Writers are the Great Manipulators

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Friedrich Nietzsche argued that narrators do themselves a disservice when they narrate “to evoke interest through [their] narrative,” as opposed to those who narrate “because the subject matter interests [them].” The narration is less effective, according to Nietzsche, “because [the narrator] is not thinking so much about the story as about himself.”

One way writers and speakers manipulate their audience’s feelings is through the use of intensifiers. Intensifiers modify adverbs and adjectives only, and their purpose is to increase the emotional impact of words and sentences. If you find that when you self-edit you must delete the overuse of words like “very” and “really,” you are guilty of intensifier abuse. Many speakers, and I am definitely one of them, tend to overuse qualifiers, intensifiers, and superlatives—in casual speech we tend not to edit so much before “publishing.” But do qualifiers belong in literature?

url-5In dialogue, there is only one rule: “anything goes…as long as it’s consistent.” One of the ways writers develop characters in fiction is through their mannerisms, and all that stuff between the quotation marks can often communicate much more about a person than narrative can. What a character is saying is only part of the message; the words the character chooses and the way he or she uses them offer readers further insight to a character’s…well…character. Therefore, using (or not using) intensifiers tells the readers something about the person who is speaking.

In narrative, intensifiers are neither necessary nor desirable. The most commonly used intensifiers are “so,” “really,” “very,” “awfully,” and “literally” (the last being especially annoying when the user doesn’t realize the difference between “literally” and “figuratively”).  Other commonly used intensifiers are “extremely,” “remarkably,” “terribly,” “honestly,” “dreadfully,” “reasonably,” “largely,” “moderately,” “amazingly,” “mostly,” “clearly,” and “totally.” Not all intensifiers end in “ly,” and many that don’t seem to break various grammatical conventions. While the narrator may be attempting to convey a message (colored by emotion), the reader may interpret that message in a different light.  For example, does “Sadie did not buy the sofa because she thought it was so ugly,” imply that she would have bought it had it been less ugly, but not attractive. If Max is honest, is Sammy more honest because he is “totally honest”? Is Sandra even more honest because she is “the most honest person on earth”?

Many readers will not even notice intensifiers (which is sad), but for some they are a distraction. The greatest drawback to using them is that they do exactly the opposite of what one would expect; instead of intensifying, they weaken passages. “Tom was broke,” is a much clearer, stronger statement than “Tom was literally broke.” When everything is “very,” then nothing is.

Writers are manipulators. They use language to make readers “see” and feel things, and most writers are particular about how they want readers to react. In turn, readers want to be manipulated. They want to be told a story they know is not true, and they want the writer to make them suspend their disbelief and imagine the events described are happening, or at least possible. Could there be a better relationship? But just as we can undermine our interpersonal relationships, writers can undermine their readers’ experience by distracting them with poor grammar, inappropriate wording, and the uninhibited use of colloquial forms (such as intensifiers) in narration.

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