Pet peeves on parade, part XVII: once more — and this time with feeling!

All finished with your income taxes, campers? Since the 15th was a holiday in Washington D.C., giving us a whole extra weekend to gnaw on our erasers and scratch our heads, I figured that the end of last week was a good time to take a short break from blogging. Call me zany, but I suspect that a fairly hefty percentage of the Author! Author! community is more word-oriented than number-obsessed.

Hey, my high school calculus teacher didn’t call me Liberal Arts Annie for nothing. He had worked his way through college playing poker (or so he claimed); I edited other students’ term papers. It takes all types to make a world.

Which renders it surprising, does it not, that wildly different sorts of people say such similar things in real-life dialogue? Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to verbal repetition than usual at the moment– you wouldn’t believe how often someone recovering from car crash injuries is asked the same questions. Not only by different practitioners, but by the same practitioner at each visit.

I realize that these well-meaning, healing-mongering individuals have forms to fill out and file, but since presumably one is not not their only patient on any given day, or even in the course of any given hour, I can’t imagine that they, too, are not bored to death by the sheer repetition. Quoth the parrots:

“So how are you feeling today? Better? Worse? The same? How is that {fill in body part here} doing? How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you have ever experienced?

Naturally, as a fully-vested member of the storytellers’ guild, one would try to vary one’s answers each time, to spice up the collective dialogue. What they want, of course, is not for the patient to respond in a manner that might conceivably be interesting to another human being (or to me) to hear or read, but in an extremely limited vocabulary and in the brevity permitted on their forms. They want our dialogue, in short, to resemble their dialogues with every other patient so closely that the only thing that differentiates us is the answer to those questions.

No personalities, please: just the facts, ma’am. Preferably delivered in so clipped and uncommunicative a manner that a Bertolt Brecht drama would seem positively chatty by contrast:

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly.

“Okay,” Patient No. 8276494/14A replied.

“Better?”

“No.”

“Worse?”

“No.”

“The same?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A sighed. Had s/he not already implicitly answered this question? “Yes.”

“How is that…” Dr. Synonym glanced down at the chart. “Knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

Patient No. 8276494/14A pictured being ripped to pieces by dingoes. “Five.”

On the manuscript page, this exchange would be pretty dull, even the first time around — in fact, unless the point were to show how dull and repetitious this round of questions was, most professional readers would probably advise the author to cut it. And we should all hope that this was the point of the submission from which our example was borrowed, because it appeared more than once throughout the course of a narrative, it would be stultifying.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I dare you: read it again.

The problem here isn’t merely that this is generic dialogue, a question-and-answer session so generic that neither question nor answer reveal much about either of the speakers. Or, indeed, about the situation both parties are ostensibly concerned with discussing.

So I ask you, manuscript revisers: is this dialogue, although unquestionably lifted from real life, worth preserving on the page for posterity? If not, how would you go about rendering more character- and/or plot-revealing?

The most obvious fix would be to have Dr. Synonym ask less generic questions — or at least ones that a good third of the patients currently scurrying around clinics in those fiendishly-designed little smocks that invariably leave half of one’s body exposed to the elements have answered within the last 20 minutes. Throwing even one curve ball into the mix would render the scene less predictable. Let’s try two.

“So how are you feeling today?” Dr. Synonym asked brightly. “Better?”

“No.”

“Worse?”

“No.”

Was he even listening? “Experiencing any difficulty climbing the giant rock candy mountain to snatch the magic beans from the resident ogre?”

“No.”

The doctor noted on the chart: sprained sense of humor. “Been eaten by crocodiles, lately?”

“No.”

“How is that knee doing?” She decided to make it multiple choice this time. “Better? Worse? The same?”

“About the same.”

“You’re tired.” She snapped her notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Quite a different dynamic, isn’t it? Now, there’s conflict in the scene: the doctor is trying to elicit an individuated response, but the patient insists upon being minimally communicative. By playing with the expected, we end up with more tension on the page.

I’m sensing some of you lovers of slice-of-life literature just itching to jump into the fray. “But Anne,” reality-huggers protest, “I don’t believe a doctor would say that in real life. What I like in dialogue is seeing actual speech mirrored precisely on the page. Yes, it’s occasionally boring, but aren’t most readers prepared to put up with a little dullness if the scene rings true?”

Some readers, yes. Professional readers, seldom. And our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, when she’s in the throes of reading a stack of submissions between now and her long-delayed lunch? Very rarely indeed.

Besides, who is to say that a real-life doctor wouldn’t ask a couple of funny questions in this situation? You really should get out more, slice-of-lifers.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that it’s necessary to the plot or characterization to depict the doctor’s asking precisely the questions the reader will expect him to ask. (Yes, I changed Dr. Synonym’s sex this time around. Had I mentioned that I like variety on the page?) A savvy reviser could embrace the strategy that has not worked so well in my myriad medical appointments: beefing up the answers. Or even allowing a question or two to go unanswered.

Dr. Synonym leaned over her battened-down body, apparently addressing her chin. “So how are you feeling today?”

“Like some idiots have tied me to a hospital bed,” Jenna spat. “How else would a sane person feel?”

His expression did not alter. “Better?”

“Better than what?”

“Worse?”

She closed her eyes wearily. “Untie me, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

“The same, then?”

She could hear his fountain pen scratching. Clearly, that last question had been rhetorical.

“How is that knee doing? Better? Worse? The same?”

Jenna had not seen her legs in three weeks. “You tell me. I don’t have eyes on my toes.”

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being none and ten the worst pain you can imagine?”

“Eighty-seven. Fourteen hundred. Five thousand and twelve.”

“You’re tired.” He snapped his notebook closed with a strained smile. “Let’s see if we can do better tomorrow.”

Much more interesting than all of those nos, isn’t it? This is an old, old professional writer’s trick: avoid having your characters answer yes-or-no questions with either a yes or a no, since they add so little new information to the scene. Or an I don’t know, which typically adds even less.

Why avoid these three in particular? They often shut down a conversation, rather than moving it in an unexpected direction. Besides, yes,no, and I don’t know are usually the least interesting ways to answer a question;. We live in a full and fascinating universe, after all: neither fiction nor reality — complex fiction and reality, anyway — lend themselves to simple, dismissive answers.

Besides, if they come at the beginning of a fuller response to a yes/no question, the actual yes/no response is often not necessary. It’s implied in the rest of the statement.

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“No, I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

Yes, a patient might actually say it this way, but on the page, this means essentially the same thing, doesn’t it?

“Is your leg feeling better today?”

“I feel as though it were about to fall off.”

It’s every bit as realistic, too. But it works better on the page: real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition.

Unfortunately, so does a hefty percentage of the dialogue in manuscript submissions. Rather than improving upon real-life speech by minimizing redundancy, sticking to the topic at hand, avoiding clichés, and varying phrasing — to name but a few of the many, many benefits of only selectively mirroring the way people actually talk — or using it to develop character, many aspiring writers don’t give much thought to how interesting the dialogue on their pages might be for someone else to read.

Seem perverse, in a population characterized by a clawing, desperate desire to have others read their writing? Strange to say, it seems to be true, judging by what turns up on the submission page. It’s as though dialogue were magically exempt from the thou shalt not bore thy reader rule applicable to the narrative portions of the manuscript.

Stop rolling your eyes. Even in manuscripts that have obviously been put together with care and revised meticulously, the dialogue is often repetitious in both phrasing and content. Add to that the simple truth that since it can take a heck of a long time to write a book, a writer does not always remember where — or even if — a character has made a particular point before, and even if he does, he may not be confident that the reader will remember it from 200 pages ago, and Millicent ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already, Francine!” a great deal more than any of us might like.

Yes, do take a moment to admire that last epic sentence. I doubt we’ll see its like again.

What’s the solution for repetitive dialogue on the whole manuscript level? Well, it depends upon the type of repetition a writer tends to favor. If a character’s dialogue is redundant because she likes to spout a catchphrase — please tell me she doesn’t — the fix is downright easy: a quick confab with Word’s FIND function, a few creative substitutions, and voilà! Problem solved.

If the problem is more complex than that, I’m afraid I must be redundant and suggest reading though every line of dialogue in your manuscript IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD. Why not silently and on your computer screen? The eye reads much faster on a backlit screen, rendering any sort of proofreading more difficult, and your ear may catch what your eyes do not.

Conceptual redundancy, however, is substantially more difficult for a self-editor to catch — it both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a manuscript for months or years on end, repeated or largely similar snippets of dialogue, explanations, and even relatively important plot points can seem…well, if not precisely fresh, at least not memorable from earlier in the latest draft.

Unfortunately, this quite predictable byproduct of revision burnout does not always fill professional readers with sympathy for the writer’s dilemma. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Great jumping Jehoshaphat!” Millicent groans over many a submission. “Didn’t this writer bother to read this manuscript before sending it to us? Couldn’t she see that she told us this already!”

Would you believe me if I told you she is not only likely to formulate this complaint if she finds the same line of dialogue or repeated explanations three lines apart or three chapters? Or that it’s not unheard-of for a professional reader to notice reused phrasing or concepts if there are only two iterations hundreds of pages apart?

How is this possible, you ask? It’s an editor’s job to be that preternaturally observant of manuscript details; we’re trained to respond to it as if it were the sound of fingernails scraping across a blackboard. Because editors are so sensitive to repetition, agents learn to keep an eye out for it, too. So when the agent of your dreams was teaching her Millicents what red flags were deal-breakers, guess what was high on the list?

Every time we discuss this issue, I am transported back to the dim reaches of my past. I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B- range.

My tepid-to-begin-with enthusiasm had begun to fade practically as soon as I stepped into a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. All brown eyes and braids, I had already spent several hours holding my mother’s hand while my father took my older brother on D and E ticket rides. And I was not particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story: even at that tender age, the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead struck me as rather mean.

Honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives persistently remain dead?

Alas, the Peter Pan ride was one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. But the longer we stood in line, the more difficult I found it to muster even the appearance of childish joie de vivre.

Why was I feeling so oppressed, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions. By the time it was our turn to step into a flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. Newly alive to the necessity of editing dialogue, I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase repetition at the beginning.

He patted me on the back as he hurried me toward the exit. “I know,” he whispered. “By the end of the day, I want to strangle someone.”

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors. While most of the population comes to accept the conceptual and phrase repetition that is constantly flung at all of us, all the time, in both everyday conversations and on TV, we remain painfully alive to it.

We think it should go-o-o-o.

Wait — some of you tuned out that anecdote, didn’t you? You remembered it from last year’s discussion of conceptual repetition, I’m guessing. Well, I have just one thing to say to those of you who skimmed past it: that’s exactly how Millicent feels when she sees a snippet of conversation from Chapter 3 turn up again in Chapter 17.

Actually, your reaction was almost certainly more charitable than hers, and with good reason. Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“I know we’ve been over this before, Trevor, but I must reiterate: cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a left-handed cellist and the provost of this college, Yvette, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this phenomenon — again, this may seem a tad familiar to some of you, but I’m trying to sensitize you — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Specials that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Peer Pressure Exists, Drugs are Bad, and You Should Have Self-Esteem.

In case, you know, the average kid might not have picked up on any of that from the 1,247 times he had heard adults tell him these things before. Stand up straight.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed to be operating upon the assumption that either young viewers’ memories or our general level of intelligence was inherently suspect. It was rare that these shows ever made any major point only once — or that the fate of the Good Kid Who Made One Mistake was not obvious from roughly minute five of the program.

True to this storytelling tradition, Strangers With Candy’s heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphed upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.” Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

Oh, you may smile, but this species of heavy-handed foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly to someone attuned to catching repetition. You would be astonished by how often characters say things like, “But Ernest, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

Because that’s the kind of thing that’s likely to slip one’s mind. I’ll bet hardly a week goes by without your uttering a sentence like that.

Or so one might conclude from the frequency with which such statements turn up in submissions — even when the first 50 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up to devote her life to excising all of that ambient redundancy.

Hey, someone’s got to make the library safe for readers with retentive memories. Keep up the good work!

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