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Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! Ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents are driving to their new home. They take a shortcut and end up at a tunnel that leads to an abandoned village, which her dad insists is an old amusement park—and he wants to explore. They come across some food, which her parents eat without considering that they are in what is, at best, an abandoned amusement park. Chihiro refuses to eat because she's smart and wanders off to explore, where she meets Haku, who warns her to return across the riverbed before sunset. But it's too late--the river has flooded, she can't get back across, and oh yeah, her parents have turned into pigs.
A witch who runs a bathhouse for spirits hires Chihiro but renames her Sen. If she forgets her real name, she will be trapped in the spirit world. She meets several spirits, including No-Face, who eats pretty much everything including some of the people at the bathhouse, and a stink spirit, who gives her a magic dumpling. Sen sees a dragon and recognizes it as Haku. He stole a magic seal from the witch’s twin sister (because the witch forced him to), and it is making him sick. Sen feeds him part of the dumpling, and he vomits up the seal and this gross slug thing that Sen crushes. With Haku unconscious, Sen goes to return the seal and apologize to the sister, despite this not really being her responsibility. Sen confronts No-Face, who is now massive from eating everything, and feeds him the rest of the dumpling. He follows Sen out of the bathhouse, regurgitating everything and everyone he has eaten. They return the seal.
Dragon Haku shows up and takes Sen to the bathhouse. On the way, she remembers when she was little and almost drowned and figures out Haku is the spirit of that river, which breaks the spell over him. When they get back to the bathhouse, Sen has to pick her parents out of a group of pigs. She answers correctly that none of them are her parents, which breaks the curse, and the family is free to go. Haku takes her to the now-dry riverbed and vows they’ll meet again. Chihiro returns with her parents, who don’t remember anything after eating. Typical. She looks back at the tunnel, unsure if everything really happened. They get back to their car, now covered in dust and leaves, which of course her parents think nothing of, and they drive off toward their new home.
Carly: I love this movie. I hadn’t seen it in years and years, so I had forgotten a lot of the things that happen. And I know Chihiro is only ten, but somehow I really was shipping a romance between her and Haku. There was the whole true love angle, but it didn’t push that into a romantic true love, which I think is great. But also I remember teen Carly wanting to be Chihiro and having a romance with Haku… soooo. That’s where I’m at. But yeah, I love Miyozaki films, but this one is just always so good. Her determination, her kindness, and her intelligence get her through this. It isn’t just that she has a good heart, which I think a lot of stories can rely on for the hero. But it is also her intelligence and drive. I really appreciate that. And everything in it is so gorgeous and cute. I wanted to go here and not cross back over into the human world. My only criticism is I feel like Miyozaki films in general wrap up so quickly. It’s a slow build to the climax, and then I always feel rushed with the conclusion. I still have questions. But that’s okay! What’d you think?
Jeni: I think this is my favorite of the Ghibli movies I’ve seen, just in terms of enjoyment. I mean, it has a dragon. Like, you know Howl in Howl’s Moving Castle wasn’t my favorite, and even though he’s pretty cool when he transforms, he’s not a freaking dragon! And also, the adorable little animals. Boh as a mouse is too cute. And the soot sprites! Like, there’s just so much adorableness here, on top of that surreal, laid-back beauty that the Studio Ghibli movies are known for. And I like No-Face a lot. It’s almost like he has this whole other story going on in the background. I’d love to see this whole thing from his perspective. It also helps me that Chihiro is smart and makes good choices, more or less. I mean, she’s only ten, and as an adult, some of the things in the movie would be terrible to see a child go through. And also, just, how absurd are her parents? But honestly I kind of love that because that really speaks to how children see adults. The decisions adults make are sometimes so ridiculous to children. Still, I kinda wanted to smack her parents, like, why are you eating this food you just randomly found in the middle of this huge abandoned area? I’m not a kid, and it was baffling to me. So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: The symbolism in this movie is super strong. But it is used so well in this film. The main symbolism revolves around the theme of gluttony and greed. It is the driving force behind all the evils and mistakes that characters make. Let’s start with her parents. Their major faux pas is eating food intended for the ghosts. And it literally turns them into pigs, the ultimate symbol of gluttony (which I think is actually a misrepresentation, but I digress). Then there is No-Face that literally turns evil as he consumes more and more. Then we get the symbolism of regurgitation to cleanse yourself of evils. She pulls out the thorn from the river dragon. She pulls out all sorts of pollutants that had festered in the river and turned it into a stink monster. So we’ve got this representation of pollution which is caused by greed and gluttony. And she literally pulls it out of its body. When it gives her the dumpling as a prize, she gives it to Haku and No-Face to heal them. It causes both of them to regurgitate the evils they’ve consumed or been consumed by. Basically, there is a lot of vomiting evil. Purging it from your body so you can be cleansed. The entire bathhouse is about cleaning yourself. We also get the symbolism behind a name. She signs a contract and that gives the witch her name, and there is power in that. She is then called Sen and as she forgets her name she will forget herself, like Haku. Her name represents her identity, who she is. It is a literal symbol for who she is. Hence, symbolism. I honestly could go on and on about symbolism in this movie because there is SO MUCH. But I’ll end it there.
Jeni: So, what exactly is symbolism? When I think about symbolism in literature, I always think of that old meme about, like, why the curtains in a room are a certain color, what the author meant to convey with that, when in fact, the author just thought that was a good color. I think it just shows what we’re always saying, that to some extent, your readers are going to interpret your writing according to their own lives and experiences. However, what it also means is that if you don’t intentionally add symbolism, readers are just going to look for it anyway! I think, as humans, and certainly people who read a lot, we look for deeper meaning in things, and symbolism does that. But I actually want to start with a slightly different way of thinking about symbolism, which is maybe going to get a little meta, so stay with me. First, we use symbolism all day every day. Every time you use a gif or an emoji, you’re using symbolism. These can reinforce the meaning of the words you’re using, or they can offer a different connotation than the words themselves have. For example, emojis and gifs can be used to denote sarcasm or humor. And here’s the meta part where we’re going to get all existential. Ready? Technically, words and even letters are symbols. They are little drawings we came up with to represent abstract ideas and even concrete things. And then we made them even more symbolic by adding connotations. Did I blow your mind? I blew my own mind a little. So what does all this have to do with symbolism in your manuscript, and are you? I want you to switch out of the mindset that the only kind of symbolism is that heavy-handed brand where every single word has to mean something more. There are all kinds of ways to add symbolism to a story without having to overthink every word (more than you already do anyway). So I just wanted to give that context to get you, listeners, to think about symbolism as more of a living, breathing thing than we sometimes think of it from English class. And essentially, at its heart, symbolism is there to represent a meaning deeper than the literal meaning of something. Anything in your story can be symbolic--characters, settings, even actions.
Carly: So what does symbolism add to a story? And it’s not just for literary fiction! Basically, like Jeni said, everyone will read into symbolism in your story, whether or not it is intended. If something in your story connects to a reader, they will turn it into a symbol. So to speak. But utilizing symbolism as a tool is really important. It can elevate your writing by connecting more deeply to your readers beyond what is happening in the plot. It adds deeper meaning. It lets your readers connect with your story on a deeper level. At the basic level, symbolism helps your words to do more. When a character or action can represent more than the basic definition, you get your words to do double duty. In a way, it is a form of show not tell. In this story they don’t come out and say that gluttony and greed are bad. But they utilize symbolism to show that. Pigs, purging, monsters that consume, all of these things represent the deeper meaning of the story without having to spell it out. It feeds into the theme, into the message that the story is trying to convey. And I don’t mean “feed” as a pun, but there we are. Symbolism lets you get more meaning across to your readers. It creates a bond because you aren’t just telling them the meaning of your story, you are showing it to them, letting them feel it, letting them connect to your story in a more organic way. Deeper connections are forged when a reader works to find it, when they feel it instead of hear it. Basically: it is another tool in your belt to connect with readers and let your words work harder for you.
Jeni: Some of this symbolism will be purposeful on your part, even if you don’t do it intentionally because our brains are so wired for deeper meaning and tuned into social and cultural symbols that we don’t even realize we are doing it sometimes. Some of it will be accidental, like the color of the curtains, where readers will find meaning where there isn’t really any. So it’s important to know what tools you have at your disposal when it comes to symbolism in your writing. Again, pretty much everything can be a symbol. Characters can be symbols, for example. The concept of archetypes comes to mind. So, in this movie, Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathhouse, is very much an archetype of the enemy. She is pretty much completely selfish and even evil. We know exactly who she is and what she represents (cough capitalism cough), at least from the narrator’s perspective, because of how she’s portrayed. Her literal meaning is the owner of this bathhouse, but the meaning in the story goes much deeper than that. Similarly, tropes are basically story elements that have been used before to the point that they have become symbols. I mentioned one earlier--the kind of useless adult trope we see in kids’ stories. This trope conveys a whole set of emotional content with it. It’s not just about kids not understanding how adults behave but also this feeling that adults don’t listen to children and some very real fears of what that will mean. Another great tool at your disposal is figurative language like similes, metaphors, and hyperbole. These allow you to go beyond even the connotation of words to tap into the deeper meaning associated with the comparison. Imagery is a great way to do this. In the movie, I think the best example of that is that the people who take the food in the abandoned village--again, who does that??--turn into pigs. Pigs generally signify gluttony, greed, all the things Carly mentioned earlier.
Carly: How do you decide what kind of symbolism to use? Well first of all, decide what you’re trying to get across in terms of theme, motif, etc. Are you trying to show the downside of capitalism and how it turns everyone towards greed and gluttony? What are common symbols of those elements? Are you trying to convey a sense of transformation and growth? You can utilize a garden motif where vines decorate the wallpaper and the main character has a view of a garden from their bedroom. But vines can also represent being smothered or overpowered. Vines can choke other plants, wrap themselves around them until the other plant dies. It can slowly pull down and crumble walls. So when playing with symbolism, be aware that items can have multiple meanings. And also that an English major like me can fall down the rabbit hole of what does it mean and what can it symbolize and I will never ever stop. You know what vines can also mean? Ivy league, the elite. Or a forest expanding and turning buildings back to nature. Don’t test me, I can go on and on. Anyway, consider the reader’s expectations and play with them intentionally. Do they expect the parents to fall asleep or be consumed by the bathhouse? If instead they are turned into pigs, it will make the reader stop and consider why. Why would they be turned into that? What meaning is there behind the pigs? We might expect the dumpling to cure No-Face and turn him back into the kindly spirit. But we don’t expect it to make him constantly regurgitate. Slowly returning him to his previous state while he purges the excess that he had consumed. He removes his consumerism slowly. While it is a magic cure like you’d expect, the form it takes, the way it cures him, sheds meaning on the story. It turns that action into a symbol that reflects the themes of the movie. When you subsume these metaphors into your story, you can get across a larger meaning. Something that your reader may pick up on intentionally or unconsciously. You can use common tropes that a reader will unconsciously pick up on the deeper representation/symbol. Or you can upend the tropes to point an arrow to the fact that there is another meaning in this symbol. You can utilize smaller symbols in metaphors to reflect the overall theme of the story. We have the larger symbols of purging happening throughout the plot, but we also have the smaller metaphors in the story, like when the gold that was being handed out turns to dirt. It is a small moment to show that we as consumers put meaning behind gold, gold is a symbol of wealth. But in actuality, it might as well be dirt. It is nothing more than the meaning we put into it. I could also make the argument that rich soil could be more useful or worthy because things can grow from it, unlike gold. Okay, I’m falling down the English major hole again… so I’m going to stop this train of thought. Basically: determine what you want to convey, and then use imagery, tropes, and metaphors to symbolize those themes.
Jeni: So, yeah, like a lot of things in writing, you can employ symbolism at every level of your story, from word choice to what happens in a scene to overall plot, character arc, and theme of the whole story. When your manuscript is complete--and by that, I mean, drafted, revised, feedback, revised more, etc--everything in your story needs to do double or even triple duty. So once you’ve decided what you want to symbolize and how using Carly’s lovely tips and tricks, you can add symbolism really at any stage of the writing process. If you’re a planner, you can definitely think about this before you start drafting. If you’re a pantser, it’s better to wait until your zero draft is complete. For most authors, who are somewhere in between, it can be helpful to have some idea of any large-scale symbolism you want to include in your first draft and then go back and add smaller symbolism in revisions. Basically, regardless of what your writing process looks like, don’t expect the first words you put down to have a lot of great symbolism. It’s something that will come in revisions, whether you revise as you draft or wait until after a draft is complete. My suggestion is to take a very practical approach to this and make notes about what you’re trying to symbolize and how you plan to do that specifically. Then go through each affected scene and make sure you’re covering all those levels from small to large. So, for example, if you’re trying to make sure you have symbols of grief as a theme, that’s something that will need to be present in each scene to some extent because it’s a theme. For each scene, consider what makes sense to use as symbolism. You might choose a simile for one scene and that’s it. Something like “it was as cold as a grave” can be powerful. But you may need the whole action of another scene to reflect the grief theme. So just make sure you’re changing it up and employing a variety of techniques.
Carly: What are the problems with symbolism? Honestly, there are quite a few. It is one of those elements that needs to be used intentionally but at the same time not overused. First of all, your story can end up being too symbolic. Modern audiences have a lower threshold for symbolism. If your entire story is symbolic, like Moby Dick, you might run into criticism that it is trying too hard. Symbolism can have the negative stereotype that it is only used in high-brow literature. That it is only used by people that are trying to be too smart. You want to use symbolism to enhance your story, not to set a challenge for readers or gatekeep your story. If you try too hard, it can become cliche or derivative. We as a culture are inundated with symbols every day in all sorts of forms, but particularly in media. If it is a symbol that we see too often or a trope we’ve been exposed to frequently, it can feel like the story is derivative. It becomes cliche. You could argue that the parents turning into pigs is cliche. The term “capitalist pig” and the greed and gluttony that comes with that has become pretty cliche. If it is too derivative you’ll lose interest from your readers. It will feel like the same old thing they’ve read a million times. On the other end of the spectrum, if you try too hard to not be cliche, sometimes your symbols won’t be clear to your readers. If you decide that instead of using ladders to show someone rising above something you are going to use curtains, your meaning might be lost on readers. You need to balance the overly cliche symbols and the nonsensical symbols to find ones that aren’t overdone, but still make sense.
This month our query is an adult high fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: I see some great conflict here, and I’m happy to see the query focuses primarily on the main character, that conflict, and stakes. I struggle a lot with why this particular character has to be involved. So, we see the stakes at a sort of global level, and we see how being involved affects the main character. But why does it have to be this character? What would happen if he didn’t do the thing? What if he just walked away when he got the call to action? People--and characters--don’t just take on hard, uncomfortable things because they’re good people. There’s always something that drives that for them. So what is that for this character? What is such strong motivation to right this wrong that he is willing to put himself at such great risk? What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: I think you hit the nail on the head. I got why the conflict needed to be resolved, but why does the main character take this one? He is so interesting and full of anxiety, what pushes him to take on this quest when he admittedly is the wrong person for the job? This story seems to have a lightness and humor to it, based on the word choices in the query, so as long as that is intentional, I think you nailed the tone really well. I love the comps as well and the way you used specifics in the comps. Other than that, I’ve got no notes! I really liked it.