I have been listening to Roy Peter Clark’s series on iTunesU called Writing Tools (iTunes link).
My favourite so far has been #21, “Know when to back off and when to show off”. He says that when something is serious or very important, one should understate it. And when something is less serious, or less important, one can use hyperbole more effectively.
This was one of the first things I noticed about bad or cheesy writers when I started to study writing: they overemphasized minor details, attempting to create drama, and accidentally slid into parody. You’ll notice this in bad TV dramas, romantic fiction, and pulp novels. Minor things, like a character’s thoughts at a specific moment, or descriptions of people, will be so overstated, so hyper-analysed, that by the end they are only funny.
This is a useful tip in comedy. If you want something to be funny, you can use wild, over-specific descriptions. Douglas Adams described his experience with whisky this way:
In fact the only thing that I don’t like about Whisky, is that if I take the merest sip of the stuff, it sends a sharp pain from the back of my left eyeball down to the tip of my right elbow, and I begin to walk in a very special way, bumping into people and snarling at the furniture.
That is way too specific to be taken seriously, and so it is funny, even if it delivers facts at the same time.
Jane Espenson, who wrote some of the funniest episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” said that comedy can come from being too specific or not at all specific. Being “just right” isn’t funny at all.
Remember Spinal Tap? Remember what “St. Hubbins” was the patron saint of? “Quality footwear,” that’s right. Not shoes. Superordinate. And, at the other end of the very same spectrum, remember this Buffy line? “I’m not exactly quaking in my stylish yet affordable boots”? Subordinate. The too-general is funny. The too-specific is funny. But, sorry, Goldilocks, just right is not funny.
But what if you are not trying to make a joke? Avoid being too specific about things that don’t matter. Get all the facts, and deliver them accurately, but watch your adjectives and adverbs, unless you want your prose to become parody.
For instance, here are two ways to describe a hurricane:
“The hurricane leveled the town.”
“The hurricane’s inexorable gusts of wind hammered away at the houses, leaving nothing in its wake but wreckage, and despair.”
Obviously both of these examples are extreme. But one makes a point, while the other is ridiculous. One could be found in a newspaper, and the other could be found in bad high school essay, or a cheap romantic novel.
Think about your descriptions, and don’t overstate unless you mean to.