Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Useful Vocabulary; or, a Zucker Man Unbound

I was reading an old Entertainment Weekly recently and came across an article on David Zucker, the comic brain behind "Airplane!", the "Naked Gun" films, and now "Scary Movie 4." It was an interesting and well-written article, as indeed most of EW's are, but my favorite part was a sidebar on Mr. Zucker's personal filmmaking lingo -- for instance, "floocher dialogue" is "Filler lines recited by foreground characters to enable the audience to focus on a background joke."

I love this sort of stuff, partly because vocabulary like this is such a fascinating little piece of insight into someone's world, and partly because I can always find something useful in it for myself (here I am TOTALLY stealing "transplant and whack" and "schmuck bait" from Mr. Zucker). A few terms of my own:

  • "thunk-thunk": describes any picture-book manuscript that gives us the problem (thunk) and then the solution (thunk) with no action between to show (not tell) how the character arrived at the solution.
  • "mirror moment": the moment in the first two chapters of a novel where the main character catches sight of himself or herself in a dark glass or mirror and catalogues his appearance for the reader's benefit. This isn't intrinsically bad, but it is a little cliched; I was browsing the paperback of The Da Vinci Code the other day and was amused to see on page two of the text: "The past year had taken a heavy toll on him, but he didn't appreciate seeing the proof in the mirror. His usually sharp blue eyes looked hazy and drawn tonight. A dark stubble was shrouding his strong jaw . . ."
  • "tater tot moment": a moment that shows the main character's emotional vulnerability and connects the reader with the character; adapted from the scene in Millicent Min, Girl Genius, where Digger throws tater tots at Millicent
  • "killing your babies": Many writers know this term, where you have to cut writing you love from a larger work because it's not working within the larger work, and eyes on the prize, the goal is to make the larger work work. Best line on this ever: My friend Katy once sent me a paper to edit with the words, "You have to make like Herod on the Holy Innocents on this thing."
I'm also enamored of two terms stolen from Jennifer Crusie: "infodump," where the writer is too-obviously planting backstory information for the reader's benefit (especially dangerous in a first-person book); and "TDTL," or "Too Dumb to Live," to describe a character whose utter lack of common sense and/or tenuous grasp on obvious reality causes the reader to lose all respect for him or her.

If you have other useful terms for writing, feel free to leave them in the comments. And ten points to the first person to identify the author of the title alluded to in the headline.


  1. Phillip Roth is the author, yes?

    As for the writing vocab, how about "ingly disease" for when an author can't resist overuse of adverbs and adjectives and words ending with -ing.

  2. Middle Muddles: that morass in your first draft, somewhere between the beginning and the climax. Closely related to...

    The Treadmill Method: the stage where you *should* be almost finished with a draft, yet find yourself writing, and writing, and writing... and somehow getting no closer to finishing.

  3. The "I know this will sound crazy" dialogue. Tis isn't limited to lines that start with "I know this will sound crazy" but it could be. It usually means the writer has gotten to the point where the only way to make sense of the plot/situation as created is to offer a "crazy" solution in dialogue. This happens tons in bad sci-fi/action/creature movies.

    Related, but on a bigger scale (and supposedly just about TV shows, but I think expandable to anything) is Jumping the Shark.

  4. Interesting look into how much craft and planning goes into spontaneous humor, which can be summed up by, "People liked to be surprised by the familiar." And how can you not like a word like “Floocher”? It’s just fun word to say, like monkey, kielbasa and poot.

    A couple of made-up descriptions that I use are “Barbie Doll dialog” (It helps to have hand motions with this and pretend you are holding up two action figures.)

    “Hi! I’m a hero guy!”
    “Hi! I’m a smokin’ babe!”
    “Let’s go blow up stuff.”
    “Okay lets!”
    “But let’s kiss first!”
    “Muuwah! Muuwah!”

    This usually follows watching a movie that appeared to have been written by second graders.

    The other is “Pirate Villains” (not to be confused with anything involving Johnny Depp, thank you) This term came from the movie “Six Days Seven Nights” where the sea smugglers existed solely to make Harrison Ford and Anne Heche build stuff out of palm fronds. Interesting stories need interesting villains.

    I am amused by this website...

    It's filled with little nuggets like...

    "Eight to ten-year-old kids are the best computer hackers on earth and can break into any system."

    "Women not only have to be pulled along, they do not have enough sense to run and keep running unless a man touches her elbow, holds her hand or puts his arm around her shoulders."

    "Two people will often converse while one stares out the window, with their back to the other. When an emotional point is made, the first person will turn around."

    Write on,


  5. Oh and my guess is Shelley. :-)

    "Zucker Man Bound" would be Aeschylus


  6. Hee, Lizzy!

    The one I had in mind was Philip Roth, as Gerb said.