Adam Smith: The Torpor of the Mind

The radio the other morning had an interview with the linguist who invents languages for Game of Thrones and other Hollywood/ big production series and films. It’s worth taking a deep breath at this – here is a guy whose job it is to make up languages. He gets plenty of work, as well. The idea is that his fake language somehow adds realism or authenticity to the film, and the faker it is, the more authentic it sounds (go figure, but anyhow). So whenever Hollywood want aliens or fantasy creatures to talk incomprehensibly but plausibly, they call this guy, and he’ll construct a complete language, with fake phonology, accent, grammar, basic vocabulary, and some oddball linguistic feature like a special mode of address for former lovers that you’re just about to kill that he’ll throw in for fun. He’ll hand all that over to the writers, and – this is the kicker – they will only use a tiny fraction of what he’s done. With all that complex and plausible detail to choose from, they’ll go with maybe half-a-dozen sentences. Of course, the rest is shipped off to the midwestern universities for fans to get degrees in, so it isn’t completely wasted; still, the whole process seems a little… extravagant, let us say.

And this is how big budget movies and TV are done these days. Extravagance. Once you know to look for it, you see examples everywhere. The bits of the made-up language that appears on screen are a tiny part of the 200-hundred page textbook that gets taught in your midwestern phd. The half-dozen moves of 3D chess actually shown are real plays in a complex and satisfying game the designers spent weeks making the rules for – and which of course you can buy. The computer code shown on the hacker’s screen is real programming, and it does what the hacker says, it really is part of some self-replicating malware the producers found on the darkweb. And the writers on any long running TV series or soap will have a constantly updated in-house sourcebook, an encyclopaedia of backstory, key quotes, plot synopses, reveals, character development, and everything that’s happened or is planned. (For some TV – shows like Dr Who – the writers can ignore the canon, but “there’ll be emails”, as they say at the BBC when the fans get angry).

I’m not a fan of this extravagance style myself: to me, it’s as if everything you watch or read was written by Tolkien, with his hundreds of pages of made-up dates and scripts and genealogies, little of which has any bearing on the story. But I have to say, it is certainly an effective way of making committed fans. If that’s what you want, knock yourself out.

Now, there’s a different approach to writing that we might call the parsimonious school. This says that you restrict your writing to exactly what’s on screen, stage or page. The writer’s job is to create the things the reader or viewer experiences, nothing more. If the audience need to know something, make it up and tell them; if they don’t, they probably won’t even notice that they don’t know – or if they idly wonder about something, they themselves will make it up and have forgotten they did by the end. This is very much the style and approach of David Mamet, and I’ve written a post about that below (link in the “resources”). I myself tend to think proper writing comes from this school, but I admit there are advantages and dis- to both approaches. Here’s a grotesquely over-simplified summary:

Extravagance Parsimony
Size Big budget Any size budget
Number of writers Writing teams Suitable for solo writers and teams
Style Every detail covered, even if it isn’t used The details don’t matter – the experience is what’s important.
Monetisation Suitable for merchandising You will die respected but poor
Number of fans These days, can be very popular More likely to be niche or cult or critically acclaimed.
Type of fans Suitable for dedicated/ obsessive fans Suitable for appreciative fans
Acting analogy Method – Brando, (Dustin) Hoffman Classical/ just turn-up-and-say-your-lines – Bogart, Olivier
Manufacturing analogy Mass production, Fordism, division of labour Artisanal, non-Fordian Craftmanship

I’d just like to expand on the last row of the table. Manufacturers – and indeed humans – have always divided tasks for efficiency, but it was Adam Smith in the C18th who first formalised the process. He imagined a pin factory, where each part of the pin and each process is sub-divided until each worker does the same simple task over and over again. In the end he had 18 sub-processes. Now, Smith was no fool, and – despite his modern reputation – no thoughtless free-market ideologue, and while he approved of the process we now call Fordism, he was aware of its dangers. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he writes:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life…

I think that’s any contemporary superhero movie just there.


The story of 3D chess in Star Trek might be apocryphal. I’m sure there are readers out there who care enough to check. That you can get degrees in Klingon and other made-up languages is perfectly true – just Google. By the way, here’s an interesting note for conspiracy theorists: my spell checker just suggested I replace “Klingons” with “Clintons”. What can it mean?

The “extravagance” school isn’t just Tolkien’s grandchild: Anthony Burgess is also known for inventing languages on the fly.

I call the part the audience are focussing on the figure, and all the background unused detail the ground (the terminology is from Gestalt Theory, but feel free to use your own terms).


There’s an extraordinary account of the writer’s room from Breaking Bad at In my opinion, that’s the right way to work as a team.

Here’s my earlier post on Mamet. For more on Mamet’s approach to acting, see WikiP on

The New Yorker on method acting: Not to get into the argument about classical-vs-method actors, but the list at is pretty impressive. There’s a summary of Mamet’s own advice to actors is at But perhaps the last word is George Burns’s: in acting “sincerity is everything. Fake that, and you’ve got it made.”

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