Friday, November 15, 2013

Symbolism in the Old West Story - Part 2 of 2

By Michael T. Pizzolato

In the previous post on symbolism in writing, we covered the topic of symbols in westerns. We found examples of how rocks and mountains can represent obstacles and how sunsets can depict endings of a life or of a story.

Symbols vary from culture to culture, but in the western, they are usually American or Native American. Symbols are objects in stories that represent something else, such as a concept or value that emotionally enhances a scene or story and makes a subconscious connection with the reader.

Often a single symbol can carry many different meanings, so you can use tried and true meanings of symbols or you can make your own interpretation. Consequently, if the reader really is all in and along for the ride in your writing, you can make an emotional connection to the reader with the image or symbol. Moreover, depending on the mood of a scene or story, you can at times use symbols as a contrast to depict the opposite of what you want to represent, but do this with some caution in mind as it is harder to make a reader connection this way.

Nature is full of symbols that can have multiple meanings. The writer’s overall message is what generally narrows down a symbol’s meaning, and keep in mind symbols work subconsciously. A sky can portray limitless possibilities, especially a clear sky. If a sky is gray or stormy, it can represent foreboding threat or danger. Fire can show a sense of safety even romance if it’s in a campfire, for example, or it can symbolize danger, destruction or even purification if it is widespread. A tree can mean strength and stability. An old tree can represent wisdom. A willow tree bending in the wind can lend a sense of compromise to a scene. Butterflies can be symbolic of freedom or even fragility, change or metamorphosis. Flowers, real or otherwise, can also mean love, new life or new beginnings. In Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, for example, the doctor marries Sully while on her wedding veil and dress are laced patterns of flowers, representing the new beginning and the new life they will share together.

The moon can be cold and void of emotion as it reflects the sun and has no light of its own. In our western culture inherited from the Greeks, the moon is considered feminine and associated with the Greek goddess Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo the sun god.

Calm water can represent peace as in the scene in Lonesome Dove where Gus takes a playful creek bath with Lorena nearby, peaceful moments at least until moments later when the villain Blue Duck makes a threatening appearance. Crashing waves or churning water can alert the reader to danger or emotional turmoil as when the cowboys in Lonesome Dove were crossing the thick currents of the churning river where one of the characters is bitten to death by snakes in the water. Crossing a river can also represent maturity, as it was Newt’s new best friend who had suffered the horrific snakebites, with young Newt left to learn a hard lesson about death on the other side of the river. The old man in westerns often represents wisdom, and old Gus offered much life wisdom to his friend Call, especially on the subject of women, a topic on which Gus was well versed.

The heart is the body’s major organ, but it can mean love or courage. In westerns, we often see the sheriff or marshal pinning his badge over his heart, symbolic of his bravery but maybe also of his love of upholding the law. And getting shot in the heart, as happens often to the villain, surely carries symbolic significance in the western story.

The cross can represent the Christian faith that was prevalent on the frontier, and it can also represent redemption, sacrifice or suffering. We’ve all seen in western movies and novels the church topped with a cross at the end of the corrupt town representing its’ isolation from a corrupt society, and we’ve also seen in Pale Rider the forceful Christian symbolism of the main character that Eastwood himself has called “a ghost.”

A flag is but a section of cloth, but its’ meaning can transcend a scene and evoke feelings of courage and longing for freedom. In Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotton and Linda Darnell, the Union and Confederate flags represent the division in the country at the time of the movie’s setting.

A baby can represent innocence, vulnerability or new life. A president, a lawman, a soldier, a pearl, even types of clothing are symbols that trigger inner responses from your reader of which you should be aware.

Symbols are so important to westerns that western movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Searchers (in particular its iconic ending) would not be the same without them. Sergio Leone, John Ford and Clint Eastwood are probably the best directors at bringing symbolism from the printed script page to live action film, and we’ve looked at how writers like Bret Hart and Meg Mims used mountains as symbols in The Outcasts of Poker Flats and Double Crossing. We’ve also seen how mountains can mean something different in Native American culture where mountains can mean a connection to the spirit above. This Indian aspect of mountains as a spiritual plane, however, can have similar meaning in both American and Native American cultures. In Christianity, the primary religion of the frontier, Christ went up into a mountain and ascended to heaven so that the mountain, in addition to be a symbol of an arduous journey in American culture, can sometimes have a spiritual plane meaning akin to the Native American meaning. Narrowing down the meaning just depends on where you are with your reader and what you are portraying in the story.

The next time you write, read or watch a western, be alert to symbols. And as a benefit to you the writer, they will not only enhance the emotional impact of your story but also better connect you to your reader.

Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Symbolism in the Old West Story

By Michael T. Pizzolato

A symbol is an object in a story that represents itself along with a thought or emotion that we may sense or feel when we see the object. In any story, symbols are important because they can lend subconscious sentiment or emotion to a scene or story.

Symbols vary from culture to culture, but in the Old West story, symbolism is American as well as Native American.

Here are some symbols and their meanings along with some examples from western stories, which you may find helpful in your short story, novel or screenplay:

Rocks and mountains in a story can represent obstacles and difficulties. Set in Gold Rush California, the short story The Outcasts of Poker Flats by Bret Harte is about so-called “undesirables” who have been expelled from an Old West town and must make a journey over the mountains that represent the arduous tasks ahead replete with danger.

In the novel Double Crossing by Meg Mims, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras symbolize the sizeable trials and difficulties ahead that will include the heroine being pushed off a railroad trestle, nearly pushed from a train as well as fighting for her life on mining hillside as she tracks down her father’s murderer.

In the movie Shane, as the young boy cries out to the severely wounded main character, Shane heads off into the mountains that represent the final obstacle of Shane’s own eventual death.

In Native American culture, however, the mountain can represent a journey or a spiritual connection with nature. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, as Josey talks with Chief Ten Bears, notice the mountain range behind Wales as he speaks spiritual truths to the chief. The domestic scene of the Indian village behind the chief symbolizes the land as the Indians home. Blood exchanged by knife cuts on each man’s hand represents not only brotherhood but blood as a powerful symbol of purification and redemption, perhaps a foreshadowing of the movie’s ending when the wounded Josey bleeds onto his own boot before saying to the forgiving and reluctant villain Fletcher, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.” Again, the mountain, this time larger and closer, is behind Josey in the ending as he converses with Fletcher and then rides off into those mountains and into the sunset, another symbol we’ll discuss shortly.

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert as in the western movie Seraphim Falls.

The sunset is a symbol for death and often for story endings. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. 

In The Searchers, the sunset symbol is both an ending as well as a death, as Ethan turns from the closing door and walks off into the sunset, estranged to a spiritual death away from the family he worked so hard to unify.

Animals can also be symbols. In Dances with Wolves, the wolf is analogous to a dog, and a dog in American culture (Fido=Fidelity/Faith) represents faith. When the wolf is killed, it demonstrates how Dunbar’s faith is now tested and will be shaken by the events to come. But the same symbol can mean something different in another culture. To the Indian culture, the wolf represents a medicine of courage, strength and loyalty, and so they name Dunbar “Dances with Wolves” who will courageously leave his American culture for the Native American way of life.

Symbols are important to any story. There are many more than presented here, and symbols are not universal, that is, they are different for each culture. However, in western stories, symbols will generally represent American and Native American values.

More importantly, symbolism can add subconscious emotional power, not only to a scene but also to the story itself.

-More on symbolism in a future post.

Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Drawing Tips

By Michael T. Pizzolato
Associate Editor and Art Director

Draw every day. Practice makes perfect in anything. If you don’t have a lot of time, draw something, even if it’s on a sheet of loose-leaf paper that will find its way to the waste can. Draw and sketch a face, a horse a cow, a cartoon, anything. Just get your pencil busy and get in practice.

Study anatomy. You don’t need a medical knowledge of anatomy, but learn what muscles look like underneath the skin. Learn some bone and muscle basics. Protruding muscles are where you’ll place small definition lines on the skin that will help the drawing look authentic. Muscles underneath shape the outer edges of the anatomy as well. Faces are also anatomy, so learn where all the parts-eyes, ears, nose, etc.-go when you draw them in.

Let 3-D construction lines guide your work. If you draw a horse, for example, make a 3-barrel for the chest and sketch around that. The same goes for the horse’s legs-make 3-D cylinders and draw them in as well. Also, make use of references. If you’re drawing a horse or a person, you need to know what one looks like in detail, so this means having an image of one on your table as you draw. After a while, you will reach a point where little or no reference is needed. The same holds true for the human body, where torsos, legs and faces are made with a series of blocks and planes that after you learn them, will require less and less reference over time.

Understand one-point and two point perspective. There are many books and web sites out there on this often difficult and confusing topic. You can grasp 3-point perspective later, but one and two-point perspective are the most important. One point is like you’re looking down a long hallway to where the ceiling and floor of the hallway come to a single point. For two-point, think of a small box rotated to where the edge is facing the viewer. Now tilt the box upward or downward. Let’s say a downward tilt for our purposes where you see over the top of the box. If you follow the parallel box edges, the top of that box actually forms two long hallways, one ending on a point far over to the right and the other far over to the left side of the drawing. Those two points are on a straight line above the box called the horizon line (or ground line). Here is a link that may clarify things a bit better: Two Point Perspective

And when you create the lightly drawn perspective lines (to be erased later), this is the space where your drawing of people, horses, cows, etc., will go.
Use drawing manuals, online resources and even art classes to help you get better. There are many excellent books out there on how to draw as well as many online resources. More importantly, if the local university’s adult education department is offering a drawing course, take it.  They are usually fairly inexpensive and fun. There‘s no substitute for face-to-face training and learning.

Dance to your own music.  Make no apologies for your work and fear no one’s opinion. The special thing about your art is that no one else in the world can replicate it. It is a unique and special creation from your own God-given talent. Your artwork will speak to some people and not so much to others. You can always weigh whether or not criticism is valid and worthy of your making a change, but don’t let that stop you from making more art. The best advice I can give any artist is to make art every day without fail.

Check out some of artwork featured at The Western Online.

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Favorite Western Writer

By Matthew Pizzolato

My absolute favorite writer in any genre is by far Louis L'Amour. I've written many times about why I admire both him and his writing.  I own everything he published and have read all of his book numerous times.  He was an influence not only on my writing but on my life as well.

I found this video of a 60 Minutes interview done with him that I'd never seen before and felt compelled to share it.

What writer has influenced you the most?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Increase Your Publication Chances

The best way to put the odds in your favor when submitting to any publication is to read the Submissions Guidelines for that magazine.  It's amazing how many people fail to do that.  Sometimes guidelines can seem tedious, but they are always there for a reason.

For example, The Western Online only publishes Western fiction, articles or artwork.  Yet we constantly get fiction submissions that aren't even Western stories.

The next step is to make sure your writing is good.  The best way to do that is to follow the advice of the great Elmore Leonard.  Numbers three and four are especially important as they are by far the most noticeable.