Saturday, 10 November 2012

Ambiguity and Hyperbole in Fiction

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English describes hyperbole as ‘An exaggerated or extravagant statement designed to command attention or provoke reaction.’ The guide cites Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus’ quotation ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ which, although not humorous, is certainly hyperbolic.

Unintentional Humour

It’s when the hyperbole or humour in writing is unintentional that it can ruin our work.
For example, the following is the beginning of a student’s spooky story. Or, at least, it’s meant to be scary except – somehow - there’s that element of ambiguity: ‘Samantha sunk her head in her hands, trying to work out what was happening to her. Trixie, her little cat, dozed at her feet. Suddenly, she sat up and crossed her arms.’

Who sat up and crossed her arms? – thoughtful Samantha or Trixie, the cat? The comic image of a small cat sitting up and folding her arms is counter-productive, because the author didn’t intend those lines to be funny. The author’s intention was to charge the scene with emotion and so the pace and tension was undermined by ambiguity.

Hyperbole for Humorous Effect

Even so, hyperbole can be used cleverly for effect. Ben Elton in his novel, This Other Eden, is deliberately using hyperbole to genuine comic effect in the following sequence, while his characters, Max and Krystal, make love: ‘Do you think perhaps you could take your watch off?’ Krystal inquired ‘It’s in danger of amputating one of my buttocks.’ In context, hyperbole is an effective writing technique.

Hyperbole can also find a comfortable home in our writing through dialogue. People make statements like these all the time: ‘I nearly died laughing,’ or ‘I was walking on air.’ But while these common sayings are an integral element of natural speech they may, in ordinary prose, have less impact than simple,strong statements.

Sometimes hyperbole can be downright funny. This often happens with very enthusiastic beginner writers, blessed with rich vocabularies. The following sentence appeared in a student’s essay. ‘Her eyes were like twin pools shining in the moonlight surrounded by thick muddy reeds which were actually eyelashes smothered in mascara.’

No Reference to Humour in Act of Parliament

Politician, A.P. Herbert (1890-1971) said in his book, Uncommon Law, 'People must not do things for fun. We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any act of Parliament.' That last sentence tells us that A.P. Herbert had his mischievous tongue firmly planted into his cheek.

  • The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Ian Ousby, Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • This Other Eden, Ben Elton, Sphere Books, 1993
  • Uncommon Law, A.P. Herbert, Methuen, 1935
  • Extracts from students' stories with permission.
Copyright Janet Cameron
Published on Suite 101, 10 November 2010.

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