I Shall Never Look At a Catalog The Same Way Ever Again

Dr. Crislip’s outdone himself.  He very nearly got me in trouble at work – riotous laughter in the call center isn’t strictly forbidden, but it draws attention.

I dare you to read this title without at least a chuckle: “Sky Maul.”

It’s the best takedown of the products in the SkyMall catalog I’ve ever read in my life, and that’s not just because I haven’t read many.  Even if I read thousands after this, it shall always be among the top 5.  It’s full of tasty bits, but here are the two I forced upon my coworker because they were just too good not to share.

After the segue into a truly hideous Lancet paper babbling about tattoos on ancient mummies and their correlation to acupuncture points, Dr. Crislip says,

“I think they all have it wrong. Look carefully at the location of the tattoo points. There mark the intersections of the webbing on Spiderman’s costume. These are not acupuncture points, but rather reflect the ability of both Ötzi and the Peruvian mummy to see into the future imaginings of Stan Lee. I think it makes as much sense based on the data.”

My darlings, no comic book geek and connoisseur of fine woo can read that and not die laughing.

And while I usually avoid quoting a writer’s closing remarks, preferring to leave those delights for the reader to discover, I cannot as a Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fan refrain from quoting his close in full:

I was originally going to discuss the Head Spa Massager, the X5 HairLaser and others, but the Aculife took me down many unexpected pathways and I am the slowest writer at SBM. They did have numerous cool gadgets and products on SkyMall. Me? I really want Voldemort’s wand and the One ring. Both work using the same mechanism as acupuncture and mummy medical tattoo’s. I have ordered them and soon I will be invincible.

I welcome our future Science-Based Medicine overlord! 

Dana’s Dojo: The Power of Suggestion

Today in the Dojo: How to make magic without showing how it’s done.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.”


-Orson Welles

Limitations abound when you’re creating.  In film, you can do a lot with sound and visuals but can’t directly present smells, tastes and thoughts unless you resort to some rather cheesy dialogue or worse, voiceover.  In writing, you can waste ten thousand words trying to describe exactly what something looks like, or what a voice sounds like.  In both mediums, you’ve only got a limited amount of space to fill in the details.

That’s the first problem.

Then there’s the problem of making it all work for the audience.  Audiences, after all, are made up of individuals, and the problem with individuals is that they’re unique.  What scares you into never needing a laxative ever again can make the person next to you bored enough to start seeking interesting hangnails to work on.  What impresses you is what makes the next person scoff.  Humor is notoriously hard to tailor to all tastes.  With all that in the way, you’d think there’s no possible way for storytelling to work.

It works for many reasons, but one of the most powerful tools we have is the power of suggestion.

Things left to the imagination are a lot more interesting than things that leave nothing to the imagination.  If that weren’t true, lingerie wouldn’t work.  Neither would commercials.  People are really good at filling in the blanks if the stuff creating the blank is suggestive enough.  You can use that to your distinct advantage.

Let’s have an example from Terry Pratchett, whose books deserve immortality.  In Masquerade, Nanny Ogg writes a cookbook called The Joye of Snacks.  It’s full of delicious recipes that are most assuredly meant to be the food of love.  Mr. Pratchett could have gone into detail on what was in those recipes and exactly what they do, but he gets much better results by merely hinting around at it. 

In this scene, Mr. Goatberger has asked his chief printer Mr. Cropper to come into his office and read Nanny’s manuscript:

Mr. Cropper sat down with bad grace and glanced at the first page.

Then he turned to the second page.

After a while he opened the desk drawer and pulled out a ruler, which he looked at thoughtfully.

“You’ve just read about Bananana Soup Surprise?” said Goatberger.

“Yes!”

“You wait till you get to Spotted Dick.”

“Well, my old granny used to make Spotted Dick-“

“Not to this recipe,” said Goatberger, with absolute certainty.

Later, we find out more about Bananana Soup Surprise, but not much more.  We learn that Granny Weatherwax, Nanny’s friend and the best witch in the Ramtops, doesn’t believe the Bananana Soup Surprise, which along with the ruler hints delightfully at what the surprise might be.  And then there’s this final exchange before the whole thing is laid to rest:

“Did you try it?” said Nanny.

“Mr. Cropper the head printer did, yes.”

“Was he surprised?”

“Not half as surprised as Mrs. Cropper.”

“It can take people like that,” said Nanny.  “I think perhaps I overdo the nutmeg.”

Terry Pratchett could have given us the recipe.  He could have given us a scene with Mr. and Mrs. Cropper finding out exactly how surprising Bananana Soup Surprise is.  But instead, we’re left with a few very suggestive suggestions, and our imaginations get to play.  Those of us with a more delicate disposition are left mercifully with a nice ambiguity.  In the end, it’s far more effective than knowing the exact details, and takes up a lot less space.

There are ways of suggesting aside from being double-entendre suggestive, mind.  This is not a technique limited to scenes about sex.  Just like a few pebbles sliding down a steep hillside suggest a much larger problem to come, you can use little details and throwaway lines to hint at much larger things.  I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of re-reading a book that turns out to have said a lot less than you remember.  There’s a scene missing that you were sure was there, or a lot less said about a character than you recall.  If you look closely, you’ll notice suggestive little details that let your imagination build whole worlds around them.  They made the book a lot larger than its word count allowed.

For instance, let’s say you want to show that there’s a whole huge world out there impacting the little world of your story.  You can’t walk away from the narrow focus of your plot and characters to go exploring in it.  We’re in the business of writing stories, not travelogues.  But you can suggest that world’s out there by dropping in a few hints here and there:

He looked at their faces, and saw in all of them the same thought: We’re supposed to trust the guy who got us all locked up in that prison in Prague back when we were seniors.  He’s the reason Smitty’s cleaning Port-A-Potties and why none of the rest of us will ever climb a corporate ladder anywhere, and he’s going to get us out of this?  Too bad that incident with the secret police and the cheap phrasebook hadn’t happened in Vegas.  What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas….

There’s no need to flash back to show exactly what happened.  You can suggest it by the things people bring up at inconvenient moments as the story progresses.  Don’t underestimate the power of “Yeah, but what about what happened in London that one time?  You know, that thing we’re never supposed to mention ever again?”

Throw in a few slips of the tongue, and you can let the reader build a full scene from them.  Choose the details right, place them just so, and you’ll end up with plenty of readers who have filled in the blanks so well that not only can they give you a pretty good sketch of what happened off camera, but probably imagine it better than you ever did.

The power of suggestion is especially powerful when you need to present extremely subjective things, like fear and beauty.  There are times when direct description won’t get the job done.  That’s when you have to take the indirect route. 

I often have to take it with Sha’daal.  We’re talking a bloke in a gray cloak, here.  Direct description isn’t going to show the terror he creates.  Having him walk on stage and show off his bad ass certainly won’t help the mystique.  When you have a big, big meanie, trotting him out to do evil things every tenth page is going to do nothing but numb the reader.  But by showing a few of the evil things he does, and then by showing how people react to him, I can (hopefully) create a total image of a terrifying being.  I can suggest to readers that, despite mild appearances, this is the worst thing you can imagine:

That sinuous whisper infiltrated every corner of the conference room.  It didn’t matter that this was a poor-quality transmission filled with interference, fading in and out as Idronisec’s implant drained the last of his bioenergy.  It triggered an immediate fight-or-flight response, raised the hair on Ray’s body, sent his heart into overdrive and started a cascade of hormones and chemicals meant to keep the animal alive in the face of imminent death.  He controlled it only because he had so many long years of experience holding his ground.  He had to condition his warriors before they could do the same.  Even Chretien, normally fearless, had panicked the first time.  Everyone did.

Suggestion works very well when everyone’s involved.  Want to suggest that someone’s the smartest person in the world but don’t know how to show it directly?  Show all the other characters treating that one as a genius.  Want to suggest that this is the most beautiful woman alive, but don’t want to do an inventory of her attributes?  Let other characters do it for you just by the way they feel about her.  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a simple “Everyone says so.”

Watch out for these tricks the next time you’re reading a really good novel.  You’ll find a thousand ways the author suggested things were so without ever showing you directly.  Suggest a few things, let your readers fill in some blanks, and you’ll have a novel that says much more than its words ever did.

Sands of Time

Michael Welland of Through the Sandglass has done a very superb job blogging the paper I’ve had open in a tab meaning to read for absolute ages now.  I had one thought when I first began reading it, and it’s quoting T.H. Huxley: “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”  I’d just never considered what might happen when sand freezes on a shore and later becomes lithified.

It’s really, really lovely:



If you haven’t yet had a chance to peruse that post, take a few moments and treat yourselves. 

Wupatki Wonders

I’m behind the times.  One Fly has had a gorgeous, photo-filled post on Wupatki National Monument up at his Picture Place up since November, and your own dear cantinera makes a cameo appearance. 

You geo-types will like to know that the monument’s built from the sandstones of the Moenkopi Formation and the limestones of the Kaibab Formation, if I’m remembering my strata correctly.  Sometime after the new year, I plan to start an Arizona series at long last, so we’ll discuss it in detail then.  Perhaps One Fly will send us a photo of a nice rock or two.

The snow-capped mountains in the background are the San Francisco Peaks, which get a mention in my post on Louis Agassiz, and I’ve done up a bit on Sunset Crater here

Crap in a hat.  Now I’m homesick… but it’s a good kind of homesick.  Arizona’s got some of the shittiest politicians and most nauseating laws in the country, but as far as her ruins and her geology, you’ll hear no complaints from me.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Protagoras

As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or that they do not exist.  For many are the obstacles that impede knowledge, both the obscurity of the question and the shortness of human life.

-Protagoras

Ancient Greek philosophers are an interesting lot.  Protagoras was among the first, pre-Socrates even, and he would have fit in well with today’s skeptical crowd.  He’s the one who came up with “Man is the measure of all things…”  We don’t have the context for that quote, but it seems he wasn’t impressed with the idea that there was some knowledge Out There that the gods handed down.  As you can see from the above quote, he gave gods rather short shrift.  He counts among the first atheists we’re reliably aware of.  A bold position to stake out in Athens, a city whose patron goddess was Athena, and a place where tribute meant for military endeavors had a distressing habit of ending up diverted to build bigger and better temples.

Despite his atheism, he doesn’t seem to have been forced into any drinking of hemlock or other nonsense.  Perhaps the authorities were afraid he’d get into a legal argument with them.  A man who could spend a whole day discussing a legal technicality with Plutarch would be a formidable opponent in any court of law.

Bedrock Bonanza

You’ll have to excuse me if I sound a bit distracted in this post – I’m writing it whilst watching Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire again.  Why am I watching it twice?  Because that’s the silly-arsed kind of thing writers do when one of the actors is reminding her vaguely of a character and she’s trying to figure out who, why, and how she’s going to take advantage of it.  Secondly, the rental expires in 19 hours.  Thirdly, when you don’t feel like ponying up cash for a scientific paper, it’s damned hard to research minor bedrock formations in the Seattle area.  And fourthly, researching this post made my brain bleed a bit.

It doesn’t help that the internet keeps going out, either.  But, damn it, I promised you a missive on the bedrock in Seward Park, and that you shall have.

Feast your eyes upon this:

Feast Your Eyes Upon Actual Bedrock

Exposures of bedrock in Seattle are fairly rare.  Yes, I’m sure anybody who’s tried to plant a garden round here has plenty to say about all the damned rocks, but the majority of stuff they’re dealing with is glacial till and outwash.  It’s full of rocks, but it’s got a ways to go yet before it becomes actual bedrock.  As far as your actual bedrock, though, you’re very nearly out of luck.

But thanks to a few earthquakes, you’ll get some opportunities.  They gave Seattle a high – the Seattle-Bremerton High, in fact.  Travel along the high, and you’ll catch out some sweet bedrock: the Puget Group in Renton, for instance.  But it’s the Blakeley Formation we’re concerned with here.  You can glimpse it in Seward Park.  It outcrops along with some Oligocene volcanic rocks at Boeing Field, by itself at Alki Point, and sweeps along the southern bit of Bainbridge Island all the way to Bremerton.  They give way after that to nice outcrops of the Crescent Formation from Bremerton on west – the foundations of the area, uplifted by earthquakes and excavated by erosion.

I’ll tell you, after encountering very nearly nothing aside from glacial deposits, running into bedrock is pretty damned exciting.  Follow me after the fold, and I’ll show you (drumroll please) the Blakeley Formation.

Blakeley Formation Up Close

That, my darlings, is a bit of rock that’s somewhere between 26-37 million years old.  It looks pretty unremarkable until you realize it’s been around far longer than our own dear branch of the Earth family tree, the Hominidae.  At least twice as old, in fact.

Makes the mundane rather magnificent, doesn’t that just?

The exposures in Seward Park aren’t the best, and most folks pass them right by without a second glance.  Understandable, considering:

Not Putting Itself Forward

It’s a little shy in places.  But consider what it’s whispering to us: the Blakeley Formation is 2,400 meters’ worth of lost worlds.  Volcaniclastic sandstones tell us bits of it formed from sediments eroding off ancient volcanoes into an ocean.  Its conglomerates, sandstones and shales inform us that it’s a submarine fan complex.  Its environment was a deep marginal ocean basin, like the ones we can see around southern California today.  Turbidity currents swept down the slope, powerful underwater avalanches that left graded beds of sediment in their wake, later to become the rocks beneath our feet.  Amazing, no?

The currents carried bits of land-based trees with them, leaving the sediments peppered with branches and leaves, which became fossilized along with the resident clams and snails.  Shore wasn’t far, and layers of ash and pumice hint that the Cascade volcanoes were starting life just about then.  The subduction zone that gives us so much excitement today provided just as much or even more then.  Some of those turbidity currents, in fact, could very well have been caused by the shaking of enormous subduction zone quakes.

The bedding in Seward Park isn’t as distinct as it is elsewhere, but you can see it in places:

Bedding
Lengthwise View

The sandstones here are soft – soft enough to pluck right out of the bluff:

Bit o’ Sandstone

And broken with a flick of the fingers:

Whoops

And when you get your nose right up to it, this unprepossessing cliff:

Blakeley Formation Cliff

Becomes a thing of beauty:

Cliff Closeup

You know what else is remarkable about this place?  You weigh more here.  Y’see, you’re on a gravity high.  Go north if you want to lose some weight: once you get off the bedrock of the Seattle-Bremerton High, you’ll find yourself in one of the deepest gravity lows on Earth that we’re aware of.  The faults have dropped that bit of Seattle so low that you actually do weigh a little less standing on the sediments there.  I find that utterly remarkable.

The Earth really is an amazing place, and for the geologically-inclined city dweller, there’s plenty that shall enthrall you at Seward Park.  Hell, we haven’t even gotten to the glacial erratics yet.

Sources:

USGS: Bedrock Geology of Seattle (.pdf)

Northwest Geological Society Field Trip: “The Bedrock of Seattle” (.pdf)

Troost et al: “Geology of Seattle and the Seattle Area, Washington” (.pdf)

Friends of Seward Park: The Geology of Seward Park