Friday, January 4, 2008

The Turkey City Lexicon

In relation to this topic, before I begin let me mention that some time back Emma Darwin had an excellent post about "rules of writing" over on her blog...

I've bemoaned before the irony that writers have so little terminology to describe their craft. I'd like to take a moment to pause and acknowledge the valiant efforts of the Turkey City Science Fiction Workshop, in Austin, Texas (back in the late 1980s) to codify some of the terms of art.

Of course, being devoted to science fiction, some of their terminology is rather genre-specific. For example:

Squid on the Mantelpiece

Chekhov said that if there are dueling pistols over the mantelpiece in the first act, they should be fired in the third. In other words, a plot element should be deployed in a timely fashion and with proper dramatic emphasis. However, in SF plotting the MacGuffins are often so overwhelming that they cause conventional plot structures to collapse. It's hard to properly dramatize, say, the domestic effects of Dad's bank overdraft when a giant writhing kraken is levelling the city. This mismatch between the conventional dramatic proprieties and SF's extreme, grotesque, or visionary thematics is known as the "squid on the mantelpiece."

I've had occasion to discuss Chekhov's 'gun over the mantelpiece' in critiquing some manuscripts; but I have to say that the 'Squid on the mantelpiece' hasn't come up. Nonetheless, Turkey City did identify some concepts of general utility. (Not all of these were original with Turkey City, by the way; in many cases they collected the concepts, and in some cases provided the name.)

"As You Know Bob"

A pernicious form of info-dump through dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up-to-speed. This very common technique is also known as "Rod and Don dialogue" (attr. Damon Knight) or "maid and butler dialogue" (attr Algis Budrys).

I'm not sure where the term As-You-Know-Bob originated--might have been Turkey City--but this one has pretty wide currency. I find it far more annoying than simply having the author explain, but fear of exposition results in more horrific As-You-Know-Bob passages every year.


A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit. " 'Let's get out of here,' he said, urging her to leave."

"Countersinking" is a very useful term because you see it done so often: "I never want to see you again," she screamed. She was really mad. It's nice to have a single word to describe it, otherwise you have to explain it in detail, sometimes with the aid of handpuppets.

Funny-hat characterization

A character distinguished by a single identifying tag, such as odd headgear, a limp, a lisp, a parrot on his shoulder, etc.

Oh my, have I seen a lot of that...and for that matter, a lot of this, too:

Not Simultaneous

The mis-use of the present participle is a common structural sentence-fault for beginning writers. "Putting his key in the door, he leapt up the stairs and got his revolver out of the bureau." Alas, our hero couldn't do this even if his arms were forty feet long. This fault shades into "Ing Disease," the tendency to pepper sentences with words ending in "-ing," a grammatical construction which tends to confuse the proper sequence of events. (Attr. Damon Knight)

Turkey City missed mentioning a common Not Simultaneous error, which usually begin with an "as" clause: As he shut the door of the car, he scrabbled through the glove box, found her address book, and scanned through the B's until he found Boyd's telephone number. Slow door shutting there...

These are just the most useful terms, but they are by no means the most amusing; Turkey City reserved their funniest labels for errors that are more specific to science fiction. If you care about such things, or just want a good laugh, visit The Turkey City Lexicon page.


Anonymous said...

Top-shelf post yet again, David. Turkey City is a real hoot... the same way 101 Reasons to Stop Writing is: instruction disguised as snark.

Nobody ever said that a spoonful of sugar is the only thing that makes the medicine go down?

Tim Stretton said...

Cool...although a little unsettling to realise how many of them I've done at some point!

Alis said...

I'll just say again how helpful your posts on exposition have been in giving us all the confidence not to give in to As You Know Bob-ity.
Countersinking - such a great term and SUCH an irritating writing mannerism!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

I'd never seen "101 Reasons..." before. Hilarious! Grim, but hilarious.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim (R.R.) Stretton--

Yes, indeed. I think it's hard to understand these sorts of mistakes unless one has previously made them. (Who was it who said, "Experience is that thing that allows you to recognize when you've made the same mistake again"?)

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Alis.

And "countersinking" has become part of my vocabulary. Too bad so many of their other terms aren't so concise!

Anonymous said...

Countersinking. I'll remember that one. Maybe you'll make use of Turkey City when Aliya and I get our MS to you. There is definitely one funny-hat characterisation to be getting on with. ;)


David Isaak said...

Great, Neil! I've been looking for an excuse to use "squid in the mouth" and "eyeball kicks"!