reality so strongly that they don't mind if they die. Certainly they would see the alteration of their physical being as abominable or unnatural. Humans would.

    I mean that the arcati who were designing the genetic engineering would want to leave their people prepared for the one-in-a-trillion possibility that land might one day re-emerge.

    The living book idea is interesting, but I don't think it would be possible unless the engineers somehow coded the content into the people, so that the progression of texts was automatic and not to be memorized by anyone. They would have realized how unreliable that was - probably all would have been lost in less than a generation.

  13. Juliette: I'm cheating a little bit here, because this excerpt is from the novel that's about half finished, and the one that focuses entirely on the rsakk is still in very early stages. But this is specifically what got the critique about the flat narrator and inconsistent voice. This book follows Fiona, who is from the same world as the rsakk and has been heavily exposed to their culture, but has spent the last two years traveling through more conventional human societies. She's talking to a human merchant from one of these trading towns. (BTW - if you recognize the character names - wordjinn and I are cowriters for this project.)

    The black chest made a sudden jump. Fiona raised an eyebrow. “Got mice in there?”
    “I saw that chest move.”
    "You must have imagined it," Gillian said. "You shouldn't let yourself get so hungry that you start seeing things."
    She shrugged. “Where's a good place to set up to sell?”
    “You've a tent?”
    “Just blankets to spread on the ground.”
    “Well, if you set up here you could risk getting moved by the council guard. Or you could go to the market and pay for space. Its a few beads a day.”
    “All right, I better go find someplace to pass out before it gets too dark to see.”
    “You'd better stay here. You can sleep in the shop.”
    “I don't suppose you asked about curfews either?”
    Fiona sighed. “So this is one of those places.”
    “Only recently—”
    “Do they let you breathe here without a permit?”
    “—and the commonways aren't that safe either. You know, the, er—”
    “I can defend myself.”
    “Streets! Don't know why I keep forgetting that word. No, not without a permit.”
    “I need a permit to breathe?” Her voice was rising with every interruption.
    He ignored it, continuing his lazy drawl. “Hmm. I could write you a pass.”
    Her incredulous expression softened with hope.
    “…But you'd still need at least a bead, being a stranger and all.” He shook his head. “Ah, but it’s too late. You'll never make the Dekan gate.”
    “The Dekan gate?”
    This time, his surprise was genuine. “Didn't you ask anything... Ah, you didn't come in by the city gates, did you?”
    Fiona looked at him speculatively. “No.”
    “Then you really should sleep here.”
    Fiona shrugged, defeated. “If you're so kind, I'd be an idiot not to take the offer.”

  14. pyraxis,

    Thanks for this excerpt. I can see you're not dealing with rsakki in this one. My initial impression of the piece is that it has no internal point of view. Most of it is unadorned dialogue with minimal facial and gestural information, all of which could be either directly observed or inferred by looking at the person's external appearance. If Fiona is your main character, then you should give us some of her internal thoughts. Let us know what she thinks of this guy, his city, the situation. Let us hear her mind-internal wry assessments or whatever they may be. If you get closer to your main character, you'll find there are a lot more opportunities for voice, and the resulting deeper understanding of the protagonist will give you hints as to what makes sense to say in the dialogue.

  15. Juliette,

    Don't worry about being hard on me. I want to end up with a good story, one were the reader can willingly suspend their disbelief under a rising tide of sensawunda :)

    If that means some of my ideas don't survive the many Darwinian rewrites -- so be it.

  16. Ack, blame the last "literary" creative writing class I took, where unadorned dialog was held up as some sort of ideal for illustrating characters' motivations without having to resort to tags. Thanks for the suggestions, Juliette. I'll work on it.

  17. yikes - i think i have thoughts on each one. i will work on my response and - sigh - again, post it in my blog as its likely to be wordy. i'll see if i can get a skin that puts the text across the whole page so its not so onerous to read. my inital thoughts are that culture is going to affect all the areas you've mentioned, but in particular the plot, as some of the characters are engaging in a major cultural - hm, what's the word, violation is the only thing that comes to mind. No less than three of the raba's sons have refused to do kifu. setting becomes very important later in the story as the characters take refuge on a sphere with a very different culture. and one of my characters is an omniverse traveler who sometimes forgets what things are called where he is (as demonstrated in pyraxis' sample). i'll have to ponder the issues of dialect and voice a bit more, it's possible that i have some work to do there as my characters are able to go back and forth between telepathy and speech easily. that may not be logical.

  18. Ok, at 1900+ words i feel better about putting it in my blog instead of here:

  19. wordjinn,

    I'm putting my comments here for ease of access. Yes, I bought the concept of your djinn world from the very beginning. I get the kifu idea, I think - it makes sense to me that this kind of sacrifice could be a way to gain power. I'm less clear on the connection between that and gender (not sure why it's necessary). I get hints of how this world links to the human world, but I'm not entirely sure, and I'd want to learn this for certain at some point during the story. This would include a sense of how the different spheres connect. You seem to have great complexity and a lot of characters; I hope they are introduced gradually, because in your description I have a hard time tracking most of them. As far as the telepathy goes, I think the most common way of indicating the distinction between normal language and telepathy is to put telepathy into the italic style. My guess is that readers (what do you think, participants?) will find parentheses distracting and more difficult to read. My instinct for the singing is that you might want to indicate it by the use of meter. I have an earlier post on meter that you might find useful. Thus non-metrical language would be unsung, and the sung language would have a distinctive stress pattern.

    And don't worry about academic jargon. I never came out of an English department, but I've been pretty steeped in all kinds of terminology while getting my Ph.D. so I'd have to do more than just brush my pants leg off... :-)

  20. Wordjinn-

    I've really enjoyed your excerpts, and hope you don't mind a total laymen commenting. I humbly offer my impressions, feel free to disregard at will.

    My expectation is definitely that telepathic communication would be in italics. Could I get used to another convention? Sure, but why reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. That said- maybe *you* do have to.

    My assumption of what you mean by "telepathy" is essentially words that are transmitted directly between minds without being spoken, but I still expect there to be agreed symbols for ideas for communication. That might be my unique prejudice because my aliens are distinctly *not* telepathic and can't communicate ideas per se, but merely feelings. I don't know, but it seemed from your excerpt as if the content of the telepathy were more actions and then parenthesis and italics could be appropriate because, well, that’s how you write stage directions, and frankly that’s what yours read like.

    Okay, my two thoughts about how to represent singing. One is that you could do it with tags. “She sung,” “Her voice cracked with grief as she tried to hit the highest note of the phrase,” “Her rich vibrato widened in anger”, “She cringed as her second note fell flat, intimating a less reverential greeting than she intended,” whatever’s appropriate for your story. But there’s also a theatre convention for sung as opposed to spoken text. Sung text, even without dictated meter (think more recitative than aria), is capitalized and centered in actor’s editions. (Sometimes they forego the all caps in readers editions, but that makes it a lot less clear.)

    I don't know how to format a comment,so I can't post an example here.


  21. Heya
    Ua has some rather close connections with Earth – in the past there were gates that connected them – the most popular being in West Africa and Scotland on our end of them. There was a scandal on Ua (around the mid 1700s) here, with people being encouraged to emigrate to West Africa and then being sold into slavery. Turns out people on Ua lose almost all their powers here on Earth. When people on Ua discovered what was happening, the gates were destroyed – but of course, for our reading enjoyment the Scotland gate still exists – the Ua side was not "destroyed," but actually well hidden instead. It was used to bring one of the characters in the story back to Ua, but, as they say in the badlands, that, my friend, is another story.
    The gender issue was a nod to feminism – on Ua men are relatively useless except for breeding and, if you're in a royal family, for kifu. I wanted to see what happened if some of the anomalies in our culture were brought to the fore – the expendability of men (think war), for example, translates into their being devalued on Ua.
    The characters are introduced slowly – at the rate of a few per couple of chapters, which may yet be too fast. There are several plot lines and that may be part of the complexity. The biggest plot has about five main characters, some of whom have their own plot lines. It's hard to summarize without assuming a knowledge of the book :P which of course you wouldn't have but I do it anyway. A bad habit.
    Italics for telepathy – noted.
    Not sure what you mean by the use of meter – alter the dialogue to make it fit?

    I'll have to go back and look at the telepathic dialogue – I am far removed enough from my education in writing as to have forgotten what stage directions look like. I should tell you that we also are experimenting with representing some of the telepathic dialogue as descriptions of images rather than representations of speech. K, I absolutely LOVE your idea of tags and am going to argue with my co-author if I must, but I know that will make the dialogue much richer. I can't tell you how I know – for me words have more sensory input than just visual. And your words feel right to me. I also like the idea of centered text (I don’t know if we'd get away with centered and capitalized).

  22. I'm all in favor of those tags. I'd been wondering how best to handle the singing.

    As for the brackets for telepathy, they originated with me, and I was inspired by Tara Harper's Wolf's Bane and Dione's contact with the Aieuven. I thought the handling of alien telepathy in that sequence was fantastic. It acknowledged that information was transmitted as raw concepts, rather than sentence structure, and it allowed for untranslatable concepts by putting the most similar words in brackets. I don't have the book handy but it would be something like (you/creature)(rest/peace/stay)(now).

    To me at least, it was very easy to read, and actually a fairly accurate representation of my thoughts, because often some of the most important concepts don't translate well into single words. Do others find it distracting or undecipherable?

  23. wordjinn, sorry it's taken me so long to comment on this. I really think your setup is cool. Though my instinct is to say italics for telepathy, you can also go the parentheses route - just be aware that the two will have differing effects on the reader. Italics are less in-your-face alien - but if you prefer the alien impression, then there's no problem. I encourage you to use the dialogue tags to clarify the singing issue. That's certainly the simplest approach. My other suggestion, to use meter, may involve some changes to your dialogue inasmuch as it means aiming for a particular stress pattern. I think you may already have seen my post "Some thoughts on Meter," but I'll give you an additional example. It's easier, obviously, if you have experience with poetic meter, but dialogue can be written in meter without being explicitly identified as such, and if you do it right, it won't come across as bizarre. Here's a little piece from an unpublished novel I'm currently editing which exemplifies description of language style as well as meter (iambic pentameter):

    [The man] spoke in a rhythmic language that shivered the air.
    "O, you who have transgressed, prepare yourself."

    In another example, from later in the story, he speaks in such a way as to avoid the obvious impression of the meter - but he's still using it:

    "√Čtienne," Cosimo sighed. "You know I am a servant here, and not a Judge. I do not write the Law."

    I hope that clarifies what I meant.