Writing Lesson #6

Lesson 6 Exaggeration

Guest Blogger: Marty Coleman, The Napkin Dad

When my daughters were young, I had a tendency to exaggerate in my story telling. I might say, “Joe Blow was the GREATEST catcher who ever lived.” Or “General YadaYada was the MOST brilliant war tactician ever!” It became a running joke in my family — they expected my superlatives and would crack up or roll their eyes when they came. My eldest, Rebekah, was adamant that I see the movie “Big Fish” about a father who was a giant story teller, exaggerating stories to absurd lengths. Hmm, I wonder why she thought I’d like that one.

Over time I realized that exaggeration can rob a story of its power, as well as damage trust and believability. It took me a while to understand the effectiveness of using the exact opposite of exaggeration — understatement. It helps build a rapport between writer and reader, and it can inject a little dry humor too.

Do you tend to use exaggeration or understatement more in your writing? In the comments, share some examples of both.  


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  1. recipes says:

    This is getting a bit more subjective, but I much prefer the Zune Marketplace. The interface is colorful, has more flair, and some cool features like ‘Mixview’ that let you quickly see related albums, songs, or other users related to what you’re listening to. Clicking on one of those will center on that item, and another set of “neighbors” will come into view, allowing you to navigate around exploring by similar artists, songs, or users. Speaking of users, the Zune “Social” is also great fun, letting you find others with shared tastes and becoming friends with them. You then can listen to a playlist created based on an amalgamation of what all your friends are listening to, which is also enjoyable. Those concerned with privacy will be relieved to know you can prevent the public from seeing your personal listening habits if you so choose.

  2. Although a good understatement is an exaggeration in itself

  3. I think I tend toward exaggeration. Yes, I know I do.

    Although a good understatement is an exaggeration in itself.

    “I rarely make a mistake…” says the man wearing a perpetual dunce cap. (not an example from my writing, obviously, but a very bad example of an exaggerated understatement…)

  4. Dean K Miller says:

    I write a lot of fly fishing stories. if you aren’t exaggerating the number of fish caught, and the size of the ones that got away, you aren’t telling the truth!

  5. Definitely more of a fan of understatement! Although exaggeration can be fun too. Don’t know if this makes any sense, but you can use exaggeration to understate something. Like, for example, you can have a narrator exaggerate something that ends up very telling of what’s going on, and in that way you managed to understate something.

  6. I learned a bajillion things from this!

    I think whether exaggeration is good or effective depends on the type of story you’re telling. If you’re a children’s author, kids will probably connect more to your grandiose stories than those with lots of subtext. Many science fiction and fantasy stories can handle quite a bit of exaggeration, too (although many operate well with lots of subtext instead). It’s important to consider your audience and which end of the spectrum would provoke a better reaction from them.

  7. So I have to add perspective from the non-fiction, memoir-ish side of the house — because in my very personal narrative style of writing, I tend to exaggerate a lot. I mean like, WAY exaggerate. A LOT.

    But that’s the inside voice in my head, which has somehow evolved into my writing voice as well. I don’t know about how others perceive challenges and obstacles and fun times and danger and fears and such, but when I experience life through the inside voice in my head, it’s all very heightened and emo and a little hysterical, I’ll admit. Of course, I don’t act that way in life — but I think that’s one of the reasons some people can relate to my writing. Because I write the way some of us tend to think.

    Obviously, it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Maybe just the heightenedly emo and hysterical among us…


  8. DonnaT. says:

    I would never ever exaggerate in a million years.

  9. This was absolutely the most fantastic post ever!

    : ) Beth

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    I’ve been accused of making hyperbolic statements when I talk — and occasionally they end up in my writing.

  11. Ann Bracken says:

    I giggled at this post. My family has such a tendency to hyperbole that my maiden name is now used by my husband as an adjective to describe just how gross of an exaggeration was made.

  12. Love the exaggerated responses! Kathryn, I am also of Irish descent and a day without exaggeration is a day without a smile if you ask me! haha
    It’s all about how it fits and if you are trying to deceive or trying to reveal.

  13. I’m Irish, we live to exaggerate.

  14. Joe Pote says:

    I find that I have a tendency toward understatement. I tend to elude toward something and expect the reader to make the connection.

    I have been slow realizing that I have this tendency, but feedback from reviewers clearly indicate that is the case.

    I have had to make a coonscious effort to be more explicit in conveying my message, without becoming overly verbose.

    It’s a tough balance for me.

  15. Timothy Fish says:

    I love a good tall tale. Growing up, I enjoyed hearing the stories of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry. So, when you imply that exaggeration is a bad thing, me thinks you exaggerate.

    When I look at your examples of exaggeration, what I find is that it isn’t exaggeration that is the problem, but the issue of telling rather than showing. Exaggeration, when used properly, helps a story. Readers don’t want to read about the most average person in the world. They want to read about the conquering hero.

    • Actually… I think people want to read about the most average person in the world BECOMING the conquering hero (and visa versa… the big heroic guy being humbled into an average joe…) 🙂

  16. I’m a big believer in subtext and allowing the reader to fill in many of the blanks. As a reader, I can’t stand being spoon fed. Example: using ‘he thought’ after providing internal dialogue in italics. And don’t tell me ‘she asked’ either, after dialogue that ends in a question mark.

    As per description, don’t leave it hanging there. Make sure it’s part of the story. If the sun is setting in the blood red sky, tie it into a death or injury or something involving blood. (Gee, sounds gruesome, doesn’t it?)

    Y’all get the idea, I’m sure. Great post, Marty! (And short enough for me to read before work too, lol :))

  17. carol brill says:

    HI Marty, first, love the napkin Dad absorbent ideas tag/logo.
    it took me a while to learn not to overwrite. For me, it’s about doing the hard work to find the exact specific detail, and trusting the reader to get it or fill in the blanks for themselves. In my MFA program i wrote a scene where a character dies and really struggled with dialogue. A critique partner said, “sometimes what isn’t said in dramatic scenes is more powerful.” a great lesson for me.

  18. A good reminder of what not to do 🙂
    Of course, we writers want our books to be the “best” and every reader to sit up and take notice of what we say, but we can’t do that by hitting them over the head with metaphorical bricks! This is why, I suppose, ‘understatement’ is so important. It allows us to whisper, hint and suggest.
    Aristotle once said storytellers are dangerous, unlike philosophers, we wrap our ideas up in emotional ideas and so hide them. It makes such sense, after all, who wants to listen to someone who is shouting at them!
    Thanks to Napkin Dad for a thought-provoking post!

  19. I tend to understate, so the audience can inject their own voice. C. S. Lewis used the term “Verbicide” to refer to words whose meaning had been reduced by over use. One of his examples was “quality,” which had been reduced to mean “good.” A shoe store might advertise “quality shoes at a fair price,” but the shop owner simply meant “good shoes.”

    As requested, here is a sample from my writing (Angel Blood: Family Secrets):

    “Is there anyone here who has news of Aberglen?” asked Michael loudly. Lydia hit him with her elbow. “What?” whispered Michael, holding his side.
    “People aren’t going to talk to you that way. You have to get them to talk.”
    “And how do I…we…do that?”
    “Small exchanges, you know. You have to say stuff like, ‘nice weather we’re having’ or ‘is the cider good here?’ things like that.” Michael looked at her as though she was speaking a foreign language.
    “Why do I have to do that?” he asked with a scrunched up face.
    “You just do, that’s all, and for heaven’s sake sit down.” The two sat at the end of the table nearest the door. Michael glanced around and saw a man drinking alone. He wore an old cloak and sported a bushy, uncombed beard.
    “Is the cider good here?” asked Michael.
    The man burped loudly. “I wouldn’t know. I’m drinking mead.” He then poured more of the thick, dark nectar and resumed drinking without looking at Michael.
    “It isn’t working,” said Michael. Lydia rolled her eyes.
    “What will you have?” asked the serving woman.
    “Nice weather we’re having,” replied Michael.
    “Two meads,” said Lydia, looking at Michael as though had lost his mind.

    The exchange is simple and direct in the above sample. Imagine if I had written:

    “Is there anyone at all in here who has important news of Aberglen?” thundered Michael.
    Lydia violently slammed her bony elbow into the bones of his thin rib cage. “What?” whispered Michael quietly as he gingerly held his aching side.
    “People aren’t going to converse with you if you talk in such a frank manner,” replied the frustrated Lydia. “You have to get them to talk.”
    “And how do I…I mean we,” he added so as not to offend her by inferring that she was not an important part of their fact finding mission, “do that?”
    “Very small exchanges, you know. You have to utter stuff like, ‘it’s particularly nice weather we’re having’ or ‘is the cider good here?’ things of that approximate nature.” Michael quickly looked at her with a tremendous feeling of confusion.
    “Why am I required to do such a frivolous exercise?” he queried with a very scrunched up face.
    “You just do, that’s all, and for heaven’s sake sit down,so you won’t look conspicuous.” The two perched high upon wooden stools at the very end of the table nearest the door. Michael desperately glanced about the entire room until he saw a man drinking alone. He wore a very old cloak and sported a bushy, uncombed beard, which hung from his face.
    “Is the cider good here?” inquired Michael clumsily.
    The bearded man burped loudly. “I wouldn’t know. I’m drinking a large glass of mead.” He then fluently poured more of the very thick, extremely dark nectar and resumed voraciously drinking, not looking at Michael.
    “It isn’t working well,” said Michael. Lydia rolled her eyes in complete disbelief.
    “What will you have to drink?” asked the serving woman.
    “Nice weather we’re having,” replied Michael cheerfully.
    “Two meads,” said the flabbergasted Lydia, intensely glaring at Michael as if he had lost his tiny mind.

    In the latter example, I overstate the obvious, use unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, and rob the dialog of flow.

    • Timothy Fish says:

      I don’t know what it does for it in the overall context of the piece, but given that we only have this short section to grasp what is going on, I think your edits are actually an improvement on the first version. At least, those at the beginning of it are. Some of those nearer the end don’t add anything.

      • Interesting comment. Perhaps my pastoral instinct for brevity is short circuiting my awareness of the readers’ need for expansion.
        Fortunately, I have given up writing novels for public consumption. It’s a hobby now, so there’s plenty of time to hang out in the workshop.

      • I somewhat agree. Other than the overuse of adverbs, I like some of the wording choices and details here.

        Really, though, I think this is less “exaggeration”, as meant by the original post, and more purple prose. (Of course, purple prose is exaggerated writing in its own sense.)

  20. I think I have done that once. It needs to be fixed I suppose, but my character really thinks she has the best gardens around, she even had the soil tested, lol.

  21. marion says:

    First person is great, because it takes you away from your tendencies.

    Although my current narrator is more my style–unemotional and understated. Everything repressed.

    A back-burner novel has a narrator who is emotional and given to exaggeration, although she tries to rein it in a bit. This might be more of a challenge.

  22. Larry Carney says:

    Hmmmm….another way to look at it would be to challenge oneself to write at a level that the boasts fit the characters. To have such scenarios and conflicts that the character needs to rise to such a level. For example, the “Worlds’ Greatest Detective”, one Mr. Sherlock.

  23. That is great advice! Thanks for sharing the tip. I don’t think I exaggerate too much; I’ll have to watch for it when I write this week.

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