English Majors/Literary people: A question

Agentbolt

Diamond Member
Jul 9, 2004
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I've noticed that in a lot (not all, but a lot) of contemporary movies and books, when characters are discussing money, the exact dollar amount is often kept secret. They'll write the number down on a piece of paper but never show was wrote, or whisper the dollar amount in someone's ear, or something like that. I guess you're just supposed to assume what the number was.

At first I thought it was a way to keep a movie from sounding dated, like the Austin Powers joke where Doctor Evil thinks a million dollars is an obscene, unobtainable amount of money. But there's plenty of period movies and books where it's SUPPOSED to sound dated, and the phenomenon still occurs.

Is this just some weird literary thing, like back in the 18th century when specific names and places were often censored for some reason, so "Mr Smith of 14 Smith Lane" became Mr. S---- of 14 -----? Is it some weird societal thing where we still consider discussing money vulgar and course?

Of course, I'm aware there's plenty of exceptions and people mention specific dollar amounts plenty of times. I'm just saying a lot of times they don't, too, and I'm curious why.
 

DaveSimmons

Elite Member
Aug 12, 2001
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Keeping the amount secret from the audience lets each viewer pick their own "really big" number.

For example, a high school student might be impressed by $10,000 but someone making $90,000 a year would not be.

It's the same idea as whispering some past vile act or soon-to-be-applied torture method in the ear of someone. Not letting you hear lets you fill in the blank with something appropriate for you.
 

zinfamous

No Lifer
Jul 12, 2006
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funny. I never even considered it. my first response would be that such specifics are irrelevant to the plot, so the details are left out. you could be right, though, that there is a clubby attachment to tradition and maintaining a common literary language.

I would also argue that when a piece is translated into a foreign language, foreign currency values are lost in translation, and again not relevant to the work as read by a foreign audience. seems like it would be a no-brainer in translation to just drop these kind of details.
 

hellokeith

Golden Member
Nov 12, 2004
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It's a good idea in literature to try avoiding things that very obviously date a story, unless the story is period piece.

For example, you could talk in depth about a car, it's color, how fast it was driven, the top down hair blowing etc, without ever making mention to the make/model/year.
 

Agentbolt

Diamond Member
Jul 9, 2004
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Originally posted by: hellokeith
It's a good idea in literature to try avoiding things that very obviously date a story, unless the story is period piece.

For example, you could talk in depth about a car, it's color, how fast it was driven, the top down hair blowing etc, without ever making mention to the make/model/year.

I agree, but as I mentioned, that logic falls apart in period pieces. Like take Muppet Christmas Carol, for example. Scrooge whispers how much his donation is to Bunsen and they specifically avoid letting you know how much he promised.

I like Dave's answer the best, it makes a lot of sense. When I saw that movie when I was 12, if he'd said "a thousand pounds", I'd have been pretty darn impressed. But now, at 26, probably not so much, but I'm free to assume he said "100,000" pounds.
 

FoBoT

No Lifer
Apr 30, 2001
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fobot.com
Originally posted by: hellokeith
It's a good idea in literature to try avoiding things that very obviously date a story, unless the story is period piece.

that is what i would think, it helps peg your movie/book to a certain time period, which if not needed, probably isn't good
 
Feb 6, 2007
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Originally posted by: Agentbolt
Originally posted by: hellokeith
It's a good idea in literature to try avoiding things that very obviously date a story, unless the story is period piece.

For example, you could talk in depth about a car, it's color, how fast it was driven, the top down hair blowing etc, without ever making mention to the make/model/year.

I agree, but as I mentioned, that logic falls apart in period pieces. Like take Muppet Christmas Carol, for example. Scrooge whispers how much his donation is to Bunsen and they specifically avoid letting you know how much he promised.

I like Dave's answer the best, it makes a lot of sense. When I saw that movie when I was 12, if he'd said "a thousand pounds", I'd have been pretty darn impressed. But now, at 26, probably not so much, but I'm free to assume he said "100,000" pounds.

Considering A Christmas Carol (even the Muppets version) is set in the mid-19th century, 100,000 pounds is probably a bit excessive. A quick search shows that 100,000 pounds in 1843 (the year the story was first published) would be equivalent to anywhere between 7.7 million and 261 million pounds in 2008 currency. Scrooge may have had a change of heart, but there's no way he had 15+ million dollars to donate to charity.

Here is the site I used to compare. It gives a myriad of different figures, depending on what method you use to determine the value of money. It's kinda cool, in a weird way.

As far as the OP's question, it seems that a touch of mystery involving points of that matter (whether it's how much money someone is offered or some unspeakable horror that someone had in their past), leaves room for the audience to make their own assumptions about just what could fill in that blank. Good authors may rely on their imaginations to craft a story, but a really good story prompts the audience to use their own imagination as well. Yes, we know how everything plays out, but the less explicit detail we are given, the more freedom we have to manipulate the story in our minds, so that even if two people read the same work, they come away with a different interpretation of what they read.
 

oogabooga

Diamond Member
Jan 14, 2003
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I'm guessing the time spent considering and inputting an exact figure would probably not be worth the effort. Dave probably hit the nail on the head with his answer though.
 

SarcasticDwarf

Diamond Member
Jun 8, 2001
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A lot depends on the type of book/movie. In cases where it is outside the current time period it is ridiculous to give monetary amounts as inflation will change perspective a lot. The last thing you want to do is pull the reader out of the book and make them think about some oddity of the writing.
 

Turin39789

Lifer
Nov 21, 2000
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Originally posted by: DaveSimmons
Keeping the amount secret from the audience lets each viewer pick their own "really big" number.

For example, a high school student might be impressed by $10,000 but someone making $90,000 a year would not be.

It's the same idea as whispering some past vile act or soon-to-be-applied torture method in the ear of someone. Not letting you hear lets you fill in the blank with something appropriate for you.

Dave is correct, leaves it up to the imagination. Each mind fills in the blank just fine.
 

Mo0o

Lifer
Jul 31, 2001
24,227
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Usually it's to add mystery or a sense of foreboding when something is not explicitly said. Ive always wondered about the censorship of names and streetnames since that seems a little silly but i dunno.
 

gorcorps

aka Brandon
Jul 18, 2004
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I like Dave's answer... and because it's up to your imagination the movie can keep its effect later when inflation has had an effect. If the amount was disclosed, then you wouldn't be as impressed if you watched the movie 20 years down the road when that amount isn't as impressive as now.
 

n yusef

Platinum Member
Feb 20, 2005
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The omission of monetary amounts in fiction is in my opinion a poor but almost universal convention.

I disagree with the inflation argument. Almost all stories will have some context, and that context will make the piece seem dated. Whether context is the amount of currency used to buy a beer, or a character receiving a telegram, the context will exist, and the reader needs to understand where and when the story takes place to make sense of it.

It is considered poor etiquette to discuss money, and because of this writers (and editors) often do not. What other detail is nearly always omitted?
 

LordMorpheus

Diamond Member
Aug 14, 2002
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probably helps keep the movie from sounding really outdated when inflation catches up.

Like in Austin Powers Dr. Evil gets frozen, when he wakes up he holds the world hostage for a million dollars and the governments just laugh at him.
 

ppdes

Senior member
May 16, 2004
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The exact cost of my house, paying the
usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work,
all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the
details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses
cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various
materials which compose them:--

Boards .......................... $ 8.03+, mostly shanty boards.
Refuse shingles for roof sides ... 4.00
Laths ............................ 1.25
Two second-hand windows
with glass .................... 2.43
One thousand old brick ........... 4.00
Two casks of lime ................ 2.40 That was high.
Hair ............................. 0.31 More than I needed.
Mantle-tree iron ................. 0.15
Nails ............................ 3.90
Hinges and screws ................ 0.14
Latch ............................ 0.10
Chalk ............................ 0.01
Transportation ................... 1.40 I carried a good part
------- on my back.
In all ...................... $28.12+
 

Farang

Lifer
Jul 7, 2003
10,914
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The inflation idea is part of it, but also it is more important for an author to refer to value in perceived terms rather than exact currency amounts. If we take an example of a book that doesn't follow this convention, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we see Verne's mistake of using monetary values alone at some points. He refers to these values in francs, if I remember correctly, without suggesting whether that value is considered a small amount, a decent amount, or a ridiculously high amount. As a reader I cannot immediately convert francs from the 19th century to today's dollars, and on top of that the character's perception of that amount varies depending on his/her social class (as someone else mentioned, a couple thousand dollars mean a lot more to a college student than to a CEO).

If you haven't read the novel, Verne would refer to the cost of various items aboard the Nautilus, the ship he was traveling on, using price in francs alone. Completely useless for the modern reader.
 

RedCOMET

Platinum Member
Jul 8, 2002
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Originally posted by: purbeast0
kind of like the briefcase in ronin :)

yeah i guess, or it could have been used asa a mcnaughton (sp) device... ie just as something to drive the plot. which is what wiki explains, IIRC.


i liked to think it makes the movie PC.. not disucssing money. and jazz.