Sometimes what your book needs is an elephant or two in the room. That’s what a mokita is, and while we don’t want these elephants in our real lives, they can be powerful agents in your storytelling.
Having an unspoken problem brewing along with everything else in the pot of your story is an excellent way to engage readers, raise the stakes, and introduce conflict. A hidden problem that affects multiple characters in your story makes for particularly rich pickings.
Turning a blind eye to real life problems – or turning a minor indiscretion into a lasting secret just because we refuse to talk about it – is common. In fact, there’s a word for it.
Mokita is a foreign-language word that translates into English only with help of a phrase. Used in the Kilivila language of the island of Kiriwina on one of the Trobriand Islands near Papua New Guinea, it means a “truth we all know but agree not to talk about.”
Having a mokita lurking in your book can rev up your plot line.
Sometimes we hide the truth to put the past behind us. And sometimes it’s necessary to attempt to lead a normal life – to forget about a war, the untimely death of a loved one, a lost child. Other times, the truth is too dangerous to say out loud, like when you are a fugitive hiding in plain view from the government.
Sometimes we hide the truth to protect loved ones. Unwanted pregnancies, deaths, or affairs can all lead to children who might be loved but are adopted. You might fear a threat, but you don’t tell your children so as not to scare them. You might be dying, but you don’t tell anyone.
A mokita can be many kinds of truths a community might elect to not speak of. We have a related idea which we express in the idiom “the elephant in the room.”
“The elephant in the room” became our “truth we chose to ignore” idiom from the fable “The Inquisitive Man,” written by Ivan Andreevich Krylov in 1814. It describes the visit of a man to a museum where he sees the minutiae but not the elephant.
This is how idioms are born: A word or phrase nails something on the head that previously had no name.
Do you have an elephant in your book that your characters have to deal with? Is one of the characters dying and no one want to talk about? Or is the head of the family a womanizing, cheating, drunk, but no one will bring it up at the dinner table? Is the grandfather a suspected Nazi but no one will dig deep enough to find out?
Elephants are a wonderful, visual metaphor. They are intelligent, but huge. You get the immediate sense that all else would be crowded out if an elephant were in the room.
At the same time, having an animal of that size and weight in a confined space with unpredictable humans surrounding it, is a recipe for disaster. Everyone knows that. Provoked, it could trample you.
Elephants like these go by many names.
One such name is suicide. Suicide is an especially heartbreaking form of death. It raises endless questions. What caused it? Did I cause it? How did we not see it coming? Could we have stopped it? The guilt, the loss, and the fear it might happen again are all material for substantial exploration of motivations and consequences.
Drug and alcohol abuse, or any kind of addiction, is also often the name of the elephant. This type of elephant brings with it dangerous behaviors, loss of reputation and social status, failed relationships, recovery, frayed trust, endless loyalty. “Pink elephant” is often used to refer to alcohol abuse. Interventions are emotional bombs authors can detonate within a story, especially if they make them go horribly wrong.
Our communal elephants in the room can age and change – and new ones are introduced, as well. Take the notion of “taboo” for instance.
What was once taboo might not be today. Marrying below your status, mixed race relationships, giving up religion, or failing to take on the family business are, ideally, relegated to history. In our society, these situations are not the scandals they once were.
Stories that expose taboos and offer an alternative can be powerful. Stories can also strip taboos bare and render them impotent. Cancer, dementia, and addiction used to be talked about in hushed tones – if at all. Like many other past taboos, today they are out of the closet. Used-to-be elephants can still be a great source of disagreement between young and old, and can be powerful agents in your storytelling.
It also works to put many elephants in the same room.
Take a family drama. This is a classic formula for a great book or movie: the family reunion that brings all kinds of skeletons out of the closet. Some might be secrets revealed for the first time, but many are more of the elephant kind.
Or a story that brings together disparate elements of someone’s life. A character dies, and long-lost friends from college and high school and earlier on all come together for the funeral. Out charge the elephants, mixed together with dark secrets and new developments – old friends getting lost in a fit of nostalgia, anger, and sorrow.
Do you have elephants in your story? What are their names? Are they big enough? Do they charge at some point? Is there more than one? If not, maybe you need to invite one in and watch it do its magic.
We don’t want elephants in the room in real life. In fiction, they are extremely welcome.