How Zombies and the Man From Mars Can Teach Defamiliarization
This week, I’ve been going through a fiction binge. I’m on the letter H for Horror and S for Science Fiction. Both books are chasms apart, but each has helped me to remember an important lesson. Whether you’re in the middle of a term paper for English, a book for Random House, or you’re a contributing writer for the Yahoo! Networks, you can set yourself apart by defamiliarizing your work.
First, the zombies
I’ve never been particularly drawn to the zombie genre in film or book, though I admit that I am morbidly fascinated by recent bestsellers like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Zombie Survival Guide, or World War Z. Last week while perusing the shelves at Barnes and Noble, I picked up Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. Exclamations and accolades adorned its back cover as a story worth reading. In spite of the tired subject matter, the first page hooked me:
“I am dead, but it’s not so bad. I’ve learned to live with it…My friend “M” says the irony of being a zombie is that everything is funny, but you can’t smile, because your lips have rotted off.”
This is a popcorn book. It will not increase my social standing nor will it make the world a better place, necessarily. What has kept me reading is that the book has given a different life to zombies. Sure, the main character, “R” keeps a piece of brain stuffed in his pocket, so there’s still a lot of that going on. What’s different is that R the Zombie has been given humanity and identity.
Now the Man From Mars
Robert Heinlein’s story Stranger in a Strange Land always places high among science fiction classics, and it is certainly best known on Heinlein’s resume. I’m listening to it as an audiobook, and the sexist language like referring to women as “little girls” or “sweet things” is awkward and outdated. Still, his female characters always carry spunk.
The story is old, the characters familiar. It is a fish-out-of-water story that pits an alien against the rest of the world; a small band of “water brothers” are sympathetic to the cause and fight to protect the strange creature. Heinlein is known for his ability to tell an old story in a new way. Heinlein’s defamiliarization is how he describes each scene. Here’s an example. The scene is non-sexual, even though the Man From Mars asks Jill, the main character, to take off her clothes.
Instead of a flat refusal, she says, “I won’t peel for you.”
This phrase “I won’t peel for you” jolted me. If only for a second, it reminded me why I enjoy reading Heinlein. It wasn’t just different – it was out of the ordinary, and it has been these kinds of linguistic gems that has kept me listening through his platitudes and diatribes about government and religion.
A short history of defamiliarization
Officially, defamiliarization is a literary technique first coined by Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, ”of forcing the audience to see common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, in order to enhance perception of the familiar.”
How defamiliarizing can help you
Every book, article, essay, newspaper column or even technical document should be sprinkled with snowflakes and marked with fingerprints. Words and phrases breathe, creating not just life – but a soul to the idea you’re trying to communicate.
Whether you describe the chomping sound and dead flesh or the mannerisms from a man from Mars, you must defamiliarize if you’re going to be memorable.
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