The Covenant of the Character Arc ~ Raise the Stakes & Make it Count

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Stories help us cope with the chaos of life. They show us how to navigate social situations and overcome adversity. A New York Times article, “Your Brain on Fiction”, by Annie Murphy Paul, discusses studies that prove this.

For a story to fulfill its function and satisfy the human spirit, there has to be change. The covenant of the (character) arc, as Blake Snyder so wisely described it, is the necessity for characters to change. The measure of change is a character’s arc. In the best stories, all characters arc except the bad guy. J.K. Rowling did an excellent job of this throughout the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter

The Transformation Machine

Shake. Stir. Whip. Frappe. Do whatever it takes to force your characters to confront their frailties and become wiser, stronger, better. Blake Snyder, Mr. Save the Cat! referred to this process as the Transformation Machine.

All stories are about transformation. And seeing this as a good thing is the starting point of writing a successful story of any kind. ― Blake Snyder

In essence, the hero’s transformation mirrors the process of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. A type of death and rebirth are required to complete a satisfying character arc. Take Gracie Hart, the unrefined FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) in Miss Congeniality, who must become a polished beauty pageant contender in order to solve the crime and save the lives of her new friends.

Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock

Dishing out conflicts for characters isn’t always easy, but  it’s a must. To achieve a great ending—as described in Secret Ingredients of a Satisfying Ending—the characters have to change. A lot.

There are plenty of character arc graphs and charts. I understood the theory, but applying it evaded me until I read Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2) story points, or beats, that push the character arc include: Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul. Tim Stout provides excellent descriptions for each of these beats here.

Make ‘Em Suffer Till They Shine

It’s simple. To survive, our hero has to change. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) puts characters through hell—literally and figuratively. This pressure has an effect similar to that which transforms a lump of coal into a diamond. It files down the hero’s rough edges and makes him shine.

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.
Joss Whedon

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Take it up a notch!

In chemistry, heat accelerates change. The same is true for stories. Here’s a few suggestions for turning up the heat and increasing the transformation process:

  • Make the Bad Guy badder—For the protagonist to be perceived as the hero he is, the Bad Guy has to be as bad as possible. The villain must be an equal match for the hero, but willing to do whatever it takes to win. Beating the villain has to seem impossible, so when the hero wins he shines brighter.
  • Increase internal conflicts—Fear, doubt, jealousy, shame, any and all emotional trauma. Bring it. The pressure makes the hero to face his inner demons, and forces him to realize that what he thinks he wants isn’t what he really needs. Dig Deep for a Story That Resonates shows how this can strengthen the story’s theme.
  • Increase external conflicts with friends and relatives—Betrayal, abandonment, rifts in trust, arguments, even death. Pile it on. These conflicts push the hero to his lowest, forcing him to find strength he didn’t know he had.
  • Throw in a force of nature—Wind, rain, earthquake, snakes, anything to make your character’s goal harder to accomplish. These obstacles can force the hero to overcome his flaws.
  • Blow something up—A couple of authors shared this advice at a conference. The event has to be organic to the story and plausible for the characters. The action must also come from a deep emotional need to force transformation. Extreme times call for extreme measures.

Enhance the Heat

Stories have flavor. And just like a great meal, flavor is enhanced when complimented by an opposite. To strengthen the impact of a transformative moment, pair it with its opposite.

Joss Whedon said it best…

Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.
Joss Whedon


Secret Ingredients of a Satisfying Ending

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A great beginning keeps readers turning the pages. A great ending builds a fan base, because readers will be thinking about the book long after turning the last page. We’ve all experienced the satisfaction of a perfect ending to a book, movie, or television series. But what’s the secret?

What makes the ending of one story great, while another story’s ending leaves us unfulfilled?

The finale of the TV series WHITE COLLAR helped solve this mystery for me. The series ending was so perfect, I couldn’t help breaking it down, analyzing the elements that lead up to a culmination of satisfaction.

But first, an overview of the series for those who may not be familiar with the main characters and premise of the series.

White Collar ~ The Series

Cast of White Collar

The third time turns out to be the charm for criminal Neal Caffrey. He has been eluding FBI agent Peter Burke for years, a run that finally comes to an end with his capture. But after the resourceful prisoner escapes from a maximum-security facility, then is nabbed once again by Burke, Caffrey suggests a different end-game: In return for freedom, he’ll help the Feds catch long-sought criminals. Though skeptical, Burke soon realizes that Caffrey’s instincts and insight are a rare commodity. Caffrey’s trusted friend and co-conspirator with ties to the criminal underworld, Mozzie, also becomes a useful source for Burke and the FBI. [Series Synopsis]

The series was well written with engaging characters and story lines, and plot threads with enough twists to keep the most agile guessing. Mozzie, Neil’s sidekick, added a delightful streak of rebellious quirkiness for comic relief.

Ingredients of a Great Ending

*** SPOILER ALERT ***
If you don’t want to know how White Collar ends, STOP now.

Ingredients for a satisfying ending, with examples from White Collar:

  1. The promise of the premise for the story and the genre is paid off. The FBI promised Neil Caffrey his freedom if he was instrumental in helping them solve their toughest ‘white collar’ cases. To satisfy the promise for this genre, justice had to be served to this end. Neil does go free after making the ultimate sacrifice when pulling off a sting on a treacherous ring of international thieves.
  2. The main character’s arc (Neil Caffrey) is completed in a believable fashion. Neil’s loyalty to Peter (as an FBI representative) and his wife Elizabeth becomes true, when he realizes his freedom ultimately threatens the lives of the couple and their unborn child. Neil also shows deep remorse when his actions hurt an innocent young woman he’s forced to befriend to bring down the thieves. For the first time he questions his life and the role he plays with the FBI. The completion of the character arcs for Peter and Elizabeth Burke, and of course, Mozzie, though less dramatic, are equally rewarding. It would take too long to explain them all here in detail. Trust me. Better yet, watch the series.
  3. The main character earns the payoff, internally as well as externally. In the end, Neil overcomes his inability to trust Peter (as an FBI representative), and puts the safety and well-being of his friends before his own. To ensure their safety, Neil secretly masterminds the final phase of the sting. His selfless actions earn him his freedom and happiness.
  4. There’s a significant sacrifice for the pay off. For Neil to earn his freedom (payoff), he made the ultimate sacrifice. He fakes his own death to ensure the lifelong safety of his friends—sparing them from retaliation by the gang members caught in the sting. Neil can never talk to or see the people who mean the most to him again. The ingenious method he uses to fake his death added to the overall satisfaction.
  5. Enough is left to the imagination without leaving unanswered questions. Everything isn’t tied up neatly, leaving “what happens next” up to the audience’s imagination. In the final scenes, Peter Burke discovers clues leading to the storage locker Neil secretly rented during the initial planning of the sting. What Peter finds gives him insights into how Neil faked his death, thus assuaging his remorse over the loss of his friend. In the final shot, we see Neil strolling down a Parisian side street wearing his fedora, a satisfied smile on his face and a carefree spring in his step.

 

If you have an a Perfect ending Element to add to the list, Please do!

 


Holy Cow! A Mooonlight Serenade Revival

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It’s hard to believe that I started this blog four (4!) years ago today. I was so timid about publishing my first post. Ha! Timid no more. That’s for sure.

To ensure that I don’t take myself (or what I write) too seriously, I’m reviving that first post from January 1, 2012. Light in word count (?!), but it launched me into the blogosphere. And that’s what counts.

Thank you all for being part of this wonderful journey.

Fred Astaire, move over for the Tap Dancing Cow!


The Making of Santa Claus

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Santa Claus, the cultural icon we know today, was made in America. I knew about the real Saint Nicholas, but was surprised to discover that the “jolly ol’ guy in the red suit” was an American literary creation and marketing manifestation.

Santa Claus dolls

Many faiths share the custom of gift giving around this time of year. Which is why it’s kind of amazing that the predominant icon for the season is a fictional character created in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. [PC: Moi, taken at Filoli]

The Original St. Nick

St. Nicholas was a 4th-century Greek saint from an area that is now St. NicholasTurkey, who had a reputation for putting coins in the shoes that were left out for him. As the patron saint of children, he was most often associated with giving them gifts.

One of the many generous deeds attributed to Saint Nicholas was providing dowries for the daughters of three impoverished families, so the girls could wed. In those days, a woman without a dowry was unlikely to marry, and then her fate was often to be sold into slavery (read: prostitution).  [Public Domain: Saint Nicholas]

Santa Claus ~ Literary Creation

Early Dutch settlers brought Sinterklaas to America, and the name first appeared in print in 1773 as “St. A Claus.” However, it was not until the 19th century that the Americanized Santa Claus came into being.The Night Before Christmas, book cover

Washington Irving gave Americans the first detailed information about the man we would come to know as Santa Claus. In 1809, writing under the pen name Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described the St. Nick’s arrival on horseback each year on the Eve of Saint Nicholas (December 6th).

A few years later, Clement Clarke Moore created the Americanized Santa Claus in his 1823 poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas—today known as The Night Before Christmas. Moore gave Santa’s reindeer names, described Santa’s mannerisms, and even introduced his leaving your house by up the chimney.

Marketing Manifestation

The American image of Santa Claus came into focus with illustrator, Thomas Nast. Nast’s Santa Clause, Harper's Weeklydrawings for the Christmas issues of Harper’s magazine from the 1860s to the 1880s were of a rotund man with a white beard, wearing a red suit. Nast even added the details for Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and his list of good and bad children of the world. [Public Domain: Thomas Nast illustration of Santa Claus]

Norman Rockwell further popularized the American image of Santa Santa Claus, Norman RockwellClause with his many Santa themed covers for the Saturday Evening Post. Then in the 1930’s, Coca-Cola created illustrations for an advertising campaign that turned Santa’s red suit into the cultural icon it is today.

Rudolph (the ninth reindeer) with his red, shiny nose, was invented by an advertising writer for the Montgomery Ward Company in 1939. [Public Domain: Two covers for the Saturday Evening Post by Norman Rockwell]

Written Into Reality

With Santa Claus a predominant image in national media, children across America began Miracle on 34th Streetto write him letters. The letters to Santa piled up at post offices, where some postal workers took it upon themselves to answer the letters and even fulfilling the requests.

Hollywood played on this theme in the 1947 classic, Miracle on 34th Street, cementing the image of the jolly ol’ guy in the red suit as a “very real” holiday icon.

To make Santa and his workshop even more real, the USPS provides a service where you can get a North Pole cancellation stamp on a card or letter. I’m not kidding.

To obtain a North Pole cancellation stamp:

  1. Complete your card or letter and seal it in an envelope.
  2. Address the envelope and apply sufficient postage.
  3. Put the stamped and addressed envelope in a larger envelope and seal it.
  4. Put sufficient postage on the larger envelope, enough to cover the extra weight.
  5. Address the larger envelope to:
    North Pole Christmas Cancellation
    Postmaster
    5400 Mail Trail
    Fairbanks, AK 99709-9998
  6. Drop the (larger) envelope in a mail box, or deliver to your local post office.

For more about how writing letters to Santa became a standard practice, read Alex Palmer’s A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa in Smithsonian Magazine.


Grumpy Cat Helps #GiveFriskies to Cats in Need

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Grumpy … with a Heart of Gold

Once again, Grumpy Cat (Tardar Sauce) has stepped up to help cats who are far less fortunate than herself.  She’s championing a cause with Friskies to give 150,000 (!!) meals to cats in need, now through December 25th. Here’s how it works:

Each time you use the hashtag #GiveFriskies on Twitter or Instagram Friskies will donate a meal to cats in need across the nation.

It’s hard to be a cat at Christmas and all cats deserve a good meal. A couple of years ago Grumpy Cat, Oskar the Blind Cat, Nala Cat, Colonel Meow, and Hamilton the Hipster Cat starred in the following video that helped to feed over 500,000 homeless cats.

Grumpy Cat at Christmas

Kindness Comes in Many Flavors

Grumpy Cat and I both have a soft spot in our hearts for cats that have been left to fend for themselves under harsh conditions. If you don’t use Twitter or Instagram, you can help homeless animals in your community in lots of other ways. Here’s a few small things you can do that are not “small” at all:

  • Donate a bag of cat/dog food to your local Humane Society or animal shelter.
  • Give those old towels you were about to throw away to your local animal shelter. They always need towels and other types of bedding material.
  • Shelters always need disinfectant cleaners, bleach, newspapers, and paper towels. Next time you’re at Costco, buy extra and donate some to your local shelter.
  • Donate your time. Shelters need volunteers in all capacities.
  • Best of all, open your heart and home to a homeless or rescue animal. They will return the love one hundred-fold.

MJ Wright did a post on The Missing Spirit of Christmas that caused me to reflect on what the holiday season really means. For me, it’s kindness and generosity—but not the commercial-consumption kind—giving from the heart with random acts of inspired kindness. At the end of the day, true joy comes from helping one another…animals included.

It’s Hard to Be a Cat at Christmas…


Food Fiction ~ Culinary Character Elements

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November is the month of food in the United States, with Thanksgiving…a holiday entirely centered around food. So it’s the perfect time to talk about food fiction. Which apparently is a genre. Who knew?

A writing instructor once suggested that our class “include descriptions of food” to hook the reader and add depth to our stories. I haven’t taken that advice…yet, but I don’t discount its validity either. Many authors use food as a story element, creating an engaging character element in the process.

images of food and spices

I usually limit discussions on this blog to Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) fiction. But in this genre, all my favorite stories come from adult fiction. And I don’t think its a coincidence that two of the titles have “chocolate” in them either. These books are all bestsellers that were made into major motion pictures. Proof that my writing instructor’s advice carried more than a little truth…when done right. [PC: morguefile.com]

I hope you enjoy these stories too. Bon appetit!

Like Water for Chocolate ~ by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate is a tale of love, magic…and recipes.Like Water for Chocolate Earthy and laced with magical realism, this story of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico centers on the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter, is forbidden to marry (by Mexican tradition) and must look after her mother for as long as she lives. As fate would have it, Tita falls in love with Pedro and he in turn is seduced by her cooking, which is magically infused with her passionate emotions. Unable to have the woman he loves, Pedro marries her sister, Rosaura, out of desperation to be close to Tita. Over the following twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro circle each other in a dance of unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of bad luck and fate can finally set things right, allowing the two lovers to unite at last. 

In Like Water for Chocolate, the food Tita cooks becomes an extension of herself. Her emotions are infused in the food she touches, and anyone who eats her cooking experiences her emotions. Food becomes the vehicle through which Tita and Pedro fall in love, as well as the connection which sustains their passion until the can be together at last. This sensuous novel was made into a tantalizing motion picture of world-wide acclaim.

The Hundred-Foot Journey ~ By Richard C. Morais

Hundred-Foot-Journey“That skinny Indian teenager has that mysterious something that comes along once a generation. He is one of those rare chefs who is simply born. He is an artist.”

So begins the illustrious career of Hassan Haji, the unlikely gourmand who recounts his life’s journey in The Hundred-Foot Journey. Lively and brimming with the colors, flavors, and scents of the kitchen, The Hundred-Foot Journey is a succulent tale about family, nationality, and the mysteries of good taste.

This story shows us how the hundred-foot distance between a new Indian kitchen and a traditional French one can represent the gulf between different cultures and desires.

In The Hundred-Foot Journey, food is the character that unites family, directs fate, and bridges the chasms between diverse cultures. Food is also the catalyst that opens closed minds to new ideas, and opens hearts to the humanity within us all no matter the culture. This book was recently made into a delightful feature film, I highly recommend seeing. More than once.

Chocolat ~ by Joanne Harris

In tiny Lansquenet, nothing much has changed in a hundred years. That is, until beautiful Chocolat moive posternewcomer Vianne Rocher and her exquisite chocolate shop arrive. Havoc ensues soon after with the breaking of Lenten vows in a strict Catholic community. It’s more than just chocolate that Vianne delivers. Each box of bonbons comes with a personal gift: Vianne’s uncanny perception of the customer’s private discontents and a clever cure. Taken in by Vianne’s charm…and chocolate…the town folk abandon themselves to the culinary delight and happiness. A dramatic face-off between Easter solemnity and the gaiety of a chocolate festival result in a climatic resolution. Chocolat is a delicious mix of passion, whimsy, and of course, chocolate. 

In Chocolat, food (chocolate) is part of the main character, Vianne. But chocolate plays another major role in this story when it becomes the adversary—the catalyst for change in the small French village. Chocolate forces the strict Christian township to look at its narrow-minded ways and open their hearts and minds, choosing inclusion over exclusion. The Oscar-nominated film of the same name starred Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp.


 

What’s your favorite food fiction novel?

 


Time as a Story Element ~ Setting, Tone, Atmosphere, & Urgency

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clockNational Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) is just around the corner—a yearly event in which writers commit to completing a 50,000 word (or more) novel during the month of November. One month. One book. Not a lot of time. So, time as a story element seems like an appropriate blog topic.

Stories unfold over a set interval of time. That’s a given. What I want to discuss is how different types of time can be used as story elements to set mood, further plot, and deepen character. [pc: morguefile.com]

Types of Time

There are four types of time that can be used to add atmosphere, set tone, and increase urgency in a story:

  • Clock time:  Sets mood and creates suspense.
  • Calendar time: Creates a context for events, such as prom, homecoming, and graduation.
  • Seasonal time: Creates atmosphere, as well as providing a backdrop and reason for cultural events and activities.
  • Historical time: Establishes a context for social ideas, behaviors, and attitudes.

These elements can be combined, as you’ll see in the following examples.

Seasonal Atmosphere

Calendar and seasonal time are a natural combination. A season is technicallyCover for A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck three months long, allowing the story to unfold during time. Seasonal time can be used to set atmosphere and integrate events particular to the season to further the story. One great example is A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck. The story begins in the fall, with a Halloween outhouse scene that is laugh-out-loud hilarious, while also adding depth to the characters.

Home Alone movie posterSeasonal events can also introduce urgency that influence characters’ actions. The movie Home Alone is a perfect example.

When a young boy is accidentally left behind at Christmas–while the family travels to Paris–he is forced to defend their house against burglars, with side-splittingly funny results.

Ticking-Clock ~ Urgency and/or Advocate

You don’t really know a person until you see how they react under extreme pressure. DieHardWhich is why a ticking clock—a figurative pressure cooker—is a great way to reveal character strengths and flaws.

The ticking-clock can be combined with seasonal time. The Christmas party setting in the movie Die Hard is the perfect excuse for the entire company to be at the office headquarters at night with minimal security. It also provides a reason for NYC cop John McClane (Bruce Willis)–the estranged husband of a corporate VP, Holly McClane–to be visiting, so he can then take down the bad guys in badass style.

In the movie Back to the Future, time is both an advocate and adversary. Time is the vehicle (no pun intended) by which teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels back into the past to alter the developmental paths of his parents to create a better future for the family. The ticking-clock is BackToTheFuturethe electrical storm required for Marty to escape the past and get back to the future.

As the electrical storm gathers, Marty arrives at the clock tower as a falling branch disconnects the wire from the tower to the street. As Marty races the DeLorean toward the clock tower, Doc climbs across the clock to reconnect the cable. The lightning strikes, sending Marty back to 1985, but not before he sees Doc killed. Marty soon discovers Doc actually survived because of the bullet-proof vest he was wearing. Doc takes Marty home to 1985, then sets off for October 21, 2015 (Back to the Future Day!).

Historical Time

Sent coverHistorical time can define setting, social interactions, attitudes, laws, and mores. There are any number of terrific novels that transport the reader to a different historic time to experience life in another era. What I like about Margaret Haddix‘s Missing series, is the unique spin on historical fiction with a time travel twist.

In Found, the first book in the series, Haddix establishes the plausibility of time travel and the anticipation that the main characters are not who they think they are.  In the second book, Sent, Chip, Alex, Jonah, and Katherine land in 1483 in the Tower of London where the imprisoned Edward and Richard fearfully await their fates. Chip and Alex soon realize that they are princes Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York–come back from the future. They watch history unfold, trying to save the princes without altering time in a way that would kill them anyway. This book is rich with accurate historical details that bring the setting and characters to life. It also poses a unique possibility regarding the actual fates of Edward and Richard.


 

The International March for Elephants ~ Ban Ivory, Save a Species

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October 4th 2013 marked the first International March for Elephants. On October 3rd  and 4th 2015, the march continues.

Thousands of people around the world are marching to raise awareness about the devastating impact of the ivory trade. Unchecked it will wipe out the wild elephant populations by 2025.

Every 15 Minutes an elephant is killed for its ivory…

The International March for Elephants was organized by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) through their iworry campaign, taking place around the globe. If you are unable to join the march, there are other ways you can make a difference. Every day of the year.  [image from DSWT iworry program]

International March for Elephants poster

Launched in September 2012, the iworry campaign has attracted worldwide backing calling for a complete ban on the ivory trade.

It’s simple. When the market for ivory disappears, the killing for it will stop.

Recently, the United States and China laid the groundwork for a ban on all ivory trade. Some states, such as California, have also enacted bans on importing ivory. Progress is being made, but there’s still a long way to go if we are to save these majestic creatures from extinction.

You CAN Make a Difference!

It’s easy to think, “What can I do? I’m just one person.”

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust logoThe truth is, each of us can make a difference. Supporting an organization that is actively engaged in preventing poaching — one that also rescues orphaned elephant calves that are victims of poaching — is a way those of us who are continents away can make a significant positive impact.

The  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and returning orphaned elephants to the wild sinceKamok, DSWT 1977. The organization grew out of the family’s passion for Kenya and its wilderness. Today, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation program in the world. It is also pioneering conservation for wildlife and habitat protection in East Africa.

Image of 1 day-old KAMOK ~ September 2013 ~ David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E founded the organization in 1977 to honour the memory of her late husband, David Leslie William Sheldrick MBE, the founding Warden of Tsavo East National Park. Since then, the lives they’ve saved is nothing short of astounding.

Backing Words with Action

It’s one thing to bang out a blog post, but my words won’t mean a thing unless I back them with action. I am happy to be fostering KAMOK and SIMOTUA, orphaned baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Fostering is only $50.00 US dollars a year. I know people who spend more than that in a month at Starbucks. It’s rewarding to know that you’re making a difference in a huge way…in the life of an individual elephant, as well as the protection species as a whole.

The following video of Kamok’s rescue demonstrates the level of care this organization extends to each and every animal in its care.



For information on how you can foster an orphaned elephant or rhino at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, go here.

You can also help in the following ways:

Together we can make a difference!


Idiotic Idioms: Expressions that make you ask, “Seriously?”

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There are quite a few common colloquialisms that are centered around food. Phrases with meanings that have little or nothing to do with food … or even eating. Here are a few of my favorites.

Dollars to donuts ~ A certainty

I’d bet dollars to donuts. Why are people betting donuts? Are they Krispy Creme employees, perhaps with a gambling problem? Seriously, what is up with that?

Dollars and donuts

This is a uniquely American betting term. However, I was relieved to discover it did not originate from actual bets that involved donuts. It’s an expression that indicates short odds. Dollars being valuable, while donuts are not. The phrase first appeared in mid 19th century in the newspaper The Daily Nevada State Journal, February 1876:

Whenever you hear any resident of a community attempting to decry the local paper… it’s dollars to doughnuts that such a person is either mad at the editor or is owing the office for subscription or advertising.

The phrase doesn’t appear in print again for some years, but is still used today.

I’ll eat my hat ~ A display of confidence

red cowboy hatThis next phrase is about something to eat, but not something you’d actually want to. Why someone would offer to eat their hat is beyond me. Where do people get this stuff? Absurd as it is, this phrase has been around since the late 16th century!

“I’ll eat my hat” is an expression used to convey confidence in a specific outcome. For example, “She’d forget her head if it weren’t screwed on. I’ll  eat my hat, if she remembers my birthday.”

The earliest example of the phrase found in print is in Thomas Brydges’ Homer Travestie, 1797:

For though we tumble down the wall,
And fire their rotten boats and all,
I’ll eat my hat, if Jove don’t drop us,
Or play some queer rogue’s trick to stop us.

Charles Dickens used another version of the expression in The Pickwick Papers, 1837:

If I knew as little of life as that, I’d eat my hat and swallow the buckle whole.

The expression later became popular in the United States, and is still used today. No one wants to actually eat a hat. Which is why the phrase is only used when there’s certainty about the outcome of an event.

Take the cake ~ Get all the honors

We’re on a roll (no pun intended) with food obsessed idioms, but back to something more enjoyable … and Strawberry cakemuch more logical. Like taking a cake. Because most everyone likes cake.

This phrase was used by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. The Greeks used ‘take the cake’ as a symbol of a prize for victory. Surprisingly, there’s no evidence of the English use of this phrase until it caught on in the United States in the 19th century.

In the US, the phrase became popular due to the cake-walk strutting competitions in the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The following is from The Indiana Progress, January 1874:

The cake-walk, in which ten couple [sic] participated, came off on Friday night, and the judges awarded the cake, which was a very beautiful and costly one, to Mrs Sarah and John Jackson.

In cake-walk competitions, couples were judged on their strutting style. The winners were said to have ‘taken the cake’, which was the prize.

In modern-day usage, the meaning has changed somewhat. Today, the expression is often used with sarcastic overtones. For example, “She got perfect scores on the SAT, but has a 2.0 grade point average. If that doesn’t take the cake…”.

Pie in the sky ~ A fantastical idea or promise

Pie in the sky … seriously? Why is there a pie in the sky? What were they smoking? You have to wonder.

The ridiculousness of this phrase makes it even harder to believe that it first had a religious connotation. I am not kidding. Originally, it implied the promise of heaven while continuing to suffer on earth.

blueberry pie

The phrase originated in America in 1911. A Swedish laborer named Joe Hill–a leader of a radical labor organization called the Wobblies, for which he wrote songs–first used the phrase in his song The Preacher and the Slave, a parody of the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

The phrase didn’t become popular until the Second World War, however. Then it was used figuratively, to refer to happiness that was unlikely to ever come about. Similar to how the phrase is used today. The following excerpt is from the California newspaper The Fresno Bee, November 1939:

The business world is fearful that Roosevelt’s obsession with war problems will mean a continued neglect of questions which still restrict trade and profits. They are highly skeptical of Washington’s promise that they will ‘eat pie in the sky’ solely from war orders, which they decry publicly.

[Photo Credits: morguefile.com]

Bite the Dust ~ To die

This phrase has nothing to do with eating anything, not even dust. I wrote about this idiom in a previous post. To learn more, go here.


Fiction Writing ~ Socially Acceptable Insanity

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Kidding … But Only Just

A while back I tweeted, “Fiction writing is a socially acceptable form of insanity.” I was only half-joking, and was surprised by how many people seemed to agree with me. Later I discovered that some famous authors gave credence to that view also.

J.K. Rowling said that she is “perfectly happy sitting alone in a room, making things up in her head all day.” We applaud her because she’s written stories many of us hold dear. If a non-writer type person made the same statement, we’d worry for them.

Then there’s Ray Bradbury, who said pretty much the same thing:

Ray Bradbury quote

Keeping It Real

When fiction is done well, readers suspend disbelief, their world drops away, and the story becomes real…the characters, the setting, everything about the time and place. For an author to create a story that convincing, the world and characters have to become real for them as well. As Robert Frost said:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

At a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference a few years back, Judy Blume made a surprise appearance and added one better to Robert Frost’s quote:Marble statue

“If the author isn’t turned on when writing a love scene, the reader won’t be turned on either.”

The audience hooted, because it’s so true. If you don’t feel the spark when you’re writing a scene, the reader won’t feel it either.

The same standard of realness holds true for any art form, if it is to emotionally move its audience … whether it’s music, the visual or performing arts. To transmit a feeling through their work, the artist must delve into the emotion. One glance at the statue in this image, and it’s obvious the sculptor felt love on a deep, spiritual level. [PC: morguefile.com]

Reading ~ Socially Acceptable Psychosis

I came across the following description of reading and laughed out loud, because it’s a perfect match for psychosis:

…staring at marked slices of trees and hallucinating vividly for hours on end.

When fiction is done right, this is the effect is has on the reader. We become so fully engaged in the story…everything about it becomes real.

The reality a story creates doesn’t cease when a book is finished…for the reader or the writer. The story and its characters take on a life of their own. So much so, that many of us wish fictional characters Happy Birthday on social media (you know you do too, admit it).

The world the characters inhabit becomes equally real. Why else would thousands of people trek to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in Orlando (and soon in Los Angeles) to visit Hogwarts, Diagon Alley, and drink butter beer? Because that world is real to those who love those books.

Meg Cabot recently tweeted about actually googling the weather in Genovia (Princess Mia’s country). I love this. I can so totally relate, after having read the entire Princess Diaries series. This is fiction done right!

Meg Cabot tweet


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