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The warped mirrors

When my kids were much younger, they watched a show called “Dora the Explorer.” Dora is not a bad show, particularly for younger kids, but it has one fatal flaw from a parent’s point of view: Dora shouts all her lines. Every word she says is delivered as a shout, and I found it crazy annoying.

I tried to ignore her and let the kids watch, but once I heard one  imitating her, that was the end. I introduced a house-wide Dora blackout.

The same thing happened with Barney.

What does all this have to do with writing?

As writers, we try to write in voices that our readers identify with. Occasionally, particularly for comedic effect, we exaggerate those voices. In the television world, see SpongeBob for an example, or Johnny Test. As readers (or viewers in the case of TV or movies),we also learn how to act. Often without even realizing it, we pick up colloquialisms and jargon and incorporate them into our daily life.

What happens next? Someone hears us speaking, and incorporates it into their next book or television show or movie. If they’re feeling funny, they exaggerate it. It’s a weird cycle where art is imitating (but altering) life which is imitating (and altering) art.

I picture it as two warped mirrors facing each other. The reflection gets more and more distorted as it gets reflected back. One writer notices a child yelling and makes a cartoon that yells all the time, then children across the country start yelling… See what I mean?

The problem with all this from a writer’s perspective is that it dates your writing. As much as I enjoyed Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, watching it now falls kind of flat. Much of the language they were spoofing has fallen out of our daily use, so instead of seeming hip and funny, it’s just a bit strange.

If you’re like me, you want your books to tip toe the line between being modern and accessible and being timeless. Language is key to that success. In terms of my mirror analogy, you have to pick a reflection that’s warped enough to be modern, but unwarped enough to still make sense once the mirrors have changed.

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Posted August 21, 2012 in Writing