Writing Style, Douglas Adams'

Writing Style, Douglas Adams'
Real
Tips On Writing Like DNA
6R62
1996/06/13
Douglas Adams' Writing Style
Adams, Douglas, The Writing Style Of
Article Writing Guide For Field Researchers And Guide Editors
Art
Contents Of The Project Galactic Guide Archives
Ideabank, Instructions For The
Inspiration, Lack Of
Project Galactic Guide Text Formatting Guide
Real Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, The
Stories, Short
Towns Article Writing Guide For Field Researchers

Author:
Robert Garland

Date:
1996/06/13


There is a fine art to writing like the late great Douglas Adams (late not because he is dead but because he is usually tardy due to his numerous mid-morning naps, quick baths, Bovril sandwiches, mid-afternoon naps, more quick baths, and attempts to avoid deadlines and appointments). Writing like Douglas Adams is not unlike slamming your head several times against a stucco wall. You get people's attention and you have a horrid headache when it is all over.

This article will attempt to assist the above-average, run-of-the-mill, common, every-day hitch-hiker in how to impress his or her peers with delusions of Adamsness, rounded with a swift slam into a stucco wall.

First it is vitally necessary to have actually read some of his works [1]. If you are an aspiring writer for Project Galactic Guide but have yet to actually read any of the following works, then kindly slam your head into a nearby stucco wall, go to your nearest bookstore or library, and look up the following titles, all of which should have "by Douglas Adams" somewhere on the cover:

          Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (HGTTG) [2]
          Restaurant At The End of the Universe (RATEOTU)
          Life, the Universe, and Everything (LTUAE)
          So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (SLATFATF)
          Mostly Harmless (Mostly Harmless)
          Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (That Other Thing)
          Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul (The Sequel To That Other Thing)
          Last Chance To See (The Really Cool Thing That Has Nothing To Do
           With The Rest Of It)
          The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts (The Radio Thing)
          The More Than Complete Hitchhiker's Guide (All The Things Put
           Together)
          [3]

That last one includes "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe" which is a horrid short story, and was obviously written by DNA when he was out of Bovril Sandwiches, but it's still a fun spin around the block of DNA's mind.

What Not To Do:

After you have successfully read whatever you can get your hands on, the next step is to forget everything. It's incredibly tempting (and I still do this on occasion) to regurgitate what DNA did with a few mild alterations tossed in here and there. The best way to honor DNA's style is to do your own thing, and toss occasional regurgitations of DNAness in here and there.

For example:

"The Internet is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely mind-boggingly bit it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the local convenience store, but that's just peanuts to the Internet. Listen..."

The original DNA version uses the word "space" but this variation is actually from one of my early submissions to the Project Galactic Guide. Except for a few other alterations, this is word for word from Chapter Eight of DNA's HGTTG. This is a bad example of how to write "like" DNA. I'm not just writing like him, I am verging on the edge of plagiarism. Even if you give the Brit credit for it, it's still just not creative enough.

Now, let's look at this possibility:

"The Internet is big. It's a monster. Someone should come along and poke a hole in its balloon of an ego because the thing is about to take over Tokyo. No one in their right mind could even hope to fathom the vastness of exactly what the Internet is, or even what it pretends to be, which is almost as big if not as big as the Internet itself, and the two of them together make Dolly Parton's breasts look like jelly beans."

Here, we start with a hint of what fellow DNA enthusiasts may recognize, but we derail the original concept with a new train of thought. But how do we know this new train of thought is "DNAish"? And how do we know it will get to Bolton on time for us to catch the 3:47 to Islington?

Answer. It isn't really, but it has a similar flavour and style comparable to that of DNA. It has a similar rhythm. It butchers the English language in much the same way without sounding grammatically incorrect or intellectually inferior, and most importantly it is funny.

Well. Alright. That may be pushing it a little, but some people may think it is funny, and that's the whole point: to reveal the world through the eyes of a smiling face, using words.

How To Do It:

Here are some "tricks of the trade" that are generally guaranteed to make an article appear to be DNAish when in fact it will not be. It will be "XYZish" with XYZ being your first, middle and last initials, respectively.

1. Throw Aways

Actually trying to define specific examples of DNA's work is very difficult. This example typifies the genre. It is vitally difficult to actually come right out and explain what DNA does with "throw aways" without actually doing something similar. You may find yourself reading a paragraph of DNA's stories, waiting on pins and needles for the outcome of the plot, and DNA will toss something into the mix which suddenly makes you realize you are sitting on a pin cushion.

Throw aways usually show up at the end of a paragraph, though not always. Sometimes they just sort of pop in like flotsam and jetsam on a paper plate. The text goes along explaining how "our heroes" are suffering through this and that and suddenly out of the blue DNA will inform us that one of the characters bruised an elbow for no apparent reason whatsoever. These sort of "jokes" are not jokes at all, and the humour itself is often lost if the line that creates the humour is taken out of context. DNA phrases like "I wonder if it will be friends with me?" or "..small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were REAL small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri," or "ask a glass of water" are not generally funny in and of themselves, but in context, they are the throw aways which DNA put at the end of some funny bits.

To create a Throw Away, you have to understand the rhythm of DNA's work. Which brings us to the next "trick of the trade."

2. Rhythm

Whoever said that Brits have no rhythm obviously never met Douglas Adams. Granted he may not be able to dance the foxtrot, but when it comes to writing humorous prose, he dances circles around everyone else. He is a gentleman comic writer's gentleman comic writer. He is the cream of the crop. To put it bluntly, he is the cat's pajamas, which really surprised the cat.

The previous paragraph has DNA rhythm. The next paragraph tells you why.

The first sentences set up the gag by placing the important points to know in order to make the rest of the paragraph work. The first sentence explains that the author wants your mind to be focused on the concept of Douglas Adams having or not having some semblance of rhythm. The author will definitely not want to keep you on this topic, but the first sentence sets up a foundation, complete with a rug that the author will hope to rip out from under you by paragraph's end [4].

The second sentence and others leading up to the final sentence continue to talk in the vein of the first, further adding detail and if this were a story line, explaining events and character reactions and what not. Somewhere in the context of the paragraph will be a reference that appears to just be there to further explain the first sentence, but is in actuality the "rug" which is used in the last sentence to be ripped out from under the reader.

So there are three things to look for when studying the rhythm of DNA's style. The setup, the "rug" or "banana peel", and the punch line. All jokes work under this formula, but DNA has taken the art of joke telling and the art of story telling to a penultimate extreme. He has artfully blended the two into one in such a way as to place five jokes where the average person can only do one. Sometimes he can accomplish the traditional joke telling rhythm in one paragraph. Sometimes he can do it in one sentence. He blends it so well into the prose you don't even realize it's happening.

Well now you will after reading this. In fact, you may either find a whole new way to appreciate DNA after reading this, or reading this may have completely destroyed any chance for you to properly appreciate DNA ever again. It's kinda like dissecting a frog. You never see a frog in the same way again after knowing it has a liver.

This is not something DNA invented. It is age old joke telling and story telling. However, it is something that DNA has perfected, and is uncanny at accomplishing successfully. You and I can only hope to learn from his style and from it eventually create our own style, but for the purposes of purposefully writing like DNA, it is necessary to note we can only write like him. We'll never be successful at being as good or just like him. The man is after all a master at the craft.

3. Repetition/Running Bits

DNA has a tendency of tossing in an out-of-the-ordinary statement and then repeating it throughout the following paragraphs or throughout the book. While this is not a completely original DNA gimmick, he uses it to great effect.

An example includes how he went through a long, dramatic bit about the whale falling in deep space to certain death and then later referring to Arthur encountering whale meat on the surface of Magrathea.

The use of hitchhiker entries is another motif which he used throughout the Hitchhiker series, which occasionally started with the familiar "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about..."

But more specifically, lines like Marvin's "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed" and their variations are particularly funny the farther into the series you get, to the point where you look forward to the next "Marvin chapter" because you're pretty sure it's going to have some funny bits in it. By creating humorous repetitive statements, you make the casual reader want to read farther, to see if he or she catches the next one. Invariably, you never catch the next one, it always sneaks up on you, and that goes back to rhythm.

When you use repeat motifs, it is dangerous to do it too much. Three is a nice round number. That's safe. Douglas Adams often does it more than three times, but after the third or fourth time he sometimes tends to start stretching it out a bit.

By stretching it out, you don't see it coming anymore. If a statement is repeated several times in two pages, you're expecting it to come up again, but if the statement is only mentioned once or twice, and then doesn't come back until three pages later, the third time will sneak up on you. You won't see it coming. Look at the last half of Chapter fifteen in RATEOTU for a prime example of repetition in words.

This can also be done with characters, settings, or pretty much anything that is a noun. Notice that in the first book, Marvin is introduced rather late into the story, is used in a latently predominant way in the second book, and appears only rarely throughout the rest of the series. That is because Marvin is a relatively repeatable character. Not much depth. Just a bunch of depressing side notes. Had DNA focused on Marvin through the majority of the series like he did with Arthur Dent, the book may not have been as successful, because Marvin tends to grate on one's nerves after a while, in large doses.

The phrase "a nice hot cup of tea" is perhaps the most profound example of repetitive phrases. You will find it throughout the series. Notice that repetitive phrases are rarely used in the same way, but that it is different variables which create the need for the repetitive phrase to appear.

Since it is plagiarism to use DNA's repetitive phrases, you will have to create your own. You may consider having one repetitive phrase incorporated into your essay about three times (I would not suggest more than that, as it will get grating) and even consider using the same repetitive phrase throughout the course of all your works, if it fits. Don't force it. Repetition is not something that has to be in a DNAish article to be DNAish. It's like tabasco sauce. It should be used sparingly, unless you like not feeling your tongue.

4. Matter Of Fact Description Of Facts

Regardless of how terrible or horrendous or mind-boggingly life-threatening the situation is, the narration of DNA's works retains a sense of pure objectivity and blatant half-hearted interest regarding the entire ordeal. A good example is from the end of Chapter 17, in HGTTG:

"The next thing that happened was a mind-mangling explosion of noise and light."

Rather matter of fact. Other authors would try to use colorful metaphors[5] and fancy adjectives, but not our Douglas! He just tells us what happened and then moves on to the next chapter. Very dry and droll, and quite effective. So if you find yourself describing explosions in any particular detail of color or sound, just minimize your efforts and you'll sound more like DNA [6].

5. Content

Something is not DNA unless there is something strange about the content. DNA doesn't just write boy meets girl stories. DNA writes boy meets intergalactic bug bladder beast that insists on eating his favorite girl stories [7].

The article starts about a specific subject, and should end talking about that specific subject, but don't for a moment think that you have to concentrate on that same subject throughout. DNA is notorious about introducing something into the content of a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of it, and still manage to stay on track with whatever the plot may or may not be.

That's another thing. Don't worry too much about plot. You're writing an article for the guide. You're not writing the sixth book in the trilogy. PGG articles rarely have plots. By the way, DNA's plots are never linear. Point A doesn't necessarily have to go to point B. Especially if you have a time machine and know how to sneeze backwards.

In RATEOTU, DNA introduces the mattress creatures of Squornshellous Zeta. They are actually there as a sort of backdrop to the scene, and to give Marvin a "foil" or a fancy writing term for "someone to talk to." They are not of any major importance to anything that is going on, and they are never really mentioned again except in passing in the later books. There's no reason for them to be there, but DNA put them there anyway to upset the content.

If in doubt, upset the content. Throw something in there for no reason and see if the editors slap you for it [8].

Editor's Footnotes [9]:
[1] Reading someone's work and then writing like it instantly requires you
    to be an amateur.  The number of times I have heard professional authors
    say that they _don't_ read modern fiction is frightening.  Some of them
    have even had solicitors' letters in the post.
[2] Also known as "HHGTTG" which is strange because "Hitchhikers" is one
    word.
[3] For some reason the author of this article missed out "The Meaning of
    Liff" by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd [10].  This is an invaluable book
    to have with you when searching for third level Masonic knowledge.  It
    also has several maps of Britain.  Take for instance the most true entry
    I have yet come across:
          "Glasgow (n) The feeling of infinite sadness engendered
          when walking through a place filled with people fifteen
          years younger than yourself."
[4] It can sometimes be said that too much deconstruction spoils the humour.
[5] Well actually I call that a metaphor too, so I disagree with you there.
[6] On the other hand the biggest problem with PGG writers is that they use
    too many words.
[7] One of the shortest science fiction stories on record goes like this.
    Boy meets girl.  Boy loses girl.  Boy builds girl.
[8] Don't tempt me.
[9] Sorry about all these footnotes.  I hope they didn't spoil your
    enjoyment of this article. --  Editor Number 6.
Librarian's Footnote:
[10] For some reason the editor of this article missed out "The Deeper
     Meaning of Liff" by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, which is basically
     the same as "The Meaning of Liff" except it has more entries. -- Editor
     Number 8.

See also

Subtitle: 
Tips On Writing Like DNA
Factuality: 
Real
PGG Author: 
Robert Garland
PGG Number: 
6R62
PGG Index: 
Adams, Douglas, The Writing Style Of
PGG Date: 
1996/06/13
PGG Xref: 
/articles/2R83.html
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