Elephants Falling from the Sky

There’s a saying around our household that we use in reference to something that’s (extremely) unlikely to happen, and it’s when an elephant falls from the sky.

For example:  You should wear a helmet while working in the garden, so when an elephant falls from the sky you’ll be protected.

Sometimes getting plot points to flow together can challenge writers.  Many years ago I read about a serialization in a publication from even more years ago that ended with a cliffhanger each week.  One week the story left off with the hero trapped in the bottom of a very deep pit and no way to climb up the sides.

Next week, the story began with something like “With a mighty leap, Horatio escaped from the pit.”

Well, that was disappointing – not so much that Horatio escaped, but because the readers were presented an unsatisfactory solution to the problem.  An elephant might as well have fallen from the sky and missed our hero when it landed in the pit, and then Horatio could have climbed on top of it to get out.

Unless the hero had been established as somebody with superhuman jumping powers, such a solution only creates an elephant in the room.  Everybody knows the author set up a scenario for suspense, but then all the tension got lost in an out that was too easy and (extremely) unlikely.

Confronting such challenges can actually be a good way to get the creative juices flowing.  Should Horatio have wound up somewhere other than a pit?  Or does he find a secret door leading to a subterranean lair while trying to scale its walls?  These changes can tweak what the author originally intended, but they’ll also strengthen the story’s spirit.

Always remember, if there’s a loaded elephant gun in chapter one, it needs to be fired by chapter three.  Hmm, maybe that’s what makes those elephants fall from the sky….

 

Words Mean Things

One of the many characteristics that separates humanity from the animals is our rich vocabulary.  Critters can get certain points across with a variety of calls and gestures, ranging from “I’m ready to reproduce” to “Get the #@%$ outta my territory.”

We have the ability to discuss deep and abstract topics because our language is so complex.  When our ancestors starting developing language, I’m sure the critters played a crucial role.  Hunters out in the forest needed to communicate quickly before their quarry got wind of them.  “There’s a bull on the hill” is more concise than “There’s an elk with antlers on that rise of land.”

Likewise, when a hunter brought a chunk of meat home to his wife, telling her “We got a bull” probably helped her decide how to cook it.  She might be more likely to throw it into a stew pot, whereas “We got a cow” could make her inclined to roast it on a spit.

When some wild critters were developed into livestock, farmers took their descriptive names to a whole new level.  You need a boar in order for the sow to farrow a litter of piglets.  Calling those young pigs “shoats” means they’ve been weaned, and the gilts are the females that are still under a year old.  What about the males?  Only a few grow up to be boars, while the rest are converted into barrows for the purpose of becoming pork.

(In the middle of that process, the opportunity for preparing a dish called “mountain oysters” arises, but we might save that for the topic of euphemisms.)

Writing – and communication in general – benefits from the precise meaning of words.  Being able to understand each other fosters good relations.

For instance, imagine a friend invited you over for a steak dinner.  You offer to bring some wine as your contribution.  When you arrive and hand a bottle of merlot to your host, he shrugs and mutters “I guess this will work.”

You sit down at the table and see a pork chop on your plate.  You squint at your friend.

“I thought you said we were having steak.”

“Yes,” he replies.  “This is white steak instead of red steak.”

His tepid acceptance of your bottle suddenly makes sense.  “Well, if you told me we were having pork chops instead of steaks, I would have brought a white wine instead of a red wine.”

And you might also be sorely tempted to invite him over one evening for a mess of mountain oysters….

When Does an Idiom Become a Cliché?

Idiom:  An expression in language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that is not literal.

Cliché:  An expression that has become overly familiar or commonplace, making it trite.

The other day I glanced out the window and realized approaching rain clouds signaled my outdoor plans for that morning were going to have to wait until later in the day.  It also brought to mind the phrase storm clouds are gathering, and how that’s used to insinuate a conflict of grand proportions is about to happen.

Or has that phrase become a cliché?

If I told you it started raining cats and dogs, you know that phrase is overused.  The same goes for claiming we need to make hay while the sun shines, or there’s an ill wind blowing, or there are plenty of fish in the sea – just be sure you don’t rock the boat.

All of these sayings are built upon truisms, but they just don’t pack the punch they used to.

What about the idioms of today?  Many used currently seem headed for cliché territory.  If you’re feeling under the weather, you might not steal someone’s thunder unless you can wrap your head around how to get the ball back in your court – just be sure you don’t miss the boat.

It seems a good rule of thumb to use either sparingly.  Yes, you can even use clichés if they serve a specific purpose (such as revealing a character’s unimaginative thinking).  But if you want to write creatively, try coining your own phrase.

Instead of putting out the warning that storm clouds are gathering, you could allude to another event of impending danger.  Who knows, it might become so popular that eventually it gets overused, and one day becomes a cliché.

Let’s see, how about the chickens are getting organized…?

organize

 

 

Who Is the Audience?

One time I was somewhere when someone asked me a question about something (can’t recall those details), and I promptly gave a correct response.

“Wow,” she commented.  “It’s impressive you remembered that.”

(Yes, I sense the irony to the above content.)

My reply:  “I just used a mnemonic device.”

She gave me one of those quizzical looks.  “I’ve never even heard of that word before.”

Not everybody takes psychology in high school, which is where I first learned of the mnemonic device and how to use it.  The term stuck with me because I do rely on it quite a bit to retain information.  Yes, if I’m unable to write down a grocery list for milk, bread, mustard, and hot dogs, I envision a hot dog squatting next to a loaf of bread and milking out mustard.

(Trust me, the more bizarre the imagery, the easier it is to remember.)

The point is I used a word I took for granted, and presented someone with a new experience.  It’s not uncommon for writers to have a broad vocabulary, and those within certain genres will be familiar with which terms their readers will recognize that others might not understand.

In sci-fi, you could logically expect the audience can process verbiage like warp, terraforming, and cryogenics.  Horror readers are unlikely to recoil when they stumble upon sanguine, apparition, and charnel.  And mystery lovers will have the deduced the meanings of alibi, forensics, and modus operandi.

Overall, knowing your audience can help hone writing in more ways than what vocabulary to use.  What readers expect can guide writers with polishing that protagonist, reaching a brilliant dénouement, or shining light upon that motif.

Hmm, maybe it would be a good idea to explain those writing terms in a future post.  But how to go about remembering to do that?  Perhaps I could envision some dude looking at a calendar when a light bulb pops on overhead, and then he can squirt mustard out of it … wait, that’s not right….

 

MIA and Other Acronyms

Yes, I know I’ve been Missing in Action lately, but instead of explaining the reasons why, this seems like a good time to discuss acronyms.

They can be a ticklish element to use in writing.  There are some acronyms that are pretty universally known, like ASAP or OK.  We even have words some people might not realize are acronyms, like scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus).  And when texting started getting a foothold in how folks communicated, other word groupings became “abbreviated” to make that process faster.

(Note:  I’m old enough to remember when LOL meant Lots of Love.  When it morphed into Laughing Out Loud, I went through a period of confusion.  This can present one of the pitfalls of acronyms.)

But the difference between writing and texting is kind of like the difference between a chicken and a chickadee.  One of them takes a lot more work and investment than the other.

It’s best to save the well-known usages for dialogue if that’s how the characters are going to speak.  If they’re military personnel, who have a tendency to speak in Acronyese, you’re going to have to find ways to explain what those darn letters stand for.

In general you can get away with using an acronym once without an introduction, but you’d better plan on explaining it by the very next paragraph.  It’s more common to introduce the whole word series, like Intellectual Militant Prototype, and soon thereafter render it as IMP so that readers don’t lose track of what that’s supposed to mean.

And that leads me to another little pitfall I’ve noticed:  Even if you purposefully have an acronym spell out another word, there is no 100% guarantee everybody will read it that way.  In my End of an Age series, I wanted the future version of a cell phone to be called something else, and since it would be necessary for Personal Identification and Transaction, it was referred to as a PIT phone.

The word pit was also meant to be metaphorical, but occasionally I would hear somebody call it a P-I-T phone.  The same goes for IMP (imp is also meant to be metaphorical) mentioned above.  Maybe it takes more letters, like in scuba, for some folks to want to say it as a word, but it’s not a detail worth ruffling one’s feathers about….

That should be sufficient for now.  Despite the SNAFU I encountered over the last few weeks that made me go AWOL, I figured the next post should get out PDQ before the FBI put out an APB….  LOL!