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Humankind seems to revel in its end-of-the-world theories. Never mind the huge list of predicted apocalypses that never happened, it seems a never-ending capacity for ignorance and stupidity constantly drives people to believe this or that will destroy the Earth.

This time it’s DA14, an asteroid that will be passing by Earth on the 15th of February 2013. The asteroid is about 45 metres across (150 feet) and will be closer to Earth than our satellites in geostationary orbit. As close a shave as this sounds, there’s no real danger.

DA14

 

Unfortunately, a lot of the failed Mayan doomsday supporters are quick to jump on the next apocalypse hoax, claiming that the asteroid will impact the Earth. It will not.

The sun’s gravitational pull on the asteroid will limit its distance to 3.2 Earth radii, about 20,406 km. By comparison, satellites in geosynchronous orbit circle at around 35,800 km.

NASA has assured that it will not impact Earth, but DA14 will be added to a list of objects to watch as it will potentially return in 2020.

A lot of comparison has been made to the Tunguska event in 1908 in which a meteoroid exploded above the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in Siberia, flattening about 2,000 km^2 of forest. Amazing and frightening as that is, let me remind you that first of all, Earth has a long history of being hit by asteroids so there’s nothing close to an apocalypse there, and second of all, this one won’t even hit.

Anyway, my job here is just to combat ignorance so hopefully those of you who read this will be able to scoff the next time someone says we’re going to be wiped out by DA14. For those of you that are stargazers, this will be a very interesting event to watch.

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I’ve heard this question floating around again recently. It’s good to see most people know the answer now, but a mix of “long enough”, “depends on the scene you’re writing” and “depends on your style” is not really all-encompassing or detailed enough to really identify the deciding factor. That’s what I’m here for.

So what does sentence length achieve? In a word: pace. There are only two tools a writer has to manipulate pace, and they are sentence structure (of which length is a major part) and diction. I’ve done a post on both pace and diction before in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing.

Advocates of long, elaborate sentences are often misguided by the misconception that good writing requires sophisticated language, which in turn requires length and adjectives. These people often make an appeal to authority fallacy and bring up Hemmingway or Tolkien (I mention these two because I hear them brought up the most often). I want to point out two problems with using these authors as examples. First, language has evolved over time. We no longer use Elizabethan English, for example, so it would be inappropriate to write a story with such language. In general, older books will feature much more elaborate sentence structures. This is just a reflection of the language paradigm of their time. Second, Hemmingway and Tolkien actually do use short sentences to create impact and pace. They may not use it as often but if you go flick through one of their books and specifically look for them, you’ll find the sentences I’m talking about.

Thus, we are now at a position where we must agree that sentence length is used to control pace. There is no argument in this. How you use it and how often you use it is entirely up to your own style, but the bottom line is that your decision should be based on what sort of pace you’re trying to achieve in a particular scene.

So, I mentioned that comments like “long enough” weren’t specific enough (though true). What answer would I give? Everything I’ve said so far, but the crux of the argument is that short sentences create more impact and give an impression of action and pace. Further, you can enhance the sense of action and adrenaline by putting more emphasis on action words (verbs – things the characters are actually doing). On the other side of the spectrum, an emotional scene is less likely to have short, action sentences than a fight scene. It would focus less on action words and more on inner thoughts, and emotional tells. Introspective and emotional sentences would be more appropriate than short, sharp sentences. Just an afterword, remember to use all techniques with an even hand. Don’t go lathering on the short sentences. Or. You’ll. Be. Narrating. Like. This.

In short, the length of your sentences should be dependent on the scene you are writing. I’ve identified the two ends of the spectrum: short sentences for fight/action scenes and long sentences for emotional/slow scenes. I’ve also identified certain types of words you should (or should not) focus on, such as action words and introspective words (words relating to inner thoughts and emotions). Now it’s up to you guys to fill in the blanks and add your own flavour to it.

P.S. I debated adding examples to this post to show you but I didn’t feel like it in the end. There’s an example in my 5 Tips to Improve Your Fiction Writing. Otherwise, just read any good book and you should be able to identify what I’m saying.

“If you stare at nothing for long enough, something will appear”

– Lawrence Krauss

 

The idea that something can’t come from nothing has been rendered obsolete by quantum mechanics. Just as Krauss says, if you observe a space of absolutely nothing (a vacuum), particles will appear and disappear frequently from the nothingness (quantum fluctuations). I mentioned more on this in my post about how the universe can create itself out of nothing.

One of the things you’ll often hear when asking people why they are religious is that it is comforting. The idea of life after death, an eternity with your loved ones and belonging to something greater than yourself can be immensely reassuring to many people. By comparison, the scientific view may seem cruel; the universe doesn’t care about your existence and once you die, you simply cease to exist.

It’s been said many times that what’s comforting is completely irrelevant to the pursuit of truth. I completely agree. I posit that anyone who needs such comfort so desperately as to turn a blind eye to the truth is a sad and sorry person indeed. Anybody who uses this reason as a justification for their religious beliefs is, perhaps, so damaged or so afraid of responsibility that it may not be healthy to wean them off religion by encouraging the pursuit of truth.

So I offer an alternative view. I have never questioned the value of my existence because of this simple fact.

Something is only precious because it is rare.

Think about that for a moment. The rarer something is, the more precious it becomes. What’s the rarest thing of all? Life. You will only ever have one life and it is an opportunity for you. If you were born to die, the only thing that defines you is what you do while you are alive.

What theists consider to be comforting – the promise of eternal life – I think is just cheapening the value of life. It is no longer rare because it is no longer fleeting. It is not precious.

If you have an infinite amount of time to do something, there is no urgency to make every moment count. There’s no strong need to love, learn, spend time with your family or even live.

As for belonging to something greater than yourself, what bigger thing is there than the universe? The atoms in your left hand could have come from a different star than the atoms of your right hand, billions of years ago somewhere in the universe. Some people feel insignificant when they think about how vast the universe is, but just imagine – your entire existence was created by things infinitesimally greater than yourself.

So what’s more comforting? That’s up to you to decide. But for me, life has never been more fleeting, and thus precious, more tiny, and thus grand, than when I discovered science and truth.

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