This post is part three of the series, Get More from your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading. In part two, I discussed the basic techniques of deep reading. Now that you know those techniques, I will describe some common details and patterns that authors put in their stories. Keep an eye out for these.
Symbols and Symbolism
If an object show up more than once in a story, it could be a symbol. As a symbol, it represents something other than itself. Maybe it represents a relationship, an aspect of a character's personality, or a theme.
Some symbols: The One Ring from J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the Claw of the Conciliator from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, the Turkish Delight in the Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Events and descriptions can be symbolic as well. A character that destroys a significant symbol gains his freedom from whatever is symbolized. A character dressed in white clothes or with a pale face can be interpreted as innocent, soon to die, or already dead.
Tricky Authors - Language Ambiguity and Word Choice
By their nature, authors like to play with language. An author may use ambiguous words or metaphors that an unsuspecting reader will interpret one way by default. However, if the reader challenges his assumptions, he can discover a completely different interpretation.
One way you can be tipped off to an ambiguous reading is by looking at word choices an author makes. Be alert for figures of speech and descriptions that are all similar in meaning, that direct you a certain way if you read them as more than just fancy language. Also be aware of words and phrases that can have a double meaning. Lastly, look for words that stand out as odd or unusual.
Gene Wolfe epitomizes this type of behavior, especially in his short stories. An example can be found in his short story (published online), Unrequited Love. As you read the story, you may be tempted to envision the narrator to be like yourself, and you may make assumptions about him. This is a perfectly fine reading of the story. However, if you look at some of the clues the narrator drops throughout the story, some odd word choices, and his concerns, you may discover that the narrator is not the person you thought he was.
The Significance of Names
Names often have special significance in complex stories. What does the name mean? Does it contain a word, or is it similar to another word? A name can be used as a clue to a character's nature.
The short story linked above provides another good example. Wolfe was very deliberate in his naming - note that all the robotic characters have names that contain "Rob." Now note the name Julianne. At one point in the story she even explains the origin of her name, saying her father "is a cook." Looking at the name in this context, we find the common cooking term, "julienne," which is a technique for slicing vegetables. Now, I believe Wolfe provided these details as clues to the reader. Otherwise, there is no reason for them. What could he possibly be saying about this character? I'll leave that for you to figure out.
Useful tools for deciphering names: dictionary, foreign language references, religious references, mythology references, google, wikipedia
References, References, References!
References can be found in many other places - magical objects, mystical locations, and heroic deeds can all recall a related element of another story. Authors like to read, so it is not uncommon to see references to other pieces of fiction, especially fiction that the author liked! Of course, there can also be religious, mythical, and folklore references.
Another type of reference is the "Meta Reference." This happens when the author self-references the work you are reading in some way. When the author does it explicitly, it's a form of "Breaking the Fourth Wall," where the characters act like they know they are in a book and sometimes talk to the reader directly. However, the author can also be sneaky about it. His character can impart wisdom that can be intended for another character, but also for the reader, without throwing it in your face. If a character says, "Look closely!" to his little friend, then it could be a clue that he's also talking to you, the reader.
Parallelism - The Determiner of Fate
Parallelism happens when any two pieces of a story go through the same progression. I'll focus on characters, because I think character parallelism is the most obvious type. If two characters suffer the same or very similar circumstances, i.e. their circumstances parallel each other, the author has tied them together for some reason. If he resolves an issue for one, but moves the other character out of view, then chances are that he has implied that the missing character has received the same fate.
Also, parallelism can be used to imply different outcomes for two parallel characters. If all but one characteristic is the same between the parallel characters, the author may be making a point about that one different thing. If two parallel characters receive different fates when there is no big differentiator, then the author is probably trying to make a statement about luck or chance.
Tropes (What's a Trope?)
A trope is a symbol, theme, or device that is often repeated in a type of literature. Gutsy starship captains are a trope of Science Fiction. Enchanted forests are a trope of Fantasy.
Tropes are interesting because they define a genre. Now, you may think that tropes are evil things, like cliches. Not always. A good author can turn a trope on its head, or spin it in such a way as to make it unique and interesting. Recognizing a trope and seeing how an author made it unique is a fun way to analyze a story.
A trope of Sci-Fi and Fantasy that I believe deserves special note is the unreliable narrator. This character shows up sometimes, but you may not have recognized him before now. He tells you his story, but he may not always tell the truth. Or maybe he tells his version of "the truth," which is colored by his unique perspective or incorrect because of a flaw in his memory. You can spot the unreliable narrator by looking for inconsistencies in his story, or by watching for other characters to (sometimes subtly) contradict his story.
Stories in Stories (and Foreshadowing)
We see foreshadowing everywhere, and examples are easy to find. Foreshadowing can be found in speech, descriptions, and actions. There is a particular type of foreshadowing I want to mention, however: stories within the story (or sub-stories).
A sub-story is a book or oral story within the main story. Using symbolism, a sub-story can foreshadow or predict a future event in the story. I like to look at them the same way I look at dreams within a story. Prophetic dreams are a trope in many types of literature, and they are heavily used to foreshadow future events. Sub-stories can do the same thing, but are not as explicit, are sometimes less clear-cut, and are often not as goofy.
Of course, there are more patterns you can look for when you read. This list is in no way complete, but it's a start to get you thinking about the book under your nose. Good luck finding them!
If you have any ideas to add to this list, let me know in the comments! Also, if you read the Gene Wolfe story mentioned above (Unrequited Love), let me know what you figured out, what confused you, what you have almost-but-not-quite figured out, etc. I'd be happy to discuss it with you!
There's one more installment to this series: Part 4: Community Spirt. In it, I'll discuss issues between authors and their reading communities. I'll also list and link to some discussion communities for Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature.
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