Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Vivid Figurative Language: Words Related to Spice

After my husband and I began to collaborate on another blog titled Our Eyes Upon Missouri, we discovered people like to read about food and drink, but we don't consider ourselves food critics. We’re food reporters. We write about places that provide decent, good, and great food; we never write about those places we visit if the food cannot be described with one of those three adjectives. But no food reporter can discriminate for the reader without using language more specific than "decent, good, and great." We need specific, concrete and figurative language. So today's post is about helping readers experience food and drink through words? The lesson can be applied to any subject, of course.

First--and I repeat--word choices must be both as specific and concrete as possible. "Decent, good and great" are not sufficient. Even the word "spice" is too broad and imprecise.

Is the spice delivered by cayenne? Then the spice doesn’t affect the tongue; it instead tickles and sometimes scratches the back of the throat, depending upon the intensity of its use. It's the preferred chile for chili recipes because of the secondary burst of flavor delivered after the diner swallows a spoonful.

On the other hand, if jalapeno delivers the spice, then the tongue and mouth take notice. Depending upon the intensity and amount, a person may gasp. Tears may well in his eyes, and when he can speak again, he may beg for milk, bread, tortilla chips, or even water, the least helpful choice. 

Today’s jalapenos vary wildly and widely in intensity. Some are bred to be mild, and these are spooned over nachos at sports arenas and movie theaters. Buyers don’t expect these jalapenos to make them cough or gag. In other places, however, the jalapeno-laden food may require a warning label. I know the ones grown locally do.


If a ghost, habanero, or African Bird’s Eye pepper delivers the spice, diners may not even register the smoky qualities inherent in a good ghost pepper or the sweet-hot blend of some habaneros. The burn is just too intense to discern other flavors. Diners may break out in a sweat under the eyes and across the forehead. A strong, fresh curry can have the same effect.

Writers must therefore be as precise about the type of spice in use as is humanly possible. They can help readers by specifying the pepper and the nature of its heat.

Writers can also describe the nature of the heat not only with precise language, but figurative language as well. Consider words useful for spicy food and drink: piquant, savory, hot, spicy, and zesty. Choosing the most appropriate word will add precision. For example:

When asked for her Thai-spice preference, she asked for a -1 on a scale from +1 to +5 and was rewarded with a piquant pineapple yellow curry over rice.


Comparing a food or drinks spicy qualities to something else widely known will help even more. For example:

When presented with a local vintner’s latest wine, he detected the sharp, hot scent of fresh tar on a flat roof. The first sip suggested the grapes grew to maturity in a Nascar crew pit.

Reading Challenge:

Read Calvin Trillin’s essays about food.

Writing Challenge:

Recall the most bland food you’ve ever encountered. Now make a reader taste it.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
Al Griffin provided photos of peppers and peppery food.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Short, Powerful Lesson in Metaphor and Simile


Long-lasting country expressions use figurative language. The one that follows is a simile.

“Slippery as a hog on ice”

Persuasive speakers also use figurative language. President Barack Obama did in his State of the Union address, 2016.

America has been through big changes before
wars and depression,
the influx of new immigrants,
workers fighting for a fair deal,
movements to expand civil rights.
Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future;
who claimed we could slam the brakes on change;
who promised to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea
that was threatening America under control.
And each time, we overcame those fears.”--

These expressions and speeches live in our minds, hearts, and memories because they make great use of language. In the two examples offered, that language is the language of metaphor and simile.

Somewhere in Alabama--or was it Georgia?
Photo provided by Al Griffin

We comprehend better and understand when writers and speakers compare something we know little about to something we know well. For example, I’ve never tried to catch a hog, but I’ve seen video from county fairs and know that squealing pigs are hard to hold--perhaps even harder to pursue and hold when both human and hog are on ice. Even if no one tries to hold that hog on the ice as the simile suggests, I can well imagine how impossible the task.


Similarly, the President created a metaphorical car named “Change” to critique those who contend we can simply apply the brakes to arrest its forward progress. Anyone who’s lived and reflected knows that change will come whether we will it or not.

A fine little book makes outstanding use of figurative language, metaphors and similes in particular. It’s a Bitter Little World: The Smartest Toughest Nastiest Quotes from Film Noir by Charles Pappas is that book. Here is a sample:

“In the beginning there was the word, and it came out of the mouths of babes named Velma. Or mugs like Chuckles or Dix or Verbal. They weren’t
plain-melba-toast,
Jello-mold,
PG-rated,
barbershop quartet,
malt-shop,
white-picket-fence,
Wonder-bread with-mayonnaise,
‘Honey, I’m home,’
in-separate-beds-by-ten-o’clock words, either.

They were the words of film noir--The Big Heat, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Clock, Double Indemnity, The Big Combo, White Heat, The Usual Suspects, The Big Steal Blue Velvet, The Big Carnival, The Big Knife, The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski. So many of them have big in their titles because they use bulked-up, big-mongous words that
bruise like King Kong on crack . . . 
burn like arson . . .
and sear like a fresh-brewed pot of 7-Eleven coffee splashed in your face . . . .

The words of film noir aren’t

packing peanuts like the words between crashes in The Fast and the Furious,
or the bubble wrap of English before and after the explosions in Armageddon.
They are the crashes.
They are the explosions.
They are howls of lust and
electric shocks of greed,

with quotations and dialog so overheated you could
cook a frozen Tombstone pizza on them.”


I am responsible for the set-right formatting that separates many of the metaphors and similes from the rest of the paragraph. I altered the format to highlight the author’s abundant uses of figurative language, to render them as poetic prose so that readers may recognize them for what they are: images that tell, reveal, and inspire. Pappas’s use of language packs a punch as powerful as any blow Phillip Marlowe took to the gut.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” any of the films Pappas lists as he explains the “bitter little words of film noir.” Better still, read Pappas’s book.

Flint Hills Cattle Pens
Photo provided by Al Griffin

Writing Challenge:

Write a description of the language used in the Coen brothers’ films, No Country for Old Men or Fargo. Strive to invent as many fresh adjective phrases, metaphors, and similes as Pappas did for film noir.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ambiguity in Literature

One of the tougher tasks I faced as an English teacher was to explain how some answers to questions about literature are definitely wrong while two other answers to the same question may be quite different from each other and still quite right. Ambiguity in life and literature is unsettling; we often seek--nay, demand, certainty, but alas, certainty is fickle.

Certainty refuses to appear at the conclusion of the Young Adult novel, The Giver. Some readers claim the protagonist never found a better world, the one with color and security. Other readers believe he did. The novel’s end allows for both interpretations and provides evidence for each.

Many novels provide satisfying conclusions without explaining every possibility or nuanced word. Films do as well. When the film version of No Country for Old Men ended, I heard audience members seated near me exclaim, “No” and “What did that mean?” or “That can’t be the end.” These people were unsettled and perhaps unsatisfied with an ending that didn’t announce its themes. The film's makers expected viewers to connect the film's title--a country inexplicable to old men--as a clue to a story about brutal predators who act and react without caring about the harm they do. Even lawmen acquainted with a callous disregard for human life in the course of their duty to rein in madmen and mayhem are strangers in a strange land, unable to get their bearings as they lumber toward their own rest. Is it any wonder, then, that the rest of us are gutted and lost when faced with barbaric acts perpetrated in the name of profit or power?

A more recent film has left many of us just as unsettled. Making a Murderer, the ten-hour documentary about law and order in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was ten years in development. It tells the story of Steven Avery, wrongfully convicted for attempted rape. He served 18 years until DNA techniques proved him innocent of that crime. Freed at last, he sued the State for compensation and won the ear of legislators who drafted law in his name.

Missouri (Decommissioned) State Penitentiary
Photo provided by Al Griffin
Those legislators soon regretted familiarity with Avery when he was once again arrested, this time for murder. He is serving a life sentence for that conviction and continues to profess his innocence.

So who made a murderer, the implication of the documentary’s title? Did Manitowoc’s officers of the court make a murderer with manufactured or manipulated evidence? Did 18 years in prison transform a man prone to assault and occasional violent speech into a man who could and did take the life of a woman? Or did someone else commit the crime and escape, thanks to law enforcement bent upon proving Steven Avery and his nephew guilty?

The film doesn’t answer those questions except to show the holes in the prosecutor’s cases and officials who held the Avery clan in contempt. The film provides the viewer with a narrative that leans toward the defense and some measure of sympathy for the men imprisoned, then leaves that viewer to assemble the puzzle pieces of evidence and character into a whole.

Like Jimmy Hoffa’s resting place or questions about failed relationships, literature and life often require that we abide, making the best sense we can without ever being absolutely certain. In literature, we may not interpret without tethering that analysis to the text. In life, we see, as Corinthians suggests, through a glass darkly, but for the sake of lives such as Avery's, even then, we must tie our judgment to facts in evidence with as little bias as is humanly possible.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Making a Murderer.

Writing Challenge:

Write a closing argument to be delivered to the jury. Make your case for who the murderer is, how he committed the crime, and why.

Coach Connye is My Writing and Editing Coach.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Doesn’t Deserve Top Box-Office Acclaim

Rose-colored glasses describes the rosy lens through which we remember our past. Just look at one Facebook quiz for senior citizens asking them to recall good ol’ days. Quiz answers will not summon memories of the Cuban Missile crisis, segregation, or Khrushchev pounding a shoe while vowing to beat America into submission. The quiz will cast backward glances blind to harsh truths.

Perhaps this human tendency explains why J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Wars franchise for Disney has set new records at the box office. Even ten days after its opening, when I saw it, the theater was crowded and profits swelling. Many of those in seats were gray-haired seniors.

In those ten days from the reboot’s opening, the media seemed curiously silent about the film’s flaws, and they are legion. In fact, I’d like to have back those two plus hours so that my memories from 1977, when the original Star Wars exploded into pop culture, remain pure, intact, and good.

First, writers Abrams and Kasdan rest on Goerge Lucas’s laurels. Because we loved Luke thirty-eight years ago, we are supposed to care about his absence, explained in one short speech to the new generation in whom the Force awakens. Because we yearned for love between two of the three musketeers and found it between Han Solo and Leia, the writers count on us to wince when we find them apart. Perhaps they even hope we’ll shed tears for the son they lost to the Dark Side, but he’s a cartoon cut-out, Darth Vader on Halloween, a First Order drone.

The sun sets on Star Wars 2015--at least
for this writer. Photo provided by
Al Griffin Photography.
Not only do the writers fail to develop characters in favor of CGI battle scenes, they also rely upon tropes, including the tired Oedipal one wherein the son must kill the father in order to be his own man. In most uses of this Freudian trope, killing is metaphorical. Kasdan and Abrams give us the full Monty, the real deal; [Spoiler Alert!] mini-Vader runs handsome Han Solo through with a red laser beam, then lets him fall from a narrow walkway into an abyss like the one first imagined by Steven Spielberg for Indiana Jones’s peril.

Another trope is the child left alone and in peril in a dystopian world. How Rey thrives is left to assumptions. She somehow knows how to fly complex machines and what to scavenge in order to sell for food. She, like all children left to make their way in the world, searches for a parent, a nurturer. We are asked to believe that a chance encounter with Han Solo is sufficient for her to think of him as a substitute father.

Rey and bb-8 are the most delightful additions to the reboot. She is the hero from beginning to end; she has the most complicated storyline and character development. Bb-8 is as cute, loyal and resourceful as R2-D2, a droid with answers if only it can awaken itself at the same time the Force does.

If only as much attention and love had been shown for all the other story lines and characters, I might not regret the time I gave to this film. The other story lines are as cliché as some of the phrases I’ve chosen for this post and the characters as flat and two-dimensional as parts of Nebraska.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Star Wars, the original from 1977.

Writing Challenge:

Write a critical review for the 1977 or the 2015 Star Wars.