The title of this week’s little rant might seem a bit odd, but it’s an important lesson every writer needs to learn, and several never do. I’ve been shown two or three examples of it just in the past month. And what better way to demonstrate this lesson than through the wonders of Star Trek.
Honest, this is brilliant. Stick with me.
The fifth season of Next Generation really began with a wonderful episode called “Darmok.” The Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, that has repeatedly halted first contact attempts because its language baffles the universal translator. The Tama language can be rendered in English, but their words still make no sense. In a bold move, the Tama commander, Dathon, kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together against a near-invisible energy creature to survive. Through their trials and a few garbled campfire discussions, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors. Literal translation has been impossible because the Federation does not share the same history and folklore with the Tama.
In a way, all of us do this every day. Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six (those guys were jerks), Lucky Bob, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.” In college, the folks I hung out with understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes. Heck, my girlfriend and I almost have our own language with phrases like French Mousey, cat-switch, and Mr. Sexypants.
We all have circles of family and friends where there are shared memories, private jokes, and special references that few people outside these groups would understand. Some people like sports, others like science. Some crack jokes from Playboy, others from Prairie Home Companion. These folks watch CSI obsessively and these folks watch Reaper whenever they happen to catch it. And everyone talks about what they know and what they like.
A common failing I see again and again in stories and screenplays are oblique references and figures of speech that the reader cannot understand. While it makes sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, outside readers end up scratching their heads. Many of the writers responsible for this will try to justify their words in a number of ways…
One is that since their friends are real people, people obviously talk this way, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with it. Alas, “real” does not always translate to “good.” In fact, unless you happen to be shooting a documentary, it usually doesn’t. That’s a large topic for another rant, though.
Two, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse. The writer plans to direct this script and cast their friends, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors). The flaw here is that the screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else. An investor. A producer. A contest reader. Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at the script and needs to be able to understand the writing.
Three would be arguing common knowledge. The writer will try to say this material is generally known– universally known, even– and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it. This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if someone honestly believes everybody should know who lost the 1969 Orange Bowl, there’s not much you can do to convince them otherwise. It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that those readers are just uneducated, pedestrian simpletons who never learned the periodic chart of elements, don’t collect Topps baseball cards, and couldn’t tell you the plainly obvious differences between Venom and Carnage if their lives depended on it.
Alas, their lives don’t depend on it.
Your writing does, though.
This is one of those inherent writer skills. It’s something you just need to figure out how to do on your own, and the easiest way is by reading everything you can get your hands on all the time. You need to know words and phrases. You have to know them and you have to be honestly aware of who else knows them. Using rare or antiquated words like atramentous instead of dark or glabrous instead of bald may show off your vocabulary, but the moment someone has to stop and think about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the all-but-certain ways to make sure the reader puts your manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and read something different.
It’d be foolish to say your writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone. That’s just aiming for the lowest common denominator and that’s how you end up with The Love Guru or anything Anne Rice has written in the past decade. By the same token, however, you can’t be writing just for your five closest friends.
Well, you can, of course. But not if you want to do this for real.