Friday, 18 November 2011

Best Hyperbole Ever!

Two men each have a box. Both are selling tickets for a peek inside their box. Both make extravagant claims about how impressed you’ll be with what you’ll see. But neither is willing to tell you what they've got in there.

Roll up, roll up. The stupendous, astonishing, one in a lifetime, miracle in a box. Get your ticket here. Be the first to see what’s in the Box o’ Dreams.

Now, if I tell you that one man has got something pretty amazing in his box, and the other has half a dog turd, how can you tell which is the box worth buying a ticket for?

The answer is you can’t. It’s just as easy to make hyperbolic promises about something rubbish as it something awesome if you don’t have to back up your claims. So, if you happen to actually have something really cool in your box, how do you let people know you’re the real deal?


In writing a story, it can be tempting to excuse a limp opening because there’s an amazing revelation just around the corner. It may not make sense right now, but stick with it and four chapters from now you’ll be stunned by what occurs. Trust me, I wouldn’t drag you through three hundred pages for a big letdown. Roll up, roll up.

But you have to look at it from the punter’s perspective. They don’t what great things you have planned for the future. They know you think you’ve got a worthwhile pay-off, but that’s no guarantee. To them, you’re just another attention seeking loud mouth making outrageous claims with no substance.

The concern for many aspiring writers is that if they give away what’s in their box, then why would anyone pay to see it? And the answer is, it depends on what’s in the box.

If one guy is selling you on the idea of how happy you’ll be on peeking inside his box, and the other fellow is telling you he has a gerbil in a wife-beater that can act out scenes for A Streetcar Named Desire, word perfect, which would box you pay to open?

Revealing information only works against you if it’s boring information. And if that’s the case, delaying the reveal as long as possible only makes it more annoying when you finally find out what it is.

Of course, the gerbil could turn out to be a terrible method actor, mumbling all his lines so he’s barely intelligible. And then the punter might get upset with the man because he didn’t produce the goods as promised. It’s much easier to pin someone down if they’ve been specific about what they were going to do. ‘Amazing’ means different things to different people. A gerbil that screams “Stella!” is going to be judged the same way by pretty much everyone.

But that’s a good thing. If a story doesn’t work if the big twist is silly or unbelievable, finding out as soon as possible is what a writer needs to know. It may be painful and embarrassing, but it’s part of the process of getting better.

Not being exact about what’s going on may seem like a good way to hook a reader into keep reading, but when there are hundreds of other guys making similar claims about the fantastical thing they’ve got to show you, the only one worth buying a ticket from is the guy who’s confident enough to tell you what he’s got up front.

Once you’ve got their attention, then you can afford to be a little more mysterious and play around with what you reveal when. But there needs to be enough going on at the start of a story (even if it’s unrelated to the main plot) to let the punters know they’re going to be getting their money’s worth.

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16 comments:

Diane Carlisle said...

I'm the type that would pick the gerbil in the wife-beater behind door number 2!!

*jumping up and down ready to give up the $200.00 that I just won from choosing box #1 in the last round*
Diane Carlisle

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think this all means I'm a lousy salesman.
Does the gerbil also dance?

Bryan Russell said...

I prefer Shakespeare. Maybe next year the gerbil can do Hamlet.

Heather said...

I found your post interesting and educational! But I don't tweet, so I'm sorry to say you will just have to be satisfied with me saying, "THANKS!"

Loralie Hall said...

Love the analogy...you make a fantastic point. Besides, saying the gerbil is in there isn't the big reveal anyway...you mention the possibility of him being a poor actor. With any pitch it's the same thing - you can tell us what happens, and if it's interesting enough we'll read to see how.

Sarah Pearson said...

This is great. I had a murder in my fourth chapter, and I moved it to the first just because I couldn't see the point of waiting for it. And yeah, I'd totally go for the gerbil.

Brent Wescott said...

Best Blog Post Ever! (Was that mean?)

mooderino said...

@Diane-glad to hear it.

@Alex-I don't think you need to be a good salesman if you have top quality product.

@Bryan-the gerbil is already booked until next summer.

@Loralie-indeed, it's just hard to convince insecure writers of that.

@Sarah-not that you have to start with a big moment, as long as there's something going on.

@Brent-you, mean? Never.

Michael Offutt said...

Now, if I tell you that one man has got something pretty amazing in his box, and the other has half a dog turd, how can you tell which is the box worth buying a ticket for?

When I read your words...I honestly think you are talking about religion. After all, you don't ever have to justify any of your claims.

Lydia Kang said...

I learned about putting a lot of emphasis on a cliffhanger that wasn't ultimately an important reveal. Great post, Moody!

Jon Paul said...

Great post.

I'm not sure if awards are your thing, but I've given you one over at my place. Thanks for keeping things so groovy! :D

MISH said...

Once again... a great post!
Quite often, the dramatic and drawn out build up turns out to be a big hullabaloo... for nothing!!

julie fedderson said...

Wonderful post. I've been disappointed reading page after page of buildup when the "amazing thing" really wasn't so amazing. It was like getting a gerbil that just spun on his little wheel, as opposed to using it in a MacGyver-esque fashion to escape his cage.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Well said.

mooderino said...

@Michael-if it was in a religious context you'd have to pay now but only get to look in the box when you were dead.

@Lydia-best to make the question interesting as well as the answer.

@John Paul-thank you.

@MISH-cheers.

@julie-it's especially a problem for pantsers who are hoping an idea will come to them if they keep going.

@Laoch-cheers.

LD Masterson said...

If the gerbil is really, really good, is he eligible for the Oscar or just that stupid award they have for animals?

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