Monday Motivation: When gobbledygook makes senses

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Primer is a little movie that was made (and written, and edited and starred in) by a guy called Shane Carruth. It’s one of those legendary stories that buzz around the film industry for years: a nobody comes up with an idea, invests his savings (in this case, $7000) in it and makes a fortune. (And, by the by, Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for 2004.)

In fact, Carruth didn’t make a fortune – but he turned his tiny investment into a tidy sum. The film grossed something over $420 000 at the box office in the US. Figures for international box office are not available, but you can usually count on international to match the US. So let’s say, all in all, the movie made about $800 000, of which the producer usually gets something like half. So Carruth multiplied his investment by nearly sixty times.

Not bad for a couple of months’ work.

But the point I want to make about Primer is not that it was a fabulous financial success – nor that it’s become a cult favourite among the science fiction cognoscenti. It’s that it was written by a science and maths whiz about a subject – time travel – that simply begs writers to go to town on all the scientific mumbo-jumbo they can think of.

Well, Carruth has plenty of mumbo-jumbo to throw at his subject, and he does so. Here’s a sample of some of the dialogue:

By coming at it from the back end, 
rather than changing the 
surrounding temperature, we'll 
change the level it'll conduct: the transition temperature. And 
by bombarding these edges--

What he’s saying is, these guys, 
they're dropping the ceramic, the 
temperature, lower and lower. It makes 
the ceramic less resistant 
and knocks out the interior 
magnetic field… What he’s saying is…

What I'm saying is we drop the box 
down on it. Focus our own magnetic 
field to negate, knock out with 
the inverse... what's going on 
inside the ceramic. 
That’s smart…

That should change the transition 
temperature to something we can work 

What are we saying that is?

Hopefully, near room temperature.

What is that about? The best 
mathematician is a lazy one?

And so on and so forth.

But now here’s the interesting thing. This might well be gobbledygook to anyone but a physics major or a mathematician – but it sounds right.* In the movie, these guys are standing at drawings of the machine they’re developing, pointing (off-screen, as it happens) at details on the drawing, and talking with absolute assurance and deep commitment about their project.

We don’t have to understand what they’re talking about. What we know is that they’re doing something interesting, even important, and that they’re passionate about it.

That’s enough to make the scene interesting.

This raises an important issue. If we’re reading about someone who’s passionate about something, what’s often just as compelling is not the subject of his passion, but the passion itself… Or rather, the story can become about the passion and what that unleashes, rather than about the object at which his passion is directed.

If it’s the passion that our attention is directed at, then the rest becomes texture. So… Imagine a novel about the people who developed the atomic bomb. We could focus on the bomb. Ho hum (unless you’re a technical boffin). Or we could focus on the moral entanglements that its developers found themselves wrestling with.

And if the apparent foreground – in the case of Primer, that was the time machine that our young engineers stumbled on – becomes the backdrop, then all you have to do is write sufficiently convincing gobbledygook to persuade us that their passion is real.

This applies, obviously, not only to science fiction. If your character is an accountant… or a machinist… or a mother… it’s your job to make that activity convincing – but no more.

So if you’re not yourself an accountant, or a machinist, or have ever given birth, then you’d better do a little research until, like Aaron, you’re able to talk the talk. It could just give you massive returns.

Happy writing,


*One commentator had this to say about Carruth’s dialogue: “The interesting choice writer Sean Carruth makes is in keeping the dialogue, and by extension story, relatively opaque. This allows the dialogue to feel more natural (no overly expository explanation of scientific terms, and no one using the line ‘In English, please?’) and allows the focus to stay more on the philosophical and moral implications of time travel than the logistics themselves.”

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