Saturday, January 12, 2013

Never Put Two Sherlocks In A Scene

I have a friend who is an expert in something I'm blissfully ignorant of. I'm really quite an ignoramus on this topic. And she wrote a story wherein the first scene, her dazzling knowledge is on full display. Two characters are both experts in this same field and they are discussing a specific exhibit at a specific gallery of a specific museum in New York City.

Though I am an ignoramus, I'm not stupid and I know it. But if I was stupid, or just a little less confident in my little gray cells, I would be turned off by that narrative.

She's resisting the urge to "dumb it down," and I can appreciate that. I write at a fairly high level when the narrative strays into my areas of expertise. Just keep me away from the unobserved quantum systems and everybody walks out of here alive.

I hope the reader comes to my prose with a desire to have some fun. I'm never going to be assigned reading in any school course and I don't write to save humanity from itself. Should everyone on the planet who ever picks up one of my stories come away knowing about quantum mechanics or Cartesian Rationalism? God forbid.

Gentle reader, I promise I won't intentionally make you feel stupid. Even when I know whodunnit and am playing strip-tease with the clues. No, it isn't Mrs. White in the Library with a Pipe. Nice guess though.

If you make too many specific New York Metropolitan Museum of Art references, your readers will feel stupid. If they feel stupid, they'll buy fewer books. This isn't a call to "dumb down" the narrative, but to make it more inclusive of smart, yet ignorant people. I hope you'll find my narratives inclusive of smart, but ignorant people.

Keep in mind that I am ignorant person. There are gaping gaps in my knowledge. Those gaps are there because of a misspent youth finding out about transcendental mathematics, infinite sets of Lebesgue-measure zero, and other mathy stuff. And I haven't even gotten to Turing machines. Or unobserved quantum systems.

Thus when you have a scene that's set in a gallery of a museum, I suggest you channel your sensations in that space instead of identifying it by name. Not everyone has been inside the Henry Ford Museum, but they know the feel of a velour cordon, the echo of a woman's heels on polished marble, the glint of light on a glass display case.

If my character stands beside a turquoise Duesenberg, that's not as compelling to the reader as being in the presence of chrome and paint that is polished to an almost painful degree of shininess that calls to mind the craftsmanship of a lost age and evokes a yearning automotive lust that is utterly unattainable unless you--gentle readers--start buying my writing faster than Clive Cussler's. Here's a link, hint hint.

I have a story wherein I did something stupid with two characters named Luke and Xavier. One's a Catholic Alien, and the other is a Baptist Human. They are both Christians and they're both conversant in the scriptures of the Christian faith. They're normally polar opposites in terms of culture and temperament and the conflicts between these two protagonists work delightfully.

What I did stupidly was dueling Bible References. One would give a snippet of a verse, and the other would provide chapter-and-verse. I thought it was cute. I'm an idiot. It's annoying and it kills the narrative flow of the scene. If you're not a Bible scholar, you might appreciate an aphorism drawn from the scriptures here and there, but you won't give a fig about looking it up for yourself. When these fellas are playing Bible Roulette it is like two Sherlocks in the same room talking to each other and leaving the rest of the class in their dust.

That's why Watson is priceless to Arthur Conan Doyle and us mere humans. Someone must be an everyman of normal intelligence to whom Holmes can explain his line of reasoning. By normal intelligence, I don't mean an IQ of 100. I mean an IQ of your target market.

Thus the natural conversation between Holmes and Watson serves the purpose of opening the mind of Holmes to the reader.

When the writer is an expert s/he should regard the role of writer as that of popularizer. If you're Carl Sagan, Sister Wendy Beckett, or James Burke you've got all this awesome expertise rattling around your noggin. And if you're any of these people, you've made a ton of bread making that expertise accessible to the general public.

I've talked about how the writer does not know everything he needs to know. And though the writer may fake it, s/he cannot be caught faking it. This is the opposite. It's a twist on the curse of knowledge.

The citation of specifics lends verisimilitude to the narrative. It tells the reader you've done your homework and gives you credibility. But there's a price you pay when readers don't follow you. Like everything, you need balance. If you are thinking of yourself as a popularizer, then you won't overload your readers.

If your interlocutors in scene are both experts, they will talk expert-to-expert. Their conversation will be full of jargon and your audience will be completely lost. I can't see how that can ever work for you when they're talking shop.

When I put Sherlock and Mycroft in scene together, I won't won't give you a disquisition on forensic science or the deductive arts. Instead you should expect to see brothers bickering like brothers do. A lot of people understand sibling rivalries, so that's what I give the reader.

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