That? Is the question? by Bill Kirton?
Unfortunately, we live in an age where rising terminals are becoming the norm. It’s not only teenagers and the like who are now adopting an interrogative intonation for non-questions, the contagion seems to spread to some parents, other adults, role models, and even broadcasters and academics who should know better. That, however, is the hand that’s currently being dealt so, if, as writers, we want to ‘get down’ with them all, our punctuation should reflect our streetwise credentials. For example:
‘So Jenny went to the gig? but it was, like, soooooo baaaaad? that people were, like, getting up on the stage? and the drummer was hitting them with his sticks?’
‘The Critique of Pure Reason poses problems of interpretation? so students tend to look for synopses online? They think that will be enough to get them through their exams? And the comprehension and absorption of its metaphysical consequences? can be postponed ad infinitum?
There are, however, genuine, legitimate questions which are fundamental to producing fiction (as well as some non-fiction). They are, of course, Who? Where? What? How? When? and most important of the lot, Why? Most of my fictional output has been crime novels but I'm fairly confident that these questions play a large part in most genres, including the one which is deemed superior to them all, the 'literary' one. So here’s a blog which I think our
friends might call Writing 101. US
This is the easy one. I know there are stories ‘peopled’ by things, objects,usually treated anthropomorphically: depressive but aspirational mops which live in dark basement cupboards with only an educationally challenged bucket for company; carbon molecules in the lead of a pencil burning with envy at cousins who form diamonds in the crown jewels but whose lives are transformed when they hear and begin to understand the meaning of ‘put lead in your pencil’; a discarded spittoon; and so on.
A step up from them in the league of fictional protagonists (although there are those who would deplore such elitism), come those which feature beasts, such as Animal Farm or much of the oeuvre of Dr Seuss. Then, at the top of the heap, there are actual people. (Again, such hierarchical rigidity will cause the chorus of disagreement to swell even further.) In the interstices appear fairies, werewolves, starship captains, Hobbits, Paris Hilton, and so on, but in all the cases, answering the question ‘who?’ forces the writer to individualise them, distinguish them from the other mops in the cupboard or their fellow investment analysts in the Square Mile. Try it. Think up a name or pick one from the phone book and ask ‘Who’s this?’ In no time at all, you’ll find you have someone with connections, relationships, problems, aspirations.
Just as the answers to ‘who?’ work by reducing possibilities – choosing name, gender, marital status, job – so 'where?’ works in the same way. Drop your bucket and mop into a
Chicago basement and their angst will be very different
from that experienced by their counterparts in Surrey or a croft in Caithness. The place will impose certain customs,
behaviours, cultural restrictions or opportunities. Complicate that by having a
mop manufactured in, say, Cuba,
find itself in the basement of Enron mere days before it stopped being ‘ 's Most
Innovative Company’ and the plot has already thickened. America
Such restrictions are, in fact, liberating. By anchoring the narrative to a specific location, ‘where?’ offers a ready-made back story in which things as diverse as kilts, rosaries and cricket bats can provide instant colour and mood. Then again, mix them up so that you have a Scottish batsman employed by the
to organise recreational
pursuits for its nuns and the available textures multiply further. ‘Where?’ not
only anchors characters, gives them specific substance, the ‘elsewhere’ which it implies also opens an infinity of alternative narrative layers, perspectives, and even universes. Vatican
And that’s enough to be going on with. I shall adopt techniques used so successfully by some of my colleagues on AE and return to my theme next month to complete the question set. Meanwhile, experiment with who? and where?. The richness your answers provide may surprise you.
I really feel for that mop and bucket.
The verbal tic that really annoys me (apart from questions which aren't questions, which? - it goes without saying? - REALLY annoys me? - is 'off of.' - 'Take your feet off of the table. - Get up off of your backside.' Repetitive, ugly, meaningless and grammatically wrong.
The 'who?''where?','what?'process is endlessly fascinating. I suppose we all invest our characters with a series of 'givens'. It's when they refuse to obey them that we realise we're on to something really interesting. Looking back over this comment, I see I've used far too many inverted commas. I didn't realise until I checked. Does that prove my point or illustrate something I'd rather not know about myself? Well, they're staying there as an awful warning.
Ee, Bill, this grumpy old pedants' post is too much fun. I must get up off of my backside (sorry Sue) and do some work.
Susan 'off of' is US usage, and not considered incorrect there, although it does sound a bit strange this side of the pond. But we say 'out of' so why not 'off of'?
ps had to look up 'vocal fry'. Fascinating.
Wendy, the Scotsman and his nuns are all yours. Slip them into your next Shona McKenzie outing.
Jan, sorry to have awakened those memories of frying voices, multiple is-es but glad to know that the apoplexy I display when assailed by these various distortions and misuses of language is shared. At the risk of adding to your misery, may I add another recent development for you to consider, namely beginning sentences with ‘So…’, when nothing in what’s being said links to what preceded it? As when Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time asks an academic ‘Can you sketch in the background to x?’ and, in reply, receives ‘So in Ancient Greece, Aristotle was…’ etc., etc.
If you want any more, I have lots.
Susan, that harmless wee word ‘of’ is treated so badly nowadays. People are fed up of and bored of things, not to mention that classic ‘She should of known better’. Maybe in the mop and/or bucket novel, one of the two should be a depressed linguist hiding from the infelicities of the modern vernacular.
Brilliant casting, Lydia. Also, while I know you’re right in your mature acceptance of the ways language evolves and most of us are guilty of having been there and done that in our youth, there are so many more vices accessible to them than there were for me at their age that I consider my curmudgeonliness totally justified.
Dennis, you raise a familiar spectre. I’ve so frequently been dismayed at hearing contemporaries or near-contemporaries condemning their offspring’s verbal tics using intonations and mannerisms that actually reflect them that I suspect I must do the same. We are, it seems, doomed.
And Catherine, thanks for the ‘what if’’ reminder, I’ll need to ‘grow’ my next blog by including it (another pet hate – ‘growing’ a company rather than broccoli, for example). And you may have seen the Youtube piece on vocal fry but if you (and others) haven’t, it’s worth a look. It really sounds as if it hurts.
'I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew. Their names are What and When and Why, and How and Where and Who.'