Friday, September 4, 2009

Modification for comic effect

I don't want to say that any of these are blanket statements, of course. We can always come up with exceptions where something that is verboten works. What I think we need to realize is
1) exceptions work BECAUSE this usually doesn't work-- that is, the transgression adds meaning for the reader, who gets the alternation from conventional.
2) they work especially when the writer (intuitively or consciously) know what it's going to do for the meaning.

For example, if you are trying to write in the voice of a gushy teenaged girl, you will want to use those meaningless intensifiers:
My friend Jessie is the most awesome texter on the planet.

Modifiers can also be used for comic effect, especially the intensifiers which are really diminishers but really intensifiers. Confused? Well, this is more of an adolescent male thing, and since I just raised a couple of those, I'm familiar with that deadpan sarcastic exaggeration technique. "My mom got just a little bit mad when I crashed her car." That is, "a little" is understood to mean A WHOLE LOT.

Here's one in an article about gender disparity among Wikipedia contributors (and the truth is, as we all know it, the reason women don't contribute more to W is because we're all doing blogs :)--

(Choosing a discussion page at random, one learns that the entry on frogs once drew critical attention for including a picture of toads. It got slightly heated.)

"Slightly heated"-- we're to take that to mean that it got VERY heated, and that contrasts with the subject matter for comic effect. The diminisher meant to be an intensifier is in inverse proportion to the real joke, that people would get so exercised about frogs (though, you know, were I very into frogs, I'd be pretty annoyed if someone posted a photo of a toad).

So anyway, anytime you hear, "Don't do this, don't do that," when it comes to sentences and words, understand that there's an afterword that is only meant to be heard by the cognoscenti, the ones who can make good use of it: "But if you can achieve some cool effect, go ahead!" Know what the rules are NOT just so you can obey them, but so you can violate them in some fun way.



Jami Gold said...


Thanks for another great post. I look forward to violating rules in a fun way. LOL!

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

"My BFF is totally the most awesomest writer, majorly!"

Slang changes too fast for me!

Riley Murphy said...

Violate? One of my favorite words, Alicia. And you brought that into my life. Uh oh, I think I've got a crush coming on...(had to put the ellipse in there for Theresa) I'm remembering my first post - innovating. *Sigh* Thanks. If I smoked, this would be the point I'd go outside and take a few drags of a fired-up smoke.:D

Robin Lemke said...

First of all, fabulous post.
Secondly, points awarded for the use of the word cognoscenti in a sentence to thrilling effect!

Edittorrent said...

Mys Rob-- did I spell it right? :)

Leona said...

I'm playing sever catch up and asked a question in the previous post that you answered here. I love this blog. I'm reading it now instead of eating because my day is so full, it's the only chance I know I will get. If I'm lucky, I'll be able to check back in on the comments :D

Unknown said...

I'm an engineer! I need rules! ISO-9000 compliance! Now you tell me there are no rules??

Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, there are rules. Get to know the rules. Obey the rules.

Then, when you are bright and shiny and in compliance... you're licensed to break them.

And when you do, I promise, no bridge will fall down. Breaking rules has fewer consequences in writing than in engineering!

BTW, can you give me some reason why so many women novelists were engineers? I should phrase that differently. I have been surprised to learn that quite a few published women novelists were trained as engineers. I'm not surprised that so many were attorneys (assembling a plot is rather like assembling a legal argument), and of course many were English teachers-- but why engineers? Is there something about the training or the mindset that especially with women gives them some prep for novel-writing?

Or maybe it's just that novel-writing would be such a change?

And are men engineers/novelists as likely? I just know more women novelists, of course.

Unknown said...

Well, I'm a dude so I can't speak for women, but my guess is that it's because they're smart and creative. Engineering sounds all sciencey and calculating but it's really one of the most creative professions out there. You are building and creating new structures and designs, inventing new systems and methods. It's completely unlike lawyering. The downside is that engineering doesn't give require many people skills like lawyering, so while the writing may be imaginative, the characterization may fall flat.
I think both professions bring something to the table.

Edittorrent said...

Interesting-- I remember back when I was writing software documentation, I was surprised at how similar the software developers thought to novelists-- actually, they had the same variety of ways of thinking that novelists do. Like there were the ones who charted out the whole application ahead of time, mapped out every bend in the road before writing. And there were the ones who just plunged in and started coding. There were some who could see the big picture brilliantly, but resorted to sort of pre-fab models ("cliches?") for the different parts of the program. There were some who would get so caught up in "elegant" solutions to minor problems that they would have to be rescued as deadline approached.

(Oh, yeah, and in five years, I never saw a system come in on deadline. :)

I think some of them could have been novelists, definitely.

Dave Shaw said...

The SF genre is full of engineer writers (of both genders), plus a fair number of software developers. Must be the nature of the beast. Since I'm an engineer who turned into a software developer, it gives me hope.

I've always been fond of the understated 'a little heated' approach to describing major crises, but I thought it was due to my anglophilic leanings. Now Alicia says it's really an adolescent male thing. Does that imply that stiff upper lip Brits are really adolescent males in disguise? Has someone told the Queen? lol