Sunday, January 15, 2012

Superlatives Are For Children

One of the things I notice about beginning writers is that their stories use superlatives: the strongest knight, does battle against the vilest dragon to win the most beautiful princess. The writer wants to impress and evokes those things that impress him the most. It's a rookie mistake.

This is telling, not showing.

Suppose the princess is the most beautiful woman in the whole world. OK, what does that look like? Show us. Describe what this nonpareil princess looks like to qualify her for the title of most beautiful. And after you've limned the curve of her cheekbones, the way her hair graces her shoulders, the dancer's legs, heaving bosoms, moistened lips waiting to be kissed, and--most importantly--the response of the gallant to her visage, the dear reader won't need to be reminded that she's not only easy on the eyes, but more so than any other girl ever.

Superlatives take the reader out of the story. Let's suppose you've got your knight, princess, and dragon. They've each punched the time clock, reported for work, and are at their stations ready to go. When you say this is the vilest dragon and what does your reader think? Viler than what? Other dragons. OK, who are those other dragons? Puff was nice, but Smaug wasn't very nice. But Glaurung was worse... Now, your reader's mind is crowded with those other dragons. Or worse, your reader has gone off in search of dragons of comparative vileness.

Now suppose your knight must venture forth to the dragon's lair. His mom sends him off with a nice lunch and a warm coat into the worst blizzard ever. Oh? Would that be worse than that blow we got back in '03? Then a geezer pipes up: Nah, that was nothing, you should have seen the blizzard of '78. That was something. Then an older geezer says: You young pups didn't live through '62 in Kamchatka. Once this starts there will be a game of one-upsmanship where one liar tops the next liar with a bigger lie. (Unless I'm telling the fish story, then it's true.) Once you write "worst blizzard ever" your readers will start mentally playing this game. The smart writer realizes the only way to win this game is to not play.

As stories get scaled larger and larger, the reader tends to lose connection. Let's suppose the knight is set upon by some knave with a knife. They fight hand to hand; the knife is kicked away; hands close around his throat; his head pounds about to explode; he can't breathe. The reader has some skin in this game. Contrast this with the villain with the big red button marked "Destroy The Earth." He pushes the button? So what. We won't have to go into work Monday. This is why James Bond always has a big hand-to-hand fight with Jaws or someone in the control room over who'll get to the big red button.

The writer does not need to make the hero any more heroic or the villain any more villainous than the reader needs to engage with the story. The most beautiful princess need not be any more than the girl in Starbucks with a nice smile. The strongest knight need not be more than a GI back from Afghanistan. The vilest dragon need not be more than an unpleasant supervisor. I'm not saying you shouldn't make the hero stronger, the love-interest prettier or the villain viler. Just don't make them the most-est.


  1. You make good points here.

    I often describe my best friend 'as beautiful as a tree' and she does the same to me. This 'in joke' comes from reading The Odyssey in school. There is a particular passage when Odysseus, naked at the time, falls to his knees in front of the beautiful Nausicaa and tells her she is the most beautiful thing he's seen since some sapling.

  2. Interesting point! I hadn't thought about this... Thanks!

  3. Excellent post.

  4. "Mostest" is excellent for comedy or satire. (William Goldman does it wonderfully in the opening of The Princess Bride, describing how Buttercup achieved The Most Beautiful Woman In The World.) It is less useful for tension or engagement.

    It is particularly inconvenient if you should ever need a sequel, in which the stakes should rise. :)


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