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Packing Heat 108: Obvious Opposites

Packing Heat is a podcast I've been putting out since 2007. My goal is to help other writers stay motivated, and to encourage them to take their writing to the next level. You don't need special gadgets to listen; Packing Heat plays in your browser, like YouTube. Or you can subscribe (and leave me glowing feedback) at iTunes!

Yay!

I’ve finished Zero Hour, the story that took shape in Packing Heat #5. I’m leaving the first draft up for readers to enjoy for free, and I’ll be producing it as both an ebook and paperback.

Here are my thoughts on the writing process of Zero Hour .

Newbie mistakes #4

Obvious Opposites

I read a story excerpt yesterday where one of the characters is referred to twice as “the young prince” and three times as “the younger man,” all in one chapter. This is called an epithet.

I was curious whether the Chicago Manual of Style had anything to say about epithets—and what I found was mainly explanations on how to punctuate them (no great surprise.)

However, this rule caught my eye: Temporary epithets. When preceding a name, role-denoting epithets such as citizen or historian should be lowercased and treated as if in apposition. CMOS 8.37

“Role-denoting” is what stuck out to me! When newbie writers use epithets, so often they’re there to remind us who’s older and younger, who’s the fireman and who’s the arsonist, who’s related to whom.

I find it clumsy. The over-reliance of continually reminding your readers who’s younger by referring to them as, “the young man” rather than their name might indicate that you haven’t dug deeply enough into their personality to show them acting younger. Not that every “younger” person acts the same way—but how does that particular character manifest his or her age? Are they foolhardy, insecure, ignorant, impetuous, or what? Probably, you haven’t explored what the actual ramifications of the characters’ age difference are, otherwise you wouldn’t need to resort to “the young man” to remind us of that character’s age.

I also think you’ll get much more mileage out of the old saw “opposites attract” if the opposition isn’t the main theme of your story. I think you’ll unearth much more interesting interactions if your characters agree in some places but disagree in others.

Think of it as the ten-after-six model. On an analog clock, at six o’clock (am and pm) the minute hand and the hour hand are opposite each other. At ten after six, the minute hand has moved a few degrees toward the hour hand. They’re no longer totally opposite—but they’re different enough to provide all sorts of interesting conflict.

(BTW, I was looking for a clock image and found this. I'm pretty sure it's the Vic model. I recognize his necklace. And also that he's such a ham. And his photographer plays with depth of field like that a lot. I talk about the Vic-Jacob relationship as a good example of ten after six on the recording.) (Also--Whoo, bare chest!)

 

Your Assignment

Are there polar opposites in your story? Think about placing them at ten after six and finding a few areas were they’re in synch.

Packing Heat 108: Obvious Opposites, about 20 minutes

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
deborak
Jun. 16th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
Oh, I could just hug the Chicago Manual of Style (it's my preferred guide anyway). I have never understood the loathing of the mere existence of epithets. As long as your story is not utterly peppered by or reliant on them, they are fine.
jordan_c_price
Jun. 16th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
I think that fewer misused epithets will always be better than more misused epithets, but what I'm seeing and what I talk about in the cast are epithets being used for the wrong reason--because writers aren't willing to do the legwork to work through the ramifications of their characterization. In other words, calling someone "the young man" rather than having them act young.

Typically the only decent use of epithets would be to deliberately build distance between the reader and the object of the sentence, or to talk about someone whose name is unknown. If a sentence seems to demand an epithet because the pronouns get mixed up, I think it's cleaner writing to simply rework the sentence than it is to go with "the man." It's all about sounding natural and conversational so your prose can disappear.
marasmine
Jun. 16th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
I think the overuse of 'descriptive phrases' (sorry, epithet means swearing to me!) might come from fanfic. It is very common there. So maybe some of the fanfic writers/readers who move on to original work are taking this habit with them. Or it could be the other way around - a newbie mistake that just shows up more in fanfic because of the general lack of editing.

It has always seemed a clumsy way of getting a point across to me. For some reason I find it most annoying when the emphasis is on taller/shorter or larger/smaller when the characters are only an inch or two different in height and marginally different in build. I suspect I'd still be annoyed if the characters were a six foot six sumo wrestler and a five foot one very delicately built man. If I have the information I don't want to be hit over the head with it every five minutes!

Thanks for bringing up all these interesting topics.
jordan_c_price
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
I really dislike the bigger/smaller dynamic in general--which probably seems strange for me to say, given that to an extent I have it in Vic and Jacob. It just seems like shorthand for something too simplistic.

I can't really dis fanfic because those are my roots. But I did notice even back then that some writers improved a little bit with everything they wrote because they were hungry to get better and better, whereas some writers stayed at the same level no matter how many hundreds of thousands of words they cranked out.

I think some of my fanfic cronies were the ones who pointed out that epithets weren't helpful to the writing. I learned a lot from my fandom. I was lucky to have talented people in it.
marasmine
Jun. 17th, 2010 07:49 pm (UTC)
I didn't intend dissing fanfic in general - I have much to be grateful for from my fandoms, too. It's just that in some fandoms this habit seems to be almost fannon or required style. Each fandom seems to have its own special words and phrases that get used and re-used by a lot of writers - things like 'the brooding man' seem to become such a common alternative to the character's name that they are almost obligatory usage. Once a writer adopts a style it can be difficult to unadopt it later. But it is a chicken and egg situation with regards to your original comments on the bad habit.
jordan_c_price
Jun. 19th, 2010 01:26 pm (UTC)
I hope it didn't seem like I was implying that you're dissing fandom at all -- just that I respect it as a training ground, and I wasn't sure if it was widely known that's where my roots are. There's both a lot of good and a lot of not-so-good in fandom. Writers who want to grow and get good can do so, and writers who want to rehash the same stories, the same phrases, the same everything, can do the same.

HAHAHA, the brooding man! Better than "the small man" in David Eddings' series that drove me nuts.

It's fine to imitate initially as a writer; I think that's how we all learn. It can be insidious, though. Like you say, certain words, phrases and styles filter through fandoms in an insidious way and become standard practice. I think m/m in general has a lot of that. I'm lucky my beta and proofer are really well read. They can point out genre-wide cliches to me.
canadianstudies
Jun. 18th, 2010 12:47 am (UTC)
I hate the big/small dynamic in m/m. Because writers always seem to link it to top/bottom, and it just turns into one gigantic gross stereotype. :(

That being said, I've never really noticed this dynamic in Psycop. I think this is because 1)they're the same height, 2) They're pretty much the same age, and 3) Vic doesn't act like a ridiculous little girl... and you're never going to catch him doing housework in an apron or baking cookies, lol (both things I've seen in m/m, and never in real life!)
jordan_c_price
Jun. 19th, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)
There's a whole top/bottom thing in m/m that strikes me wrong in general--in particular the way characters negotiate. Not that I don't think people in RL have preferences, but there's something about the way it's handled in m/m that seems unrealistic. I think people pick up on subtle sexual clues from one another. They don't march around announcing, "I'm a top! I want to top you! Look, I'm the larger man!"

I don't think anyone would want to eat cookies that Vic baked. They could throw them at rats and raccoons to keep them out of the garbage cans in the alley.
egret17
Jun. 16th, 2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
That's an awesome photo! Did it inspire you to write a short about Vic? ;)
jordan_c_price
Jun. 17th, 2010 12:41 am (UTC)
It doesn't seem very Vic-like, does it? He always springs out of bed raring to go an hour before his alarm goes off. (Which I guess would be the reason why it needs a story...)
cynbaby
Jun. 17th, 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)
If that is going to be the cover for Zero Hour, I think my bookshelf is going to be very, very happy.
jordan_c_price
Jun. 17th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
*snerk* that icon kills me every time you use it.

Yes, that's the Zero Hour cover. I predict a happy bookshelf in your future.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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