Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dumb It Down

Guy's Night Out,
Aldo Luongo,
hand painted giclee.

Back in the last century, I submitted an article to a terrorist think-tank about the Phineas fraternity, holy assassins and the concept of post-Fordist flexible terrorism called "leaderless resistance."

It came back with a notation "dumb it down."

It was easy enough to find alternatives to "chiliastic wilderness," and "Manichaean shadowland," and even "Ragnarokian revolutionaries."Or a reference to the Oklahoma city bombing as a "Jericho jihad."

Then I realized that the main problem was not only the language, but a concept too condensed - as well as a projection a bit difficult to contemplate.

The lesson regarding fiction, I suppose, particularly in terms of alternate history or fresh or frightening substitutes to conventional plot lines is to take it slow and build it carefully. Have regard for your reader's comfort zones and allow them to absorb, by repetition and cautious deviation, bit by bit, the new world you wish them to inhabit and explore.

And if you kick them into the deep end of the pool in the beginning, give them a little time to tread water before you introduce the shark.


Erik Ivan James said...


Bernita said...

Thank you, Erik.

anna said...

LOVE!! the painting.

I can understand this 'dumb it down business' I have a friend
a very smart friend who writes the most excellent poetry but sometimes it is way too much work to try and figure out what it is he is trying to say. It seems like he is trying to show off how much smarter he is than his reader. I am not implying even in the slightest instance that this is what happened in your case but, can understand the concept.

Ric said...

One need only look to literacy rates to understand why this can easily become a problem. Reading is generally for enjoyment - having to work hard to comprehend is too much bother.

Post is spot on, Bernita. Nice job.

Bernita said...

No, I don't have anything to prove in that regard, Anna.
I figure if I can understand something - anyone can.
Usually, one can tell if a writer is just flashing their IQ ( genuine or not) to impress or has an arrogant attitude.
But one should not confuse a reader's lack of knowledge in a particular area with lack of intelligence.
And one one hand we have those writers who moan that no one "gets" their brilliance; and on the other, those critics who are suspicious of anything polysyllabic. And then there are those who become so entranced by language and abstracts that they forget the reader.

Thank you.
"Reading is generally for enjoyment" -vital point, Ric.
The best writers I think, have layered their stories, so that the levels or depths are available according to taste.

Dave said...

This happens in SciFi/fantasy writing. Sometimes, the technical explanations overwhelm the reader. Other times, the world is so oddly named and the character names so flaky that the story is hard to read.

I haven't ventured into alternative histories enough to comment about them in particular, but just the thought of discovering "chiliastic wilderness" in a text, isn't inviting.

pundy said...

That's really sound advice which I will try and apply. Thanks.

JLB said...

You have deftly touched upon a topic that I wrestle with regularly in my poetry. It’s all fine and well that I know what I mean, that I see all the subtle symbolism and meaningful turns of phrase – but if I cut the tenuous thread that my reader is using to navigate the piece, they’re more likely to get lost--adrift, disinterested, and untouched.

"Have regard for your reader's comfort zones and allow them to absorb, by repetition and cautious deviation, bit by bit, the new world you wish them to inhabit and explore."

While that applies a little differently in poetry than in fiction, the principle is very much the same. I think that the reason this may be a challenge for me at times is the tendency to write more for myself, and less with a potential reader in mind.

Bernita said...

I'd probably feel much the same about some terms in CemEng, Dave!

I could have titled this "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Sometimes we forget, Pundy, though I don't think you do.

Yes, JLB, poetry is a little different, partly in that condensation is expected, but the first skin has to hold together.

Robyn said...

Point well taken, but sometimes I mourn the loss of vocabulary. That poor government fellow who was fired over his use of the word 'niggardly' comes to mind.

But to be shallow- Ragnarokian Revolutionaries? Best rock band name EVAH.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...that is so true. I recently submitted a chapter to my critiqe group. It was full of technical military and science stuff.

The ladies that just read romance were like, "WTF!" ...well not exactly but...LOL!

While the guys and suspense readers were like, "Wow, way cool!"

The simplicity is in the eye of the reader!

anna said...

to Bonnie WTF! hah!!
I guess all one can say
is know thy audience

Bernita said...

Probably already taken by some micro-fuhrer, Robyn. Radicals like to recruit.

Right, Bonnie,the thing is not to forget your audience.
Seems to me some romance stories could use a little more technical stuff.

raine said...

Good post, good reminder.

So I guess having the hero ride in on the back of the leader of a horde of enormous radiated roaches to save the heroine, who's been kidnapped by large, bureaucractic beetles determined to destroy all human females who know the html codes wouldn't be a good idea in the first paragraph...

Bernita said...

Might get away with it, Raine. Make the chief roach the real hero and name it "Cock of the Walk."

Bernita said...

...assuming it was intended for Middle Grade, of course.

raine said...


Dave said...

If you understand how to fill a bucket with a garden hose, then you know lots about chemical engineering. What is called Unit Operations in Chem E is straightforward -
How to boil a pot of water.
How to mix a cake.
How to drain a swimming pool.
Air conditioning your house with a heat pump. Refrigerators.
These are things we all see and intuitively understand. The Engineering behind them might not be straighforward, but the results are. I spent many years touring visitors around the experimental units. It's not as hard as it sounds at first blush and then, most Unit Operations have a household equivalent. Housewives and homemakers just don't realize how much engineering they use or how saavy they are about it.

Bernita said...

I hope that emoticon means a grin, Raine!

That's why I always let the kids stamp mud puddles, Dave - the physics of it.

raine said...

I hope that emoticon means a grin, Raine!

Definitely, lol!

Jeff said...

Excellent advice, Bernita.

Bernita said...

!!!!, Raine.

Thank you, Jeff.

writtenwyrdd said...

I think that the closer your fantasy world is to reality, the more subtle and cautious the introductions. But not always.