Zuzu’s Petals! Make Your Magic Authentic to Your Readers!

Unless one has never heard of the invention of a television, it’s fairly safe to assume that we all know the reference ZUZU’S PETALS. In case one among you (AND YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!) has not yet seen a particular movie, I shall explain Zuzu’s Petals before going into the point I want to make about writing. (-:

ZUZU’S PETALS. They are perhaps the most glorious evidence of magic that we have in the universe today. Let’s just go right to it, shall we. Behold! Zuzu’s petals!

ZUZU and her PETALS!


Aren’t they glorious!? The most beautifully gorgeous symbolism in all of moviedom! Yes…I’m excited. Of course I’m excited. I get excited every time I think about those petals. And tis the season.

In the above picture you will see Zuzu Bailey and her father George Bailey. They are characters in the movie IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Zuzu’s story is a sad one. But it’s also one that is, at first glance, such a small insignificant role in the vast scheme of things. At first glance. I’m going to forgo the announcement that a spoiler follows here. Because all but maybe one of you have seen It’s a Wonderful Life.

Zuzu comes home from school with a beautiful flower and can’t wait to show her father. But some of the petals have fallen off. George, in his infinite desire to please everyone–and especially his lovely Zuzu–pretends to reattach the petals. But he secretly slips them into his pocket. Zuzu’s tragedy is averted, and her love and adoration for her father grows three sizes that day. Her flower is returned to its beautiful self and her tears retreat.

George Bailey then falls into the rabbit hole. He is taken into a world that would be the world how it would exist if he had never been born. It’s a much bleaker, darker world. It’s quite frankly a terrible world. It’s also a world in which Zuzu’s petals do not exist–no George means no Zuzu. Folks, don’t ever shout to the universe, “I WISH I WAS NEVER BORN!” That’s a rabbit hole you will not want to go down, right there.

As the movie wraps up, George is allowed to reverse his error and come back into the world he left behind. He has seen the vast changes his life-force has created in the world. He knows that the third rock from the sun is a better place with him in it. His faith in humanity is restored and he feels glorious.

Of course, he must be thinking, ‘Wow. What an awesome dream!‘ Because something otherworldly like that just can’t happen, right? But lo and behold…George Bailey reaches into his pocket and what does he find there? You guessed it! ZUZU’S PETALS. They were a huge symbol the whole time. Right in front of our noses. George IS. And how does he know he is? Because ZUZU is. Because…Zuzu’s petals!

“Zuzu’s petals…Zuzu… There they are!”

Today’s lesson for writers is simple. In truth, I just wanted an excuse to talk about Zuzu’s petals. Because they’re glorious and what not.

Firstly, did you know that It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a short story called The Greatest Gift. Written by Philip Van Doren Stern, it was privately published. I have to wonder if that means self-published.

My point? I do have one. No matter what magic you write into your story, it must be authentic. I use the term magic loosely here, because this can apply to any genre…not just magical realism or fantasy or paranormal or anywhere you would normally find MAGIC. I’m talking about anything from coincidences to ghosts to flying to world-building to Zuzu’s petals. Put clues in your work to authenticate the reality you want your reader to step into. Subtle clues. Tidbits of information that they can reflect back on when they reach the story’s conclusion. Something that will make them go, “AHA!”

I don’t know about you…but I eat that stuff up. I was just a child when I first watched It’s a Wonderful Life. And, for me…the most magical part wasn’t George suddenly running through a town that was COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than the same town we were just previously shown. The most magical part wasn’t the way people who lived as adults had suddenly died as children and lived-in houses became empty haunted spaces and even the TOWN became renamed in the blink of an eye. The most magical part were those petals. Placed lovingly into a pocket in the most subtle way…so that I would both remember their significance and forget their significance. Those petals were a glorious flower themselves…planted as a seed in a threadbare pocket. And when they blossomed, when George reached into his pocket and discovered those beautiful babies…well, my world stopped.

So the lesson for writers today is this—do that! Give your readers a whole boatload of Zuzu’s petals. Be like Hansel and Gretel. Leave glorious breadcrumbs throughout your story…breadcrumbs that will validate the story itself, make it more authentic. Every reader loves a great AHA moment. Just don’t manipulate them. Your breadcrumbs can’t have huge glowing neon signs on them that scream, “LOOK AT ME!” They need only be a few crumpled petals placed lovingly in a pocket in an effort to staunch the tears of a loved one.

It’s Not What You Say But What You Say and How You Say It – The Art of Talking Good Dialogue

For me, the chatter that takes place between the pages of a book is the most important part of the book. The connecting prose is merely the scaffolding, if you will.

There could be quite a few things wrong with a book, but if the talk is authentic it can still have legs. Yes, as writers we should concentrate on ALL aspects of our craft. It is incumbent upon us to do so. But I honestly believe there should be extra emphasis on the dialogue. The minute that becomes inauthentic and weighty, the book starts to take on water. Bad dialogue? It may never recover. For me, it’s the most inexcusable flaw in story. That’s why we should pay extra close attention to the words we choose to put in our characters’ mouths. Those words carry a LOT of weight!

Toronto City Hall Festival of Lights - The Secret to Writing Good Dialogue is to make yourself a part of the crowd. LISTEN. Then write!
Toronto City Hall Festival of Lights – The Secret to Writing Good Dialogue is to make yourself a part of the crowd. LISTEN. Then write!

It’s been a while, so… time for a list.

5 Quick & Easy Step to Writing More Gooder Dialogue

  1. Sorry about the list title. Every once in a while I like to make my writing readers twitch. I know that title is going to make someone scream. The FIRST step to writing excellent dialogue is LISTENING. It’s an easy step and it’s one you can do anywhere, anytime, anyhow. You don’t need any props or expensive equipment. Just plop yourself down somewhere and lend an ear to the environment in which you happened to have plopped. Great places in my Dialogue Listening Toolbox? DLT 🙂 My favourite for a while was Arrivals at the airport. Man, the dialogue! Coffee Shops, Subway Stations, Bars, Office Water Coolers, Hospital Emergency Waiting Rooms. You see where I’m going here, right. Anywhere! Just go somewhere where there are lots of people. Sit. Listen.
  2. Use slang and bastardized language at the proper acceptance threshold. Don’t weigh down your dialogue with an excruciatingly heavy amount of bastardized language or dialects. Just enough to suggest to the reader that it’s there. The only place I accept ANYWAYS ever is in dialogue. I do NOT consider ANYWAYS to be a word. In fact, the dictionary usually says this of ANYWAYS: informal or dialect form of anyway. So slang-a-lang-a-ding-dong is acceptable in dialogue. Because people use it. People hyphenate and shorten and murder words when they speak. So it is acceptable in dialogue. Don’t pepper it into your prose outside of those quotation marks, though!
  3. READ YOUR DIALOGUE OUT LOUD. Do NOT ignore this crucial step. I cannot help you, if you do. I consider it absolutely imperative to read dialogue out loud. It is unforgivable not to. If, when you’re reading it alive, you think, “NOBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY THIS. NOT THIS WAY.”, then you will know why this step is so important. And it will happen. I don’t think anybody writes perfect dialogue in a first pass. READ. IT. OUT. LOUD. If you have friends who will read it aloud with you, all the better. Sit together and go over the dialogue parts of your manuscript like you would a play reading.
  4. Don’t be afraid to murder your dialogue darlings. Sometimes, as writers, we write the perfect sentence. Then we sit back and bask in the warmth of the glow coming off that sentence. But quite often that stellar sentence is as useless as bark on a donkey. CUT IT! If your character gave some brilliant soliloquy that is just shining with the beauty of our language, but said soliloquy kills the flow of story by taking the reader out of its depth, SLASH IT. It’s your beautiful darling, but it just hiccupped your reader. Don’t do that!
  5. I don’t really have a #5 so I will just leave you with this. SAID rules!

Now get out there and LISTEN. It’s easy. SIT AND LISTEN. Then… SIT AND WRITE.

How Many of You People Know You’re Alive?

So asked Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in the biopic The Doors. Did Jim Morrison really stand up on a car and ask the living world of passersby around him this prophetic question? Who knows? Furthermore, who cares? The fact that it was asked in the movie is enough. How many of us really do know we’re alive? Sometimes I’m almost certain I’d have to be run over by a tank just to realize I’m breathing. But that’s the thing about breathing. You don’t need to practice it. It just happens. It’s one of those things-like blood flow-that just happens to us…come what may.

But is that enough? Do the facts that our blood pumps and our breath breathes make us, in fact, alive?

I say no. These facts just make us slightly different than rocks. They keep us alive. Alive is different than living. You have to live to be alive. You have to breathe the light fantastic. Or is that skip the light fantastic? Ooh…a cliche. Those things we’re never supposed to use. Anyway, I prefer to skip the light fandango…turn cartwheels across the floor. Now that is living.

I’ve lost the thread, haven’t I?

How many of you people know you’re alive? When Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison screeched that question into the Los Angeles night he was higher than a kite. He thought he was alive. He was passing judgement on everybody around him who he saw as ants struggling within the human condition. In other words, he was living.

At times like these, when I am knee-deep in my writing, I sometimes stop and ask myself that question. Do I know I’m alive? I mean, I’m involved in all this STUFF. And yet…none of it really touches me. I have 2 plays being produced within the next month. My 3rd novel was just released. I just helped pull off a hugely successful writers’ conference. I’m stepping into an important role on my local writing community’s board of directors. All these things should give me pause. Should make me feel something. Should make me think, ‘yes…I know I’m alive.’

But they don’t.

Those things are just for fun. Sure…I get excited about them. But only on a surface level. They are not proof of my existence. In other words, as much as I care about getting these things right…about people enjoying the work that I process, the writing that I create…they don’t help me in the least to breathe. These things are incidental. They are just things that I do. When I write, I pass the time. It’s almost the same as breathing…no effort on my part. It just happens. Does my writing answer the question that Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison asked while perched up there on the car looking down on the little people who surrounded him?

No. The answer is an emphatic no. Writing doesn’t even scratch the surface. It doesn’t suggest to me that I’m actually alive. I love it…don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t seem to create a reaction in me that tells me I’m living life. On the contrary…being a writer sometimes requires one to remove oneself from the treadmill of life. I agree, you must live to be a writer of any talent. What we do as writers is reflect life. If we are not living it, we cannot reflect it…we would be nothing more than vampire attempting vainly to look at ourselves in the mirror.

What the hell am I even trying to say here?!

I live life. Spending a week at the cottage staring off into the bowl of paradise from my Muskoka chair, my wet dog at my feet. THAT is living. Holding my grandson’s hand as he walks me to the light standard in the middle of our court because he’s fascinated with lights and he wants to tell me that said light standard is… “It’s OFF!”…that’s living. Taking in a Leafs game with my son…who can make a hot dog disappear in ten seconds flat…THAT is living. Laughing at my daughter’s crazy sense of humour and wondering where on earth she gets it from? THAT is living. Hurting to the point of being ripped apart? Laughing to the point of pissing myself? Getting lost in a movie at the theatre and holding my breath as I wait for the big something to happen and transform my life within the confines of that dark theatre? THAT is living. Christ, even filling the grocery cart every week and making sure we have the things on the list that my teenage dirtbag son requires to make him artificially happy? Even THAT is living.

Writing…putting words down one after another? That’s not living. That’s just breathing. Anyone can do that. You don’t even have to try.