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Excerpt: Athur Plotnik's Spunk & Bite

A writer's guide to punchier, more engaging language and style

By Arthur Plotnik - November 16, 2005
CHAPTER THREE: EXTREME EXPRESSION

...Our frenetic culture has every type of writer scrambling for extreme expression. Journalists and writers of ads, scripts, and speeches live by images that outdistance, one-up, or out-hype all previous takes on a subject. As New York Times staffer Ira Berkow noted, "Incredible may be an understatement in a sports world of galloping hyperbole." Hyperbole rules in all spheres of communication, including politics. Did a black hole in foreign policy give rise to the mother of all insurgencies? Is party principle melting faster than the polar ice caps?

MIGHTY MAMMA NATURE

For your own extreme imagery, you can start with natural forces: She's a Mount St. Helens waiting to erupt. There's an ozone hole in his thinking. Like El Niño hitting on La Niña. But when such cataclysmic megaphors as earthquakes and tidal waves wear thin (even in love scenes), writers need other forces to power their images. One such force is the high-profile personality, real or fictional. A sports agent is called the "Moses" of his clients. The old Jerry Seinfeld character cries, "She's like a beautiful Godzilla!" Names such as Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King connote big virtues, while such Evil Empire denizens as Hitler and Lord Voldemort ratchet up the villainy. And by combining columns A and B, one creates fearsome hybrids: Watch out—she's Mother Theresa meets Hannibal Lecter!

While they're hot, superstars and other news makers can muscle up a sentence. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer ruled prime time, a phrase like Buffy Summers unleashed would have shattered walls. But megaphorists must weigh the shelf life of ephemeral imagery. In the first paragraph of this chapter, I risked an allusion to California's rolling blackouts—now ancient history. A safer reference might have been to China's Three Gorges Dam, the ongoing construction of which reporters have called "planetary in scale." I shoulda said, "our brain hits the Three Gorges Dam."

And don't forget: Arcane megaphors may delight a savvy audience, but their immensity will be lost on the unknowing. Novelist Martin Amis writes of a "Mahabharata of pain"; but to appreciate the image, a reader must be hip to the Mahabharata—a Hindu epic of some hundred thousand couplets. To use or not to use? One takes stock of one's audience, and gives it one's best.

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