In various English classes throughout my years of schooling, and I imagine throughout yours, as well, I was expected to memorize certain literary terms, like imagery, denouement, exposition, assonance, consonance, symbolism, theme, and sympathetic nature. Somewhere, I probably still have one of those lists, which might serve as ample fodder for these Tuesday posts, but it wasn’t an educational reminiscence that prompted this week’s post. Rather, it was a quick bout of free-writing I did in some spare time with a notebook.
As I was waiting for someone to show up to a meeting, I pulled out my notebook and, instead of picking up Thorskgold the Bold, I just wrote the first things that came into my head, and the first phrase that I scribbled was “lightning flashed.” I didn’t write much beyond that, because just writing that single, two-word sentence sent me along a tangent about the role and purpose of imagery and sympathetic nature in writing, and why certain concepts, like that of lightning flashing, have such a powerful, dramatic effect on a scene. The eventual result was this post.
Why is a phrase like “lightning flashed” so evocative? Is it a latent sense that this is a representation of nature’s power that we cannot quite explain, control, or replicate? Is it the visceral sensations that anyone who has experienced a thunderstorm shares, when the lightning sears across your vision and you can feel the rumble of the thunder rolling through your chest? Or is it perhaps because that image in a dramatic sense is integrated as part of our cultural zeitgeist, something that we have learned subconsciously to associate with a certain thematic set of emotions from the various media we have consumed over the course of our lives?
I don’t have an answer to that question, but those questions set me to thinking about the literary tool of sympathetic nature. Even if that’s not a term with which you are already familiar, you have doubtless encountered the concept it encapsulates before, since all it is trying to express is the idea that what nature is doing in a story can reflect what characters are feeling or experiencing. Does it start to rain when a character is sad? Is there a violent thunderstorm during a battle? Does an ominous fog arise when the characters are sneaking up on something, or something is sneaking up on them? All of these are examples of sympathetic nature. So, for that matter, is the cliché phrase “’Twas a dark and stormy night.”
Those examples of sympathetic nature were probably familiar to you, though, because they have been used so many times, which means that they could be considered cliché. Observing the real world, how often do we actually see the perfect weather conditions matching your mood, or the events happening around you? Rationally, it cannot be all the time, and for every instance of it being sympathetic to your circumstances, it will be equally unsympathetic to someone else’s. As a writer, therefore, you have to decide when it’s appropriate to use this particular tool. I tend to think that discretion is better, because otherwise it tends to become too convenient.
To some extent, I have taken to using a tool that I call unsympathetic nature in my descriptions. If I’m going to go to the effort of describing the weather, I think it actually becomes more interesting, evocative, and memorable if I make that weather the opposite of what my readers probably expect. No one is likely to remember if it happens to storm during a particular battle, because there have been so many battles written and depicted during adverse weather. A battle in the middle of summer, beneath bright sunshine? Historically, that was probably at least as common, but they’re far less commonly depicted, so my theory (which I cannot prove) is that it will stick more vividly in readers’ minds. Not that they will specifically remember the weather, but that the overall impression of the scene will be more memorable for that difference.
There are times, though, when traditionally sympathetic nature can serve the story. I wrote a scene in Fo’Fonas in which Rof and Resha are struggling with their relationship, and I set that scene in the rain. It wasn’t a major part of the scene, but even though it could seem cliché, I think it made the scene more powerful. Finding that balance, like for so many other aspects of writing, is the secret to effective use of sympathetic nature, and I by no means claims to have uncovered any kind of secret formula of success.
How strongly you emphasize these ideas in your writing can also affect how well the sympathetic nature technique works. If you’re hammering the weather and its relationship to the story’s action in every other paragraph or every other sentence, it’s likely to come across as overdramatized and unrealistic no matter what weather conditions you happen to employ. Using it as a framing tool, where you reference it at the beginning and end of the scene in question, is probably a more effective method in most circumstances. The exception would be where the weather conditions should have a tangible effect on the action – if you set your battle scene in the rain, I want people struggling to hold onto their weapons, or slipping in puddles, or having blurred vision because of the raindrops suspended from their eyelashes as they peer through the sheets of falling liquid for their next opponent.
As usual, there are no clear-cut answers for this, any more than I came up with an answer to my first musing about lightning and its emotional resonance in us. These are just my thoughts, and I’d be interested to know what you think about the use of sympathetic nature. And, if you happen to have a simple answer to my other question, then you’re either much wiser or much more foolish than I.