Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Reminder About Superlatives

You've seen the lists: top ten movies of last year, most influential people of the last decade, greatest failures of the last century.

Most of the time, you'll hear someone say, "This list is bogus because it doesn't have Waterworld in it." It is easy to construct a counter-example from a list of "worst things" by simply finding one thing worse than anything in the list.

And this impacts anything you write that involves superlatives. If your story has the most beautiful woman in the world, the reader can't say, "That's not true, because she's not blonde." Some people gauge beauty according to different standards. If you rank the N most beautiful women, someone with a different standard can find a counter-example.

Do I think Gwyneth Paltrow is beautiful? Yes. Is she more beautiful than Rani Mukerji? Or someone else? Do you want your reader trying to pick at your ranking or do you want the reader's head in your story?

It depends.

What are you trying to do? If you want to tease out greater engagement, this picking and quibbling is catnip. It's a subtle form of flame bait. So, put superlatives in your blog posts alongside the weird trick to lose weight for the New Years.

But what if you are writing a potboiler where you don't want the reader to put down your story? You want your reader thinking about the dashing knight in distress being rescued by the beautiful damsel. You do not want the reader thinking, "Chris Pine is a lot hotter."

Superlatives are not just the single most beautiful woman, but also the N most beautiful women. You want to make your characters extraordinary without triggering the quibble reflex. That way your readers are in your story and not out there googling "hottest actors" and getting distracted.

Though I still think superlatives are for children, I now have more reasons to avoid them.

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