Reading Aloud 11: Making Sense

This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Reading Aloud

Okay. At some point, every SF story on the planet is going to hit some handwavium. You know the thing I’m talking about, that magic point where you just have to make stuff up in order to cover the gap between what is possible and what you think might be possible sometime in the future. On the page, it can be fine, but then… then you have to read it outloud.

John Scalzi pointed out this clip, which provides the most beautiful example of speaking handwavium with confidence. Watch it and then we’ll discuss.

Okay, first of all, it’s very, very, funny. Second, although this goes way over the line into absurdity, the fact is that even though his words make no sense, at all, by using tricks of pacing and emphasis, he creates the illusion of meaning. The actor’s name is Mike Kraft and he writes and performs industrial training videos. If he used just one of those phrases in an SF story, you’d totally buy it. So let’s see if we can apply what he’s doing to an SF story.

For instance, he’s giving the made-up words no more weight or emphasis than the real things. Look at your sf story. The technobabble words in it are everyday words to your characters so you should treat them as such. At the same time, Mr. Kraft is also using hand gestures, sign-posting and phrasing, to give clues to what words mean.

Hand gestures aren’t an option for audio fiction, but some of his other tricks are.

Signposting, at its simplest, means that he changes the direction in which he is looking when he changes direction of the speech. You can also do similar thing by pausing before beginning a new thought.

Which is really part of phrasing. Notice how he’s using a pause for emphasis here, “Such an instrument, comprised of Dodge gears and bearings, Reliance electric Motors, Allen Bradley controls, and all monitored by Rockwell software is [pause]Rockwell Automation’s retro-incabulator.” It lets you know that what’s coming next is important. He pauses again in the next sentence before each of the “significant” parts of the encabulator.

He also uses emphasis, (which means that he gives a slight punch to certain words by using speed or volume) such as “panendermic simi-boloid slots of the stator. Every seventh conductor being connected by a non-reversable tremi pipe to the differential gurdel spring on the up end of the grammeters.”

Back in Reading Aloud 1: The Basics we talked about twisting words that had an almost onomatopoeic quality to them. Mr. Kraft does some of that, but not a whole lot because it would be inappropriate for his character.

He’s also using good old-fashioned stage presence to pull this off. As the character, he believes that each of these words makes perfect sense because they are all part of his character’s world. Watch his hands; his character knows what each item does.

Your exercise for today is to try and read the transcription of this clip. Then I want you to find the most convoluted handwavium in your own fiction and see how real you can make it sound.

Series Navigation<< Reading Aloud 10: Stage presenceReading Aloud 12: Narrating with first person >>

4 Responses

  1. -d-

    What a hoot! I’ve wasted almost an hour following the links back. One thing I noticed was that the actor said that he was wearing a wireless earpiece and just repeating what was said to him. That is, he didn’t have it memorized. Never-the-less your suggestions to follow his lead is good, you just have to be better than he is because you don’t have the wireless ear piece.

  2. Mary Robinette Kowal

    It makes me laugh every single time I watch it.

    you just have to be better than he is because you don’t have the wireless ear piece.

    True, but for most readings, you’ll have the whole thing written down.

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