communication

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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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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Elevated by Experience

AverageEverygirl087

If you’re anything like me, you do a lot of things in life “for the experience.”

“Hey, yeah, let’s try that roller coaster where you hang suspended with your feet dangling out over nothing.”

“Wheat grass? Sure, give me a shot of that.”

“Ice skating? Why not?”

(For the record, I’ve never been ice skating. I do know my limits.)

The world is full of so many sights and sounds and smells that “for the experience” opens up a playground of learning. We travel “for the experience.” We take internships “for the experience.” Experience broadens our understanding and refines our ability to empathize.

One place this line doesn’t work, however, is in any activity that involves competition. Sure, someone may go into it thinking, “I’m excited to see what this is like,” with absolutely no expectation of winning—or of even placing—but in the aftermath, they’re not allowed to talk about that.

The instant they lose, “for the experience” becomes a semi-pathetic excuse.

Person A: “Oh, I joined that tournament for the experience of it. It was great.”

Person B: “Yeah, sure you did, buddy.”

Person A: “No, really. I knew I didn’t have a chance at winning. I didn’t even check the leaderboard.”

Person B: “Uh-huh. You know, it’s okay that you lost. The winners were all really good.”

Person A: “I know it’s okay, and I wasn’t trying to win. I just wanted to have some fun.”

Person B: “Right. Okay.”

Somehow, the more Person A insists, the less truthful they sound. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” as Shakespeare penned.

Certain patterns of speech fall under what pragmatists term “marked” or “dispreferred” behaviors. Repetition is one of these, along with hesitations, hedges, false starts, and wordiness. Such dispreferred behaviors run counter to the listener’s conversational expectations and thereby signal the listener to question the speaker’s truthfulness.

Truth, you see, is generally straightforward and non-excuse-making.

Generally.

Thus, when the listener already has cause to question a line of speech—as in the case where someone claims disinterest for winning a competition in which they participated when the very purpose of competition is to compete—then repetition of the information only augments that skepticism all the more.

So where does that leave those of us who really do engage in such activities “for the experience”?

One method is to acknowledge the failure outright in the aftermath. This disarms the assumption that the speaker is making excuses for their weakness:

“Yeah, I failed spectacularly, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you know?”

or

“I had no business being among all those greats. I was so lucky just to be on the same playing field.”

or

“On the one hand, it sucks that I didn’t stand a chance, but on the other, I learned a ton.”

Humility goes a long way toward establishing bona fide communication. Paradoxically, we save face by undercutting ourselves from the start rather than allowing someone else to do it for us. In contrast, downplaying failure, even when it was genuinely expected, comes across as prideful: the speaker frames themselves as above competition, above the plebeian masses who strive to succeed in that venue.

They invite skepticism, in other words.

Human communication abounds with these built-in nuances. We instinctively sift and evaluate the information we receive from others. We filter the information we send. Like a dance, the steps are pre-determined, and anything out of line may well tromp on toes.

Also like a dance, all the study in the world won’t perfect the art. You have to get out on the floor and practice and fail and practice again.

You know. For the experience.

Because sometimes that’s not just the best way to learn; it’s the only way.

Always Ask the Right Questions

AverageEverygirl084; interrogative moodOh, the Interrogative Mood! What fun it brings to communication!

Here’s a quick run-down:

Direct Questions

Direct questions come in question/answer pairs, where the answer only fully makes sense in the context of the question asked.

Q. Who was the first president of the United States?
A. George Washington.

Q. Where are my shoes?
A. They’re under the table.

Q. How did you get here so fast?
A. I was already in the neighborhood.

None of these answers make conversational sense on their own. The person who randomly states, “George Washington” or “I was already in the neighborhood” is going to catch a lot of side-eye for it.

Also, the person asking these questions places their trust in the listener to give a truthful answer. The direct question always seeks truth (and thereby provides a nice avenue for the listener to mess with a gullible questioner, haha).

Indirect Questions

Indirect questions aren’t looking for verbal answers, necessarily—or, if they are, it’s not the literal answer to the question asked. Indirect questions skirt around an issue. They pull politeness into the equation and communicate a need beyond their literal meaning.

Q. Have you seen Jane?
Translation: Tell me where Jane is, if you know.

Q. May I help you?
Translation: You look out of your element, and I am offering assistance.

Q. Can I please get by?
Translation: Move your ill-positioned carcass out of the way, roadblock.

This class of questions allows for conversational flouting, particularly if the audience decides to read them as direct questions instead:

Q. Have you seen Jane?
A. Yes. She’s a tall blonde with a snaggle-toothed grin.

Q. May I help you?
A. Looks kind of doubtful from where I’m standing.

Q. Can I please get by?
A. I don’t know. Can you?

Non-verbal responses can have the same dynamic of cooperation or flouting. For example, someone who asks “Can I please get by?” expects the other individual to move aside, with or without verbal acknowledgement; the second person might just as easily stand their ground in defiance or ignore the question entirely.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical Questions aren’t looking for any answer at all. Rhetoric, as the art of persuasion, aims to shape the listener’s mind. The speaker isn’t seeking information, but imparting it. Thus, the question is designed to make its audience think, but not necessarily respond.

Q. Do you have any idea what time it is?
Rhetorical intent: Shame on you for losing track of time and/or causing me to worry.

Q. Does this look like a game to you?
Rhetorical intent: This is srs bsns. Wipe that grin off your face.

Q. Ain’t I a woman? (h/t Sojourner Truth)
Rhetorical intent: My life is just as valuable as any other woman—as any other human—on this planet.

The rhetorical question provides a means for drawing the listener into the same mindset as the speaker, but, like the indirect question, can also open the door for sass, particularly if the listener is at odds with the speaker. It also loses its oomph if the listener takes it literally and tries to answer.

Tag Questions

The tag question can seek either information or validation. It’s not freestanding, but appends to a declarative statement:

  • You like strawberries, right?
  • Paul can sing, can’t he?
  • Mary wasn’t at the party, was she?

The answer to a tag question can be a simple yes or no, but it can also be an explanation of conditions. E.g., “I like strawberries fresh, but not freeze-dried.” “Paul hasn’t sung since high school.” “Mary came at the beginning, but she left after ten minutes.”

Tag questions in English are particularly fun. We can, like other languages, append a simple, “isn’t that so?” or “right?” or “correct?” to our statements, but the primary English tag-question structure involves a mirror opposite of the original statement.

Tag Formation

We form this structure by using a negative of the declarative auxiliary and a subject-matching pronoun (and, as with any Declarative-to-Interrogative transition, if there’s no auxiliary in the main sentence, “do” jumps in to take the role):

  • You could come early → couldn’t you?
  • Jim got home late → didn’t he?
  • He’s not supposed to be here → is he?

The combo-breaker for this pattern is the first-person singular, when the auxiliary is “be” and the declarative is positive. Compare the two following examples:

  • I’m not singing → am I?
  • I’m singing → aren’t I?

“Oh, nope! I aren’t!”

Some people like to use “am I not?” as the tag question. And by “some people” I mean “stuffy people and sticklers.” The grammatically correct contraction would be amn’t, a’n’t—or, more colloquially, ain’t. But since we ran that term out of proper speech a century or two ago, we get aren’t as a fill-in.

Serves us right.

The negative stands on one side of the structure but not on the other, which cues the listener to give a confirmation or denial of the declarative statement. It also helps the speaker save face: rather than stating something which might be refuted and make them look uninformed, they invite the refutation from the outset, appearing open-minded instead.

Final Words

And an interesting social note: women are far more likely than men to use tag questions. Two possible explanations for this phenomenon are that we inherently desire more validation, or that we’re used to having our spoken statements challenged.

I won’t go into which I find more likely. It’s an interesting dynamic either way, don’t you think?

EDIT 2/23/18: A commenter below has drawn it to my attention that the colloquial “women use tags more than men” assertion has dubious truth value, so I’m striking it from the article. Long story short, tag use is a whole lot more complex than it might appear at a glance.

But it does make a fascinating addition to the Interrogative Mood, doesn’t it?

(*wink*)

Committing the Sin of Omission

AverageEverygirl083

Subtlety is a dying art. In this era of instant gratification, audiences often gravitate toward whatever content makes them do the least amount of thinking.

“Critical analysis? Pshh. That’s for suckers.”

More and more, people want to be spoon-fed their own opinions and inclinations. They slurp their media through a straw and swallow whole or toss aside anything that should be chewed. Worse, the longer they have only pap to ruminate upon, the less able they are to ruminate at all. And when something comes along that absolutely requires full and rigorous chewing, they filter it out and complain about it afterward.

Usually in the reviews section on Amazon. But I digress.

This passive mindset creates a cross-section of individuals who cannot identify when communication is bona fide and when it’s not. They key their trust to superficial elements—or, typically, to one superficial element in particular: “Does this make me feel good?”

The modern audience wants to be acted upon, you see. The less effort we have to expend, the better.

Our disinclination for critical thinking becomes a veritable playground for content producers well-versed in the nuances of language. The pattern plays out in politics and the entertainment industry alike: an essential part of communication is choosing what information to present and what to withhold.

An audience that doesn’t even question whether it’s looking at the whole picture, then, is ripe for manipulation.

If one knows how to go about it.

Personally, I find the spoon-feeding mentality insulting. Not only does it beleaguer one’s mental capital with an excess of information to wade through, but it implies that an audience lacks the intelligence to understand the full meaning without such careful guidance.

Communication occurs in layers: you can have your superficial “this makes me feel good” layer that contains just enough details for the incurious to accept it as whole, but there are always a multitude of underlying, subtle layers that leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the more canny audience to follow. Where that trail leads depends on the competence of the communicator.

And if I had to choose, I’d take the subtle layers any day of the week. Whether the audience fills in the blank with their own assumptions or follows the subtext to deeper meaning, there is always great power in the details left unsaid.