Pet peeves on parade, part VI: seriously, dialogue was the only way to convey this information to the reader?March 7th, 2011
I begin today’s foray into the niggling little manuscript problems that drive Millicent the agency screener daily another few steps toward cynicism about artistic production with an anecdote. Back when I was in graduate school, I used to spend my summers working at a local hospital, writing patient education literature. When I wasn’t busy figuring out how to explain an MRI in a fourth-grade vocabulary, I was entrusted with guarding the office’s thermostat from the four menopausal women who kept yanking the controls from Antarctica to the Gobi Desert, as the day’s hot flash schedules dictated. No sooner would one sneak over to crank it down than another would appear to spin the dial upwards again. Not once did more than two of them manage to have the same temperature demands at the same time, so working in this environment comfortably required keeping both a tank top and a ski sweater in my desk, in order to avoid perishing from exposure.
So when Marni the medical coder came charging toward my desk one Friday, I instinctively dove toward the thermostat. She had more than the local weather on her mind, however. “Do you happen to have any rubber bands that will fit around this?” She held up pile of papers seven inches thick. “You know, just lying around.”
Since the supply cabinet stocker favored taunting the office staff with rubber bands apparently designed by orthodontists to tug braces a millimeter in this direction or that, industrial-sized rubber bands were not the kind of thing we happened to have lying around. “No, but I’m sure we could order some.”
Marni sighed and reached for the thermostat. “Never mind.”
I was baking in the tropical humidity the following Friday when she repeated the request, this time brandishing a nine-inch stack of papers. “I don’t think I have ever personally handled a rubber band that would encircle that,” I told her. “But since you seem to need large bands on a regular basis, why don’t you pick up a package at a stationary store, and have the hospital reimburse you?”
“No, no,” Marni said, slinking back into the undergrowth where tigers and cobras lay panting in the heat. “I just thought you might have some.”
By midsummer, I had arranged so many office supply catalogs along the path between Marni’s desk and the thermostat that visitors mistook them for seating. Yet still, every Friday, she would reappear to ask for rubber bands, teeth chattering or wiping the sweat from her brow, as the day’s temperature battle dictated.
“Marni,” I was begging by the end of the summer. “Why do you keep doing this to yourself? If you need the darned things, just get some!”
“Oh, no.” She tossed me a sad, disappointed smile. “I don’t really need them. I just thought you might have some around.”
From a character-development point of view, it’s easy to dismiss this as passive-aggressive behavior, right? Marni wanted the rubber bands, but was not brave enough to ask her boss for them; if she asked me often enough, I might break down and ask the fearsome Madge for her. Or I might have become so frustrated that I would invest some of my own cash in behemoth bands. Unfortunately for either of these plans, I always headed back to school in September.
I’m bringing this up not merely as an a example of how to work tension into an otherwise pretty mundane situation — hey, it allowed me to bring up at least two more temperature changes than I could have gotten away with otherwise — but because many, many aspiring writers employ Marni’s logic, if not her methodology. They want an agent to offer them representation, so they regularly send out queries and, when those queries are successful, submissions.
When those queries or submissions get rejected, these writers, like all writers, are sad and disappointed. But is their response to learn a bit more about the publishing industry, to find out if there is a standard format for submissions (there is), if there is an upper length limit that tends to trigger knee-jerk rejection (there is, but it varies slightly by book category), or if agency screeners are trained (and they are) to reject manuscripts that run afoul of certain common agents’ pet peeves?
Oh, I know that your response would be to invest the time in learning about these matters. But not all aspiring writers are as industry-savvy as you: like Marni, they keep doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting the outcome to be different next time.
I realize that it’s frustrating that agencies now only rarely give concrete reasons for rejecting a manuscript — and virtually never justify rejecting a query. Form letters with generalities are the most common response, if indeed an agent chooses to respond at all. There’s nothing an aspiring writer can do to change that.
He can, however, stop expecting that the rubber bands he wants will magically appear, simply because he wants them so much. He can plan ahead so Millicent will have fewer reasons to reject his next submission than did her counterpart at the last agency to which he submitted. He can change his behavior to increase the probability of the outcome he wants.
On a not entirely unrelated note, in my last post, I brought up how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if someone had planned for her to happen onto precisely the clues she needed to solve the book’s central puzzle.
What a happy coincidence, eh? And just in time to wrap up the mystery by the end of the book. Perhaps if she waits long enough, flying monkey will drop a carton of extra-large rubber bands at her dainty feet, too.
This marvelous atmosphere for coincidence is not only indigenous to the end of a plot, either. Ineffectual interview scenes are often employed to slow down a plot, creating false suspense. If the protagonist is too lazy, too distracted, or just too dimwitted to ferret out the truth early in the book, it’s substantially easier to keep the reader in the dark about salient details of the variety that might, if revealed, cause a reasonably intelligent reader to figure out whodunit by the end of Chapter 2.
A protagonist who is bad at asking questions — and his creative Siamese twin, the antagonist or supporting character who is suspiciously eager to cough up information — are also frequently used as means to speed up a narrative by shoehorning necessary information into the plot. It’s a classic tell, don’t show strategy, good for heaping backstory into the book, but typically, low on conflict, believability, and character development.
How might that annoy Millicent on the page? Observe, please, the lethal combination of a passive interviewer and a too-active interviewee compresses what could have been a relatively lengthy but conflict-filled interrogation scene into a few short exchanges:
“Wait a second,” Millicent mutters upon encountering a scene like this. “Who is interviewing whom here? And what are all of those rubber bands doing in my desk?”
Well might she ask. This kind of inverse interview, as well as plot giveaways every bit this broad, turn up in manuscript submissions and contest entries all the time. These techniques may well be the quickest way to tell a story, but they make it pretty easy to see the wheels turning in the authorial mind. That’s not a complex plot — that’s a straight line.
None of these quite legitimate complaints would necessarily be Millicent’s primary objection to the scene above, however. Any guesses? Hint: it’s one of her perennial pet peeves.
Oh, wait, that doesn’t narrow it down very much, does it?
Give yourself a pat on the back if you instantly cried, “This kind of implausible exchange pulls the reader out of the story!” Even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”
To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in more interesting ones.
Was that wind that just blew my cat from one side of my studio to the other the collective irritated sigh of those of you who have been laboring to revise Frankenstein manuscripts? “Oh, fabulous, Anne,” the bleary-eyed many whimper, wearily reaching for their trusty highlighter pens. “Now I not only have to scrub my manuscript until it gleams at the sentence level, but I also have to make sure all of my interview scenes are both plausible AND contain surprising plot twists? When do you expect me to be ready to submit this baby, 2018?”
Well, yes and no. No, I don’t expect you to spend years polishing your manuscript — unless, of course, it needs it — and yes, I do expect your work to abound in gleaming sentences, believable, conflict-ridden interview scenes, and twists I couldn’t see coming. So, incidentally, does Millicent.
That expectation, incidentally, serves her well in winnowing down any given day’s stack of submissions, because interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. Especially toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creator? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth.
At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am, right under this neon sign — discover me, already! ”
Since almost every book-length plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, it’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow, excitement, and plausibility. In fact, I would recommend making those interview scenes your first stops for tightening (or, less commonly, slackening) the pace of your narrative. Besides presenting a pacing problem, clues that seem too anxious to fling themselves in a protagonist’s way, feigning casualness when they are discovered littering the path, can actually render said protagonist less likable to readers.
Why? I refer you back to our question-averse reporter above. Just as it doesn’t make a character seem like a stellar interviewer if he just strolls into a room at the precise psychological moment that the taciturn miner who’s kept his peace for 57 years abruptly feels the need to unburden himself to the nearest total stranger, it doesn’t make a protagonist seem particularly smart if he happens upon a necessary puzzle piece without working to find it.
And the protagonist is not the only one who runs the risk of coming across as a trifle dim-witted: a mystery or conflict that’s too easy to solve or resolve doesn’t offer the reader much food for conjecture. Readers like to feel smart, after all; piecing the puzzle together along with — or even a little ahead of –the protagonist is half the fun, isn’t it?
It’s considerably less amusing when the protagonist just stumbles onto necessary information, is slow to act, or isn’t on the ball enough to ask the right questions of the right people. While a poor interviewer is almost always an obstruction to the reader finding out crucial information, too-garrulous antagonists and the interview scenes that enable their yen to spout monologue tend to make the stakes seem lower, causing the reader to care less about the outcome.
Why, you gasp in horror? As convenient as a suddenly chatty secret-hider can be to moving the plot along, information discovered too easily runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.
Think about it: if the reader gets to watch the protagonist run down a false lead or two, struggle to remove that rock from in front of the cave to rescue the Brownie troop, a brace of nuns, and three golden retriever puppies gasping for breath within, genuinely have to put two and two together in order to make four, etc., it’s not only usually more exciting than an unresisted search, but your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined than if she just stands around while these things happen around her. She’ll also be more likable, someone a reader might be eager to follow throughout an entire book.
(I heard some of you gasp, but that last bit’s not a foregone conclusion. If the reader, particularly a professional one, does not either like or love to hate a manuscript’s protagonist, he’s unlikely to keep reading for long. Just a fact of the life literary.)
That plot-level logic applies equally to an individual interview scene. If the information the protagonist is seeking just drops into her lap, as it does in the example above, the reader has no reason to become invested in the search: after the first couple of times, tremendous, long-held secrets being blurted out will simply become the normal way the manuscript reveals things.
But what if our scheming reporter above had been forced to try really, really hard to pry Mrs. Quinine’s whereabouts out of Ernest Borgnine? What if he was not only recalcitrant, but had an agenda of his own? What if he told her half-truths that would require still more backstory to render useful? Wouldn’t the information she elicited — even if it consisted of precisely the same set of facts Ernest blurted out spontaneously in the version above — seem more valuable? Or at least more fun for the reader to watch her ferret out?
The answer to both of those last two questions was yes, by the way. As you would have known had you not been playing with those giant rubber bands.
Contrary to popular belief amongst that sizable portion of the aspiring writing community that apparently enjoys killing conflict on the page practically the moment it draws its first breath, readers like to see protagonists struggle to achieve their goals. It’s interesting, as well as character-revealing.
Stop shooting rubber bands in my direction. I was going to call on you. “But Anne,” those of you limp with revision fatigue murmur, taking aim, “complexity is all very nice, but I’m worried about my manuscript’s getting too long, or the pace starting to drag, if I start inventing a digressions in my hero’s pursuit of the MacGuffin he’s desperately seeking throughout my story.”
While it is quite reasonable to draw a line on the length of a manuscript you’re planning to submit to an agent, whether a particular scene seems overly lengthy to a reader is largely a matter of presentation, not actual number of lines on a page. There are plenty of short books, and even short scenes, that, to borrow a phrase from industry parlance, read long.
The trick lies in selectivity. Try ridding your interview scenes of plot shortcuts or too-easy revelations. Some suggestions:
(a) Any line in which anyone’s pointing out something obvious (“Hey, aren’t you the guy who’s been walking around town, asking all of those pesky questions?”)
(b) Any line that consists entirely of one character agreeing with or simply prompting another to speak. While “Yes, dear,” and “You’re so right,” may be charming to hear in real life, it seldom adds much to a scene.
(c) Simple yes or no answers to simple yes or no questions. Yes or no is almost never the most interesting way to frame a question or response, and the latter often shuts off interesting follow-up questions.
(d) I don’t know tends not to add much to a scene, either, especially if a first-person narrator is given to saying it. If your protagonist doesn’t know, have her take steps to find out.
(e) Any new development that’s not actually surprising. (“Wait — you mean that your long-lost brother first described as a miner on pg. 4 might possess a map to the very mine we need to explore? Astonishing!”)
(e) Any scene where the interviewer doesn’t have to work to elicit information from the interviewee.
These may not seem like big cuts, but believe me, they can add up. In many manuscripts, making these revisions alone would free up pages and pages of space for new plot twists, if not actual chapters of ‘em.
It’s also worth your while to consider whether a low-conflict interview scene is even necessary to the storyline: could your protagonist glean this information in another, more conflict-producing manner?
That question is not a bad one to write on a Post-It note and stick to your computer monitor. If a scene — or even a page — does not contain recognizable conflict, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.
A grand place to start excising the unsurprising: the first scene of the book, since that is the part of any submission that any Millicent, agent, editor, or contest judge is most likely to read. If you’re going to have your plot surprise or your protagonist impress the reader with her interview acumen anyplace in the book, make sure that she does it within the first 5 pages.
That’s just common sense, really: an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end. Therefore, it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where an irritated Millicent is most likely to stop reading.
Was that giant gust of wind the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene? I’m sympathetic to your frustration, but next time, could you aim away from my cat?
An AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a telephone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details. While he says, “Uh-huh,” four times.
Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.
“Uh-huh,” she says. “Go on, Mrs. Smith.”
Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis. “Uh-huh, that’s the problem,” one of them says ruefully. “But what are we going to do about it?”
Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?
“What kind of bad trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins. Probably with a lot of agreement in it.
There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for the last decade and a half, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been imploring aspiring writers to open their books with overt conflict, to let the reader jump right into the action, without a lot of explanatory preamble. Conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information or character development very quickly, isn’t it?
Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.
Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a good long time are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know, apparently for no other reason than to provide the audience with background information as easily and non-conflictually as humanly possible.
As it happens, you were right, oh gigglers. Openings of novels are notorious for being jam-packed with Hollywood narration. As in:
“So, Serena, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”
“Oh, Theobold, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”
“At least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Archie — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”
“Yes, I know. How right you were to follow Archie’s advice, given that in his former, pre-atoll life, he was a famous psychologist, renowned for testifying in the infamous Pulaski case, where forty-seven armed robbers overran a culinary snail farm…
Well, you get the picture. That’s not just information being handed to the protagonist without any sort of struggle whatsoever; it’s backstory being spoon-fed to the reader in massive chunks too large to digest in a single sitting. Just about the nicest comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is a well-justified shout of, “Show, don’t tell!”
More commonly, it provokes the habitual cry of the Millicent, “Next!”
While we are contemplating revision, did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example? Guesses, anyone?
Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Serena for over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature. As character development goes, this is the equivalent of knocking Gilligan on the head with a coconut to induce amnesia when the Skipper needs him to remember something crucial: a pretty obvious shortcut.
Besides, as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did. Besides, revealing a character’s favorite book is not a very telling detail.
I hear writerly hackles rising all over the reading world, but hear me out on this one. Writers who include such references usually do so in the charming belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.
It’s never a good idea to assume that any conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes, literary or otherwise. Or worldview.
But let’s get back to analyzing that Hollywood narration opening. Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Serena know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”
And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”
Good call. This is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It often lurks in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:
Will glanced over at his girlfriend. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”
“Not what you’re thinking,” Joceyln snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”
“I’m not jealous.” Will reached over to pat her on the head. “Having been your hairdresser for the past three years, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”
She jerked away. “Get your broad-wedding-ring-bearing fingers away from my delicate brow. What would your tall, blonde wife, Cynthia, think if you came home with a long, red hair hanging from that charm bracelet you always wear on your left wrist, the one that sports dangling trinkets from all of the various religious pilgrimage sights you have visited with your three short brunette daughters, Faith, Hope, and Katrina?”
Granted, few submissions are quite as clumsy as this purple-prosed exemplar, but you’d be surprised at how obvious some writers can be about introducing their characters. Remember, just because television and movie scripts can utilize only the senses of sight and sound to tell a story doesn’t mean that a novelist or memoirist must resort to Hollywood narration to provide either backstory or physical details. We writers of books enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to use narrative text to show, not tell, what we want our readers to know.
Pop quiz, campers: why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?
If you said that Will and Joceyln are telling each other things they obviously already know, kiss yourself on both cheeks. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would not know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length. Thus, the only reason this information could possibly appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party.
Like, for instance, the reader. Who might conceivably prefer to be shown such details, rather than hear them in implausible dialogue.
How can a conscientious writer tell the difference between Hollywood narration and good old physical description? A pretty good test: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go — to free up page space for more intriguing material and good writing.
If you also said that Will and Joceyln are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.
It’s just not necessary, and it’s not interesting conversation. I am a chatty person, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say over dinner, “Pass the peas — and incidentally, your eyes are green.”
My habitual tablemate’s eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want you to know it. But honestly, was just blurting it out — and to him, no less — the most interesting way to introduce this information?
In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out that being possessed of a mirror — nay, several — he already knew.
Who could have seen that plot twist coming, eh? And aren’t we all stunned by the depth of that character and relationship development in the last few paragraphs?
While I’m at it, let me share one of my pet peeves, both on the page and in real life: men who keep commenting on how pretty their dates are. To their dates. As in:
“Mona, there’s something I’ve been wanting to say for weeks now…” Alex waited until the waiter had poured the wine and retreated. “Um, you look great tonight.”
She dimpled prettily. “Thanks. After a long day’s work at the nuclear physics lab, I figure I deserve a nice night out.”
“You have such pretty eyes. Brown, aren’t they?”
“Well, more of a neon green, since that radioactive spider bit me.” She reached across the table for his hand. “But enough about work. What did you want to say?”
He squeezed her hand. “I love your hair. So wavy and alive.”
Her hand flew to her scalp self-consciously. “Snakes are so hard to handle. I’ve just washed them, and I can’t do a thing with them. I wouldn’t recommend peeking into Medusa’s cage until we find an antidote.”
“You’re lovely, you know that?”
Mona suppressed a sigh. Did he honestly think she didn’t own a mirror? Well, come to think of it, if she looked in one now, she would be turned to stone. Perhaps he thought he was doing her a favor. “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you.”
He jerked his head sideways, to avoid the nearest snake’s trajectory. “I just love looking at you. That’s such a nice dress.”
You can hardly blame the snake for lashing out at him, can you? As gratifying as compliments are to hear, a flattery barrage like this should not be confused with conversation. Not only isn’t it particularly interesting for the reader — a simple physical description would have been a far more effective way to display Mona’s charms — but as we may see from her reaction, it isn’t even interesting to the person being complimented.
On the page as in life, a single compliment is sweet. But when fifteen of them tumble out of your dinner partner’s mouth, you start to wonder if he’s avoiding saying something. It’s auditory filler.
And did you notice that even after Alex has rhapsodized about her looks, we still don’t have a particularly clear idea of what Mona looks like? Oh, the narrative sentences give some specifics, but the dialogue is vague: she looks great, has pretty eyes, has mobile hair, is lovely, is sporting a nice dress.
Hardly enough to enable the reader to pick her out of a police lineup, is it?
Yes, a lot of people, especially shy ones, do pepper their conversation with compliments, but as we have discussed, the point of dialogue is not merely to provide a transcript of real-world conversations. It’s to entertain the reader, develop character, and move the plot along. And frankly, don’t you suspect that Mona has quite a bit more going on in her life than Will’s conversational choices are revealing?
Heck, those snakes seem to have more on their minds than he does. Keep up the good work!