Anachronistic Metaphors

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The44
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Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by The44 » November 20th, 2012, 6:34 pm

Anachronistic metaphors. They really bug me.

What I mean by that is when I'm reading a book clearly set in some time not named the modern age, with protagonists who don't come from the modern age, and yet the author persists in inserting narration into the book with metaphors such as "Character x had laser-like focus" or "Character Y talked at a machine gun pace" and then in the next sentence describes the hero's sword, the technological accomplishment of the day.

There are only two reasons I can think of for this is. One is that the writer thinks that the reader will understand the metaphor better.Perhaps this is so, but the people reading your book have already demonstrated imagination and determination. They will be ok. The other is that it's lazy writing, which seems odd given how much care has been demonstrably taken with the rest of the aspects of the book.

It's not that these anachronisms necessarily ruin the entire book for me, I just get jolted out of the universe for a second, which is a shame when it's a good read otherwise. So I am imploring you, fellow writers (and reminding myself): don't use anachronistic metaphors. It jolts readers (or at least me).

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Dan_Hauer
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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by Dan_Hauer » November 20th, 2012, 8:00 pm

Bugs me, too. It's kind of like movies that use anachronistic music. The early-80s synth pieces in Peter Weir's Gallipoli really took me out of the movie.

I think the reason for this is just lazy writing. People search through their brains for a piquant simile or metaphor, find one, and forget what kind of story they're writing. The really sad part is that the writing would often be better with no simile at all. I almost always roll my eyes at snappy, one-liner similes. Take these two examples:
"He focused his eyes intently."

"He focused his eyes like a hawk hunting its prey."
I strongly prefer the former. It's just that similes like the one above provide no meaningful information about the character. It seems like something the author just threw in to sound cool. As a counterexample, here's a great simile from Anna Karenina:
"He looked at her as a man might look at a faded flower he had plucked, in which it was difficult for him to trace the beauty that had made him pick and so destroy it."
In a more developed simile like this, we actually gain some insight into the character's feelings and expression. Really, I don't want to read that a character spoke at "a machine gun pace" even in a story set during a time in which machine guns are plentiful.
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polymath
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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by polymath » November 20th, 2012, 11:13 pm

"Character x had laser-like focus" or "Character Y talked at a machine gun pace"

These are tells that summarize and explain actions, diegesis and exigesis, respectively, which are stronger actions when written in scene's causal sensations and doing away altogether with clumsy metaphors.
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Hillsy
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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by Hillsy » November 21st, 2012, 5:19 am

The44 wrote: There are only two reasons I can think of for this is. One is that the writer thinks that the reader will understand the metaphor better.Perhaps this is so, but the people reading your book have already demonstrated imagination and determination. They will be ok. The other is that it's lazy writing, which seems odd given how much care has been demonstrably taken with the rest of the aspects of the book.
I'll take a bit of a punt here and say there are probably very few works that have gone through a good editorial team that contain these. Firstly, this is what editors do. The writer smashes out his novel, goes back and trims off all the warts, but misses 1 or 2. The editors job is to be the finer grade sieve to catch those the writer misses in the "final draft" he hands in. The other reason I say this is that I've read a good metric ton fantasy novels and I'm struggling to think of one exmple where I stumbled of an anachronism like this (disclaimer: I don't read YA so I don't know if it's more prevelant in that genre). I pick up all the time on modern phrase construction and slang (Brent Weeks does this all the time) so I'd like to think I'd remember spotting some. As such, none yet - thoguh I might be just lucky I guess.
Dan_Hauer wrote: Really, I don't want to read that a character spoke at "a machine gun pace" even in a story set during a time in which machine guns are plentiful.
I will say that there is a context issue. I would readily accept something like "Character Y talked at a machine gun pace" in the right novel with the right tone. Something like noir crime or an old hard-boiled detective character. There it's a little more in keeping with the background, albeit still a bit lazy. Especially when you can just just cheat and turne the phrase into a verb - "Danny Caponnelli machine-gunned his way through his sentences...." or "Danny Caponnelli talked like a machine gun with an itallian accent....."

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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by Dan_Hauer » November 21st, 2012, 3:24 pm

Hillsy wrote: I will say that there is a context issue. I would readily accept something like "Character Y talked at a machine gun pace" in the right novel with the right tone. Something like noir crime or an old hard-boiled detective character.
Yeah, it would work in those contexts, but those genres tend to use such metaphors with a certain irony, especially in the hands of contemporary writers. Makes me think of the brilliant noir parody in the Tracer Bullet strips from Calvin and Hobbes.
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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by Sommer Leigh » November 26th, 2012, 9:30 am

I doubt it's lazy writing so much as an accident. We think in modern metaphor and it can be difficult to switch to a time period we didn't live. It got missed during clean-up, but I don't think it's because the body of work didn't get a good editing or because the writer couldn't think of a better one.

There's a great story about Gail Carriger's book Blameless. After building the cover for the book (a look across Victorian Paris) they had to do a revise on it because oopsie, the Eiffel Tower hadn't been built yet during the book's time period and there it was smack in the middle of the cover. They built a great promo video showing the process and the oopsie fix. It wasn't a lazy error, it was just an error. Same thing when you're looking at 100,000 words.

I agree that they are probably annoying to read when you notice them, though I can't think of an instance where I've really noticed an error like that. I think most books come to us pretty clean so the few errors that pop out to me don't bug me much. I know that it happens, no matter how hard you try to edit those little monsters out.
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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by Amanda Elizabeth » November 26th, 2012, 3:37 pm

If it's told in the third person I don't really have a problem with it. Anyone retelling a story would naturally insert modern day metaphors and colloquialisms in the narration. If you're retelling a story passed down from your Irish ancestors you aren't going to break into a thick Irish accent and begin using celtic slang unless its dialogue. On the other hand, I can see how it can distract the reader from the time period the the story is supposed to take place in

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Re: Anachronistic Metaphors

Post by JohnDurvin » December 1st, 2012, 12:42 am

As a broader statement, phrases used by a narrator should only refer to things that narrator is aware of. To use the above example, if you're telling a story about your Irish ancestors, you could use anything you wanted; but if you were writing it from the point of view of one of those ancestors, they are fairly unlikely to say anything about lasers, machine guns, Korean food, faux-Rococo dining ware, Dig-Dug, dinosaurs, neuroscience, or Warren G. Harding. Whereas today...

Just keep in mind that we entered the post-modern era sometime during the 20th Century, and anybody from then on can use whatever metaphors they want; James Joyce showed us that pretty firmly, and stand-up comedians have been doing it ever since (although probably not because Joyce did it first). Prior to that, cultures were a lot more closed off--Victorians talked about Victorian things, Ming Chinese talked about Ming things, and American pioneers were pleased to palaver on about all manner of pioneeriana. Not to sound like one of those pretentious art-school dudes or nothing, but Post-Modernism vastly opened our cultural reference pool, and indeed redefined the notions of cultural boundaries within a zeitgeist.
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