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Overexaggeration versus Subjective Reality

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Sun Mar 21, 2010 5:07 am
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Hannah says...

"The ticking of the clock sounded like dynamite and rumbled through my body with every stroke."

"The cars whizzed by me, drag-racing, it seemed, as I walked along the lonely street."

What do you think of when you write those sentences? You feel like you just wrote something really intense, right? Well, unless this feeling is coupled with something that's actually intense, you might have done real damage to your piece.

It's like C.S. Lewis said:

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

If you use up intense descriptions like these, it desensitizes your reader to times when you might actually need a moment to feel that desperate sense of time or speed.

So save these kinds of hyperbole for when it might serve to develop the character.

Ambrose Bierce wrote a story called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", where a man was being hanged and we later see this passage:

And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or near by -- it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each new stroke with impatience and -- he knew not why -- apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the trust of a knife; he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

This is an example of using the same kind of 'exaggeration' to show a character's subjective reality. Obviously, the huge noise that the man heard was not an anvil, and perhaps a death knell only in the symbolism of the piece, but it plays to Bierce's intention of heightening intensity in subjective reality and then dropping it once we see the objective point of view again.

There are ways you can use such descriptions effectively, but don't use them pell-mell to make your writing seem more exciting. Save the exciting descriptions for the point of conflict!
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