Monday, May 27, 2013

The Dangerous Power of the Written Word

I teach GED preparation classes to adults, and the other day we were doing a fact vs. opinion exercise.  Students had to read four different reviews of the same play, and then decide whether various statements were fact or opinion.  It disturbed me how many students thought that anything written in the reviews was fact.  We'd come to something like, "The dull acting wasn't as bad as the lackluster dialogue," which was a direct quote from one of the reviews, and students would say, "It's fact.  It's written right here."

Perhaps it was my fault for not explaining better what I meant by fact and opinion, but it seems to be a thing people should know the difference between, at least theoretically, in order to survive in this media-saturated world.  Perhaps the difficult vocabulary was partially at fault, but I fear it is mostly a terrifying trust in the written word. 

Sometimes I purposely set my students on an Internet hunt for "facts" that are in dispute, just so they can see for themselves how you can't simply trust the first thing that pops up.  Many know this already, but some don't. 

My students are not alone.  I was baking cookies the other night, from one of those tubs of pre-made dough, when I saw this:  "Enjoy a Nestle Toll House cookie with nonfat milk for a wholesome snack."  So the fact that the milk is nonfat makes up for the less convenient fact that it's a cookie?  Come on, people.  One cookie isn't the worst thing, but it's by no means "wholesome."  I eat plenty of cookies and other treats because of their pure deliciousness, but I don't pretend they're healthy.  And putting it down in writing doesn't make it true.

So, next time you pick up your pen to write, think about the power you hold.  Use it wisely.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Literature Tropes #2: Mr. Exposition

Literature Tropes #2:  Mr. Exposition

Mr. Exposition.  This trope involves a character who exists only to explain a plot element, an important scientific or magical law, an aspect of a foreign culture, etc. to the protagonist.  Often it's actually for the benefit of the reader, not the protagonist, who should know it already.  Think of all those TV detectives explaining forensic evidence to each other.  I call this "exposition in dialogue," and I hate it if all characters in the conversation already know everything.  As a writer, you should think of another way to get the information across to your reader.  If it's ingrained enough in the character's personality, however, it can work.  Think of Star Trek's Data or the immortal Sherlock Holmes.      

Another variation is Captain Obvious , a character who says something that the reader and all present characters should clearly know.  Picture two people tied to the tracks and blinded by the light of the oncoming train.  One character says, "Hey, there's an oncoming train!"  This can be done for comic effect, but avoid it if it's not funny.

For more, see

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Literature Tropes #1: City Noir

Literature Tropes #1:  City Noir

City Noir :  According to TV Tropes, a City Noir is a big, scary, dirty city full of crime and other tropes, such as Apathetic Citizens and Sinister Subways.  Think Gotham City: angular sky scrapers, seen mostly in the dark, where Batman rescues people in narrow alleys.  Much dark fantasy and nearly every dystopian science fiction novel includes a city noir.  Even in The Hunger Games, the capitol is a brilliant perversion of this trope.  The city itself is colorful and high tech and prosperous, but it masks a sickening cold darkness at heart, an unpardonable callousness, a population that cheers wildly and weeps openly for the contestants of this grotesque game to the death, without ever seeming to realize that people are dying for their entertainment.     

I think we like reading about dark, depressing, apathetic, crime-ridden cities because it gives our heroes a dark background against which to shine even more brightly.  Small acts of kindness feel epic.  Turn-arounds can be drastic.  

And those lovable flawed characters?  Everywhere.  

Writing this from within a big, depressing, violent city, I can also say that my depressing city is nowhere near as depressing as those dystopian horrors, which makes me feel better about my own situation.  And isn't that half the appeal of escapist literature?  To make us thankful for the boringness of our own lives?  So bring on those scary dark cities where you can't walk outside without some gory tragedy befalling you.  It's fiction!