Monday, July 04, 2022

Bringing the reader up to speed

One of my niggles that turns up again and again in cop shows on TV - the CSI type of thing - is when the detectives stand around in their office and spout exposition. I don't mean one of them telling the others what's happened, but four or more of them each telling each other what they already know. They're only doing this so the viewer knows as well.  

Character A knows exactly how much to say before character B takes over. Character B then gracefully gives in to character C who somehow knows which bit of information to supply before character D finishes the thing off. Occasionally they swap this approach around: BDCA, or the like. But it's not as if they're discussing it. Pity the poor actors trying to make this look remotely realistic.

Of course, we're not talking about real life here, but we are talking about drama. And how odd it is to find TV scriptwriters reverting to this type of exposition-giving. It was dealt the death blow in the theatre after audiences got tired of too many butlers and maids coming on stage in the first scene and cheerfully telling each other - and the audience - everything they needed to know.

Why this approach has come back into fashion in these cop dramas on TV I don't know, but it seems like lazy writing to me. Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, talks about how exposition can be dull in a movie if you don't mix it with some action. He talks about the 'Pope in the swimming pool' - a scene in which exposition is given while the Pope is having his daily swim. The audience listens to the expository material while wondering about the fact of the Pope being in a bathing suit, or their surprise at there being a swimming pool in the Vatican in the first place. The scene gives exposition while there's visual action - even if it's mainly swimming. In Hellboy, a good deal of exposition takes place during a World War II battle. In other words, a visual event is going on while we're picking up what the story is about. 

It's necessary in novels too. No one wants to wade through a couple of characters bringing the reader up to date in an opening chapter. Inventiveness is needed. 

In my children's fantasy, The Disenchanted Wizard, a good amount of background information was given while the characters raced up the stairs and along the corridors of a mental hospital, all the while keeping an eye out for staff who might catch them being where they shouldn't be. In my current WIP, I have a helicopter playing a noisy and increasingly dangerous part as one character tells the heroine what she needs to know. They're in increasing danger of being wiped out of the sky by this very solid and noisy machine. 

Exposition can be fed to the reader in small doses over two or three chapters. If you need to bring in larger chunks of it, give the scene another element, something that keeps the reader's mind on its toes. The reader wants to know the background to the story, but will be more involved if it has to engage with other (preferably relevant) things at the same time. 

Photo courtesy of - one of the few sites that still offers free images that are free.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Odd English Words

 I've always loved odd words, and English is not only full of them now, but always has been. Sadly, a lot of the really fun-sounding words have gone into the mists of time. I used to get a regular email from World Wide Words, which the writer and etymologist, Michael Quinion, produced. Week after week, he and hundreds of his readers would add to our knowledge of the language by discussing new and old and crazy English words. Quinion no longer produces the regular emails/columns, but they're all still online here, are searchable, and fascinating to read. If you love words!

I'd like to keep the ball rolling a little by tweeting some of these words regularly under the hashtag #oddEnglishwords, and I'll reproduce the tweets here. 

16th March, 2022:

Though not a cow I have horns; Though not an ass I carry a pack-saddle; And wherever I go I leave silver behind me. The answer to this old English riddle is a hodmandod, a bumpy word we've replaced with the more prosaic 'snail.'

17th March, 2022: 

Next time a reporter tells us someone has been severely beaten in a street incident, perhaps they could use the phrase 'the victim was mammocked-up' instead.
Maybe the hospital emergency dept could adopt it too...

Sunday, February 06, 2022

Dictating a computer

For some time now I've been typing up old handwritten notebooks onto the computer so that I can have a digital record of them, and clear out some more stuff from the house. These were mostly notes about my ongoing work of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, a process that not only doesn't happen as soon as you become a believer but goes on until the day you die - and maybe into eternity. Who knows?

There were also other notes amongst the spiritual stuff; sometimes these supplement material in my other journals, and sometimes they repeat the same material in a different way. 

Recently, as a result of reading an email from Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I decided to save my hands a little and try and dictate the handwritten notes into the computer. I had two options: Windows Speech Recognition, which came with my computer, or Voice Typing in Google Docs. 

The Windows version produced text that was barely recognizable as what I'd dictated, and I gave up on that fairly quickly. Google does a much better job, and I'd say it gets more than 95% of the text right first time. It's the other 5% that's a bit of an issue. 

You know when you ask your phone to find something on Google, it will usually only get anything complicated right if you speak clearly, and perhaps a little slower than normal. The same applies here: go too fast, and you'll wind up with some interesting results. This means that you'll have to tidy up the text before you can copy and paste it to Word. It's still faster than typing it, but there are certain peculiarities that I can't seem to conquer. Here's are some of them. 

When I say the word, Psalm, all sorts of words appear: song, some, sound, Somme (as in the battlefield). So far Google and I can't get an agreement on this one. 

It thinks my wife Celia is actually Siri. Which seems strange, since this isn't an Apple computer. When I say the word, Dad, which I often do, since I address quite a few of the entries in these notebooks to my Heavenly Father, it often appears as Dead

Some of the quirks might be the result of my accent, a New Zealand one. I don't have a strong NZ accent, and I've lived in England and so acquired a cleaner English sound at one point, but Google always thinks I'm saying and when I say in, and vice versa: in for and. It also has a tendency to catch the word yet as it. Plainly my improved NZ accent isn't improved enough. 

Not all the errors are misinterpretations of what I'm saying. It likes to capitalize random words. I couldn't figure out why, but I wondered if it picked up certain phrases as being the names of songs, and so capitalized them as though I was mentioning the song in the middle of my sentence. While it's good at making sense of some grammatical issues, it's not so good at making sense of things it just plain doesn't understand. 

It's also is a bit hazy about capitals at the beginning of sentences. These often go missing for no good reason. 

Punctuation is a bit of a problem too. Full stops and commas, in general, are okay. Saying new line will create a new paragraph. Even semi-colon works more often than not. But colon usually appears in the text as Colin, or something similar, while the programme can have off days with comma, turning it into all manner of things: gonna, comedy, colour! I've given up trying to introduce brackets; sometimes the closing bracket will work, but not the opening one. And as far as I can tell, there's no way to tell it to put quote marks around dialogue, which means it would be a bit painful writing a novel in this way. 

It likes to introduce numbers into the text. So far the word too has never appeared (though to makes it). Too is always rendered as 2. Sometimes for appears as 4. 

As you can see, there's always a bit of cleaning up to do after it's typed out your dictation. Still, this is easier than typing up old notebooks of hastily-written paragraphs. 

But if the errors are frustrating, they can also be inventive, and sometimes hilarious. 

Womb for room was a bit of a surprise, but definitely quirky were: dressed tickly for drastically, and metre fur for metaphor. 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Re-reading A Suitable Boy

After nearly three decades I'm re-reading A Suitable Boy, that vast (1500 pages almost) and detailed book of life in India not long after the Partition by the British. 

It's full of stories, all interconnected, and of people from all walks of life. In the following quote, a politician, L N Argawal, has just been questioned in Parliament about a the recent shooting of several Muslim rioters: a mob of some thousand were planning to attack the foundations of a new Hindu temple that was being built right next door to a Muslim mosque. (The mosque itself had been built on the site of a Hindu temple some centuries before.) 

With typical political-speak, Argawal manages to answer very little, particularly to a Muslim female politician who is fired up about what's happened. A little later, he speaks to one of his staff:

'...a good man will not make a good politician. Just think - if you had to do a number of outrageous things, would you want the public to forget them or remember them?'
Clearly the answer was intended to be 'Forget them,' and this was the MLA's response.
'As quickly as possible?' asked L. N. Argawal.
'As quickly as possible, Minister Sahib.'
'Then the answer,' said L N Argawal, 'if you have a number of outrageous things to do is to do them simultaneously. People will scatter their complaints, not concentrate them.' When the dust settles, at least two or three out of five battles will by yours. And the public has a short memory. As for the firing in Chowk, and those dead rioters, it will all be stale news in a week.'
The MLA looked doubtful, but nodded in agreement. (page 278) 

This may seem an obvious enough piece of politicking, but it's very relevant to the state of New Zealand politics at the moment: behind all the ongoing stuff about Covid that our Prime Minister spouts each day and which seems to have all her attention, have been a number of other Bills and changes to the life of New Zealanders, some of them snuck in under the radar almost. The idea of doing enough outrageous things to dissipate the attention of the voters seems to be enacted on an almost daily basis in this country.