Monday, September 10, 2012

Mentor Monday: The Semantics of Influence; The Influence of Semantics

Part of your job as a story writer is to make your reader feel certain attitudes towards the characters you create. This goal can be accomplished by the use, or the decision to not use, certain words or phrases. L. Frank Baum told us how to feel about witches by including certain descriptors in their names.  It was not merely Glinda but Glinda the Good Witch. And, you know what he called the other one. 

Examples of such word usage abound in our lives and it only takes a glance at the way media influences the public to get a taste of what you can accomplish in your own writing.

A Connecticut-based energy company wants to build a power line that would run from Canada through our home state of New Hampshire.  There are—as there always are—two opinions about this proposal. Whether the line is built depends on how the story is told and how the story is read.

To the Connecticut company, the power line is the hero of the story—the protagonist.  Like most protagonists Mr. Line is flawed.  In this case, his flaw is his need to cut down acres of forest in order to accomplish the greater good of providing cheaper, cleaner energy.  His story, when told in this way, goes something like this:

“The power line will create over one thousand jobs for New Hampshire and bring cheaper electricity to New England.”

Opponents to the project are primarily the folks in the northern part of New Hampshire. In the upper counties, there is little industry. A majority of the people “above the notches” as we say ‘round here, earn their living in tourism.  They see Mr. Line as the villain—the antagonist. They envision miles of beautiful forest land sliced up and destroyed and see visitors heading east to Maine or west to Vermont to get their fill of untouched scenery.  And, taking their vacation dollars with them. So, the Above-the-Notches folks might read the synopsis of Mr. Line’s story this way:

 “The power line will create over one thousand [temporary] jobs for[skilled workers brought to] New Hampshire and bring cheaper electricity to [Connecticut].      

By leaving out (or adding) just a few key words, the entire story has changed.

You’ve probably noticed the same thing in the media during this hectic election time. One or two words can change your opinion about just about any fact such as the following reported in several different outlets this week.  How do you feel after you read each version?
96,000 new jobs were created in August.

Only 96,000 jobs were created in August.

Just as the media writers can sway our opinions by adding or failing to mention certain words you, the novelist, have the same power over your child reader. You can also change the perception mid-story. J.K. Rowling teased her young readers about Professor Snape throughout 6 novels (Is he good?  Is he the enemy?) 

Great mystery novels have crimes committed by the character you least suspected.  The mystery writer leads you skillfully by the words he/she chooses.

So pick up your pencil.  Or your eraser.  Type.  Or delete.  Influence your reader.


I'm Jet . . . said...

Masterful, Mur!

Diane Mayr said...

Here's a quote by New England's own Nathaniel Hawthorne:

Words--so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.