Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How to Pretend You're an Expert

"Write about what you know," they say. Yeah, right. If every person brave enough to lift pen to paper took that advice, we would be living in a world without The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The truth is, it is often necessary to write about stuff you know very little about. I've developed certain tricks in this direction (honed through four years of a liberal arts education) and I'd like to share them here.

"Everyone is an expert at something" some smart bald guy once said. I believe that specifics are at the core of effective characterization, and you can't get much more specific than one's personal pet hobby or interest. I also believe that people are most easily definable by their actions, and expertese in a certain field infers a wealth of action that the audience can fill in.

If a character on stage describes in detail the feeling of an AK-47 recoiling, and how it differs from the recoil of an M16 -- and that character happens to be a buttoned-down stay-at-home-mom -- I believe you have a compelling characterization on your hands. Okay, that's an extreme example, but maybe you get the idea?

Here's the bulleted list:


  • KNOW HOW TO RESEARCH
What tangents should you follow? For me, it's like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. Take some piece of data that jumps out at you and follow it down. I use Google and Wikipedia as my primary tools of reasearch. Hey, you don't really need to know how to perform brain surgery, you just have to make the audience believe that you do!

There's a great line in the Lost pilot where Jack describes a botched spinal surgery. He accidentally sliced open a sack of nerves and the nerves "spilled out like angel hair pasta". Is there any doubt that the man knows what he's talking about?

My #1 research tools are Google and Wikipedia. Thank you Al Gore for the internets!

  • KNOW THE LINGO

This actually applies to the above, but it is important enough to warrant its own place on this list. Every specialized activity, be it motocross racing or cross-stitching, has it's own vocabulary. You don't have to learn the whole language, just the most important, most frequently used terms. (How many times have you heard a doc on ER say the words "intibate" or "crash cart"?)

It is helpful to actually know what these words mean, if you're going to use them. I find that carefully study of a dictionary for these unfamiliar terms sometimes yields further tangents for research. Online, I prefer Dictionary.com and Wikipedia.

  • RELATE WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW TO WHAT YOU DO KNOW

A well used metaphor goes a long way. It covers up the fact you don't really know what you're talking about, and it can make the foreign field of study more real to the audience. "The problem with the car was the throw-out bearing. It made shifting gears feel like pulling teeth."

  • HAVE AN IGNORANT CHARACTER

This is really simple and basic. It's done all the time, and only occasionally is it done well. By having to dumb everything down for a character who doesn't understand what's being said, you can get away with presenting less actual technical jargon. The idea is to give a bit of highly technical data, and follow it up with completely pedestrian explanations.

Take Ian Malcolm describing chaos math in Jurassic Park: "It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. Its only principle is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine." Ellie makes lead paint faces. Malcolm breaks it down with a pretty steamy bit of hand holding and suggestive word play. Well, he does the best job of hitting on Ellie that anyone can expect of a mathematician. A nice subtle shift from technical mumbo-jumbo to a simple, sort of sexy, Bill Nye the Science Guy-type explanation.

  • KEEP IN MIND MOST FOLKS DON'T KNOW AS MUCH AS YOU'D THINK

Egotism prevents most folks from admitting they don't understand something. They'll go along with you (to a certain extent) on the off chance doing otherwise would make them appear foolish. You see this a lot with people in a position of power who just aren't up on the day-to-day operations of the folks lower on the totem pole. This is a basic human urge you can exploit. There's a great corollary to this:

  • FILLING IN LOGICAL BLANKS IS A NATURAL HUMAN ABILITY
But it depends entirely upon the suspension of disbelief. If you can accomplish the latter, the former takes care of itself. Plot holes? What plot holes? The only real trick is to give enough "space" around the plot hole for the audience to cover it with their own "logical" explanations.

When an audience becomes so engaged in something that they're actively using their own imaginations and faculties for logic, you wind up with an even more engaged audience. Yep, plot holes can be a good thing. This helps explain how some of the most god-awful books, movies, and t.v. shows wind up well-beloved classics. Take soap operas. I rest my case.
  • THE REST IS JUST ARTFUL DODGING AND WINDOW DRESSING
It's a fan dance. The audience knows that the character is an expert because they keep seeing flashes of it. Just like you know the girl is completely naked because those fast-moving fans keep giving you glimpses of the goodies. The thing is, the fan girl never drops the fans. Be coy. Tease the audience.

For further illustration, here's an excerpt from my play Torrid Affaire:

JONAH
You’re married? I had sex out of wedlock with a married woman? I’m an adulterer. You made me into an adulterer!

CHARLENE
It just happened so fast . . . I was caught up in the moment . . . My husband . . . You don’t understand.

JONAH
I’m not as dumb as you think. You lied to me! You led me into temptation! You cuckolded your husband, you . . . you . . . Jezebel!

CHARLENE
I am NOT a Jezebel!

JONAH
Jezebel!

CHARLENE
No! If anything, I’m a Salome. I danced for you.

JONAH
Who’d you behead? Huh? Me . . . or your husband?

CHARLENE
Wait, no . . . I meant to say I was a Bathsheeba. I always confuse the two. You know that.

JONAH
Not much better! Ha! And I suppose I killed Urias when I made love to you?!?

CHARLENE
You may be my King David, but Doobers is no Urias.

JONAH
Doobers? Doobers? Doobers is Urias. I made love to his wife. I killed Urias! I’m going to Hell, because I had carnal knowledge of you!

CHARLENE
No you’re not! It’s not your fault!

JONAH
It’s just my mortal sin!!!

I am no Bible scholar. I happen to be a preacher's kid, but he's not that good a preacher and I'm not a kid (insert rimshot). This scene brought down the house, and so perfectly defined the two characters - in particular Jonah, the seminary student. It's not a very subtle application of my advice, but I think this scene gives a pretty good idea how all those points above can be applied.

I'm doing a similar thing with Sonny, only it's not the Bible or sex toys I'm writing about, it's animation. So far so good. The animator I invited to the reading a few weeks back gave me a pass on the believability of the character who's an animator. He faulted my knowledge of lemurs, however, which just goes to show (one last point):
  • IF YOU DON'T KNOW SOMETHING FOR SURE, LOOK IT UP
No blind guesses. All it takes is one factual slip up, and you've knocked down the house of cards you've labored so long and hard to build. So be a careful researcher and don't fall into the ego trap of "I know all about this."
Well, I hope this has been somewhat enlightening. Now go and WRITE SOMETHING!

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