story craft #19 Weight in a Name

Mike GristLife, Story Craft Leave a Comment

You’ve probably heard of the callback, a technique comedians use to get fresh mileage out of an old joke, often with exponentially uproarious results. Here’s a callback in Seinfeld:

Seinfeld did these a lot, in this case it was a callback and a kind of catch phrase linking back to a previous episode, that when repeated multiple times, only gets more power. Master of my domain. I use these sometimes just hanging out with people- something gets mentioned early on, you see a chance to mention it again later, tangentially related to what they’re saying, boom, everybody laughs. Everybody uses them. They’re on comedy quiz shows constantly.

AND- we can use them in our writing too. I’m sure we can use it for comedy, if we want, but now I’m talking about power, as in emotional power. It could be fear, awe, happiness, sadness, fulfillment, just about anything. In fiction, as in Seinfeld’s comedy, repetition across multiple contexts can build a kind of emotional power.

Look at political speeches. Obama’s refrain of YES WE CAN throughout the 2008 election probably won him the presidency. He always built up to it carefully and low, rising to a crescendo at the end so clear and expected that crowds would shout out his catchphrase with him. Like a rock star, he could have sat back and held the mic out to them and they would have just brought chills and awe and release onto themselves, just by saying the words.



I WON A CONTEST. (refers back to same master of my domain reference, stacking callbacks for ultimate laughs)


I’ve noticed I do this technique all the time. In my short story Bells of Subsidence, we meet Aliqa and Temetry. Aliqa is leaving the planet to fly around the universe in a giant Bell ship, which will use her memories as fuel. She will end up remembering nothing at all.

But despite that, and forgetting everything else, she remembers Temetry. Through most of the story, she no longer even knows what his name means, it’s just a word she somehow clings on to. I’m giving myself shivers just writing about it. But it gives her hope, and that’s what his name comes to mean to her. It drives her on. It plays a huge role in the ending, which I believe provides the same kind of crescendo that Obama’s final Yes We Can would elicit- though of course of a very different sort.

But it’s not only me. Look at Ayn Rand, and ATLAS SHRUGGED. Don’t judge the politics, look at the way she builds up the character John Galt. His name is everywhere, on billboards, in newspapers, on people’s lips, influencing everything, but nobody knows a thing about him. They don’t even know if he is a person, or an idea, or what. So his name builds up this huge, almost mythical stature. He’s a mystery, a cipher for everything that could be good, or that might be bad. I think it’s brilliant. So when, at the end, we finally meet John Galt, well. Well, it’s actually a bit dull, as he lays out a philosophical screed for maybe 50 pages. But the build up was killer.

LOST did it with Jacob. For maybe 4 seasons they mentioned Jacob’s name with awe and reverence before we finally met him. It built him way, way up.

I also do it in my novels, constantly. I did it in my very first, and I’m still doing it now, often via lists. There’ll have been lots of characters in the story, many important, and I often call many of them back at the end, in a punch punch punch list, like YES WE CAN after YES WE CAN, or I Won a Contest after Master of my Domain. They stack, and hopefully each name brings a slightly different flavor with it. Like Temetry, one can be love and hope. Another can be loss, another friendship, faith, anything.

You stack all those ingredients and hope together they punch the reader in the emotional nuts. You try to get to them, by piling up all the goods you’ve got in one snappy paragraph or line. They weep, they punch the air, they laugh out loud, it’s all good. It’s the weight of a name.

Like I say, I may overuse it, but it’s an incredibly powerful technique. Give it a try ;).


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