The debut of this presentation is scheduled for Saturday, April 14th at the League of Utah Writers 2018 Spring Conference.
This is the third part in the three-part series “Creating Fictional Rites and Rituals.”
Here are handy links to the other two parts:
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In the second part of this series we discussed what the different elements of ritual were as well as different levels of importance ranging from the mundane to critical. In this part, we will walk through the different elements and talk more about how to apply them to your own writing.
Quick Review – the five elements of ritual are:
- Central focus
- Unique venue
- Ceremonial dress and/or items
- Prescribed actions
Central Focus – What’s the Goal?
- Mundane, significant, or critical?
- How important is it to your character to succeed?
- Emotional impact to character
- What does he feel about the situation?
- Higher emotional stakes translates to a more dramatic scene, long set up
- Low stakes mean not as much time spent setting up, less description.
Example: For this post we will be using the proposal scene that appears in my book being released in November. Katira and Elan have been sweethearts for years and Elan decides that at that year’s Harvest Festival he will propose. He’s excited, scared, and has been planning this day for weeks. Everyone in the town knows of his intentions.
Unique Venue – Where (and when) does it take place?
- Most rituals must be performed in a specific place and time of day.
- There will be a place that feels right. Religious rituals tend to be in Churches, etc.
- Some rituals work best at very specific times, like high noon, early morn, or late at night.
- As with all settings – describe only the parts relevant to the character
- His focus will guide your reader through the scene, what does he see, feel, and smell?
- Another chance to worldbuild
- Buildings and public spaces often have historical note, if it feels right, sneak in a few descriptions that flesh out the world or culture.
For my proposal it is customary for the boy to ask the girl during the harvest festival so that the whole community can be involved and show support for the happy couple. It’s evening, the lanterns have been lit, bonfires dot the outer rim of the square.
Ceremonial Dress or Items – What items are needed?
- Each item mentioned must have meaning
- While it’s very easy to list off many unusual items, it’s more interesting to focus on a special few.
- These items can include specially prepared foods
- Wedding cake, seasonal specific foods, Japanese Tea Ceremony
- Possibility of revealing backstory
- Just like setting, items can talk about a characters past.
- Worldbuilding tool
- Items can also be used to mention cultural practices.
- Resist the temptation to info dump
- Vivid action is amazing. Exposition is boring.
In this proposal ritual there is no special dress, although those attending the Harvest Festival tend to wear their best. Elan must present a proposal crown for Katira to wear on her head, showing the community that she accepted his offer. Each of the flowers and seedpods woven into the wreath has symbolic meaning. Evergreen pine symbolized the long and happy life they would have together. Red fall roses were for strength in adversity. Feathery white woodsmoke seedpods were for the hopes of future children.
Note: these three things represent the things Katira wishes for.
Prescribed actions – What must the participants do?
- All actions must have significance.
- Again, it’s easy to list the different steps your character takes. It’s also boring. Make it engaging by giving those steps significance to your character.
- The more important the ritual, the more precise and demanding the actions are that must be performed.
- This can cause anxiety in your character, make sure we see him sweat.
- This will include the different steps of the ritual the character must perform, as well as observers, officials, etc.
- Don’t forget to add other important people to the scene.
- How does your character feel about the ceremony? Jubilant? Reluctant?
- The effectiveness of a ritual scene rests in the emotional journey of the character. The reader needs to see how important it is, or isn’t.
To show his humility, Elan must kneel to present Katira her crown and ask her to marry him. Beforehand, he must seek permission from Katira’s father. She has the choice to accept or refuse, and if she accepts, she wears the crown.
Is there music or sound?
- Doesn’t have to be music. Can be clapping, drums, chants, shouts of agreement.
- Set the soundscape of the event
- Some ritual observes respectful silence
- Adds another tactile sense to the scene.
The Harvest Festival has live music playing throughout as well as the shouts of children racing through the crowd, lovers giggling as they find shadows to hide in, and people clapping to the beat.
Think back on any religious ceremony and the first memory will probably be of the music. Midnight Mass, Christmas programs, Weddings. All have music involved, either performed or as a congregational. Music serves as a unifying element, it literally brings people together as they unite their voices in song, which is why it can be a powerful part of a ceremony. In LOTR when the elves believe Gandalf has died, the elves of Lothlorien sing him a lament, Skyrim’s theme song is a chant, military units have call and response cadences to keep them in unison as they march or run.
Writing Exercise: Create a ritual for your current project, don’t forget to address each of the five elements of ritual as well as discuss the emotional impact on your character.
Want to tell me all about the ritual you created? Share it in the comments below!
I hoped you enjoyed this series of lecture as much as I enjoyed learning about rites and rituals. Don’t forget, there are other presentation notes handy, feel free to check them out. I’m working to get my complete lecture series listed, so check back often.
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