Friday, February 7, 2014

Snow Globes and Making Your Fiction Memorable

Writing advice: everyone has some. And who am I to give it: nobody. I'm just a guy sharing his experiences with writing. Snow globes make sense to me, and I rarely hear anyone talking about them, so I thought this might be a new concept to some and a refresher for others.

When I say 'snow globe', I don't mean the decorative ball of water and snow. I'm talking about a writing device that represents a story, either through theme or emotional engagement, and acts as a focal point for making a story memorable.

The term 'snow globe' references Orson Welles' 1941 film Citizen Kane. In the opening scene, Kane is clutching a snow globe. He utters the name "Rosebud. . ." and dies. The globe slips from his hand and smashes on the ground. Many critics have disseminated the symbolism of this scene--the divergent plot, the hopes, the fragility, etc, etc--but the context here is that the snow globe is a solid object in the story that the viewer can latch onto when recalling the film later. From there, the story unravels. But that scene continues to come back to us. In our minds, it represents the story for many reasons. Think of The Wizard of Oz. Is there a single item/image that you think of when you hear that title? Dorothy and her red shoes, perhaps? What do those shoes say about the movie and why do they stick with almost everyone so completely? Yes, they're red and bright and therefore noticeable. But they also represent something deeper. Home, innocence, you decide. That's the great thing about symbolism--different people will derive different meanings.

Often, the most obvious snow globes are a singular item or place. Like Dorothy's shoes. Or REDRUM (I bet you know what movie I'm referencing here based on this single piece of imagery). Or the envelopes in the short film Envelope (a really great movie staring Kevin Spacey. It's 17 minutes long and will stick with you better than most full-length Hollywood features. Watch it.)

But snow globes aren't always obvious. Or singular. If you've read Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried, you might know how a snow globe can be represented by a collection of items/images. Each soldier has something personal that he carries with him into battle, and each character is made clear and unique by those items. The innocent youth carry comic books and photos. The tougher ones carry more adult items. But all carry something that strongly represents the person as an individual and, at the same time, represents the theme of the story on a whole.

In the short film Waiting for the End of the World (6 minutes), the snow globe is one item that takes many forms. For the main character and his dismal life, clocks of every kind sum up his existence. The film begins with him waking up, much too early by the looks of it, to an alarm clock. This is followed by the character continually punching in at work. The punch machine, another clock, reminds us that he is on someone else's time, an employee and nothing more. Then there is the clock at his job that he counts the passing hours, minutes, seconds with. He watches this clock, although we know he wishes he didn't, and we feel his life ticking away in the service of a corporation. His countdown at the end of every shift drives this point home. The seconds are simultaneously meaningless and heavy. Each second, the same as the last, brings him one step closer to an empty life.

And then there's The Great Gatsby and the green dock light. This snow globe has conflicting meanings that highlight themes and the character's metamorphosis. Gatsby stands on his dock, staring across the water at this green dock light flashing through the fog. That light represents his hopes, dedication, and a great longing for a lost love. Early in the story, we see Jay Gatsby as this unstoppable juggernaut. He is superior to the common man and anything he puts his mind to is accomplished. There is no way he can fail to win Daisy back. But as the story progresses, we start seeing cracks in the myth. Jay Gatsby--and his hopes--are crumbling; the green dock light takes on new meaning. It no longer represents hope--it represents failure. It represents unrequited love and everything that's wrong with Gatsby's dream and the life he worked so hard to attain. In that dock light, we are reminded of all the emotions that make The Great Gatsby such a memorable story.

For me, inserting snow globes into a story isn't a conscious thing. If I were to plan them ahead, they wouldn't feel natural. I write and then I go back during the editing process and I look for what item or location or character trait can summarize the story and its themes. Then I draw that item out, or maybe I bury it in a way the reader isn't aware of. Obvious works, but so does subtle.

Here's one more short film. Can you identify the snow globe and its role? The Laundromat (6 minutes).

(This lesson and the idea of a "snow globe" was originally created by Christopher Ramsey, a teacher who gave me some lasting guidance at an important time in my life. Thanks, Chris!)


  1. Interesting article JC - thanks for posting your thoughts.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This IS interesting.

    What's the difference between a snow globe and a MacGuffin?

    -Christopher Ramsey