“You can’t make this stuff up!” exclaims a self-identifying social media pundit, aghast at some outrageous news morsel. Really? I bet I can come up with something at least as absurd. Hold my beer while I toss out a few wacky headlines.
Jeopardy!-winning supercomputer Watson cast as TV’s next Bachelor.
Florida man arrested for attacking women in his dreams.
Dead fish brought back to life through voodoo “kill and release” practice.
See? It’s not that hard. After all, supermarket tabloids do it all the time. To claim it can’t be done is more of an admission of your own limited imagination – since you could not cook up such a story, you can’t imagine someone else being able to do it. But what’s really astonishing to you is the fact that something this absurd actually happened. If you want to express your own amazement, please don’t presume to tell us what we can and cannot do with regard to fiction. Take ownership of your incredulity and say something more like this: “I can hardly believe this happened!”
Making stuff up is easy, but making it real is a whole ‘nother kettle of zombie fish. Making it seem real, on the other hand, is just another day at the office -- if you work in the entertainment industry. Movies, theme parks and traveling shows are often fueled by high-octane hyperbole. But is talking down to your audience the best way to sell tickets? I keep hearing people describe an experience as “beyond imagination.” Beyond whose imagination? Certainly not that of the writers and artists who dreamed it up! As one such creative, I can assure you that almost nothing is beyond imagination. Ideas are not that hard to come by – it’s the coherent, effective expression of an idea that takes all the effort. Just about anyone can slam two unrelated concepts together – say sharks and tornadoes – but not everyone has the unmitigated gall to turn the resultant sushi smoothie into a successful movie franchise.
The trick here is to get the audience members to willingly suspend their disbelief. If you can get a viewer to buy into the idea that sharks can be carried around by windstorms and continue to be the eating machines we all know and love, then you are free to explore all the storylines that might logically follow from that premise. But if you were to announce such a story with a breathless, “You won’t believe what happens!” you’d be shooting your own foot off, encouraging the viewers to keep their disbelief intact. The converse is just as true. The first Christopher Reeve Superman film was promoted with the tag line, “You will believe a man can fly!” Well, not me! And I certainly didn’t believe that a man could fly around the world really fast to rewind the space-time continuum, or that a top-tier big-city reporter wouldn’t know how to spell.
Another example of hype gone wild would be any of those challenges cropping up on Facebook, claiming, “Only genius can solve this!” What is the basis for such a claim? Did the author round up a bunch of people, give them a Stanford-Binet IQ test, and then correlate the results with their ability to move the right matches around? The likelihood that this happened is on a par with the probability that the author would have met the “genius” standard, with such an apparent unfamiliarity with basic grammar. But what is the purpose of this puzzle? If it’s to make people believe they are really smart when they probably aren’t, then I suppose it’s good for their self-esteem, reality notwithstanding. But if the goal is to make the author look like the next Albert Einstein, it’s a failure – at least among those who might actually recognize a genius when they meet one.
The low-down on hyperbole
Hype is disingenuous. Unless you have real data to back it up, any claim that something is “the best” is, at worst, a lie. At best, it is an opinion. But whose opinion? Was there a poll, or are you just cherry-picking favorable comments and anecdotal “evidence?” If it’s your personal view, how does it stack up against what you called the best last week? You can sidestep this issue if you make it clear that you are talking about the winner within a certain category (the best chocolate mousse recipe, say) or picking the "Best of the Week." But don’t fall into the trap of calling something the “best ever.” The word “ever” encompasses the entirety of time, from the remote past to the far future. I’d have to say the jury is still out on that one. Still, you could do worse: I have run across a few lists that are supposed to represent the “Best Ever from 2019,” as if you could cram all of eternity into a single year.
Hype insults the intelligence of its audience. People who pride themselves on their critical thinking are not likely to be fooled by outlandish claims; they might even be offended by your assumption that they are so gullible. Better to feed them verifiable facts that they can sift through themselves, which would make them feel good about their own ability to ferret out the truth. You don’t have to hand your critics a stick to beat you with, but the facts you do use had better be true. Saying the rally at the stadium was SRO could be proven false with just one photo showing that half the seats are empty. Even gullible people won’t buy the explanation that all those people had to go to the restroom at the same time.
Hype reduces its own effectiveness. If you shout about everything, then your shouting becomes the norm, and nobody will be able to tell when you are truly enthusiastic. It’s like giving the Medal of Honor to everyone who shows up at the recruiting station – it won’t mean much to the recipients, and it would be a disservice to all of those whose exemplary courage is actually worthy of recognition. Calling everything “amazing” tells people either that you are incredibly easy to impress, have virtually no memory, or have only the vaguest idea what the word means. Why not take some time to look up a few alternatives and try applying them where appropriate? When your toddler scribbles a few chaotic lines of crayon on a piece of paper and calls it a battle of robots, instead of bragging to your friends about what an amazing artist he is, you’d be closer to the truth if you tell them he could be the next Jackson Pollock. Instead of sounding like a bore, you will gain a few points for wryness.
Hype creates expectations that cannot be met. I have performed quite a bit of comedy on stage, both scripted and improvised, and the best response I have ever gotten was when they did not know I was planning on cracking jokes. People came up to me afterward to show their appreciation, and I explained, “Well, if you keep your expectations low enough, I’ll wow you every time.” Had I been introduced as “the funniest comic ever,” people would have been thinking, “He’d better be funny!” and I would have had nowhere to go but down. So instead of bragging about how tremendous that new ice show is, thereby challenging your readers to find some fault in your impression, perhaps you should dial it back a notch or two. When they find out it’s better than you said it was, it will be a pleasant surprise rather than a disappointment. And wouldn’t you rather be credited with the former than blamed for the latter?
Going against hype
If you do feel the need to hype something, keep in mind that there are lots of ways to do so without resorting to a surplus of exclamation points But you have to know your audience. For instance, if it’s your job to promote monster truck shows and such, well, some people are just crying out to be hollered at. In other situations, you may find any one of the following techniques more persuasive than simply slathering on the superlatives.
Subtlety has its advantages. Sometimes a whisper is as good as a shout, especially when you are the only one using your indoor voice. A quieter approach confers more intimacy on the conversation, a promise of inside information or secrets to be shared. And it may be a way to stand out from the crowd. Back when I was a young caveman, I went to an ear-numbing dance club with some friends, only to watch every guy in the place strike out with this one pretty girl who was sitting at the bar. Figuring a different tactic was called for, I walked up and asked her if we could sit one out. “What?” she asked, incredulous. I said, “Well, you don’t seem to want to dance right now, but we could sit and talk, or play some backgammon or something.” Backgammon it was, and we had a nice conversation over the game, then ended up slow-dancing while all the other cavemen wondered how I had succeeded where their better looks and smoother manners had failed.
Juxtaposition can shock the reader into paying more attention. Set two discordant ideas next to each other, and their mutual incompatibility will paint a picture in the mind that would not normally be considered possible. That’s how such phrases as “when pigs fly” and “honor among thieves” became so memorable. Whatever you may have thought of the movie itself, you’d probably agree that the title My Bloody Valentine is a grabber. So is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. If I told you that So-and-so was the nicest bully I’d ever met, wouldn’t you be intrigued?
Outrageous propositions can spark curiosity. Try to find a way to say something in a provocative manner. But remember to remain truthful – otherwise, your bait-and-switch will do more damage to the rapport you are trying to build. If I ever get around to writing my autobiography, I think I’ll begin with the line, “My parents were not on a first-name basis.” A parade of plausible explanations -- long-distance relationships, ultra-conservative social rules, or perhaps even mail-order brides -- would rampage through the reader’s imagination before I explained that, purely by coincidence, my mom and dad preferred to be called by their middle names. In the meantime, I would have set the tone of the story as a light-hearted revelation of the things that made my life unique, and with any luck the reader would be hooked.
Clever wording is a great way to call attention to something and – at least to those who like puns and double entendres – make yourself look smart. Newspapers and magazines use this technique all the time, especially in headlines, photo captions and the titles of articles. A story about socialists gathering for a wedding might provoke more interest if you titled it, “Hundreds Left at the Altar.” I once co-wrote a treatment for a horror/musical comedy about a misshapen monster terrorizing teenagers on a remote island until one of them unexpectedly falls for him. The title was Isle of the Mutant; when read aloud, it sounds like I Love the Mutant.
There are other techniques for catching the audience’s attention. Among these are repetition (including rhyme and alliteration), reduction to absurdity, dramatic conflict, sarcasm, humor (especially effective when it’s understated) and who knows how many more yet to be invented. As you poise your fingers over the keys of your hypewriter, you will be in the position of deciding for yourself which of these amazing tactics is the greatest one ever.
There isn’t always enough time in a spoken conversation to craft the perfect turn of phrase. But when we are writing, we are not usually so restricted. Why not strive for a somewhat higher level of communication? Our readers don’t have to know how many hours we slaved over the keyboard, crafting our prose. Fred Astaire made ballroom dancing look easy, but that was the end result of many, many hours of grueling practice. A side benefit of aspiring to become a better writer is that it may just be possible for some of these techniques to spill over into our speech pattern, and then maybe we will begin to sound as good as we look.
Don’t be afraid to elevate your speech. Sure, you should be aware of your audience. Don’t talk down to them, but don’t fall into the trap of sounding like an idiot, either. Mark Twain and Will Rogers were renowned for their “plain speaking,” largely because they used common language to say witty – often wise – things. Nobody would accuse Yogi Berra of being pedantic, but there is often a profundity to his seemingly bumbling malapropisms. His oft-quoted “déjà vu all over again” is doubly poignant because that’s exactly what déjà vu is all about – experiencing something all over again.
Sometimes you just can't ignore the eloquent in the room.