Overuse of the Vocative Case | Liar, Liar

Our exploration of literary Barrier Objects continues with overuse of the vocative case.

Vocative (VOC): the grammatical case that marks the person or thing being spoken to

e.g., “Hey, Mom, what’s for dinner?”

In terms of syntax, the vocative case is a rhetorical element. It happens outside the main structure of the sentence, and its use doesn’t change the meaning of what is being said, except to direct it to a specific listener. It will usually occur either at the start or the end of a sentence, or it can interject alongside other rhetorical elements.

  1. Carol, I need your report by 5 o’clock.”
  2. “I haven’t seen you in ages, John.”
  3. “If you need me, Sam, I’ll be in my room.” (“if you need me” = dependent conditional clause)
  4. “If, Sam, you need me, I’ll be in my room.” (“if” = complementizer)

The more intrusive the vocative insert, the more marked it becomes. So, example #4 above would only occur if the speaker is making a special point to their listener. (And really, I imagine someone using that type of insert to go a little overboard: “If, my dear Sam, you need me, I’ll be in my room.” Sounds a bit threatening, haha.)

In everyday speech patterns, we use the vocative case in two primary situations:

  1. When we’re trying to get someone’s attention.
  2. When we’re trying to establish emotional connections.

We don’t actually say people’s names all that often when we’re talking directly to them. In fact, we can meet and openly interact with someone several times without ever exchanging names, depending on the circumstances. Shallow acquaintance requires no further investment that the pleasantries of light conversation. Only when you want to delve into a deeper relationship (friendly or otherwise) does it become necessary to put a name with a face.

This applies for writing as well as real-life situations. Authors don’t typically waste mental capital naming background characters, and if they do, their readers probably won’t retain such an insignificant detail anyway.

A Case for the Vocative?

Dale Carnegie encourages Vocative Case

Because, apparently, we’re all a bunch of egotists who like to believe the world revolves around us…?

In his pivotal handbook for how to creep people out be socially savvy, Dale Carnegie encourages use of the vocative. More specifically, he encourages people to use one another’s names (which isn’t a bad thing), and the vocative case is the easiest way to do that. People like to hear their own names. It makes them feel happy, loved, important, etc.…

Except that frequent use ends up feeling canned, as though someone read a self-help book and is trying too hard to show you They Care™.

*cough* (Because that’s what Carnegie teaches.)

If you say my name multiple times in a conversation, I will peg you as an awkward or manipulative conversant and minimize any further contact. But then, I adhere more to a reverse philosophy: “That’s my name; don’t wear it out.”

In his novel, Off to Be the Wizard, Scott Meyer comically illustrates the vocative ad absurdum:

ScottMeyer_satiric vocative case

Jimmy, we can imagine, was a Dale Carnegie acolyte. Phillip, on the other hand, was not. And Martin, stuck in the middle, gets the fun effect of not only a charlatan trying to schmooze him, but a cynic pointing it out for all to see.

Vocative Case in Fiction

Overuse of the vocative case shows up in writing when we’re trying to create emotional connections between characters. Imagine a page of dialogue where two people pour out their souls to one another. It’s sentimental, it’s vulnerable…

It’s got them saying each other’s name every other line, to the point of distraction. The names become a ridiculous tattoo, and the scene loses all its emotional potency.

Why? The answer is simple.

Even if you agree with Carnegie, even if you like the sound of your own name and have characters who also like the sound of their own names, remember: everything in a novel acts as a dialogue between Narrator and Reader.

It’s not your reader’s name you’re repeating. The repetition will not have the same emotional effect upon them as their own name would.

In an attempt to establish emotional connections, the vocative case can actually drive a wedge between the reader and the narrative. It’s not something to eliminate entirely, of course, but beware of overuse.

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3rd Observational Point of View | Liar, Liar

The first barrier object on our list, 3rd Observational Point of View, falls into the domain of rhetorical structure. As discussed in an earlier post, Point of View strongly influences the relationship between the Narrator and the Reader. And, when used unwisely, it can gum up that relationship as easily as it can promote it.

POV Overview

The standard 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person points of view receive their designations according to which pronouns the narrator predominately uses, and they act as the camera lens through which the reader receives the story.

So, 1st Person POV (I, me, my, we, us, our) gets restricted to anything the narrator can see, hear, feel, etc. Events where the narrator is not present or conscious require summarizing after the fact or else a switch in POV.

2nd Person POV (you, your) is the devil in fiction. It’s been done, but it’s a fussy lot of work unless you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. In which case, fire away.

3rd Person POV (he/she, him/her, his/her, they, them, their) has a broader scope in what it can show, from a panoramic sweep of a battle scene to an up-close-and-intimate conversation.

Within each of these categories lies sub-categories of style. For example, the default 1st Person POV uses past tense, with the narrator telling a story after the fact. In contrast, 1st Person Present POV (aka Lyric 1st Person) uses a simple present tense, which can feel awkward for readers unaccustomed to its style.

(We don’t use a lot of simple present in our real-life storytelling. The stylistic choice to use it in a novel places the reader directly in the action as it happens. It also places on the author an onus to be consistent.)

Presumably, 2nd Person POV would have similar divisions between past and present tenses.

But the real fun lies in the 3rd Person categories.

Sub-Divisions of 3rd Person

In 3rd Person, point of view divides its styles into the Three Os:

  1. Omniscient
  2. Objective
  3. Observational

The Omniscient narrator, as the name implies, knows everything. A specialized type of this sub-category, the Limited Omniscient narrator, knows everything about their focal character(s): thoughts, opinions, assumptions, etc. Another specialized type, Free Indirect Style (as pioneered in Jane Austen’s Emma) actually shares those thoughts, opinions, etc. Everything is fair game with an Omniscient POV style.

The Objective narrator knows only what they can see. This style, most notably employed by Ernest Hemingway (see “Hills Like White Elephants” for the typical high school English example), has a sparse, stark narrative that leaves the reader to interpret much of what is going on. There’s no insight into character’s thoughts or opinions beyond what they express aloud.

Like the Omniscient narrator, the Observational narrator knows pretty much everything. The difference? They like to editorialize on it. Sometimes frequently.

And that’s exactly how they become a barrier.

3rd Observational Point of View

Consider the following paragraph, from Henry Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones.

3rd Observational narrator Tom Jones

(Tl;dr, “I’m going to go off on tangents whenever I please, and critics can shove it, because they’re not the boss of me.” I might need this embroidered and hung above my writing desk. But I digress.)

Now, this narrator is using first-person pronouns all over the place. Quizzically, this does not a 1st person narrator make. Tom Jones is told in 3rd person, with these momentary asides where the narrator steps into the frame and expostulates.

Because that’s what the 3rd Observational narrator does.

Exception to the Rule

As far as I’m concerned, Henry Fielding is the master of 3rd Observational POV. He owns the trophy. The rest of us can go home.

But he’s also a product of his time, writing in the mid-1700s when the novel was still a fairly new medium. Early English novelists had issues with treading the boundaries between fact and fiction. Precursors like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels were published as though they were accurate accounts (e.g., Gulliver’s Travels originally credited Lemuel Gulliver as its author, not Jonathan Swift). Samuel Richardson, in his preface to Pamela (1740), claims the title of Editor instead of Author, and ascribes the letters to truth and nature.

Liars, all of them.

Fielding, too, treads that line between truth and fantasy. He treats his characters as though they once lived or yet still do. At one point in the book, he even casts his own brother in a role. He is very much both Author and Narrator at the same time, but he differs from his predecessors (Richardson in particular) in that he never shies from claiming his story as a work of fiction.

Instead, Tom Jones becomes an instructional between Author and Audience, in which Fielding basically trains his readers on how to consume the story he will unfold.

Which, again, was fine for the 1700s. The modern reader, in contrast, is already trained.

The 3rd Observational Barrier Object

3rd Observational Point of View rears its head in such folksy phrases as, “Dear Reader,” “Our scene opens upon…” and “We now turn our attention to…” This narrator directly addresses their reader outside the events of the narration, sort of a chummy, “Hey, buddy-buddy-buddy” literary elbowing that almost screams, “PLEASE LIKE ME! WE’RE FRIENDS, AREN’T WE?!”

Rhetorically, this style interrupts the flow of the plot in favor of the narrator trying to establish some rapport with their reader. And it can show up in seemingly innocent ways, including such narrative commentary as:

  • to be honest
  • honestly
  • naturally
  • in fact
  • actually
  • indeed
  • of course

All of which are largely superfluous in narration.

At its best, this style conveys satire and tongue-in-cheek good humor. At its worst, though, it becomes condescending, a narrator who goes out of their way to explain their every impression as the events of the story unfold. Because their reader is obviously incapable of interpreting such things on their own, right?

A narrator, in short, that drives readers away instead of inviting them in.

Unless you’re using this style on purpose, with a clear understanding of the effect you intend to cause, it’s probably best to ditch this barrier in favor of more efficient narrative methods.

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Barrier Objects: An Introduction | Liar, Liar

Barrier Objects title plateThis section of the Liar, Liar blog series explores Barrier Objects, a term that refers to a non-verbal cue for deception. “Non-verbal?” you might ask. “How does that apply to the written word?”

But the pattern transfers nicely to language structure. Our goal is that our writing itself does not become a barrier between author and audience. Hence, the Barrier Objects sequence will be structure-heavy.

(Syntax lovers, rejoice! Everyone else, despair!)

In Real Life

In the realms of lie detection, a “barrier object” is any physical object that liars unwittingly place between themselves and their listener. This subconscious defense can take any number of forms:

  • ­Furniture
  • ­A purse or briefcase
  • ­Folded arms
  • ­Etc.

The object, regardless of what it is, gives the liar a subtle sense of greater security. Sometimes it positions them for easier escape.

The psychology that drives this behavior suggests that liars instinctively seek to distance themselves from their recipients. They put up defensive walls to protect against detection.

However, if the barrier has a purpose, it no longer serves as a tell for deceit.

For example, if you’re talking to a friend and she puts her purse on the table between you, but then she proceeds to rummage through it to give you the $20 she owes you, there’s a legitimate reason for the barrier, and its placement doesn’t indicate a possible lie. A teacher who stands behind a podium might need that surface to hold lecture notes, or might wish to ensure that everyone in the class has a good view of the presentation.

These are conscious choices, not subconscious defenses.

Barrier Objects In Writing

Literary barrier objects, then, are defensive frames or structures the author unwittingly puts between their reader and the action taking place. They can include but are not limited to the following:

  • ­3rd Observational Point of View
  • Overuse of the Vocative Case
  • Excessive expressive dialogue tags
  • Filter verbs
  • ­Expanded verb structures
  • ­Hedges and qualifiers

The posts that follow will highlight each of these in more depth.

As we discuss literary barrier objects, bear in mind that if you are using them wittingly, they have a place in your narrative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any grammatical structure, and we don’t forbid rhetorical frames. In that vein, this section of the series is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

(I intend the whole Liar, Liar series to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but this sequence particularly so.)

***

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Case Study: Austen vs. Heyer | Liar, Liar

When we encounter the term “worldbuilding,” instinct points us to the fantasy genre. All fiction requires worldbuilding in one form or another, though. In the realms of “Too Much Information,” we have a wonderful case study within the Regency sub-genre: Jane Austen vs. Georgette Heyer.

Austen lived and published during the Regency period. She wrote characters who lived in that setting for an audience who lived in that setting, a circumstance that gives her authenticity by default.

Roughly 120 years later, Heyer recreated the Regency setting for an audience who had no experience with it. She published the original Regency romance, Regency Buck, in 1935.

This novel contains All The Things.

Austen vs. Heyer

If you compare the language in Regency Buck to that of Jane Austen, many stark patterns emerge. We see the striking difference between Austen and Heyer in something as simple as their mentions of horse-drawn vehicles:

Austen vs. Heyer carriage terms

Austen’s generic terms (carriage, chaise, coach) account for 83% of her vehicle references. Heyer’s generic terms amount to only 42%.

My sample size included all six of Austen’s complete novels, plus Lady Susan and Love and Freindship. In all, I found 431 vehicle references: 283 carriage, 43 chaise, 32 coach, 24 barouche, 21 curricle, 13 phaeton, 11 gig, 3 chariot, 1 landaulette.

In contrast, Heyer’s Regency Buck (1935) has 291 vehicle references on its own, more than half of what Austen stretched out over 8 distinct works. And the breakdown: 80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky.

All in a single novel.

Special Use

The comparison doesn’t end with mere numbers, though. Austen uses her specialized vehicles as a means of subtle characterization.

For example, the 7 references for “barouche” in Emma all refer to Mrs. Elton’s sister’s “barouche-landau.” If the term is not in Mrs. Elton’s dialogue, it’s either the narrator or Emma making a tongue-in-cheek reference to this carriage.

The barouche-landau never appears in the story, except in reference only. Austen uses it as a running joke to highlight how vulgar and pretentious Mrs. Elton is. The woman is trying to position herself as the most sophisticated person in the neighborhood. She believes that “things” prove her better worth, even when those things belong to her relatives and not herself.

Similar affectations emerge in Mary Musgrove’s jealous observation that her newlywed sister has a “very pretty landaulette,” and in John Thorpe’s ridiculous assertion that his gig is “curricle-hung.” Horse-drawn vehicles were a status symbol and a sign of wealth—or poverty, as the case may be. Austen uses them intuitively as such.

(For further detailed insight on this topic, see this lovely blog post. The writer goes far more in-depth than my analysis of Austen’s usage, but I was delighted to find my thesis held true.)

Now compare Heyer’s usage in Regency Buck. There’s no subtle characterization involved. Instead, the narrator slaps the reader with these specialized names and references over and over and over again: “Don’t. You. Know. We’re. In. A. Regency. Setting?”

Irrelevant Details

Regency Buck further offends our sensibilities with passages such as the following, about the Duchess of York:

Heyer quote about the Duchess of York

Now don’t get me wrong. That paragraph is hilarious, and basically true. The Duchess was crazy-cakes and the Duke was a piece of work, and anyone who visited them had quite the spectacle to observe. But here’s the very next sentence:

“The Duke, who never saw his wife except at Oatlands, had naturally not brought her with him to Belvoir.”

Because Belvoir Castle is where the narrative actually is. The Regency Buck characters never travel to Oatlands, the Duchess of York never gets another mention, and the whole long description is, for any plot-minded reader, 100% skim-worthy, if not entirely skippable.

I can only imagine that Heyer came across this info in the course of her research and was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s going in the novel.” And while it was fine for a first draft, the book would be stronger without it and other similar asides.

ALL THE THINGS

Heyer sample people places

A sample of the famous people and places mentioned in Heyer’s Regency Buck

Over the course of Regency Buck, Heyer name-drops 100+ historical people and 200 geographical points of interest. But not without anachronism. Among them,

  • We meet “Princess Esterhazy” at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, in an 1811/1812 setting. Her real-life counterpart, Princess Maria Theresia of Thurn and Taxis, didn’t marry Prince Paul Anthony Esterházy of Galántha until June 1812. In Bavaria, no less.
  • Countess Lieven is also present at Almack’s, but her real-life counterpart didn’t arrive in London until 1812 and wasn’t a patroness of Almack’s until 1814. (She also introduced the waltz there, so no waltz-dancing before then, I guess?)
  • Thomas Cribb is manning his saloon, Cribb’s Parlour, within six months of his infamous prizefight against Tom Molyneaux. By all accounts I could find, the real Cribb tended bar for two other establishments before settling on the one that would take his name. He only started bartending after his retirement from the ring. Even if he could do all that within six months, Heyer frames Cribb’s Parlour as a well-established haunt for the male half of London.

So, in her haste to include a glut of Regency details, she undercuts her reliability.

But the over-information goes beyond an onslaught of place names and people. The plot includes detailed accounts of a prizefight, a cock fight, and a curricle race. There’s a duel, an attempted murder, more than you ever wanted to know about snuff, two kidnappings, and a grand reveal. The characters have a London season, a Brighton season, and two separate country manor house visits, one of which includes a Hunt.

Basically, if people in the Regency era could have participated in an activity, Regency Buck’s characters did it.

A Trailblazing Legacy

But then, Heyer couldn’t have known she was establishing a sub-genre of historical romance. She wrote an additional two dozen Regency novels over the next 30+ years, and her style tempered with her familiarity to the setting.

In fact, if you compare the mention of horse-drawn vehicles of her first Regency novel to her last (Lady of Quality, 1972), the contrast is startling.

Heyer vs. Heyer

Regency Buck (1935): 291 vehicle references (80 curricle, 52 carriage, 45 chaise, 36 phaeton, 26 coach, 24 gig, 15 tilbury, 7 barouche, 4 hackney, 2 whisky)

Lady of Quality (1972): 42 vehicle references (23 carriage, 7 chaise, 5 gig, 4 coach, 1 chair, 1 curricle, 1 phaeton)

As you can see, we’re back in Austen-esque ratios. In fact, the more generic “carriage, chaise, and coach” make up exactly 83% of the Lady of Quality pie.

Heyer will always be known for being wordy, but she learned from her mistakes with Regency Buck. And we can learn from them too. Less is more. Don’t undermine your narrative with too many details.

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Too Much Information | Liar, Liar

Too much information quoteWordiness is a classic tell for deception. Instinct says that if you have all the information, no one will question your story. Sadly, instinct is wrong.

In Real Life

Too much information triggers skepticism in your audience even if they don’t overtly detect the lie itself.

A Cornell University study in 2004 paired 66 participants for text-based conversations. The researchers were studying online communication, but in a form that precluded video or audio input. (This becomes relevant to us as writers because text is our treasured medium for dialogue.)

Before the study began, the researchers pulled half the participants aside and instructed them to lie about two of the five topics they would discuss. They gave the liars five minutes to prepare, and the study went forward.

None of the lies were detected.

However, when the researchers went back and analyzed the conversations, they discovered that the liars used approximately 30% more words when they lied than when they told the truth.

That’s right. Fabrication bloated their word count by a healthy 30%.

But that’s not all.

Those being lied to used more words in response to the lies. Of greater significance, they also asked more questions. Somewhere in their brain, whether conscious or subconscious, their skepticism triggered and reacted.

Wordiness breeds skepticism.

Too Much Information In Writing

As fiction writers, we already have one strike against us. Somewhere behind that suspension of disbelief, our audience knows we’re making stuff up. When we glut them with too many details, we stoke that instinct to overthink, to question.

In your average novel, too much information can appear in the following forms:

  • Backstory info dumps
  • Wall-o’-text setting descriptions
  • So Much explanatory narration
  • The Never-ending Introspection
  • ALL THE WORLDBUILDING!!1!

We’ve all been there, stuck reading a book where the narrator rattles on for pages and pages about ultimately skim-able schlock. The MC’s entire life history. Every piece of furniture crammed into a room, including its age, style, material, and exact spacial placement. Memories and mental processing ad nauseam.

If it plays into the plot, it’s either tangential, or grossly inefficient.

Symptom of a Greater Problem

This degree of detail reveals an author too afraid to trust their reader. They exercise tight control over every angle of their story, lest the reader form an inaccurate picture of events.

But books, despite their fixed sequence of words on the page, are not static. Every reader recreates them anew, informed in that creation by individual experience and understanding. No two readers will ever produce the same mental imagery for a book.

And that’s a good thing.

One of the most powerful tools an author can access is their reader’s imagination, but imagination intrinsically thrives on the unknown. The engaged reader will pick up on subtle cues and run with them. They’ll fill in minor gaps for scenery and settings in their anticipation for what is yet to come.

You might have in mind the exact 19th century antique mahogany Chippendale dresser that graces your main character’s boudoir. But do you really want your reader’s brainpower focused on trying to conjure its likeness? Unless it plays a central role in your plot, the answer is no. Details should be evocative, not completely inaccessible, and not so profuse that they overwhelm.

Clot your story with too much information, and your reader’s imagination may well fail to spark.

A Worldbuilding Caveat

Worldbuilding can be an author’s best friend and their worst enemy at the same time. The greatest problem with these exercises, from the simple to the mind-bogglingly complex, is the danger that they might trick us into including all those details in our book.

We did the work. We created monetary systems and team sports and land formations and political dynasties, and we can’t let it all go to waste. The reader needs to know we did our work.

Except that the reader doesn’t need to know. They need a final draft polished and focused upon its themes, not a glut of extra information that muddles more than it enhances.

Worldbuilding is awesome and empowering, but its primary purpose is to acquaint the writer with the inner and outer workings of their own creation. When we shoehorn every last category or detail into our draft, we’re just as likely to inspire annoyance as awe.

Too much information weakens a story. (As my next post will illustrate.)

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Inauthentic Emotions | Liar, Liar

Emotions and storytelling quote, Pamela MeyerEmotions play a driving force in our actions and reactions. They’re also patently difficult to counterfeit.

In Real Life

Genuine emotions linger. Fake emotions fizzle. The liar can only pretend their strong feelings for so long.

Consider a wrongful accusation. An innocent person gets angry on instinct. They go on the offensive, presenting facts that prove their innocence with a fury that remains steady throughout. And they can hold a grudge afterwards, sometimes for years, sometimes even when they’ve made overtures toward forgiveness.

Wrongful accusations get us worked up, and they stick with us.

A liar, in contrast, may feign outrage to appear innocent, but their indignation only lasts as long as they need it to. Their language patterns are defensive. “How could you accuse me of such a thing? Don’t you know how much work and effort I’ve put into this?”

And once they feel they’ve proved themselves and/or shamed their accuser into silence, they return to magnanimous calm.

This pattern of false vs. true emotions follows through with other high-stakes life events. Genuine trauma, either mental or physical, often triggers depression, with rippling effects that require significant time and counseling for recovery. When someone fakes a trauma, they play to their audience for the moment but quickly forget or conveniently recover in the aftermath.

In her TED Talk, “How to Spot a Liar,” Pamela Meyer shows two clips comparing a false narrative to a truthful one. (Note/Warning: Video on that link starts at 14:46. Content includes vivid description of violence. The clips pertaining to this post finish at 16:39, but the whole talk is worth a listen.) The stark difference between the liar and the truth-teller underscores how deeply our emotions influence us, even years after an event occurs.

An Essential Story Element

As it turns out, our emotions also govern how we tell stories: their structure, their focus, their completion.

True stories come in three parts: a prologue, main event, and epilogue.

  • The prologue is light on detail. It can have its reference point in the beginning, middle, or end of the events.
  • The main event is the longest part of the story. It is the focal point that every other detail revolves around, but it won’t be strictly chronological. Its driving force is emotion, not time or sequence.
  • The epilogue constitutes the emotional aftermath. It’s where the storyteller processes everything that occurred.

False stories have a prologue and main event but typically skip the epilogue.

  • The prologue is heavy on detail, scene setting, and backstory. It may take up the bulk of the narrative.
  • The main event gets glossed over, failing to receive the detail it would command if it were authentic. It is chronological and orderly.
  • The epilogue often goes missing in false stories because the liar has no emotions to process. When the main event finishes, there the story ends.

Think of the most emotionally charged events of your life. When you tell those stories, you don’t dwell on the scenery or the minutiae that happened around them.

Someone who gets robbed at gunpoint doesn’t start their story with how they woke up that morning. If you get a flat tire on the freeway, chances are you tell your friends, “I got a flat tire this afternoon.” Or, more emotionally, “I almost died today.” The newlywed who recounts their wedding probably doesn’t start with the long moment of introspection they had while staring into a mirror.

(And if they do, yikes.)

Our emotions help us interpret the happenings around us. The stronger the emotion, the more it influences us.

Inauthentic Emotions In Writing

In Writing, inauthentic emotions show up when characters experience traumatic events but then everyone resets in the next scene so the plot can move forward.

Wounds have no lasting consequences. Betrayals are forgiven and/or forgotten. Character deaths are briefly mourned and then brushed aside.

Trauma should echo into subsequent scenes, in one form or another. This is not to say that characters should wallow in depressive misery when anything bad happens, but neither should they skim through events with shallow emotional investment. Even those who steel themselves to feel nothing in a traumatic aftermath will have a breaking point.

Story Structure

The Prologue/Main Event/Epilogue structure of truthful storytelling gives us a standard template to work with. Perhaps most importantly, the non-chronological nature of true stories reinforces why exposition and backstory are better left for later in the book. Likely, these elements are not the most emotional events in your characters’ lives.

But by that same token, if something in a character’s backstory emotionally drives their actions, it should get a reveal sooner rather than later. (And beware repeated references without actually naming the event. This falls under circumlocution, as discussed in my post on Indirect Discourse.)

As for the story structure itself, “Prologue”  and “Epilogue” don’t mean you need these formal, demarcated sections. A prologue, in this instance, would be the introductory material that flows into the main event.

Consider the following opening lines:

“The education given to Flora Poste by her parents had been too expensive, too full of team sports, and too long.” ~Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.” Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

Each of these serves as a preamble, even though they fall in Chapter 1 of their respective works. They also represent examples of beginning-, middle-, and end-focused prologues.

The Beginning

Cold Comfort Farm starts at the beginning, with Flora’s life prior to the events of her story. We learn from that simple opening line that she does not value her education (or her parents, as we soon discover), that she despises team sports, and that she has a penchant for efficiency.

Flora has yet to contact the morbid relatives who will house her for the bulk of her tale. Instead, this introductory chapter highlights many of the absurd tropes that Gibbons’s delightful little satire is about to skewer. (Including the Mysterious Traumatic Backstory, haha).

The Middle

One might, from reading the opening line of The Moon-Spinners, assume it also starts at the beginning. It has the word “started” in it, after all. However, our narrator, Nicola Ferris, has already arrived in Agios Georgios for her holiday. She backtracks to give the events that led her there, but that egret from the first line leads her up the mountain, where she stumbles upon a plot already deep in play.

Stewart could have easily begun with Nicola in Athens, in her vacation-planning phase. But, as Nicola so aptly says, the true adventure starts with the egret, so there begins the story too.

The End

Daphne du Maurier’s iconic opening line introduces a narrator already far removed from the story she is about to relate. The rest of the chapter firmly establishes this, with Mr. and Mrs. de Winter living from hotel to hotel, forever trying to escape their traumatic past, and forever haunted by it.

Had Rebecca started at any other point than this, the whole dynamic of the novel would change. By beginning at the end, du Maurier creates an atmosphere of fatalistic dread for what is yet to come, despite many light-hearted moments throughout the book.

Emotions Drive the Plot

Each of these “prologues” reflects a driving emotion of the book: Flora’s cheerful efficiency, Nicola’s guileless curiosity, and Mrs. de Winter’s heartbreaking anxiety. These emotions carry through the main events. They influence not only how these characters react to their situations, but also how each author unfolds her story.

Epilogues serve a similar purpose, summarizing a novel’s emotional themes. Authors who choose abrupt or open endings leave their readers to process through those emotions alone.

Which, mind you, is a legitimate stylistic choice.

(As long as you use it wittingly.)

***

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition | Liar, Liar

repetitionNext up in our patterns of deception: repetition.

In Real Life

One very basic tell for deception occurs when someone repeats a question verbatim:

Person A: “Where are you going this afternoon?”
Person B: “Where am I going this afternoon?”

Not, 

“This afternoon?” or “Where’m I going?”

Partial repetition indicates a desire to clarify. Repetition in full is a subconscious mechanism that occurs to delay answering, giving a split-second more for Person B to formulate a less-than-truthful response.

And there could be a totally legitimate reason for Person B to deflect. Person A could be a creep. They could simply have no right to know Person B’s schedule. Regardless, this deceptive tactic shows Person B’s reluctance to tell the truth.

Seasoned liars also take advantage of the Illusory Truth Effect. Research shows that the more often we hear something, the more likely we are to accept it as true, even if it has no basis in fact. This phenomenon falls in line with the infamous “repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” quote often attributed to propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

The Illusory Truth Effect feeds gossip threads and conspiracy theories alike. It drives smear campaigns and old wives’ tales.

Fake News™ on both sides of the political aisle relies on the Illusory Truth Effect to oil its gears. Lie, lie, repeat, repeat, repeat. Sooner rather than later people believe a story not because it’s true, but because they’ve heard it so many times that they accept it must be true. True Believers, when presented with evidence to the contrary, often retreat into the Fake but Accurate defense.

Ultimately, we each believe what we want to believe.

Repetition In Writing

Repetition in writing falls under greater scrutiny than the spoken word. Its forms include the following:

Repetitive diction

­Example #1: using the same descriptors multiple times throughout a passage

Everything is tiny. Or blue. Everyone is standing or walking or turning. Or going back, turning back, backing up, looking back. Repetition of this type manifests when an author feels the need to describe every minute action that their characters take, every slight angling of the body, every tilt of the head, every twinkle of the eye.

And yes, I’m drumming in the fault with an overuse of “every.” Repetitive diction used on purpose drives home a point. By accident, it chafes like a bur stuck in your reader’s sock.

­Example #2: Repeating names instead of personal pronouns when the referent is clear

Wanna know a secret? Proper nouns aren’t nouns. They fall into a grammatical class called “Determiners,” the same grammatical class that pronouns and articles belong to. 

If you say that “Mary” is your favorite Jane Austen character, your listener may wonder if you’re talking about Mary Musgrove, Mary Crawford, or Mary Bennet. (They also might question your taste in characters; it seems that Jane wasn’t too fond of “Mary” in general, because all three of hers are sort of pests.)

Proper nouns only have meaning according to their surrounding context, and they can only be swapped for another Determiner or Determiner Phrase. So, for example, “Mary” can equal “she” (D) or “the woman” (DP), but not simply “woman” (N).

However, they are marked determiners, and any marked part of speech draws attention to itself if used more than necessary. The unmarked form, personal pronouns, blend in with the surrounding narrative unless their context (their referent) is missing. In which case they become marked.

John entered through a side door, laughing. He rubbed his hands together. “You’ll never guess what I just saw,” John said.

That last “John” is clunky, right? When we already know who a narrative refers to, the unmarked personal pronoun becomes the preferred determiner.

Repeated details

This type of narrative repetition includes the following:

  • ­Paraphrasing and/or repeating information the reader has already received
  • ­Recounting events the reader has already experienced within the narrative

The temptation to paraphrase or recap events often comes as part of the drafting process. Sometimes weeks, months, or even years can pass between when you write one scene and its follow-up, and you instinctively want to make sure that the reader remembers that earlier event so they’re not lost. However, in a total immersion reading situation, a reader can consume the whole book in 5-7 hours. It may have been as little as 10-15 minutes since they encountered that information. In general, they don’t need you to revisit it, and certainly not in great detail.

For example

The following paragraph, taken from the first draft of an unpublished manuscript, illustrates some examples of repetition and paraphrase. (I have changed the character’s name, but nothing else.)

 Mary knew she was a selfish creature—she had been for years. If there was anything life had taught her thus far, it was that she could only rely on herself, that no one else really cared whether she lived or died. That was an exaggeration, of course—her grandfather tried, but his hands were tied from so many directions, including his own ingrained beliefs. He had changed, she knew, and probably still was changing, but she only trusted him to a point nonetheless. She had been left to her own devices too many times and had come to realize that everything was much simpler if she assumed she would receive help from no external sources. So long as she kept that cynical outlook, she owed nothing to anyone else; as an added benefit, she was not tethered down by any sense of loyalty or obligation to help others.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this excerpt, but I’ve highlighted instances of repetition, both exact and rhetorical.

Analysis

  • First, we have a repetition of narrative frame: “Mary knew” and then halfway through the paragraph, “she knew,” again. Y’know. Just in case you forgot we were still inside Mary’s head.
  • Paraphrase (A) tells us she’s selfish. Three times over.
  • Paraphrase (B) tells us that her life’s experiences molded her into this selfishness. Twice.
  • Paraphrase (C) tells us how she interacts with the world because of her selfishness. Or rather, that she doesn’t interact with anyone.

Basically, this paragraph is roughly three times longer than it needs to be. The revised version reduces it from 149 words to only 46:

Mary had been a selfish creature for years, left to her own devices too often to rely on others and resentful when others tried to rely on her. This cynical outlook freed her from any sense of loyalty or obligation toward the rest of the world.

The revision condenses the many evidences of Mary’s selfishness into two sentences, ditches the narrative frame, and omits the details about her grandfather. We state simply what Mary is, why she is that way, and how it shapes her worldview.

The reader doesn’t care about the details of Mary’s selfishness, except in how that selfishness will drive her actions through the plot.

(And if you’re wondering why Grandpa got the narrative boot, it’s because the reader already knows he and Mary are on the outs from earlier in the story. There’s no need to repeat that detail here.)

Conclusion

Unwitting repetition gums up a story’s efficiency. Worst-case scenario, it drives a reader crazy and turns them off the book. If you’re wondering whether to keep or toss a repeat or paraphrase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this repetition serve a purpose?
  • Does it fulfill that purpose?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it necessary right here?

If you answer “yes” to all four, forge ahead. If not, revise.

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Indirect Discourse | Liar Liar

Indirect Discourse quote James PennebakerIndirect discourse is a dead giveaway that someone doesn’t want to speak the whole and ugly truth.

In Real Life

Patterns for indirect discourse include the following:

Passive voice

This common and oft-maligned structure acts as a hallmark of indirect speech. In passive voice, the lexical object of a transitive verb elevates into the subject position, and the subject removes either to a prepositional phrase headed with “by,” or to oblivion.

In layman’s terms, passive voice takes the focus off who did something and places it firmly on what occurred.

Liars cleave to this construct because it allows them to talk around their own culpability.

“The money was stolen last Thursday.”

It doesn’t matter who stole it, just that it was stolen, right? …Right?

Distancing language

Liars use fewer 1st person pronouns, and more 2nd and 3rd. This form of prevarication shares its source with use of passive voice. A liar doesn’t want you to focus on them and what they’re doing. They’d rather point your attention elsewhere, to what you and everyone else did.

A distanced narrative sounds more objective because it assumes a neutral point of view. It’s why scholarly papers largely avoided 1st person pronouns up until the last decade or so: researchers sought for that clinical tone that gave their work more gravitas. But in recent years, usage has shifted, to where “I” and “we” are not only accepted but encouraged in academic literature. There’s greater credibility in owning your research instead of attributing procedures and results to some unnamed arbiter.

Change of subject

Avoidance is a standard tactic to steer around the truth. Don’t like the topic? Pick a new one and hope your conversational partner doesn’t notice.

Except that most of us do notice. This tell, except when performed by the wiliest of prevaricators, sticks out like a tulip in a marigold patch. The liar who changes subjects relies on the politeness of their listener not to change it back.

Indirect Discourse in Writing

Passive voice

As with real life patterns, passive voice crops up in writing when the narrative focuses more on the what than the who. Some clarifications:

  • Passive voice is not every occurrence of the verb “to be” in your manuscript. Our wondrous and irregular “be” has five distinct functions in the English language, and its role as the passive auxiliary is only one of these.
  • Passive voice is also not the use of filter verbs (to be discussed in a later post). It is a specific grammatical construct formed with auxiliary be + a passive participle.
  • Passive voice can only occur with transitive verbs. It is impossible for intransitive verbs to form the passive voice.

This final point leads us to one of the ways to resolve passive voice: swap a passive verb for an active one, either an intransitive or transitive pair.

  1. (A) “The money was stolen last Thursday.”
    (B) “The money vanished last Thursday.”
  2. (A) “Mary was given a book for her birthday.”
    (B) “Mary received a book for her birthday.”

Passive and active verb pairs abound, their meanings related close enough for them to pass as rhetorical synonyms. This type of swap allows the passive subject to remain in its position of focus, but in a way that draws less attention.

The other obvious method to eliminate passive voice is to restore the active subject:

  1. (A) “The money was stolen last Thursday.”
    (B) “Someone stole the money last Thursday.”
  2. (A) “Mary was given a book for her birthday.”
    (B) “John gave Mary a book for her birthday.”

Passive voice is not grammatically wrong, but it is rhetorically weak, and weakness invites questions. Reducing its use can strengthen prose significantly.

Exhaustive exposition that talks around subjects instead of addressing them

Also known as circumlocution, this brand of indirect discourse points fingers at itself with how desperately it avoids subjects. Consider

  • The character that repeatedly refers to a conflict in their past but never names the actual event.
  • The recurring flashback that points to a dire outcome but never quite gets there.
  • The narrator that conspicuously omits certain details from their narration.

The danger of these examples lies in their likelihood to annoy a savvy audience. Avoiding a subject brings more attention to it. Treating it with ambiguity, however, leaves it open for the reader to interpret, and in many instances to assume that the narrator has addressed and resolved it.

Poorly executed red herring(s)

I have blogged about red herrings before, in a far more entertaining post than this one. Long story short, they can be a huge asset or a huge stumbling block.

Red Herring as a type of indirect discourse

Red Herring, a truly shady bloke

A while back my mom was in a book club that insisted on reading through an entire series of cozy murder mysteries. She said she always knew who the killer was because early on, the author would introduce a character who then faded away for the middle of the plot. The amateur sleuth would pursue instead a blatant red herring, and when that lead petered out, SURPRISE! The killer was that seemingly innocuous wallflower from the start.

Only, when it happens every single time over the course of a whole series, it’s not much of a surprise.

There is an art to red herrings. Namely, they must be believable. If they’re too over-the-top—trying too hard to draw attention to themselves, as it were—they lose their plot value.

Amateur sleuths flock to red herrings like seagulls to a trash barge. The trick is not for the sleuth to assume another character’s guilt, but for the reader to assume it. And that requires crafty plotting indeed.

In Summary

Narrators are guilty of indirect discourse when they avoid addressing questions that the reader has, or put off admitting things the reader has already figured out. 

Basically, if you talk around an issue too long, you point fingers at your own deception.

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Contractions or the Lack Thereof | Liar Liar

Pamela Meyer quote formal language contractionsWe begin our basic patterns of deception with an easy fix: lack of contractions.

In Real Life

Authentic human speech patterns include slurring words together. We have always had contractions in the English language. It’s how we got words like “never” (OE not + ever), “none” (OE not + one), and “neither” (OE not + whether). Contractions contributed to the loss of inflectional endings, and they led to our genitive case getting marked with -’s instead of its full syllable -es from a thousand years ago.

A lack of contractions, then, points to inauthenticity. Liars often deny without using them, “I did not,” rather than “I didn’t.” The liar instinctively emphasizes their innocence with that non-contracted “not.” The truly innocent person, in contrast, has more interest in quickly refuting a false allegation rather than trying to convince their listener of their sincerity.

Thanks to hundreds of years of grammar classes, we associate non-contracted speech with higher formality. If a speaker takes the time to enunciate all their words instead of contracting them together, they must mean Serious Business.

Or, they’re trying to assert authority so that people won’t question them.

Which, generally, hoists a red flag that something is amiss.

Contractions In Writing

The “No contractions” rule applies to high school essays, enforced by teachers who want their students to treat assignments like the Serious Business they are. It doesn’t apply to fiction or creative nonfiction.

Use of contractions brings more authentic speech patterns to dialogue and narration alike. It should be the rule of thumb rather than the exception.

What exceptions, then, exist? I can think of two off the top of my head.

  1. Liars. If you have a character telling lies, giving them a non-contracted denial is a nice, subtle cue.
  2. Foreign language learners. Speakers of English as a foreign language are less likely to contract words early on in their language learning. Similarly, if you have a character learning a second language, but where that language is still represented through English (a fantasy language, for example, where you’re not about to pull a Tolkien and your readers wouldn’t understand it even if you did), use of more formal language patterns can give an impression of careful speaking.

I’m not the language police. Ultimately, each writer decides how best to implement contractions in their work. But if you abstain, don’t be surprised when I assign crazy accents to your characters to balance out their stilted speech patterns.

Caveats

  • Triple contractions are seeing more use, but proceed with caution in this vein. Words like shouldn’t’ve, couldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve, I’d’ve, we’d’ve, they’d’ve, etc. have more traction in their written forms than the less common I’ll’ve, we’ll’ve, she’ll’ve, won’t’ve, etc., but any and all of these can trip up a reader if used too liberally. We’ve not yet gotten to the point of quadruple contractions, that I know of, but I’d’n’t’ve approved if we had.
  • Lack of contractions ≠ “archaic.” Shakespeare used ’em a’plenty. Archaic contractions are different than modern ones, however, because their clitics (the left-over word fragments that attach to their stronger friends) formed from the front end rather than the back. For example, archaic contractions of “it is” and “it was” give us the now-archaic ’tis and ’twas, as opposed to the modern contraction it’s.

Long story short, if you need someone’s blessing to feel comfortable using contractions in your work, consider it bestowed. This is an easy fix for better authenticity.

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Dialogue and Deception | Liar, Liar

Dialogue (n. \ˈdī-ə-ˌlȯg \ )

 a conversation between two or more persons;  also a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer)

 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

For the purposes of this blog series, we will consider writing itself as a form of dialogue. In fiction and creative nonfiction, this dialogue has three layers at work within it.

Dialogue Layer #1: Character to Character

The most basic layer is the one everyone thinks of when they hear the word “dialogue”: Character to Character. This is the back-and-forth exchange we see on the written page. It can be verbal or non-verbal, including hand gestures, facial expressions, letters, and so forth. 

In short, this layer involves anything one character does to communicate with another.

Dialogue Layer #2: Narrator to Reader

The second layer is Narrator to Reader. This includes exposition and narration and consitutes the Narrator and the Reader interacting across the fourth wall.

Obviously this dialogue is one-sided. The Narrator will not hear anything the Reader says. Sometimes a Narrator will prompt what they assume the Reader is thinking (“Oh, you were wondering about XYZ? I was just getting to that,” and so forth), but these prompts feel disingenuous because most readers aren’t thinking along those exact lines.

(But you like people filling in your thoughts for you, you say? No, typically none of us does. Be very careful when using this narrative technique.)

3 Layers of Dialogue in Fiction: Character to Character, Narrator to Reader, Author to AudienceThe Narrator to Reader layer of dialogue controls the POINT OF VIEW. This powerful story element is a built-in mechanism for manipulating the Reader’s perceptions and how they receive the string of events in your plot.

When a Reader picks up a book, by and large they are sympathetic to things the Narrator is sympathetic to and critical of things they’re critical of. In cases where the Narrator’s worldview differs significantly from the Reader’s, the Reader more than likely puts down the book and walks away, and the dialogue ends there. (Consider the case of a narrator who openly expresses antisemitism, or one who expounds upon the joys of animal abuse. That’s a quick way to kill the joy of reading.)

This layer also conveys SETTING and CHARACTERIZATION. Because the Narrator determines which conversations the Reader receives and which character interactions get featured or skipped, the Character to Character layer of dialogue depends entirely upon this layer.

Dialogue Layer #3: Author to Audience

The final layer of dialogue is Author to Audience. The Author is not the Narrator, and neither is every Reader your Audience. As authors this is our most important layer of dialogue, the foundation that upholds everything else.

This is the layer of conscious literary choices. PLOT, THEME, diction, analogies, metaphors, and other literary devices all combine to communicate some greater message to the Audience, to manipulate thoughts and feelings.

This layer exists whether you acknowledge it or not. It is driven by what you hope to achieve as an author writing your work.

Together the Author and the Audience engage in a cooperative agreement. The generic version of this agreement is as follows:

  • ­The Author promises to entertain.
  • ­The Audience agrees to suspend disbelief.

Every genre has a specialized version of this agreement. The Romance author promises deep emotional connections between characters, the Suspense author promises tension, the Fantasy author promises wonder and adventure, and so forth. And each of these genres has an audience seeking fulfillment of those promises.

Not an intelligent person in the world picks up a novel and says, “If this isn’t straightforward and predictable, I’m going to riot.” Even the audience for the trope-iest of trope genres wants to experience those tropes in an original way, with a fresh perspective and the promise of surprise.

Hence, Author and Audience enter a dialogue of deception, built upon mutual consent.

If the Author fails their promise, the Audience will drop their side of the agreement as well.

In a nutshell, it is your job as an Author to deceive your Audience.

Workshopping Questions:

  1. As an Author, what specific promises does your agreement with your Audience include? What tropes or other literary devices might help you fulfill those promises?
  2. What point of view does your current work-in-progress use? How does this POV help or hinder your Narrator?

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