What are stories made of?
The answers are many: characters, setting, plot, theme, ideas, emotions. But underneath it all, we writers forget sometimes, don’t we? That first and foremost, stories are made of words. In this post, I would like to explore the storytellers’ most basic building material: language.
According to the American Heritage College Dictionary, language is “the use by human beings of voice sounds, and often written symbols representing these sounds, in combinations and patterns to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.”
Think about it — sound, combinations, patterns. When it comes to language, these can be great tools!
THE UNDERNEATH BY KATHI APPELT, A SONG OF A STORY
A story I’d like to use here to demonstrate the power of language, the power of sound and word and pattern, is Kathi Appelt’s middle-grade novel The Underneath, a magical tale about two kittens and a blues-singing hound facing danger together and forming a family in the deep dense woods of the American southwest. I was lucky enough to have Kathi as a workshop advisor at the Vermont College of Fine Arts last year, and I learned so much from her just in ten memorable days. But I also learned much from her writing, and that you too can do. Just look closely at this story, and the way she uses language here with precision and heart, to accomplish all sorts of storytelling aims, from plot, setting and characterization, to mood and theme.
If you haven’t read this book (and I hope you do!) or if it’s been a while, here is a little summary:
A pregnant calico cat befriends a chained hound and makes her home in “The Underneath,” a hole under a tilting house in the middle of the forest. The house is inhabited by a cruel and lonely hunter, Gar Face, and his sad blues-singing hound. The hound finds joy in the company of the cat and her two twin kittens – Puck and Sabine. But the happiness is short-lived. Unable to resist the pull of curiosity, Puck violates the most important safety rule of “the Underneath” and goes out into “the Open” to bask in the sun. Gar Face catches the kitten, then his mama, stuffs them both into a bag and throws the bag into the river. Puck makes it back, his mama does not. Stranded, away from his sister, his hound and his home, Puck faces dangers on the other side of the creek, dangers that include a powerful predator sleeping under the root of a tree, an ancient snake with her own magical story.
There are many, many strands in this richly patterned tale. Yet, Kathi makes it whole. There is so much magic here: talking animals, blues-singing dogs, ancient snakes, magic upon magic. Yet the narrative moves fast and feels incredibly real. I think Kathi’s use of language has a lot to do with this sense of unity and authenticity the story creates.
If you read The Underneath carefully, you will notice the narrative is peppered with proper nouns. Through the specificity of her words, the reader walks “dark damp streets of south Houston” with Gar Face or watches out nervously for snakes: “vipers, rattlers and corals, the copperheads, the venomous crew” in the “piney woods forest in far East Texas.” We aren’t just anywhere, and we aren’t dealing with some generic cat, either: she’s a calico. The personalized character of a tree isn’t just some pine: it’s an old loblolly pine. The Native Americans inhabiting the woods are the Caddo people. These choices provide the reader with a feeling of precision. The setting comes alive in its specificity.
CONTRASTS AND WORD PLAY
Kathi often plays with words, now setting them against each other, now pairing them in startling combinations. When now orphaned Sabine finds herself hunting in the forest, the way her mama used to, Kathit subtly chooses words to signal Sabine’s savage origins and her growing responsibilities. But in the same passages, these words — “rough” and “sharp” and “fearless” and “mother tigers of the Punjab” — are contrasted with adjectives, such as “small,” even “tiny.” Sabine is a descendant of the wild hunting she-cats. She’s also still a miserable, struggling kitten.
“With her rough tongue, she licked her front paws one at a time, taking care to polish her sharp little claws. Then she walked to the edge of the Underneath and looked out into the awful Open. Soon she would have to go out there, like her mother and her brother, now lost. … Sabine, descendant of the great lionesses of the Saharan plains, grandchild of the mother tigers of the Punjab, tiny heiress of the fearsome lynx and cheetah and panther, night hunters all. Here was Sabine.”
Through these contrasts, the poignant passage helps characterize the animals, create tension and raise the stakes.
But just as it can be used in creating tension, word play can be a great tool for tension release.
“Suddenly he was overwhelmed by it all. Such deep and utter Missing,”Kathi writes when describing Puck under the rain, in all his misery. She allows him to wallow for a few more sentences, before providing some quick comic relief on the following page, when Puck runs into a pine: “He was so full of Missing that he almost missed the tree.” 🙂
Sound, too, can set the mood and advance the story. Here is Kathi using assonance and alliteration of the sound “s” to add tension and set a menacing mood, while describing the emotional state of Grandmother Moccasin, a snake: venomous, grieving, angry.
“Loss. A small hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossss! she whispered. A word that scrapes against the skin.”
Repetition is a big part of using sound skillfully, and there is a lot of it in The Underneath.
Sometimes Kathi uses it for emphasis, and at other times to establish important plot connections between the narrative’s many threads and themes. One example is the repeated use of the word “curl.” When the kittens curl beside each other, or beside their hound, purring, the word is used to portray love. When Grandmother snake curls her body into a tight coil, ready to spring, the venom pulling in her mouth, the word “curl” describes hate and anger, underscoring an important theme in The Underneath, the contrast between love and hate.
Language of course has a lot to do with how we string our words into sentences. Kathi often varies the length of her sentences, going back and forth between fragments, alternating between short, simple, incredibly long and complex. When using long sentence, she builds a rhythm, often leaving the punch, or the revelation for the end. Look at this long, winding sentence, how it leads us slowly toward its dramatic end: the end of an ancient tree.
“So much water makes the ground softer than soft, so soft that an old tree, one that has stood for centuries, one that was struck by lightning and has dwindled down to less than half its greatest size, whose limbs fell to the earth with a crash, whose long and lovely needles turned coppery red and settled on the mossy ground, whose upper stories cracked off one another and dropped away, whose trunk split in two and made a nest for one lost kitten, this old tree, this singular loblolly pine, the one that has held an ancient jar in its web of tangled roots for a thousand years, held it deep under ground with its even more ancient inhabitant, this very tree finally let go of the soggy earth that had held it all these years and leaned over.”
Reading the winding sentence is akin to giving tribute to the long life of a loblolly pine.
Kathi’s use of punctuation is subtle most of the time, not calling attention to itself. But in some of the tenser, more action-packed passages, she uses ellipsis and exclamation points for added tension and italicizes selected words for emphasis. In the following example, Puck is chasing a log drifting down the creek, with an intention of jumping atop it and riding it to the other side.
“He could see the limb heading straight toward him. Closer and closer and closer. Almost. Yes! He slid down the bank and landed, oomph, right in front of the turtle-laden limb. He closed his eyes and…
See how, with the use of ellipsis and a paragraph break, Kathi has the reader feeling both the kitten’s desperate courage and his uncertainty? As though it is us, and not only Puck, who are about to jump onto a log in the middle of the creek!
Kathi’s writing can be an inspiration for us all. A lot of this — the rhythm and structure of the sentences, the sound of our words, will come to us naturally as we write and revise our own stories. But it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful, to remember that we sometimes can take a sentence and break it apart or meld it together for stronger effect, that we can set elements against each other, that we can dig deeper and give our readers a more specific experience.
Let’s honor the origins of all story. Let’s remember to love the place where it all comes from. We are writers, and language is our home.