Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Cloudy, with a chance of disaster

I remember my younger son, ever the practical, literal type, struggling over his homework in eleventh grade English Lit.

"You know what the problem is?" he finally burst out.  "I have a hard time identifying narrative techniques because they never occur in real life!"

I asked him to elaborate.

"Like foreshadowing."  He made an annoyed gesture.  "Nothing foreshadows anything.  If I look outside and there are black clouds on the horizon, it doesn't mean some disaster is going to happen, it just means it's going to rain."

I told him I couldn't argue with that.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gerlos (original picture), modification: Mielon, Thunderstorm 003, CC BY-SA 2.0]

"So why do writers do that?" he asked.

I told him to revisit the definition of the word fiction.

He gave me an annoyed snort, and rolled his eyes in the way only a teenager can.  "Well, it's ridiculous.  I think the only reason they put that stuff in there is so that high school English teachers can make their students try to find it."

When I was remembering this exchange, the thought occurred to me that this might make an amusing topic for this week's Fiction Friday.  Why work tropes into writing that obviously never happen in the real world?

I have to admit to having used some of this "ridiculous stuff" myself, although being that what I write is speculative fiction/magical realism, we're already assuming that in some way or other we've left behind the real life Nathan finds so narrative-technique-free.  I explicitly used "Chekhov's gun" in Descent into Ulthoa -- the principle coined by playwright Anton Chekhov, that if something unusual appears in a scene, it'll eventually be crucial to the plot.  The way he put it was, "If a gun appears, at some point it will go off."  In this case Chekhov's gun is a trail cam -- but in my own defense, I had one of the characters point out that maybe just putting out the trail cam was assuring that it'd turn something up, and outright identifies it as the famous writer's eponymous firearm.

Despite my son's objections, I have to admit that a lot of narrative techniques do have the effect of making me keep turning the page.  Here are a few, and some examples I think were particularly effective:

  • In media res -- the name comes from the Latin phrase for "in the midst of things."  It's the technique of starting a story in the middle of the action, and (if necessary) revealing the lead-up to it in flashbacks.  For example, I think it's pure brilliance that Andy Weir began The Martian with the sentence, "Well, I'm pretty much fucked."
  • Plot twist -- the stock-in-trade of murder mystery writers, but certainly used widely in other genres.  The one that immediately comes to mind is in Stephen King's The Stand, in which four men -- Glen, Stu, Ralph, and Larry -- are walking from Boulder, Colorado to Las Vegas to confront the evil Randall Flagg.  There's an accident in which Stu shatters his leg, and the other three recognize they have to leave him behind, that their task is more important than one man's life.  (Stu agrees with them, for what it's worth.)  When they leave him, the chapter ends with the sentence, "None of them ever saw Stu Redman again."  The reader, of course, thinks it's because the badly-injured Stu is going to die -- but in the end, it's the other three who die, and Stu survives.  (This is also a good example of "author intrusion" -- the author giving the reader information that none of the characters have -- which is usually frowned upon in modern novels.  Here, though, I think it was a stroke of genius, showing that there's no such thing as "the law of the land" in writing fiction.)
  • An unreliable narrator -- the best example of this I can think of is the wonderful (if heart-wrenching) character Snitter from Richard Adams's The Plague Dogs.  Snitter is a dog who was used as a test subject in an animal research lab, and had his brain surgically altered.  The result is that he can't tell reality from his imaginings.  There are a number of sections in the book told from Snitter's point-of-view, and every time you have to adjust your understanding of what you're reading, because what Snitter is experiencing -- and telling the reader -- may or may not be real.  It's profoundly disorienting, but chillingly effective.
  • Allegory -- the most commonly-cited example is the Christian allegory in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but that one is so ham-handed that I wouldn't cite it as a skillful use of the technique.  Much better, I think, is George Orwell's Animal Farm, which can be read as a rather disquieting fable about sentient animals on a farm, or -- more devastatingly -- as an allegory to the Russian Revolution and historical figures like Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin.
  • Hyperbole -- exaggerating for humorous effect.  I may have been guilty of that once or twice here at Skeptophilia, but no one does it better than writer Dave Barry.  As an example, one of his statements in a column on politics: "The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery."
  • Parody -- poking fun at something by amplifying the style to the point of being ridiculous.  Take, for instance, National Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, which features characters named Frito, Dildo, Poppie, Murky Brandyflask, Legolamb, and the wizard Goodgulf Greyteeth.
  • Irony -- where there's a discrepancy between what the characters know or expect to happen, and what the reader does.  Despite other aspects of the book being problematic at best, this always makes me think of C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, where it's used like a sucker punch.  The bad guys, led by the evil Fairy Hardcastle, are hot on the heels of the good guys, and are desperate to trace them back to their headquarters.  There are three people they're trailing whom they suspect might lead them to the good guys' home base, but at the last minute Hardcastle realizes she doesn't have enough people to follow all three.  She instructs them to forget about tracking Professor Cecil Dimble.  Dimble, she says, is a mild-mannered academic who surely doesn't have the guts to put his life on the line for the cause.  "In any case," she tells her subordinates, "Dimble can be got any time.  He comes into college pretty regularly every day; and he's really a nonentity."  Dimble, of course, is the guy they were after -- and the good guys miss being found out by a hair's breadth.

Like anything, these sorts of literary devices can be used unskillfully, or overused.  But with a subtle touch they can really ramp up the emotional punch of a story.

Even if sometimes, dark clouds on the horizon just mean it's going to rain.


I've always loved a good parody, and one of the best I've ever seen was given to me decades ago as a Christmas present from a friend.  The book, Science Made Stupid, is a send-up of middle-school science texts, and is one of the most fall-out-of-your-chair hilarious things I've ever read.  I'll never forget opening the present on Christmas morning and sitting there on the floor in front of the tree, laughing until my stomach hurt.

If you want a good laugh -- and let's face it, lately most of us could use one -- get this book.  In it, you'll learn the proper spelling of Archaeopteryx, the physics of the disinclined plane, little-known constellations like O'Brien and Camelopackus, and the difference between she trues, shoe trees, and tree shrews. (And as I mentioned, it would make the perfect holiday gift for any science-nerd types in your family and friends.)

Science education may never be the same again.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

No comments:

Post a Comment