How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by Type

How to Recognize Logical Fallacies by TypeWith all the ridiculous reasoning being thrown around the news, internet, and more, I’m constantly reminded that people don’t recognize logical fallacies. With each reminder, I’d start thinking, maybe, if more people knew how to recognize logical fallacies (& resist), there’d be less bad reasoning in the world.

So I thought I’d write an article about a handful of extremely important logical fallacies. I’ve done it before for work, so why not?

Then, I started researching (I didn’t want to miss a really important logical fallacy simply because I didn’t think of it right off the top of my head). And I found out that there are waaaay too many logical fallacies for me to try to cover in an article! Seriously. I wrote down 104 that I might want to cover (not including duplicates with different names), and I skipped quite a few from each site I looked at (such as “The Master List of Logical Fallacies,” “The Skeptics Guide to Logical Fallacies,” “The Logical Fallacies Handlist,” and even the Purdue OWL article on Logical Fallacies).

The more I read, the more I started to see patterns – links between different logic errors. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe instead of encouraging people to memorize or even learn to recognize ALL logical fallacies (or even the main ones), what if I talked about those commonalties. Seeing the underlying motives of the fallacies might be just as helpful as being able to call out each error by name.

Plus, it could be useful for characterization and plotting, so win-win, right?

Recognize Logical Fallacies by What They Do

After looking at a lot of logic errors back-to-back, it seems like they all have one of two purposes: to distract from the facts or cause commotions with your emotions (or both).

Distraction & Redirection

When a magician doesn’t want you to see his trick, he directs your focus elsewhere. These logic problems do the same thing – they move your attention away from the facts that might make you disagree. They can do this by subtly switching the topic, distracting you with emotion, skipping a step (or 3), or playing with words.

Topic Changes You Never Even Notice

There are a lot of logical fallacies that allow people to change the topic while pretending that they’re not changing the topic. Yeah. It’s really infuriating if you catch them at it, but, unfortunately, it happens all the time.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Red Herring: responding with a fact that seems important but isn’t really related to the argument
  • Straw Man: oversimplifying the opponent’s argument to defeat it makes you seem like you’ve won, but you weren’t actually defeating their argument – you were defeating the oversimplified version.
  • Faulty Analogy: a good analogy helps explain something. A faulty analogy works about the same way as a Straw Man argument because it makes you think you’re arguing against one thing when really you’re arguing against something else.
  • Overgeneralization: Like the others, this statement can be true, but it’s usually too general to justify making a decision based off of it or to defeat the opposition. Since it is true, however, sometimes it’s seen as a winning statement regardless of those other pesky details (*sigh*). Interestingly, it’s also known as a cognitive distortion (thinking errors that can effect your world view and emotional health).
  • Calling “Cards”: this is like saying that someone is playing the “race card” or “gender card,” which suddenly changes the argument to whether the person is pretending there’s an issue to get his/her way rather than the argument of the issue itself.

There are many, many more. To catch them, though, pay attention to whether the statement is actually 100% relevant to the argument or has the strength to prove the point. Looking for examples where the argument isn’t true or scale differences (like 1 side arguing that disabled vets should have ways to get help through government aid, and the other side arguing that people should work for a living – the second side is arguing a much larger scale, so it’s not directly arguing against the specific situation).

Making It a Personal or Emotional Issue

Yes, this could fall under the “playing with your emotions group”; however, there are times when the subject is changed through an unrelated point that pulls on people’s heart strings enough that it feels both related and significant.

  • Patriotic Ad Populem: linking an action with patriotism or being against patriotism when patriotic feeling is not actually part of the equation
  • Ad Hominem: attacking the person instead of the topic (and suddenly they’re trying to defend themselves instead of their position)
  • Appeal to Tradition: although “It worked before,” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way, it can feel like it does. In reality, the argument about whether it worked before is a different argument than whether there is a better way for the future.
  • Measurability: This changes the topic of the argument by saying that something isn’t measurable; therefore, it is not important (which is not grounded in fact but emotion).
  • Tone Policing: “You’re being emotional.” Yes, and? That doesn’t devalue the points the person has made. It’s also not always/often true.

These are particularly hard to counter because they can feel important even though they’re not motivated by logic.

Skip That

Skipping facts that argue against you, jumping straight to say a conclusion when you don’t have the facts to back it up, etc. If you’re not paying close attention or don’t know a topic very well, it can be really easy to miss the fact that someone glossed over a few steps to make an argument.

Sometimes, people think the step is so obvious that they don’t have to say it (but they really do need to). Other times, people drop the facts on purpose.

Doubletalk and Trickery

Then, there’s when people play with the words and the word meaning to confuse the issue and trick people into believing something. This is stereotypically thought of with lawyers and politicians, yet anyone can use it.

  • Equivocation: using a different definition of a word than the other person did to make the original argument seem flawed
  • Loaded Question: closely related to passive aggressiveness, this asks a person a seemingly-simple question that assumes something negative about them. Like, “Have you stopped drinking too much?”
  • Circular Reasoning: when the support for your argument is really the same as the argument – it just uses different words. Some people do this and don’t even know, especially school kids. “Drugs are bad because illegal substances have negative effects,” is basically saying the same thing twice. There’s no support.
  • Passive Voice Fallacy: using passive voice to shift attention. Like talking about “the book was stolen” rather than “he stole the book.” One shifts the attention to the theft, the other to the thief (also associated with victim shaming).
  • Moving the Goalpost: “I’ll admit your product is better if it can do x.” The product does x. “Oh, well, it really needs to do y to be better.”

These tactics bother me more than many because they feel more deliberate – let’s be sneaky and change the topic with my language skills because I know I can’t defeat your points. It’s also the annoying habit of some of my teenage students, so that could be part of my dislike, as well.

Playing with Your Emotions

In addition to the distraction tactic above that tugs on your heart strings, there are plenty of logical fallacies that use emotional appeals to try to override facts and logic. The most common reasons are to alarm, excuse an action, or rile the emotions so much that reason is virtually impossible.

Scare Tactics

Yes, “scare tactics” is a specific fallacy. At the same time, it’s a really good way to describe this general tactic of alarming people into belief.

Here are some other examples:

  • Slippery Slope: a small negative act will soon and inevitably lead to a much worse, end-of-the-world-as-you-know-it type action
  • Misleading Statistic: this has a bit of distraction in it – it’s using a statistic to scare someone through their ignorance or lack of context (Over half of the people in this study died within weeks! Granted, there were only three people…)
  • Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire.
  • Argument ad baculum: using a threat of force to get your way (like threatening to fire someone if they don’t do x, y, or z unreasonable demand)

Unfortunately, scaring people into belief works. Equally unfortunately, people either don’t feel there’s anything wrong with using these or don’t recognize them as incorrect (because they get forwarded around the internet a lot).

Excuses, Excuses

You know how kids always have excuses for their behavior even when they know (or knew to start with) that the behavior is wrong? Yeah. Apparently, people don’t really grow out of this. They just find new, more socially acceptable ways to try to falsely justify their behavior.

  • Appeal to Heaven: “It’s God’s will.” (Always followed in my mind with “He told me so. Yesterday. At lunch.”)
  • Appeal to Nature: “It’s unnatural.”
  • Default Bias: we can’t change anything, so there’s no reason to try.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: “It’s ok when I don’t do the chores because I’m tired, but when you don’t do them, you’re just being lazy” (also known as hypocrisy).
  • Moral Licensing: “It’s ok to do this bad thing because I did a good thing earlier.”
  • Moral Superiority: “He deserved it.” OR “She deserved it.”
  • Appeal to Privacy: “what I do in private is my business” (even if it involves, say, murder).
  • Sending the Wrong Message: “We can’t do that because it would send the wrong message to ____.”
  • Silent Majority Fallacy: a lot of people agree with me even if they don’t say so (and they don’t)
  • Venting/Locker-Room Talk: “He didn’t really mean it. It was just locker-room talk.”
  • Diminished Responsibility: “I was really tired, or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Yep. Lots and lots of excuses that don’t actually justify the behavior at all. Beware these errors!

Trigger Words

I know that people have heard a lot about trigger words and safe environments lately (a discussion that’s sadly included too many logically fallacies), so let me clarify what I mean when I use “trigger words.” Basically, I’m talking about words that bring on such a strong emotional response for a group or individual that emotion overrides logic, and any chance of debating a topic with reason is lost.

Do you have any friends that become completely irrational when a certain word or phrase is brought up? For example, maybe, an ex-girlfriend’s name makes Leroy so angry that he can’t stand to hear about any possible reasons behind her behavior (let alone any possibility that he shared any of the blame).

That’s a trigger. Here’s some ways they’re used:

All these amount to is knowing how to push someone’s buttons at the right moment (which, honestly, counts as a different kind of distraction IMHO).

Long story short? Watch out for emotional appeals and logic gaps or tangents. That’s what most logical fallacies are trying to do. 

Is it really that simple? No. Probably not. But if you keep in mind that it isn’t really that simple, the two tactics may work out. As far as I’m concerned, recognizing more logical fallacies is a good thing. Falling for fewer of them is even better.

Any questions?

 

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The Difference between the Right Word and the Almost Right Word

Unlike many other quotes falsely attributed to Mark Twain, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word” is truly a Mark Twain quote. It is also (IMHO) an excellent metaphor to illustrate the vital importance of word choice.

Word Choice Makes Writing an Art

Like sense of urgency and frame story, word choice can be defined by its name – it’s the words you choose when writing (*gasp* No!). As obvious and redundant as that seems, this literary device is actually the core of not only what makes writing an art but also what makes one writer different from another.

Think about it. No, seriously, picture a scene from real life. Interesting, banal, recent, historic – it doesn’t matter as long as you can clearly picture what happened. Now, think about how many different ways you could write that scene. You could turn it into horror, science fiction, fantasy, historical realism, romance, etc. You could write it from first person, second person, third person limited, or even narrate it. You could use elaborate descriptions or lean, mean sentences that are cut down to the action alone.

Hundreds of ways to write the same scene.

And all those differences come from the words you choose and how you put them together. The mood you want to create, the tone of the piece, and even your personal style as a writer, it all comes down to this one literary device.

Down to “the difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

Don’t believe me? Well, imagine if Mark Twain said this quote today in today’s language. Would he have said, “lightning and a lightning bug” or “fire and a firefly”? They have the same relationship, right? And “lightning bug” and “firefly” are words for the same insect.

But doesn’t that word choice change the characterization of the speaker? Could it change the setting? If you write the same story with different words, is it the same story?

Or is it as different as “lightning and a lightning bug”?

Breaking Hyperbole as Writing Inspiration

breaking hyperbole as writing inspirationBreaking hyperbole as writing inspiration is one of the mainstays of creative writing. Especially genres like fantasy and science fiction. And since this tactic is so common, I’m guessing it’s not going to be a totally unfamiliar idea for most writers. That’s why this article isn’t meant to be a treasure trove of new ideas.

Although that would be cool. 

My goal instead is to make you more conscious of how you’ve used hyperbole as a worldbuilding or inspiration technique. Analyzing the techniques we use helps us be more deliberate in our methods – it lets us consciously choose to use them (or not) based on our goals and what we want to achieve.

How to Break Hyperbole for Writing Inspiration

All You Need Is Hyperbole and a Literal Mind 

Like most figurative language, hyperbole (when used correctly) works because the reader knows not to take it literally. It’s great for making people aware of details (without blatantly pointing them out), adding humor, and writing dialogue for characterization. 

Here’s an example:

Milly: Oh, I used to dance and flirt the night away. But that was a thousand years ago!

When the character says this, we don’t assume that she’s over a thousand years old. Instead, we understand that the situation happened a long time ago and that the character either likes using sayings or exaggerations (or doesn’t want to say specifically how long ago it was).

In short, a hyperbole gives us an impression of the truth without being the actual truth.

But what if the character were speaking literally? What if it actually has been a thousand years since she danced and flirted the night away? It’s possible in fantasy stories, right? Possibly even science fiction.

Well, in that case, there is no exaggeration, which means there is no hyperbole. It’s not even figurative language at that point. Instead, the statement is the literal truth.

So when you take hyperbole literally, it’s not hyperbole anymore.

That’s why I called this activity breaking hyperbole. If hyperbole were the goal, you wouldn’t want to do this. For this exercise, however, hyperbole is a means to an end – not what you were aiming for.

Exaggerate Reality to Create Fantasy

Many of my writing prompts involve using elements of real life in the story (people watching, the library inspired writing prompt, Food as a Writing Prompt, etc.). And, oddly enough, when writing for them, you may have also used this one (What?)

As I said before, breaking hyperbole is a common part of the creative process. In other words, it’s a way of transforming reality into something new for your world or your story. Here’s how it works:

  1. Pick something from real life.
  2. Write a hyperbole about it.
  3. Take the hyperbole literally.
  4. Expand that literal interpretation to create something new.

Lizards could inspire dragons, speed trains could inspire instantaneous travel by train, and a lush garden could inspire a flower world. Or 50 other things. Whatever style or genre you write in can find inspiration by exaggerating reality to form new truths – even romance exaggerates reality for the sake of the story (and we all know to never let the truth get in the way of a good story).

It’s pretty obvious that most writers do this in one way or another. Now that I’ve made you think about it (theoretically), though, you can choose to use it deliberately on days when you’re at a loss for ideas. If nothing else, may it get your creative engine started and lead you in new directions.

Happy writing! Have fun breaking hyperbole – or storming the castle, whatever!

Sense of Urgency Is Like a Splinter

sense of urgency is like a splinter

No, not the rat.

It wasn’t until discussing the either or mentality a few months ago that I realized that I had somehow overlooked talking about sense of urgency (In a writing blog – how is that even possible?). Immediately, I put it on my list for later. Today, later is here, and it comes with a simile: sense of urgency is like a splinter.

Sense of Urgency:
Importance, Attention, & Deadlines

Talking about a sense of urgency has grown more and more popular not only in writing but also in business. Books must have a strong sense of urgency to be more gripping and fast-paced, and people must have a strong sense of urgency to make their businesses take off.

Ok. But what does that mean?

What Is a Sense of Urgency?

Well, in business, it’s your motivation and your level or intensity of caring. The elusive emotion drives you to get tasks done and tackle more. In years past, it would’ve been called “ambition.”

In writing, it’s fairly similar; however, you (the reader) are not the one feeling a sense of urgency – the main character is. Yes, we as readers respond to the main character’s need to succeed at a goal, but it isn’t our need (although, for extreme fans or those with major empathy, it can be hard to tell the difference…).

Uh-huh. And it’s like a splinter how?

Gotcha covered. It’s time to take this simile to the next level: the analogy. Don’t worry – all silliness aside, the comparison does actually make sense.

What Do Splinters and Sense of Urgency Have in Common?

I’m glad you asked. Here are a few of the items I’ve put together. Before I get into them, however, I’d like you to stop a moment to think about the splinters you’ve had over the years. From least to most memorable. Think about the irritation, the random pain when you first discovered it was there (How do they get there without being noticed?!), the intense concentration of operating on yourself to get it out – you know, the whole shebang. Got it in your head? Ok. Here we go.

Sense of urgency is like a splinter because both…

  1. Vary in size and importance (A small wood splinter versus bamboo under the fingernails. Big difference. Oh, and ever get a metal splinter? You know, the type Bruce Willis pulled out of his arm to use as a lockpick in Die Hard with a Vengeance? I have. Believe me, a normal splinter’s got nothing on that!)
  2. Hold your attention (even when you’re trying to focus on other things)
  3. Have a deadline (However vague – such as “before I type anymore because ow” or “before gangrene sets in, and I lose this finger”)
  4. Grow in importance the longer the issue remains (AKA, the closer you get to the deadline or the more side problems crop up because of it. And you thought it had your attention before it was red and swollen! Ha!)

Yes, a sense of urgency does all of those things.

Take #1, for instance. When a teacher tells you that your book needs a sense of urgency, you think of the main goal – the problem to be resolved in the climax. But there are plenty of little problems and conflicts that need a sense of urgency, too. A scene where a character has no driving need to do anything is a scene that’s dead in the water. Even if it’s as simple or small as a need to entertain themselves while waiting for someone, the character always has some motivation.

And, don’t forget, the character’s the one driving the plot, right?

As far as number 2, a sense of urgency is a splinter in your brain. Instead of pain distracting you, it’s ideas or a feeling that you need to get it done. It’s like having trouble concentrating at work because you have a million things to do at home. Or how artists tends to find ideas for their art in everything – because their art is never far from their minds!

Oh, and as far as #3, if you’re a procrastinator, you’ll understand the next sentence perfectly: you can’t have a sense of urgency without a deadline. If you can wait to do it tomorrow, why would you do it now? What’s in it for you?

The ticking clock is a cliche because it works. Having a deadline automatically creates at least some sense of urgency. In fact, the only way the ticking clock doesn’t work as a tool is if the character doesn’t care about the consequences.

Speaking of consequences, that’s also a way of heightening a sense of urgency, and it’s part of why the deadline is important as well as the variation idea (and #4). What’s the difference between homework due tomorrow and stopping a villain from destroying the Earth? Well, other than genre or trope, namely the scale of the consequences.

That’s how you differentiate between your conflicts and increase the sense of urgency for the climax. As a general rule, the main conflict should not only have more deadly or frightening consequences, but those consequences should also increase or get worse the closer the character gets to the climax. That can be simply because the result will be much worse if not taken care of before the deadline, or it could be because the situation grows increasingly complicated, resulting in worse dangers.

It’s particularly powerful if the actions that the main character takes to stop the dangers actually increases them (or, at least, the ancient Greek writers thought so…).

Hubris aside, though, that’s how motivation is like a splinter.

Speaking of which, *may your personal sense of urgency to write be like a long, nasty metal splinter that aggravates you so thoroughly you have no choice but to face it down (AKA: I hope you write.)

*A little Ray Bradbury-esque, but I meant it as a blessing.

Euphemisms for Death Can Be a Bit Disturbing

euphemisms for death can be a bit disturbingI’m not a big fan of most euphemisms for death. I understand that many of them come from a time when death (and other unpleasant matters) was not discussed in polite company. That said, with the evolution of language, some of those euphemisms for death can be a bit disturbing. Generally because the phrase is more commonly used for something else – something you wouldn’t say about a dead person.

My Least Favorite Euphemisms for Death

This thought originally started when I worked for a doctor. Whenever we got word that a patient had died, we would notify the doctor, prepare a condolence card, and finally, remove the file and label the front with “deceased.” Occasionally, however, someone would write the first of these options below instead, and it never quite set right with me.

 1. Expired

You see the problem with this, right? It made the patient seem like a product that’s past its shelf life. Eep. 

Even though I can see the metaphor (and often have a pretty dark sense of humor), I was never comfortable using the same terminology for a person that I would use for a gallon of milk.

2. Lost 

You hear this more from older generations: “We lost your great uncle in the winter of ’48.” Or during this war or x years ago. And with the feelings of loss that come with a death of a loved one, the word makes a great deal of sense.

On the other hand, we usually use “lost” when there is an opportunity to be “found.” And that doesn’t work so well in this case.

Maybe, it’s my literal brain talking, but “lost” is a word used for keys or pets – something you’ve misplaced. If you say that about a person, I expect them to have disappeared or be left behind somewhere. 

And that thought’s doubtlessly been strengthened by all the writers and comedians who’ve used that double meaning for comedy. Which, honestly, makes it feel even less appropriate to use seriously.

3. Asleep

Whose brilliant idea was this?

Sorry. I can understand a grieving parent not knowing hot to tell an innocent child that Mother/Father has died. And if the child sees the body laid out, I can see where it would be natural to leave the impression that the person is sleeping. It’s understandable and very human. 

But… all I can think about is how horribly wrong it’s likely to go in the long run.

If the child doesn’t really understand, waiting and wondering why the person refuses to wake up can take a toll. Not to mention how the parent’s pain would be renewed with each innocent, “When is Mommy going to wake up?”

Add the trauma and struggle that bedtime is liable to become when the parent finally breaks and says, “She isn’t.” The idea that you can keep sleeping forever? Against your will? Sounds like a good reason never to go to bed again!

And, yes, I realize that these are probably extreme cases, but comparing death to sleep really seems to do more harm than good. Leave it to Shakespearian plays and move on.

4. Resting in Peace

Obvious similar problems to the last one, right? Only in addition to that, there’s an implication that the peace could end. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if superstitions about disturbing graves could be traced back to this phrase.

Yep. I can see a direct correlation to zombie movies, too. For some reason (perhaps today’s parlance), “rest” simply isn’t as deep and as hard to disturb as “sleep.” Like the dead are keeping their ears open to make sure you’re behaving. 

Or maybe that was the story parents told their children to make them behave. Because that idea is totally kid-friendly. It’s not disturbing at all. Nooo.

5. Bought a on-way ticket / Bought the farm / Checked out / Departed / Kicked the Bucket / Took a permanent vacation

Ok. I can’t say that any one of these is horribly disturbing on its own because they mostly sound kind of funny (with the exception of “departed.” And “permanent vacation” [You mean, “retirement”?]).

What disturbs me is that they’re all things you can do when alive. In fact, when my grandmother bought the family farm a few years ago (literally), discussing the sale caused all manner of confusion. Although the discussions were occasionally hilarious, it seems strange (and creepy) that you’d want anyone to be confused about the fact that someone had died.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not something I’d want to misunderstand. In either direction.

I guess that’s why I’m not fond of euphemisms for death in the 1st place. There are too many opportunities for added confusion, which means added pain. That and the fact that some of them seem downright disrespectful or inappropriate. 

What do you think? Would you rather be told that someone died or that that person was lost? Or kicked the bucket? Is that disturbing to you?

5 Ways to Use Inspirational Speeches in Your Story

ways to use inspirational speeches in your storyPersuasive speeches are such a strong, traditional way to motivate people that they show up not only in life but also in books, movies, musicals, and more. Here are a handful of examples of ways to use inspirational speeches in your story.

How Persuasive Speeches Affect Plots

It may seem like an inspirational or persuasive speech has an obvious purpose, and from the speaker’s viewpoint, that may be true (Persuade so-in-so of x). Within the arc of a larger story, however, things can be a bit more complicated.

Sustaining Suspension of Disbelief

The perfect example for this use is William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Henry’s army is hungry, tired, and likely suffering from malnutrition issues like dysentery. They’re faced with overwhelming odds of better armed, better trained, and better fed/rested soldiers. They’d have to be complete and utter idiots to willingly go into that battle when faced with another option.

Yet from history, we know that they not only went into battle, they won.

As a reader or viewer, there’s a very strong question of “Why?” in that situation. And there needs to be an equally strong answer, or the fact that they stayed to fight (and die) becomes unbelievable. So you see, for Henry, the purpose of the speech may be to convince his men to fight, but for the bigger picture, the purpose of the speech is to make us believe that they would stay. That he successfully convinced them.

Either way, it has to be a phenomenal speech. Luckily, Shakespeare was up to the task.

Sustain & Entertain

A weaker version of the first option happens when the answer to “Why?” doesn’t need to be as strong. Then, the speech is only partly showing the audience that, yes, the leader convinced the rest to do x, y, or z. The other part? Well, the other part is for form – it’s there to entertain.

Parody, Comedy, & Commentary

In stories that are especially trying to be funny or that are trying to bring attention to a specific problem, the main purpose of the speech may be its similarity to another speech.

In a comedy, the similarities combine with the plot to add different levels of humor. In a commentary, the reactions to the speech and the resulting plot paint a picture of either the world the author wants or the world the author fears.

And, of course, speeches can be used in both ways at the same time.

Characterization

Not to say that the others don’t include this reason, but there are times when the main purpose of the speech is characterization. Or to give Dean Martin a chance to sing. Take your pick.

Exposition

Most of the time, inspiring speeches happen towards the end – right before or even during the climax. On rare occasions, however, it comes close to the start of the story. For example, it could be

  • said by a small faction who play a very small role in the plot (like a group of crazies that everyone pretty much ignores). In this case, it’s usually a speech about something that no one else really cares about that happens to provide details on the setting and social situation.
  • given by the losing side of a conflict that happens before this particular story starts (like the first episode of Firefly, for example)
  • spoken by a side character, but the focus is on the main character’s reaction to it

And so on.

Here’s an example that not only provides exposition but also works as a part of the inciting incident – both through it’s delivery system and message.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch Star Wars Episodes IV-VI again. Have fun using inspirational speeches in stories!

People Don’t Listen: 7 Dialogue Tropes to Give Them Away

people don't listen dialogue tropes ear plugs

“la la la la I’m not listening!”

People don’t listen. You know it. I know it. We’ve probably even heard it but didn’t realize because we weren’t listening. And since we’re so familiar with people who don’t listen, using that idea in our stories adds a lot of realism. That makes these 7 dialogue tropes really handy for giving them away. So handy, in fact, that I’m sure you’ll recognize them from books, movies, etc.

7 Signs for When People Don’t Listen

These signs or tropes are really reflections of why the people aren’t listening. It’s a sign of their motivation and relationship with the person who’s talking. And how much they care about the subject. Ergo, which one you use is all about characterization, setting, and plot.*

 1. The Clueless Question

A.K.A. “Sorry. What?” Best said with that vague, re-focusing air.

Stereotypical of husbands tuning out their wives, this technique is used when the person in question was unaware that someone was talking to them because they’re

  1. in a crowd when the question could’ve been directed to someone else,
  2. focused on something really intently (to the exclusion of other sounds and their surroundings), or
  3. really tired (it’s easy to tune out when you’re exhausted).

Granted, wives do the same thing. Husbands and teenagers just have a worse rap.

2. The Circular Credit

Used in every comedy ever, this trope occurs when a duo is plotting, especially if a dominant character has already been established. The situation goes something like this –

Strong Character: What should we do? Hmmm… What about – no.
Weak Character: We could always try Plan A.
Strong Character: No, that would never work. … I know! We’ll try Plan A! Genius!
Weak Character: [mutters] I’m so glad you thought of it.

Examples include everything from Once Upon a Mattress to Inside Out, etc.

3. The Talk-over Takeover

This one comes up when a person isn’t listening because he or she won’t stop talking. It could be from arrogance, nerves, or a garrulous nature.

Here are some situations where this might be familiar:

  • The talkative, nosy type who can’t resist “fixing” someone and telling someone what to do or what he/she is going to do to help that person (you know – those favors you don’t want?). Aaand doesn’t stop talking long enough for that person to really object. In fact, it’s the type who interrupts any objection and assumes what the poor “helped” soul was going to say…
  • The arrogant, narcissistic type who interrupts because whatever you’re saying can’t possibly be as important as what he/she is saying, so stop wasting time blathering and let him/her talk. (Grrr.)
  • The nervous date or job interview who talks so much that everyone else eventually gives up on getting a word in.
  • The focused person so intent on telling a story or talking about a favorite topic that he/she doesn’t realize the surrounding conversation has moved on (and left him/her behind – still talking).

So… great for annoying, enraging, or funny characters!

4. The Deceptive Dismissal

Here’s where a show of politeness mixes with a lack of caring. People do this all the time when they want to appear that they care about what the person is saying but actually don’t. It’s a two-step process:

  1. Start with a sympathetic phrase. A.K.A. a platitude: “I know what you mean.” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” “How awful.” All said with a kind of tsk or a sigh.
  2. Segue into what you want to talk about. Generally, it’s something about you (“You” meaning whoever’s doing it. I know that you would never do such a thing.).
  3. Pretend that what you’re talking about is related to what the other person says. People who do this might even believe it’s related – after all, they weren’t listening!

Don’t have characters you want the reader to like do this unless there’s some excuse. Like being distracted by something really important. And they’d better apologize when called out on it.

5. The Fuzzy Faker

This person actually does care about what the other person thinks. Maybe, not enough to actually pay attention (for this moment) but enough to try to hide that he/she wasn’t paying attention. Inevitably, however, vital details get crossed or overlooked and out the person’s lack of listening skills.

This dialogue trope is useful for

  • employees trying to impress/pacify a boss who’s especially boring and tends to monologue
  • spouses who want to avoid getting in trouble for not listening
  • students caught not paying attention in class

Sounds familiar, right?

6. The Redundant Reveal

To me, this one is an everyday kind of accidental slip that busy people make. You’re doing something, you’re moving fast, and you end up saying something before your brain catches up with what you heard. You know, when the brain assumes someone is going to say one thing and responds before you realize, nope, that’s not it (like a variation of the talk-over takeover but on a smaller scale).

Here’s an example from one of my favorite websites, Not Always Right.

(My mom is offering my little brother a snack, but she’s in the other room and he doesn’t quite hear her.)

Mom: Do you want any popcorn?
Brother: No, just popcorn.

How many times have you said, “You’re welcome,” when the other person said, “Have a nice day.” It’s that kind of brain glitch. Also known as autopilot.

7. The Taciturn Tune-out

So… back to conceit (Conceit and not listening go well together, yeah?).

In this situation, one person is giving instructions, and the other person is ignoring every word. Usually, it’s a case of arrogantly assuming that he/she knows better and doesn’t need to listen. This person may not even bother to respond or says, “Yes,” “right,” and “uh-huh,” at appropriate intervals.

Unfortunately, this is extremely common with customers and business. Businesses will pay lots of money for consultants, It departments, trainers, etc. And do people listen? Sometimes. Sometimes, they just do their own thing, break stuff, and then blame someone else. (Read not always right if you don’t believe me.)

Even thinking about it is frustrating.

Of course, that’s the point. Frustrating, funny, enraging – when people don’t listen, it causes an emotional response. I’m sure you have stories you could share for all of these dialogue tropes.

So why don’t you? Change the characters and put them in your stories. Believe me, your readers will empathize.

*Something about the word, “ergo,” feels pretentious. But it fit the sentence. I’m so conflicted…

A Great Tone Example That’s Funny, Too

great tone example what is tone

Those thousands of shades of green? That’s like all the different tones you could write the same story in.

From middle schoolers to adults, people have trouble with tone. Especially telling tone from mood. Well, here is a great tone example that’ll not only help you better understand tone but also make you laugh (what a deal!).

But, first off, a bit about tone.

What Is Tone?

Tone – the attitude of a piece (usually the author or narrator’s attitude towards what is happening)

Ever get in trouble for your tone as a kid? (Or as an adult?) You know, when it wasn’t what you said but how you said it? (tone of voice and body language?) Tone is like that, but since writing isn’t spoken and doesn’t have nonverbals, that attitude is taken from the word choice instead. How  you word something dictates the tone.

It’s like paraphrasing using close synonyms: the denotation shouldn’t change, but the connotation might.

You look really thin!
You look awfully skinny!

They’re the same thing but not. The switched words are close synonyms (same detonation), but the connotation is definitely different. People who want to appear polite but insult someone at the same time are really good at distinctions like this. And so are satire writers. *cough* I mean hospital workers.

A Great Tone Example

This is an article from a medical satire blog called Gomer Blog. IMHO, one of the keys to successful satire is a believably sincere tone. In this case, they took it a step further with an overly sincere, understanding, and even sympathetic tone. The article is called “Hospital Publishes 6 Patient Guidelines: ‘Please Try Not to Confuse Us with a Hotel.”

Here’s a sample:

Here at Outside Hospital (OSH), we are 100% committed to your satisfaction as a patient.  To this end, we have created this pamphlet, which contains some tips and advice to guide you in your hospital stay, and we will be providing this to each and every patient immediately upon your arrival to the hospital.  Even if you have slurred speech secondary to a stroke, been shot multiple times, or don’t even know your own name, don’t worry, we won’t bother you with pesky ECGs or mental status exams until we have gone over this information, in detail.

  1. Please try not to confuse us with a hotel.

I know, I know, the free cable, hot breakfasts, and lumpy mattresses all create an atmosphere that is incredibly confusing since it resembles your favorite Holiday Inn.  However, we actually are a hospital, not just a bunch of beds filled with some sick people.  So, that means that your breakfast may not be the equivalent to IHOP’s, we might not have Comedy Central as a choice of channels and sometimes, when your doctors come into your room, they might have to turn off the television so they can discuss your health.  Although I know these lack of conveniences might lead you to believe that you are in a third-world country, they probably don’t deserve a one-page written complaint…

Hooked? Read the rest of “Hospital Publishes 6 Patient Guidelines: ‘Please Try Not to Confuse Us with a Hotel” now. I’ll wait.

Isn’t it great? Especially if you’ve ever stayed or worked in a hospital. Or know anyone who does. When you hear the stories about the ridiculous complaints people get (or overheard those people in the waiting room, etc.), then it’s even funnier (Or more painful. Whatever).

If you haven’t heard any of those stories, read some of the customer is not always right. You’ll lose faith in humanity, but you’ll develop new empathy for people in customer service – and not only in hospitals (and you can get some of that faith back by reading the not always hopeless tab at the end).

But back to tone.

Do you see how the tone makes the humor work? It’s that overly-solicitous attitude. Like a parent saying, “Oh, I can’t believe they assigned you twenty problems of math! How can they expect you to do that when your thumbs are completely paralyzed from texting your friends?” Heh. Lol. So, yeah, it’s like sarcasm. Sometimes, the best way to make fun of something is to act like you seriously agree with it.

Sure, that’s not the only tone you could write. Any kind of emotion or attitude can be a tone – snippy, humorous, condescending, confused, etc. Any emotion you can put into your voice, you can put into your words.

Any questions?

Spelling as a Frame Story: The Alphabet of Death

Spelling as a Frame Story the Alphabet of Death ABC booksSpelling as a frame story? The alphabet of death? What on Earth is this twytte talking about?*

Frame stories. Sort of. A little. Maybe.

Tbh, this article is focused more on a particular type of frame story, which may not even totally qualify as a frame story (I don’t know. You tell me.). But before we get to that, I guess I better define the frame story.

I haven’t really talked about frame stories yet (at least, I don’t think I have), so here’s a simple metaphor: a family portrait gallery. The hallway (or, more precisely, the hallway wall) is the frame story, and the family portraits are the series of stories bound together by it. Along with the idea that they’re all related by blood or marriage. That’s more or less what a frame story does: it links seemingly unrelated stories (not talk about family. Sorry.).

If you want to learn more about traditional frame stories, click on the wikipedia article (“Frame Stories“) – at least, until I feel like writing about them. For now, I want to discuss spelling as a frame story even though I’ve never heard of it being formally taught as a frame story.

Why isn’t it taught?  I don’t know. It could be because it’s not a strong frame story – it’s more frame than story. Or popsicle stick frame rather than a professional one. On the other hand, I suppose it could be because the alphabet frame is primarily used for ABC books for early readers, and that doesn’t lend a lot of gravitas to the classroom. Or a novel.

But I’m here to prove that it’s not just for kids (Ok. I’m here to amuse, entertain, and, possibly, educate. I admit it.).

The Alphabet Or Spelling As a Frame Story

There are two basic frames in this category. The simplest and most common is the entire alphabet in alphabetical order. The second frame story method is more or less an acrostic put into book form.

The Alphabet Frame Story

This is where the ABC book comes in. If you’re a parent, or if you were a child (*cough*), then you’ve probably seen these. They go from A to Z, and each page features a word, phrase, poem, or sentence that starts with the letter featured on the page.

But it doesn’t have to be for kids, and it doesn’t have to be a book.

The Alphabet of Death

Yeah, honestly, this article was just an excuse to post that video…

The Spelling Frame Story

Or frame whatever. Like I said, this is an acrostic poem turned into a story, song, etc. The most famous one I can think of comes from  an old Vaudeville number followed by a parody gag by Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope on the Jack Benny Show.

Yeah, I’ve really only seen it used for humor. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be used for something serious. I’m open to suggestions…

Enough Frame Story for a Novel?

It sure doesn’t seem like it, does it? Even if you did, there are so many words in a novel, who would notice if the beginning of each chapter started with a different letter? Nobody. Not even if the first letter was as ornate as the ones in the Book of Kells.

Of course, then I started thinking about emphasizing the letter and how the letter could relate to each story… It would be a very silly novel, but it would be possible.

But what about serious novels? Impossible, right?

I don’t know. What if the frame is for a book series rather than a single story? Like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series. Each book features a different letter: A is for AlibiB is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, etc. They’re murder mysteries, and the alphabet idea and main character link them together. Does that count?

What do you think? Is it a frame story or what?

*See what I did there?

3 Types of Appeals as Writing Prompts

What on earth is an appeal? Isn’t that something you do when a trial goes the wrong way? (Kind of, but no). The 3 types of appeals I’m talking about are rhetorical techniques. If you’re unfamiliar with the term rhetoric, think of it as the art of persuasion whether in speech or writing. To use these appeals as writing prompts (or even recognize them when they’re used against you), you need to know what they are and how they’re used.

The 3 Types of Appeals

 1. Logical Appeal

This is the one that gets the most marketing. It’s the one they focus on in schools: using facts and logical processes to guide the audience to the desired conclusion. To make them think that you’re right.

stock data logical appeal as writing prompts

See “data.”

Remember when your English or history teacher made you “support your answer”? You know, using statistics or quotes or evidence from the passage? That’s what this is all about. You use facts to back up every move of your reasoning, and because facts have to back up every move, you can’t skip anything (no matter how obvious).

Think of the argument you’re making as an arch made out of wooden blocks. If you skip a block (and leave a block-sized hole where it would be), then there’s nothing there to hold up the next block, sending the arch tumbling down.

That’s the benefit and the danger of using a logical appeal – if you do it right, it’s a very strong argument, but missing a single step or angle can ruin the whole thing.

2. Emotional Appeal

Really, these are pretty self-explanatory. In this case, instead of using logic, you try to rouse someone’s emotions. You want to make them feel that you’re right.

You do this by using strong adjectives and painting an picture to rouse the audience’s empathy. Art is almost always an emotional appeal. (That’s kind of the point of art…) We buy paintings that make us feel something in response, we listen to music that tugs on our heartstrings, and we read books with characters that we feel for.

emotional appeal as writing prompts puss in boots shrek 2

Pls!!

It’s also one of the best ways to get your way – every child or pet knows this (think the term puppy dog eyes). Other than those commercials for donating to starving or sick children (that go right for the heart), Puss in Boots from Shrek 2 is probably the best example of using an emotional appeal to affect someone’s behavior. He’s goood.

3. Character Appeal

I think of this one as a combination of the other two, but technically, it’s an appeal that relies on ethics or credibility. It’s making someone believe that you know what you’re talking about.

This is an important distinction. If you’re only using a character appeal, then they’re not agreeing because your argument makes sense to them. They’re agreeing because they’ve decided to believe in you.

doctor character appeal as writing prompts

Ah, the lab coat and stethoscope. Works every time.

Think of going to a doctor, accountant, or lawyer. They’re going to give you some advice, and if you don’t know anything about the subject, then you’re not going to decide based on the advice as much as you’re going to decide based on whether you trust them to know what they’re doing.

Using the 3 Types of Appeals as Writing Prompts

So… let’s go back to Puss in Boots. He uses an emotional appeal (+20 cuteness) to get Shrek to take him along and later does the same to take the guards off-guard (oh, the irony). Both of those actions affected the plot, effectively making the emotional appeal a plot device – that’s how we apply them to writing.

Whether the character is a hero, a con artist, a concerned party, or anything in between, he or she might need to convince someone of something. It could even be a key turning point in the plot.

How many times have you read a book where a character has to persuade someone to help? Or give him/her something? Or let them go where they can’t go?

So here’s the writing prompt.

  1. Pick a scene where a character or group of characters has to persuade someone to do or allow something.
  2. Match the characters to the type of appeal they would be most likely to use. Would Spock use an emotional appeal? Would Spock know how to use an emotional appeal? Only as a last-ditch effort when told to (people can use multiple types of appeals either separately or together) or if his using it out-of-character was a major part of the plot.
  3. Decide which appeal is most likely to work on the target. If old Mr. Treg doesn’t trust doctors, is telling him that you’re a doctor going to help? Would a purely emotional appeal work on Spock? Would a purely logical appeal work on Candide?
  4. Write the scene. You’ll have to decide which character goes first. Remember: succeeding on the first try is suspect. The harder the persuasion is, the higher the stakes and suspense.

This is a great exercise to use with an existing story or existing characters. You can use repeated persuasion attempts to show a character’s progress (or lack of progress) in learning to persuade people. You can use ridiculous persuasion attempts for humor or to show dramatic differences in the character’s values (Think Sheldon.).

So basically, it’s a tool for exploring characterization and finding new approaches for resolving plot conflicts. And since persuasion is a big part of everyday life, it helps add realism, too.

Pretty appealing, right?