Saturday, July 17, 2010

Words Come Alive

Novels Require Translators

Readers might be swept away following the exploits of a former slave who started a Gandhi-like resistance in the 1850s. They might be amazed at how the former slave threatened the plantation owners’ militia. But the readers would become glassy-eyed if they had to follow the organizational chart of three economic groups that vied for power. Those readers could feel lost with the political infighting among Southern and Northern senators. So we dare to ask how the author becomes a translator to more effectively bring the reader into a complex story. Readers become engaged with people. In many ways the writer translates the forces in his story into gripping concerns that affect individual characters.

Translation means more than explaining words from one language to another. The term could mean explaining how specific people are affected by concepts.

Writing stories cries out for a blending of the characters with the concepts. But the focus has to lie with the characters.

Writers need outlines to prep for a novel, and those outlines are guided in part by the concepts in play, whether the story is an SF, historical romance, comedy or mystery. Themes such as the misuse of power, trusting the masses, the fear of technology or the loss of ethics, allow writers to develop variables around which characters can move.

But when the scene development arises, the writer has to translate the material into a personal zone. The outline frames the basics of the movement in the scene. For example, the writer might have listed that the protagonist needs to find an ally in the midst of a peace conference. The outline further could list that the conflict arises when the protagonist faces the disruption of the conference.

The author has to delve into the personalities of the characters to translate the material. That means explaining the connection between the protagonist and the drive for the peace conference. Why was he caught up in the peace effort? If the conference is disrupted, then who is the agent and what connection does the agent have with the protagonist?

Another level of translation has to occur. Once the writer has answers to those questions, he has to explain those answers in a certain way. He could simply tell the reader in some prose. Yet that usually comes across as slow and too distant from the action. The author could show the reader by having his characters act out or verbalize the answers to those needed questions.

Imagine the scene taking place in the following manner. The protagonist enters a conference room of the UN to find his contact on the floor, dying. The man whispers as he dies that he failed the protagonist’s goal. Medical supplies will not be brought to a key village, and a lasting peace will not be found. He regrets failing, and knows his death will stop the conference. As the protagonist rises, he discovers his lover, standing in the corner with a gun. She stopped his plans to help the village because she needed the supplies to be developed so they could have a larger quantity. She offers him the chance to use his skills at distributing medicine to a greater degree because the peace conference would have held up development of the medications.

When writing a novel, the author might have wanted to show how ethics and peace could be entwined, but the application of the theme has to be translated into personal terms. Take the concept in the outline. Find the key force that moves the central idea of the concept. Then find a way to show the protagonist dealing with those forces and ideas based on his personality traits. Dare we think like the translator who explains the words from another language? We aim to show the full picture, but we need to bring the concept into the story by showing how a character deals with those concepts.

- Tom Pope

Image courtesy of

No comments:

Post a Comment