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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Counter-intuitive advice on the 1st 13... or openings in general

   
Author Topic: Counter-intuitive advice on the 1st 13... or openings in general
Teraen
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I just surfed across this blog posting:
http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2010/03/11/TheBiggestBadAdviceAboutStoryOpenings.aspx

It states that starting a scene with action is, contrary to advice you may have heard, NOT a good way to start a story. Given the emphasis we place on the first 13 here at Hatrack, I thought y'all might like to see what it says...


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BenM
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Hehe, I didn't get that at all. I read her big, blue bolded statement:
quote:
The action ought to have context—and be as grounded as possible in a character that we're already starting to love.

and interpret simply that she's simply observing that many "action-only" openings lack that context. I could go on, but why bother?

But speaking of context, I thought the blog's title - There Are No Rules - seemed both a little ironic and, for the more literal, probably like waving a red flag to a bull.


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rich
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Ugh. (Not at you, Teraen.) Based on the three novels the writer cited on that blog, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that I don't think she's not very action-oriented anyway.

And that opening she posted grabbed her??

It goes to show that there are no rules. Write what you want to write, how you want to write it. Seriously. If you write a scene that starts with action, and 100 editors say they hated it and couldn't get past the first 13, then maybe action isn't where you need to be. But if that 101st says he's sold, then the opinion of the first 100 doesn't matter.

The ONLY three rules you have to remember are these:
1) FINISH IT
2) START ANOTHER
3) FINISH THAT ONE

Repeat.

You want to start with someone waking up? Do it. You want to start with action? Do it? You want to start with "it was a dark and stormy night"? Do it.


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MAP
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Thanks for the link Teraen. I think she makes some really good points.

While I agree with Ben that an action beginning can have that context, I think that her points about a weak openings are very valid, and almost a check list to see if your action beginning is weak.

quote:
If your opening scene has weak (or no) characterization, but tons of action, this may create a scene that:

Lacks personality, voice, or viewpoint
Delivers a stereotypical crisis moment that's full of action or pain, but without a center
Offers an action scene for the sake of excitement, but without any real connection to the real plot, conflict, or story arc


I totally agree that these points do make a weak beginnings, but not every action beginning falls into these categories. The one I personally hate the most is action at the beginning with no connection to the actual story. It is only there to have an action beginning.

I also agree with her in what makes a beginning compelling, but that might just be my personal tastes. Characters to me are the most important part of the story. I know not everyone agrees with that.


quote:
The story beginnings that I find most compelling offer the following:

A character I feel I immediately know and understand
A situation that presents a tension, e.g., a character who's not getting what he wants or meets opposition
An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters


I agree that I didn't find the story beginning she quoted very interesting either. I thought the characters introduced and the situation was a little cliche, city girl going hiking in high heals. But that is just a matter of taste.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited March 15, 2010).]


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JSchuler
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Yeah, that opening thirteen she cited lost me at the first sentence. Well, to each their own.

Personally, I don't want a character that I "know and understand" in the first 13. If I understand him in just those scant lines, then I'm more likely to think that he's uninteresting and cliche.

By all means, give me a character in the first thirteen, and give me a reason to be interested in him or his situation that connects to the rest of the story. That's enough.


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skadder
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She cheated. The example she used is first person and we are therefore immediately subemerged into his thoughts/mind. That submersion is action.

(I agree--not a good opening...)

Not starting with action means starting with a static scene or discription only. In this intro we have some 'action', although it's very filtered through the narrator. Since the POV is first person it is perfectly reaonable to have static external scene while having an active internal scene. Afterall, how the narrator acts/reacts, his opinions and views are movements for the reader away from a neutral position they adopted before reading the story.

Besides, I think she is suggesting when she lists what she thinks makes a good intro, she seems to suggest stuff that you could only really manage with some action.

BTW, I think by action, we mean movement, direction, stuff going on. NOT necessarily fighting, etc.

Static openings are, for example, an authorial opinion on whatever subject without any reference to where a charater is in time and space. They can work too...depends how you write.


[This message has been edited by skadder (edited March 15, 2010).]


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billawaboy
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yup. I think I need to accomplish rich's "three laws" of writing before anything else.


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Teraen
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By the way, me posting this in no way is meant to imply I agree with her... I just stumble upon these types of articles every once and a while, and I post it here for those for to whom it may possibly perhaps maybe help.

Then I sit back and watch the discussion. Its fun.


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philocinemas
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quote:
She cheated. The example she used is first person and we are therefore immediately subemerged into his thoughts/mind. That submersion is action.

I looked at her "favorite" openings - they were all first person stories (two of them began with second person - "You/We" narration, one of which was static as I understand it).
The one common thread I saw in all of her favorite stories was a promise of some future romance for the MC. Here is what supposedly mattered to her:
"A character I feel I immediately know and understand" - I am guessing she has fantasies about being swept off of her feet.
"A situation that presents a tension, e.g., a character who's not getting what he wants or meets opposition" - I never saw any of this in any of the openings she presented, except the one who wanted some guy to kiss her but couldn't make up her mind about it.
"An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters" - The only story problem I saw was how long it would be before the romance starts. I saw little conflict, except how long it would be before the romance starts.

There's nothing wrong with someone liking romance stories, but she shouldn't state that character is mainly what matters to her (or she should have given more examples than just romance stories).

Everyone who reads/writes approaches stories with biases. I suppose focusing on character can be a way to overcome these biases, but comments that "character and voice" are what matters most (I'm not saying they don't) sometimes comes across to me as a way of excusing personal bias. I personally care more about style and story more than voice and character, but I think I am in the minority.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Everyone who reads/writes approaches stories with biases. I suppose focusing on character can be a way to overcome these biases, but comments that "character and voice" are what matters most (I'm not saying they don't) sometimes comes across to me as a way of excusing personal bias. I personally care more about style and story more than voice and character, but I think I am in the minority.


Probably, but I somewhat agree. I wouldn't go so far as to say that style, story etc are always more important to me, they are just as likely to be just as important. Same with setting, theme all that sort of thing...I am guessing though that you are perhaps using "style" in the same way I sometimes use "voice" meaning the tone and nature of the prose.

I do have trouble relating to the current character focus trend and I agree that sometimes it feels like people say there isn't enough character focus or immersion as a way to either express something they can't figure out how to express or as you say as basically just a more specific way of saying they don't like it. I also don't feel the need to experience a story directly through a character...sometimes thats how it is, with some stories but I usually experience the story through...the story, as a whole.

I haven't read the article...yet...but I do feel as though a lot of such articles we see are, consciously or unconsciously, people putting forth their own prefered types/styles of stories as "the best" and their own favored story elements as "what matters most."


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Andrew_McGown
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Skadder throws around the word 'cheat' like he/she's a referee.

Unfortunately, I don't think it does justice to the apparent idea he/she is espousing because the word 'cheat' has connotations of 'the rules. It reinforces the false notion in inexpereinced writers that it is 'the rules' that matter most.

The point -- and I think it is also the point to which skadder is also alluding -- is that there are 'rules' and there are 'principles' to good writing and that they are different.

He/she will correct me if I am wrong about that.

Some writers adhere slavishly to the rules which, without understanding the principles behind them, will eventually leave them high and dry when they (inevitably) encounter a situation/idea where no specific 'rule' applies.

Understanding the principles behind the 'rules' allows a writer to navigate even the most unconventional situations, and to safely go to even the most difficult places.

Rules are a secondary system of understanding.

Submerging yourself in 'the rules' i.e.: memorising and parroting without reference to the principle from which those rules originate, (something I am sure we all hate when we encounter it) allows a person to assume knowledge without any real understanding and to keep talking without offering any real light. To create rules based on other rules leads to narrowness and rigidity, principles lead to broader options and greater maneuverability.

Aristotle talks about three ways of establishing a convincing/persuasive narrative, pathos, logos and ethos.

In my opinion, these three methods are easily 'categories' that apply to first 13s.

quote:

Static openings are, for example, an authorial opinion on whatever subject without any reference to where a charater is in time and space. They can work too...depends how you write.

That they can work depending on how they are written is a correct principle. They are logos or perhaps ethos (depending on whether it is an interesting idea or an interesting moral assertion.) However, it is also a principle that is a little bit foreign to current cultural norms which favor pathos.
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[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 15, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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Without having read the article, I think what he was saying mostly was that the lady "cheated" by using examples that support her assertions/opinions by sort of circumventing what she's really talking about (like she says character is super important, and 1st person is almost by default, virtually always a very character-centric way of writing any way you slice it-you basically get character immersion for free.)

quote:
Understanding the principles behind the 'rules' allows a writer to navigate even the most unconventional situations, and to safely go to even the most difficult places.


My personal take is that you figure out where you want to go...what message you want to send and/or what emotional response you want to create and/or what concepts your looking to explore or whatever, and then you select and use whatever tools best help you achieve that(those) goal(s). In short, to me, its not about rules to be followed (or even understood) its about tools to be used.


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Andrew_McGown
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Well, if you read the article, the whole blog in fact, seems to be called... "There are no rules".

I was discussing that idea.

Unfortunately, the article, as rightly pointed out, displays a kind of cultural 'presentism'.

It seems to indicate that:

"It was a dark an stormy night..."

would be more interesting rendered:

"He was a dark and stormy knight..."

heh heh

You guys should take this TEST.

PS: no google or project gutenberg dishonesty lads (or lasses)
and you should also read the scientific analysis of the quiz results...

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 15, 2010).]


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Pyre Dynasty
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Her sample paragraph: Three sentences, first one is 29 words long, next one is 35 words long, next one 21 words long. None of these sentences convey my three questions. Who is this story about? What's going on? Why should we care? (My advice for that paragraph isn't more action, it's smaller sentences.)

If people tell you start with more action, what they are telling you is your opening is boring.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
"He was a dark and stormy knight..."

Another possible trigger for a writing challenge!

I like it.

Thanks, Andrew_McGown.


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andersonmcdonald
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The Dark and Stormy Knight! Wow! You have GOT to write a book with that title! I love it!

[This message has been edited by andersonmcdonald (edited March 15, 2010).]

[This message has been edited by andersonmcdonald (edited March 15, 2010).]


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andersonmcdonald
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A good old-fashioned tongue-in-cheek adventure novel... I'm already getting flashes of the cover art.
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aspirit
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For the test, I chose Dickens for every passage I liked and the other guy for the passages I disliked to get a score of 17%. I'm putting Edward Bulwer-Lytton on my reading list.

I agree with Jane's advice to ground the action. Readers who don't see a reason to care about the outcome aren't hooked and won't want to read more. I'd probably not follow any of her recommendations for "good" books, but that's okay; she's obviously not in my target audience.


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skadder
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quote:
Without having read the article, I think what he was saying mostly was that the lady "cheated" by using examples that support her assertions/opinions by sort of circumventing what she's really talking about (like she says character is super important, and 1st person is almost by default, virtually always a very character-centric way of writing any way you slice it-you basically get character immersion for free.)

Correct, Merlion.

I wasn't being a judge of anything except her stated position and the example she used. I felt that it was a cheat to use 1st person to illuminate her point for the reasons Merlion stated.


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skadder
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@Andrew.

quote:
Skadder throws around the word 'cheat' like he/she's a referee.

This personally directed assessment of me annoyed me.

You clearly missed my point. When giving an opinion you are 'judging' something's merit; I felt she failed to prove her point as she used an example that neatly bypassed the problems her approach may have with 3rd person POV.

Try and limit your argument to the points under discussion--her published view on intros and the argument she uses to support it; my character is not under discussion here.

I'm a 'he', FYI.

[This message has been edited by skadder (edited March 16, 2010).]


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JaneFriedman
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Wow, you guys are a tough crowd.

If I had one principle (not rule) to share on story openings, I'd say simply:
"Be interesting."

... which leaves the door wide open for people to disagree on what constitutes "interesting."


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tchernabyelo
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67% on the Dickens vs Bulwer-Lytton test. And it's a deliberately difficult (arguably unfair) test because it wasn't necessarily the individual wordsmithing that made Bulwer-Lytton "the worst writer ever" (he's not; not be a long shot), but the fact that (as I've just explained on another thread) you can have lots of perfectly good individul sentences, even paragraphs, and yet fail to have a coherent story at the end of it. Dickens is hailed s a great story-teller not necessarily for his prose style, but for his characters, settings, etc. - and above all because his stories do what they set out to do.
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Andrew_McGown
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quote:

This personally directed assessment of me annoyed me.

yes, it was personally directed.

quote:

You clearly missed my point. When giving an opinion you are 'judging' something's merit; I felt she failed to prove her point as she used an example that neatly bypassed the problems her approach may have with 3rd person POV.


Fair enough, that is why I suggested you might correct me.
Which you did. Thankyou.
However you also missed my point.

If you had said :

quote:

She failed.


that would be one thing,but you said:
quote:

She cheated.

The word 'cheat' infers intent. It implies a lack of integrity.
You judged her intent and her integrity.


If having this pointed out annoys you, that's your choice.
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PS: Sláinte to all our Irish friends on this happy Saint Patrick's Day.
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[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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skadder
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quote:
yes, it was personally directed.

Is she your wife or something? Why are you so personally offended? To say someone cheated (in the UK) when applied to an abstract problem like writing is inoffensive. What it means is she didn't merely fail to prove her point, she used a 'trick' to appear to prove her point. She is likely not even aware of it...doesn't mean I can't say say she cheated.

Besides if you didn't like my use of the word 'cheated', why didn't you ask me to clarify before your casual passive/aggressive comments, instead of giving me both at the same time?

Your behaviour is mystifying--as well as being plain confrontational.

[This message has been edited by skadder (edited March 16, 2010).]


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snapper
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quote:
The word 'cheat' infers intent. It implies a lack of integrity.
You judged her intent and her integrity.

Now that is a stretch.

Cheat also implies 'mislead' which is what I took by her example.

I certainly didn't take my colleagues comments that she did anything dishonest, but she certainly chose a POV that was easier to get the reader into the MC's internal thoughts. Using a 1st person POV is skipping several steps that a 3rd person POV needs to take to immerse a reader into the story. Not necessarily an easier way to write but an easier way to hook a reader in a very short amount of time (trust me, we've done enough opening challenges on here to come to this conclusion).

So, where I don't think skadder, or anyone else that disagreed with Ms Friedman's example of a good opening, thought her sharing of her opinion lack 'integrity', I do agree her choices of what makes a good opening -- 1st POV, info-dump -- (just my opinion mind you) was cheating aspiring writers of how to write a good hook.


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sjsampson
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Without having read the original blog post, I don't find using first person to be a "cheat" or a "trick" in the sense that I perceive the words being used. I don't know how she presented it, but I would consider the use of first person as strategy depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your story.

I'm also not advocating use of first person. I find writing to be a lot like Perl. TIMTOWTDI (There is more than one way to do it.)


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skadder
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Are you reacting like this because you still smarting from my comment where I accused you of 'cheating'. I said you serially posted intros that were far short of 13 lines? I pointed out that posting short intros that short was like only presenting your best side for a photograph.

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum26/HTML/000722.html

If you are still annoyed about my comments, then I am sorry...

[This message has been edited by skadder (edited March 16, 2010).]


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snapper
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There is nothing wrong with writing in a 1st person POV. But to show, in such a short amount of space, that it hooks the reader better, especially when the issue is 'action isn't the best way to hook a reader', it cheapens the argument.

Writing in a 1st POV is legitment. No arguments there. I believe Ms Freidman would have boosted her contention if she didn't rely on one particular style of writing to back her point of view.


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sjsampson
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Good point, snapper. I've read the post now and I have to agree it would have been nice to see more variety.
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Andrew_McGown
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quote:

Are you reacting like this because you still smarting from my comment where I accused you of 'cheating'.

no, in a nutshell.

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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Andrew_McGown
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PS: your apology, however, is accepted... just don't do it again.

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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Teraen
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Calm down everyone. Its easy to fan the flames, but usually results in more heat than light.

(looks around for bucket of cold water)


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Pyre Dynasty
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I just want to add that I do have a story that begins: "It was a dark and stormy knight. You would be dark and stormy too if your parents named you It." It's title is "Loving It," wow now I want to go back and rewrite it and shop it around.
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Andrew_McGown
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oh boy... we'll keep our eye out for that in F&F.
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Brendan
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(Just a 'no heat intended' observation from a now edited post) I think meaning 3 of your dictionary meanings did cover it Andrew. The implied object was the audience. "She cheated (her audience)" because she evaded a key element of her argument by using the example she used.
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snapper
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quote:
Calm down everyone. Its easy to fan the flames, but usually results in more heat than light.
(looks around for bucket of cold water)

Okay, just watch what you do with...Hey! Hey! Watch where you're...

Damn. Why am I the one that always gets wet in these flame wars?


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Andrew_McGown
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I edited the post because it would only inflame the situation.

quote:

"She cheated (her audience) because she evaded a key element of her argument by using the example she used.

To say she 'cheated' implies she 'intended' to deprive the audience of the expected outcome. That she behaved in bad faith.

Like I said, she certainly failed.
But 'intent' is the key principle to the idea of 'cheat'.

It is a no-brainer.

I don't even know why we are arguing except that someone has tried to cover their insupportable assertion that to call someone a cheat is inoffensive.
.
.
.
.
Is there no one who can see my point?

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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Brendan
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In all the meanings except the third I would agree that cheating implied intent. But the third meaning, "to elude; deprive of something expected" doesn't necessarily imply intent. This meaning is driven by the expectations of the cheatee, not the intent of the cheater. Unfortunately, the example used in the dictionary for that meaning did imply intent, even though the meaning itself didn't.
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Andrew_McGown
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Well then write a better example without implying intent and see how if you can do it.

( I bet you can't )

heh heh

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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JSchuler
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Generally, when attempting to prove a hypothesis, people seek out hard cases. The more things working against the hypothesis in a situation, the more impressive it is when the hypothesis accurately predicts the outcome. However, as skadder points out, she does "cheat," using a bunch of soft cases to prove her point. Because the deck is stacked to deliver a good hand (cheating metaphor!), the end result just isn't that convincing.

Now, intent isn't really important in the context of cheating. If I sit down and play a game of cards with you, but am ignorant of the rules, it's still cheating when I don't follow them. I've been in plenty of situations where people have been accused of cheating in their research design, in those words, and it's not taken as an attack on their credibility, but on their methodology. Hopefully the accusation, if warranted, comes early enough so that they can address it and not waste a year on something that is fatally flawed.


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Andrew_McGown
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nope, don't buy it.

Calling flawed methodology 'cheating' is a misnomer regardless of how many people do it. If the perpetrator knew the methodology was flawed and was designed to deliver a certain result, and did not fix it... that IS cheating.

Otherwise it is just bad science.

Note: design = intent

[This message has been edited by Andrew_McGown (edited March 16, 2010).]


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Brendan
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quote:
Well then write a better example without implying intent and see how if you can do it.

( I bet you can't )


Ok

Her inept acting cheated the audience of the meaning of the film.

The weather cheated the crowd of a good end to the cricket match.


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Andrew_McGown
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Fair enough.
Heh heh.

She cheated. By being inept.
The weather cheated. By raining.

c'mon brendan.

It is the wrong definition for what skadder was alluding to.


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Brendan
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Actually, I do think it is the meaning that skadder was alluding to. "She cheated. By being inept..." at analysing her own example for the activity implied by a POV.

To me, that was a quite insightful (not inciteful ) thought.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I've seen a smilie that shows the little round head banging against a brick wall.

Wish it were available here.

will have to do, I guess.


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