Speaking of dialogue revision, part III: avert your eyes, children

ourbodiesourjunkcover

I find myself in a quandary today, campers: I want to announce — nay, trumpet — the release of FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Mike Sacks’ new book, SEX: OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK from Random House today. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have any reservations at all about recommending this hilarious take-off on the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s venerable reference classic, OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. (What took that so long to happen, eh?) It’s funny, it’s comprehensive, and it’s written by a group of well-respected comedy writers under the collective pseudonym the Association for the Betterment of Sex.

What’s not to like?

So what’s the crux of my quandary, you ask impatiently? If I posted the publisher’s blurb for this book verbatim, as is my wont with new releases, most Internet filters of the type employed by parents and public libraries would block this post.

Oh, you may laugh at a screening program’s not being bright enough to tell the difference between comedy and {WORD EXPUNGED}, but it’s actually true — and I find that annoying, as I suspect a lot of smart teenage readers (and public library-users, for that matter) would enjoy Mike’s writing quite a bit. Pardon me while I rack my brains, searching for a way around this knotty problem.

That’s knotty, not naughty, screening program.

Those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while may remember Mike’s guest post last year, a fabulous discussion of the art of being funny with legendary comedy writer Merrill Markoe. I’ve been busily blandishing Mike behind the scenes into gracing us again with his insights on comedy writing; since I’m a champion author-blandisher, I suspect that I shall succeed. (Watch this space, comedy writers.)

Those of you interested in getting tips from the best might also remember him as the interviewer and compiler of AND HERE’S THE KICKER: CONVERSATIONS WITH 21 TOP HUMOR WRITERS ON THEIR CRAFT, a fascinating and very useful volume, containing sections billed as Quick and Painless Advice for the Aspiring Humor Writer, on topics that should make aspiring writers’ hearts sing. To name but three:

Getting Your Humor Piece Published in The New Yorker

Finding a Literary Agent for Your Humor Book Idea

Acquiring an Agent or Manager for Your Script

Ah, how well I recall plugging AND HERE’S THE KICKER last year. It was a simpler time, a happier time, when good new releases had family-friendly language in their blurbs…

All right, already: I’m going to throw caution to the winds and post the publisher’s blurb for OUR BODIES, OUR JUNK. Darn the torpedoes, so to speak; I would like to see my teenage readers have access to both this book and OUR BODIES, OURSELVES. To ascertain that this post will be visible to as many of my regular readers as possible, though, I shall simply place a few discreet visual barriers in front of the words and concepts that might prove problematic.

GOOD GOD—YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG . . .

The Association for the Betterment of Sex (A.B.S.) presents Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, a radical and invaluable resource for improving your sexual communication—whether you have been in a committed relationship for years, or have just moments ago removed the shrinkwrap from your new {EXPUNGED}.

Here are just a few sensual revelations you’ll find within these pages:

– The precise location of the female {EXPUNGED} (latitude and longitude)

– “Going on tour with Midnight Oil” and more outmoded {EXPUNGED} slang

– Forced perspective and other techniques for visually enhancing the size of {EXPUNGED}

– The Top Five pastry-related euphemisms for {EXPUNGED}

– How to score big at your next {EXPUNGED} party, with our crowd-pleasing ambrosia-salad recipe

– Listings of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” dry-cleaning services, for freshening up your vinyl {EXPUNGED} or adult-sized {EXPUNGED} costume

– Your first {EXPUNGED}, and how the ancient Mayans predicted it wouldn’t go over so hot

Exhaustively researched and fully illustrated, Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk is a must-read for you, your sexual partner(s), and anyone who wishes there was more to sex than {EXPUNGED} for a few seconds and begging for forgiveness.

Now that we’ve celebrated Mike’s new release, let’s get back to the topic at hand: dialogue revision. (If you can manage to drag your mind away from speculating about all of those expunged words and phrases, that is. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a little artistic draping of the essentials can actually be quite a bit sexier on the page than {EXPUNGED}.)

At the risk of setting the filtering programs’ red lights flashing, enjoy!

pearlfishers

I went to see THE PEARLFISHERS at the Seattle Opera again last night; since the tenor had been practically inaudible with the cast we saw the first time, we went back and saw the other, in which the baritone was practically inaudible. Oh, well, you can’t have everything — where would you put it? (As comic Stephen Wright has been asking plaintively for years. One should never borrow a good joke without attributing it.)

During opera mach II, I was thinking about you fine people and the list of common reasons submissions get rejected on page 1 we’ve been discussing, admittedly a bit one-sidedly, for the last couple of weeks. During the protracted opening scene with the acres of milling supernumeraries and ten minutes of heavily Balanchine-influenced prancing around (don’t even get me started on the five minutes of dance in Act III that was apparently lifted directly from THE PRODIGAL SON), I kept murmuring to myself, “Um, haven’t we heard this dialogue already? And is it really necessary to tell the audience fifteen times that you’re dancing when the choreographer has placed ocular evidence at the front of the stage?”

I suppose that my response could be regarded as a sort of SCARED STRAIGHT for would-be editors — this is where hardcore manuscript screening leads, kids — but seriously, the opera’s first ten minutes ran afoul of a hefty percentage of our cringe list for manuscript openings. For instance:

3. The opening was about setting, not about story.

6. Took too long for anything to happen.

7. Not enough happens in the opening.

24. The opening spent too much time describing the environment, and not enough on character.

32. Where’s the conflict?

38. Repetition (all of that explanation that they’re dancing in Sri Lanka)

39. Too many generalities.

51. Hollywood narration

It just goes to show you: judging one art form by the standards of another isn’t all that productive — so any of you who are planning to defend repetitious or Hollywood narration-based dialogue to your future agents and editors as something done in movies, plays, or on opera stages all the time might want to think twice.

I just mention. Back to not entirely unrelated business.

I’m writing today’s post between appointments, balanced on the rather unstable table of a coffee-purveying chain that shall remain nameless. While I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been doing the dialogue experiment I suggested to you last time, and I freely admit it: I was mistaken in telling you that 99.9% of overheard conversations would not work in print.

Based on today’s sample, I radically overestimated how much would be bearable as written dialogue.

It may be that the patrons’ caffeine purchases haven’t hit their bloodstreams yet, but if what they said had turned up on the submission page, our old pal Millicent the agency screener would have been reaching for the Xeroxed rejection letters within seconds. You wouldn’t believe how similar the things one customer says to a barista are to the things the next customer says, and the next.

Which brings me to #31 on our list of common reasons submissions get rejected before the list, real-life incidents are not always believable on paper. If I may be so bold as to elaborate upon this excellent observation, permit me to add: and neither is real-life dialogue, necessarily.

This is a point I harp upon this particular point with fair regularity (and if you doubt that, please see the posts under the aptly-named BUT IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY! category on the archive list at right), I’m not going to dwell too long upon why any writer who includes a true incident within a fictional story needs to make absolutely certain that the importation is integrated seamlessly into the novel. Suffice it to say that real-life events are so frequently shoved into otherwise fictional accounts wholesale so often that any Millicent worth her weight in lattes soon learns to spot ‘em a mile away.

Already, I sense some readerly disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some writers of the real point out querulously, “one of the virtues of fiction is the insight it gives the reader into life as it is actually lived. So how precisely is it a remotely negative thing if Millicent mutters over my manuscript, ‘Oh, that bit seems real’?”

Counterintuitive from the writer’s perspective, isn’t it? It’s a storytelling problem, at base: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating real events into a fictional narrative, it’s undoubtedly jarring for the reader trundling along merrily within a fictional reality to suddenly be confronted with a scene or incident that is, as the LAW AND ORDER folks like to say, ripped from the headlines.

Why? Because anything that pulls the reader out of the story by breaking the smoothness of the narrative’s worldview is bound to be distracting.

Which is a nice way of hinting obliquely that aspiring writers very frequently just drop in real elements — and real dialogue — into a story as if their very veracity were sufficient excuse to include them. From the reader’s point of view, that’s just not true; to get and remain involved, the story in from of him must appear to be one unbroken piece.

“But Anne,” the disgruntled pipe up again, “I can understand where that might be problematic in mid-book, after the story has gotten up and running, but on page 1, there isn’t an already-established narrative line to break, is there? It seems to me that if I should be dropping real elements into my writing wholesale — which I fully understand that you’re advising me not to do — page 1 would be absolutely the safest place to do it.”

Interesting argument, but no: strategically, you’re going to want page 1 to exhibit not only your best writing — the better to entrance Millicent, my dears — but to be representative of the writing throughout the rest of the book. If, as is often the case in dialogue, the real is not as compelling as the fictional, it’s not going to be as effective an introduction to the rest of the book as a writer might like.

One of the things we’ve learned in this series is that in order to be grabbed by a manuscript, Millicent needs to be sufficiently charmed by the narrative voice and storyline from the very first sentence, so it is imperative for the writing to establish the author’s unique voice and worldview right away. If that first sentence — or anything on the first page, really — is at odds with the rest of the narrative, the transition is going to feel rocky whenever it comes.

And if that displacement rocks the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief on page one, it’s going to be pretty difficult for the reader to sink into the story. Particularly if that reader is as jaded to the practice as Millicent.

But I said I wasn’t going to lecture you on the inherent perils of dropping the unpolished real into your manuscripts, didn’t I? Honestly, all I intend to do is nudge you gently about making sure that the narrative in including such incidents is not biased to the point that it will tip the reader off that this IS a real-life event. I’m not even going to remind you that, generally speaking, for such importations to work, the author needs to do quite a bit of character development for the real characters — which most real-character importers neglect to do, because they, after all, know precisely who they mean.

No, today, I’m going to concentrate on the other side of including the real, the way in which the panelists used it: the phenomenon of including references to current events, pop culture references, etc. in a novel.

The editorial advice against utilizing such elements dates your work is older than the typewriter: Louisa May Alcott was warned to be wary about having characters go off to the Civil War, in fact, on the theory that it would be hard for readers born after it to relate to her characters. (And if you doubt that, try explaining to a 14-year-old why any bystander was shocked when Rosa Parks declined to proceed to the rear of a certain bus.)

Many, many aspiring writers forget just how long it takes a book to move from its author’s hands to a shelf in a bookstore: longer than a Congressional term of office, typically, not counting the time it takes to find an agent. Most of the time, an agent will ask a just-signed author to make revisions upon the book before sending it out, a process that, depending upon the author’s other commitments — like work, sleep, giving birth to quintuplets, what have you — might take a year or more.

Then the agent sends out the book to editors, either singly or in a mass submission, and again, months may pass before they say yea or nay.

This part of the process can be lengthy, even for a book that ultimately sells very well indeed. Even after an editor falls in love with a book, pushes it through the requisite editorial meetings, and makes an offer, it is extraordinarily rare for a book to hit the shelves less than a year after the contract is signed.

Often, it is longer — so a reference that seemed fresh as paint (where that cliché come from, do you suppose?) when it fell off the writer’s fingertips onto the keyboard will almost certainly be at least two and a half years old before it reaches readers of the published book.

Think how dated a pop culture reference might become in that time. It might even generate — heaven forfend! — a bad laugh, a chuckle unforeseen by the author that jars the reader out of the world of the story.

Believe me, agents and editors are VERY aware of just how quickly zeitgeist elements can fade — so seeing them in a manuscript automatically sends up a barrage of warning flares. (Yes, even references to September 11th.)

About seven years ago, I was asked to edit a tarot-for-beginners book. I have to say, I was a trifle reluctant to do it, even before I read it, because frankly, there are a LOT of books out there on the tarot, so the author was seeking to add to an already glutted market niche. (If memory serves, tarot books were at the time on the Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published list of books not to write.) So, as I tried to explain gently to the writer, this manuscript was heading for agents and editors with one strike already against it.

The second strike was a superabundance of references to the TV shows of the year 2001. In an effort to be hip, its author had chosen to use characters on the then-popular HBO show SEX & THE CITY to illustrate certain points. “In five years,” I pointed out, “this will make your book obsolete. You want readers to keep finding your book relevant, don’t you? Could you possibly come up with less time-bound examples?”

The author’s response can only be adequately characterized as pouting. “But the show’s so popular! Everyone knows who these characters are!”

She stuck to her guns so thoroughly that I eventually declined to edit the book; I referred her elsewhere. About a year and a half later, she contacted me to gloat: she had managed to land an agent, who did manage, within the course of another year, to sell the book to a small publisher.

The book came out at almost exactly the time as SEX & THE CITY went off the air. It did not see a second printing.

My point, shout you care to know it: be careful about incorporating current events, especially political ones, into fiction manuscripts — and seriously consider excising them entirely from your first few pages, unless the book is set more than 20 years ago. The chances that Millicent will immediately exclaim, “Well, that’s an interesting example/analogy/temporal marker, but it’s going to read as dated by next week,” are just too high.

Yes, yes, I know: you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing scads and scads of nonfiction books on current events, even ones recent enough that they could not possibly have gone through the lengthy pre-publication process I’ve just described. The next time you are in that bookstore, take a gander at the author bios of these books: overwhelmingly, current events books are written by journalists and the professors whom they interview. It is extraordinarily difficult to find a publisher for such a book unless the writer has a significant platform.

Being President of Pakistan, for instance, or reporting on Hurricane Katrina for CNN — and at this point, even the latter might well strike an agent or editor as a dated credential. Mainstream culture marches on FAST.

Present-day Anne here: as is abundantly illustrated by just how outdated that Hurricane Katrina reference seems now. It was just-out-of-the-oven fresh when I first drafted a version this post — and still pretty strongly in the public consciousness when I ran an updated version a year and a half ago. Sic transit gloria.

One last point about pop or political culture references: if you do decide to disregard my advice entirely — oh, I have no illusions left about writers’ reactions to even the best editorial advice, at this point — and include present-day references, double-check to make sure that you’ve spelled all of the names you cite correctly. Not only people’s names, but brand names as well.

Stop laughing; this is a mistake I see constantly as a contest judge, and it’s usually enough to knock an entry out of finalist consideration, believe it or not. Seriously. I once saw a quite-good memoir knocked out of finalist consideration solely for referring to a rap band as Run-DMV.

Half of you didn’t laugh at that, right? That joke would have slayed ‘em in 1995. See what I mean about how fast pop culture references get dated?

Make sure, too, that the sources you consult for verification are reliable; remember, it’s not as though everything currently posted on the Internet is spelled correctly. If you’re in serious perplexity about where to turn to double-check, call your local public library and ask where to start looking.

But whatever you do, don’t just run them through a spell-checker — because the more up-to-the-minute those names are, the less likely your spell-checking program is to be aware of them — or check with kith and kin, who may also have been laboring under your misconception that it’s FDR that delivers flowers, rather than FTD.

Not that I wouldn’t pay good money to see President Roosevelt show up on my doorstep bearing a bouquet, mind you. I’m just saying that Millicent up on her presidential history might be a trifle startled to see him navigating a wheelchair festooned with stargazer lilies into her cubicle today.

There’s an important lesson to take from this, over and above the perennial proofreading imperative to get technical matters right before submitting pages containing them: ultimately, the written word is for the ages, not the moment.

That can be easy to forget in catering to agents focused on what’s selling to publishing houses right now, but it’s true, nevertheless. Nothing ages as quickly (or as badly) as last year’s pop culture reference.

Or, to get back to my initial nag, as last year’s cool catchphrase. If you’re devoted to reproducing actual conversation, you might want to bear that in mind, because, as anyone sentenced to listen to ambient chatter in a café could tell you, everyday conversation is loaded with catchphrases and references that would make the reader of ten years from now mutter, “Huh?” under her breath.

And the well-trained Millicent to shake her head over them right now. Choose your references carefully, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part III: as you know, robot, I have a nefarious plan…

Dr. Smith and the robot

Shh! The houseguests are sleeping, so I have tiptoed into my studio to have a few words with you. Perhaps it is inhospitable of me, but all weekend, I’ve been yearning to log in to warn you further of the horrifying perils of Hollywood narration.

That’s not the kind of yen that makes sense to non-writers, in case you’d been wondering. I believe the term most often being applied to it in my household over the last few days is pathological.

But then, most conscientious revisions would strike outside observers as pretty odd, I suspect. “What do you mean, you’re going to go over every syllable in the book several times?” they demand, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that, you know, the editor’s job, not the writer’s? Why don’t you just send off the manuscript and let the publisher take care of any typos — or whatever it is you think you’ll find on your seventeenth read-through?”

Hoo boy — it’s hard to know even where to start countering that pervasive set of misconceptions, isn’t it? Rather than engaging in a lengthy explanation that will only depress all and sundry, let’s get back to the matter at hand.

Last time, I introduced you to Hollywood narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. Interestingly, writers who pride themselves on the pursuit of realistic dialogue are every bit as likely to incorporate Hollywood narration as those who do not.

It’s just so darned convenient. Particularly if a reviser is editing for length: a paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can, after all, replace pages and pages of backstory.

But page-slashing self-editors are not the only writers fond of Hollywood narration, unfortunately. Many a first-time novelist or memoirist has panicked at the notion that the reader will walk into a story without knowing basic facts about the participants. As a result, our old pal Millicent the agency screener is constantly confronted with opening pages that read something like this.

Hollywood narration

Did any of that seem a trifle unnecessary to you? It would to Millicent, or indeed to most readers. For this scene to work, we don’t actually have to know how old these people are, how long they’ve been married, or even how long little Tara has been sleeping through the night. We certainly don’t need to hear about all of that on page 1; these tidbits could pop up naturally as the story progressed.

Or, to put it in editing terms, most of those statements of fact slow down the story, rather than adding to it, at least at this juncture. To grab the reader, this opening scene needs to present Helga and Chaz as interesting people in an interesting situation — so why take up page space with matters that, while important in and of themselves, are not integral to the conflict at hand?

Heavy-handed application of backstory isn’t solely the province of dialogue, of course (as that whopper of a sentence in the second paragraph proves abundantly). Most first novel manuscripts (and quite a few first memoirs as well) produced within the last thirty years or so have leaned pretty heavily upon dialogue to introduce facts that both parties already know, for the exceedingly simple reason that we’ve all heard it done so much in movies and on TV.

Thus the term Hollywood narration: all too often, writers forget that having a character essentially narrate backstory or fundamental facts crops up in movies because film is limited in how it may convey the past. On the printed page, however, we have more — and more interesting — options than having a character start waxing poetic about the past to people who shared that past, don’t we?

Before we go any further, and to save confusion in critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should point out that the term Hollywood narration is mine; the agent of your dreams may well look at you blankly if you mention it. She will undoubtedly be familiar with the phenomenon, however: due to its continual widespread unpopularity amongst aspiring writers, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.

Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry and the screenwriters’ guild.

What’s so wrong with it on the manuscript page? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is effectively an interview scene with no interviewer but the author.

The reader is left to wonder: why the heck is that chattering character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it? Why, in fact, is this monologue (or dialogue; both Helga and Chaz engaged in Hollywood dialoguing above) appearing on the page at all?

As we discussed last time, the answer to all of those questions usually disarmingly straightforward: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.

Anyone see a teensy problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?

No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show you, wouldn’t it? Especially since it isn’t always easy to catch in revision.

Oh, you may laugh, recalling the throw-a-brick-through-the-nearest-window subtlety of the example above, but sometimes, Hollywood narration can be very low-key. You’d actually have to be looking for it. As you should be, ideally, in the following:

Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”

Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”

Did you catch it?

Or rather, I should say did you catch them, since the Hollywood narration cuts both ways here. Surely, both parties have been aware for quite some time — say, five years — of what Clark’s glasses look like. So why is Lois describing them? On the flip side, Clark is also telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for — wait for it — five years?

And is that honestly sufficient reason to keep this sterling exchange in the text? As a reviser, you should constantly be asking yourself, “Is this really the most effective way to convey this information? Brilliant writer that I am, could I not find a more graceful way to let the reader in on the backstory — or is it possible that the backstory actually is not integral to this scene, and thus could be introduced later?”

Yes, that is quite a mouthful to keep muttering to yourself. It gets easier with practice.

More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel or a backhoe. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:

“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Desmond pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”

Elaine shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day soon. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Betty came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Rose managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after Dr. Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”

“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”

“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Which just proves my point,” Desmond said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”

Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Desmond didn’t ask Elaine for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue. Nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?

Even a reader not much given to questioning the printed word might have been brought up short by this passage, as the narrative itself gave a major clue that something’s wrong with this dialogue. But to Millicent and her ilk, the mere fact that Desmond said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.

It’s a touch distracting.

Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for Millicent, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.

Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once.

This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately had been wondering, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information. “Don’t tell me everything at once,” they beg. “Let me be surprised.”

Good advice: the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s premise. Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.

Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that last statement? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “in your last post, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader? Telepathy?”

Good question, up-fronters. (Although you might want to watch the sarcasm when you’re asking me to explain something to you as a favor. Your mother cannot possibly know that you’re that flippant with your teachers.) How about opening the book by placing your characters in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?

Just a suggestion. It’s always worked for me.

There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel satisfyingly efficient — one way to describe cramming a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, I guess — it’s actually one of the weakest kind of opening. So much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he does not like to see a manuscript to open with dialogue at all.

Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.

“How do you know that?” those of you currently clutching your chests demand.

Experience, mostly — and not just editing experience. One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.

Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see open with Hollywood narration. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common.

The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first scene. I shan’t put this one in standard format; who would blame you if you gave up after the end of page 1?

”So, Ambrose, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Penelope asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.

The burly man shook his head. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Vivienne, fell off the handlebars of Ambrose Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”

“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Facinelli, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”

“Which he would have won, had Mr. Facinelli’s rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”

“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Penelope sunk her hands into the bread dough that always seemed to be sitting in a moist ball, ready to knead, on the kitchen table. “But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers and the annual migration of the canary finch — for our Christmas tree.”

Ambrose stroked his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Fatima, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Lulu, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

”Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

”What would I do without you, honey?” Ambrose put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

”Oh, Ambrose, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Ambrose did not respond; he was busy kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Joanna, all sixty-four years of her, invariably points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen narratives almost this bald. Make no mistake: Hollywood narration is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.

As in Millicent can spot it from a mile away. Or at least within the first line or two.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. Placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership spontaneously decide to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”

Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous amongst established authors. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.

That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble right now?”

I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.

Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.

Speaking of relevant backstory.

Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline darned quick. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.

Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep up the good work!

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XX: banishing that dreaded feeling of déjà vu

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Since we’ve been on such a roll, discussing dialogue with vim, I’ve been rather reluctant to wrest us back to a subject that we absolutely must cover before we round out the Frankenstein manuscript series, conceptual redundancy. (Don’t worry, dialogue-huggers; I’ll be getting back to it in a few days.)

Actually, as topics go, it’s not all that far removed from edit-worthy dialogue: as I mentioned in passing just a few days ago, real-life dialogue tends to be rife with both phrase, idea, and even fact repetition. 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 — he’s 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 our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, ends up grinding her teeth and muttering, “You TOLD us that already!” 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.

We’ve already talked about some reasons that redundant dialogue bugs your garden-variety Millicent so much, but at least the problem is easy for a reviser to spot. Heck, if your antagonist favors 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.

Conceptual redundancy, however, requires both time for close reading of the entire manuscript and a retentive memory for a reviser to catch. Even if that reviser happens to have been blessed with both, after slaving over a Frankenstein 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!”

To give you a sense of just why she might have this reaction, allow me to regale you with an anecdote from the dim reaches of my past. Some of you may remember it; it’s an example I have often used before when discussing conceptual redundancy.

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.

Frankly, 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: the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean.

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

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride. It was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. The longer we stood in line, the harder 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 the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times.

It’s all I remember about the ride. 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 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.”

I was mightily impressed by the power of so much mindless repetition. And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my formative years — it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations, but in TV and movies as well.

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 (“Remember, Mortimer — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, 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 that sort of is the point here — came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. In case, you know, kids might not have picked up on any of that.

The writers and producers of the Afterschool Specials seemed genuinely concerned about the retentiveness of its young viewers’ memories, or perhaps our general level of intelligence: it was rare that any point was made 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.

It was funny in the series, of course, but foreshadowing is substantially less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do 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?”

Seriously, Millicent sees this all the time. Yes, 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.

At base, conceptual repetition is a trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the serial killer first revealed — wait for it — that he had a lousy childhood.

Wow — who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. As we discussed earlier in this series, one of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions.

That’s a problem, because one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day. We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. Really boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being a test pilot or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are MORE likely to notice repetition of every variety than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition across manuscripts as well.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying. If 6 of the last 10 submissions Millicent has screened were conceptually redundant — a proportion not at all beyond the bounds of probability; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive — your first repetition may annoy her as much as the eighth in her first manuscript of the day.

And no, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to affect where your work falls in her to-read stack. Thanks for asking, though.

All a savvy reviser can do is — speaking of concept repetition — re-read his submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before allowing it to see the inside of a mailbox or hitting the SEND key. Minimizing the conceptual redundancy within the manuscript is the best (indeed, the only) insurance policy a writer can take out against the submissions read just before hers is to make hers as clean as possible.

I see some of you shrugging. You don’t think your manuscript could possibly fall prey to that level of bad luck? Okay, oh confident ones, here’s a challenge for you: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

Did you find even one? Then you actually do need to worry about Millicent’s cry of, “Oh, no, not THIS again!”

For those of you who did not turn pale: what if I also ask you to highlight similar and culturally-common phrases in the narration, as well as the dialogue?

First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA. Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition.

Honestly, it would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s been lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.

But remember — once again, this concept should be at least slightly familiar by now — just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. A writer cannot perform that magic trick, however, without first identifying where it should be applied.

Is your head aching from all of the homework I’ve heaped upon you already today? Oh, but I’m far from done.

For starters, here’s a pop quiz: did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in this post so far?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous shout of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad. Your comments on conceptual redundancy were themselves conceptually redundant. You’ve made some of the points above two or three times — and via examples you’ve used before, too. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener and Mehitabel the contest judge. Please, for the sake of your sanity, do not attempt to ride the Peter Pan ride anytime soon.

Even if you were not actively annoyed by my repeating myself, you may well have been a trifle insulted by it. Repeating a concept, fact, or sentence too often — or even once, if the bit in question was particularly memorable the first time around — does convey an impression to readers that the author does not trust them to be able to recall salient matters without a narrative nudge. Or perhaps does not believe they are intelligent enough to figure out even self-evident logical connections without assistance.

What other purpose, after all, would a writer have for producing a sentence like I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you?

“In heaven’s name, why must anyone leap to such an unflattering conclusion?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have such an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

All of which should sound annoyingly familiar by now, right? Getting the picture?

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point simply because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did above, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is a signal that a manuscript requires quite a bit more revision.

You can feel more homework coming, can’t you? Clever you; you must have seen this movie before.

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submissions tend to get rejected in the early pages — thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often — page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you have the time to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) Go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on? Or could some of them be cut without endangering the reader’s ability to follow the plot?

In answering question #4, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. (Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.) Ditto with a contest entry: Mehitabel generally reads each one just once.

(5) Immediately after reading each yellow section, re-read the pink section that follows it. Are all of the highlighted bits actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason. Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips.

Save something for the sequel, for heaven’s sake. You needn’t always be raring to go-o-o-o.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

Often, this is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. Far too much of the time, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who incorporate the real into the texts: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Gee, where have I heard all of this before?

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Now that I have alerted you to the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Eleanor, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Fritz dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the terrified child.), it’s only fair to mention that both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut.

Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss a sentence if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, think about just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Yes, text-retentive ones you are correct: I’ve used this example before, too. No exertion of laziness has been spared to drive today’s points home. (Oh, and happy Bastille Day, Cardinal.)

But tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

Even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene. Take a gander:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, leaning against the fridge.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit was straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

What would that mean for our example? Well, if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?) Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often signposts telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not — and yes, I’ve used it before. I simply will not have my long-time readers walking away from this post willing to tolerate conceptual redundancy.

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation.

Okay, it’s well past the time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!

Am I hallucinating, or is the screen going wavy again?

oil spill on beach

Did any of you sharp-eyed self-editors happen to catch the really, really subtle test of your conceptual editing skills cleverly concealed in yesterday’s post? Nobody left a comment about it, so I assume nobody noticed. Or perhaps those who did were merely too kind to point it out. Any guesses?

If your hand immediately shot into the air, accompanied by a vigorous cry of, “By Jove, Anne, I’m glad you brought this up; it’s been driving me mad since first I read that otherwise excellent post. It was a post on conceptual redundancy that was itself conceptually redundant. You had already lectured us about the dangers of repeating salient plot points in a post the previous week. How relieved I am to hear that you did it on purpose!” not only should you award yourself a full seventeen gold stars for the day, but you should start thinking about offering your services to your writer friends as a first reader.

You, my friend, are starting to read like Millicent the agency screener.

Or indeed, like most people who read manuscripts or contest entries on a regular basis. She and her ilk wouldn’t merely have noticed my conceptual redundancy over the course of a week; she would have been outraged by it.

“In heaven’s name, why?” scream those who currently have pages under Millicent’s critical eye. “I could see being a trifle annoyed by hearing a similar argument a week apart, but why would any sane creature have an intensely negative reaction to it?”

A couple of very sane reasons, actually. First, the Millicents of this world aren’t typically reading just one manuscript in any given day, but dozens. (Rejecting most of them on page 1 speeds up the screening process like you wouldn’t believe.) So in all likelihood, the manuscript that irritates her by repeating herself isn’t the only redundant submission she has handled that day — and certainly not that week. Conceptual redundancy is one of the more common manuscript megaproblems out there, cutting across lines of genre, book category, and the fiction/nonfiction divide.

To be fair, Millicent was probably pretty even-tempered the first fifty times a narrative assumed that she couldn’t remember basic plot elements. Around the 750th time, however, it had gotten old.

By then, too, she would probably have figured out what an experienced editor could have told her — and this is the second sane reason a professional reader might find conceptual redundancy annoying: writers quite frequently retain multiple iterations of the same point because they like the writing of each section that discusses it.

Or, as I did yesterday, because they have an illustrative anecdote that they’d really like to shoehorn into the text. (I admit it: I love the Peter Pan example.) Either way, conceptual redundancy is often a signal that some editing is needed.

You can feel your homework coming, can’t you?

Who am I to disappoint you? Here it is:

(1) Print out all or part of any pages you plan to submit to Millicent or anyone remotely like her.

You may use any part of your manuscript, of course, but as submission tend to get rejected in the early pages (thus leaving the rest unread unfortunately often), page 1 is a dandy place to start.

(2) Read through it, using a highlighting pen — say, yellow — to mark every time the text repeats the same information.

If you want to get fancy, it will make your post-exercise life easier if you take the time to make notes on a separate sheet of every time a specific repetition occurs. That list will render figuring out which iteration to keep much, much easier.

(3) Using a different color of highlighter — pink is nice — mark the first couple of paragraphs (or even the scene) that immediately follows the repeated information.

Why, you ask? Hold your horses; I’m building suspense.

(4) After you finish, go back and re-read the yellow sections. Are all of them genuinely necessary for the reader to follow what’s going on?

In answering that question, assume that the reader is of normal intelligence and average memory, but is reading your book in a single sitting. Millicent’s boss probably will read it in installments, but Millicent often will not.

(5) Go back and re-read the pink sections. Are all of them actually adding something new to the plot, characterization, or argument? Or are they included primarily because you kind of liked how they sounded?

If it’s the latter, don’t be too hard on yourself: the old writing chestnut kill your darlings was coined for a reason.

Remember, this is need not be the only book you ever write; you needn’t include every nice piece of writing that falls off your fingertips. Save something for the sequel.

(6) Be especially attentive to those pink bits in first-person narratives, memoirs — or in a real-life story told as fiction. Are these sections necessary to the story you’re telling, or are they included merely because these things happened in real life?

This is another of Millicent’s most cherished pet peeves — and this one is usually shared by her boss and the editors to whom the agent typically sells. All too often, memoirists (and novelists who write in the first person) forget that writing the truth from a sympathetic point of view is not enough to make a good book — it must also be an engaging story.

Ditto with novelists who include the real: just because something actually happened does not mean that it will necessarily be interesting to read. Or add to the storyline of a book.

Judicious cutting is especially important when writing the real. No reader, however intrigued by a premise, wants to hear about everything that ever happened to a character, any more than he wants to plow through a complete list of every object in a room where an important scene occurs. Include only what your story needs to make it shine.

Okay, that’s enough looking backward for today. Time to move ahead.

Of course, in order to do so, I’m going to need to backtrack a little first. In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life (“Say ‘ah,’” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them.

But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest lines for a self-editor to identify and cut. Redundant sentences can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. Note just how much trimming could occur without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite hours of manly good fellowship and moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge.

“Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “How on earth did you pick up the habit? Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on the sawed-off shotgun that seldom left his side. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do? Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure; I give you that.

But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 253, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER, right?) and unnecessary conceptual repetition.

How did I know, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book? Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere – and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus. Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene.

So if the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you don’t want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript.

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information on page 348.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Listen:

Think of your draft as a wonderful bouquet, stocked with flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe it’s too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be to pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Then you could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier – and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

Be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation, as well as darlings that could be, if not killed, then at least set aside to grace another book. If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact. Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind, please, and keep up the good work!

Avoiding the bad laughter, as well as a few more good choice words about Hollywood Narration

    

Before I launch back into dissection of the all-too-pervasive Hollywood narration phenomenon, I should amend an oversight from last time: I brought up the concept of bad laughter without really talking about why it can be death to a manuscript submission. Rather than leaving those new to the concept whimpering in confusion, I’m going to revisit it briefly now.

A bad laugh, for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, is a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. It typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, most commonly, just a really, really bad line of dialogue. It can spring from many sources, but in the moment it occurs, it invariably shatters the reader or viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, causing her to stand, however briefly, outside the world created by the story.

That’s bad.

Hollywood narration is NOTORIOUS for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!”

Openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning PRECISELY what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.

We’ve all grown accustomed to this, right? Yet there’s actually seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: as I have undoubtedly pointed out before, TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately, I gather that my view on the subject is not shared by all movie producers.

How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin in the Sky told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals? Here’s a very common gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, tend to think such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too.

I’m not talking about when voice-overs are added to movies out of fear that the audience might not be able to follow the plot otherwise — although, having been angry since 1982 about that ridiculous voice-over tacked onto BLADE RUNNER, I’m certainly not about to forgive its producers now. (If you’ve never seen either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, proto. It’s immeasurably better.)

No, I’m talking about where characters suddenly start talking about their background information, for no apparent reason other than that the plot or character development requires that the audience learn about the past.

If you have ever seen any of the many films of Steven Spielberg, you must know what I mean. Time and time again, his movies stop cold so some crusty old-timer, sympathetic matron, or Richard Dreyfus can do a little expository spouting of backstory. You can always tell who the editors in the audience are at a screening of a Spielberg film, by the say; we’re the ones hunched over in our seats, muttering, “Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell!” like demented fiends.

I probably shouldn’t pick on Spielberg (but then, speaking of films based on my friend Philip’s work, have I ever forgiven him for changing the ending of MINORITY REPORT?), because this technique is so common in films and television that it’s downright hackneyed. Sometimes, there’s even a character whose sole function in the plot is to be a sort of dictionary of historical information.

For my nickel, the greatest example of this by far was the Arthur Dietrich character on the old BARNEY MILLER television show. Dietrich was a humanoid NEW YORK TIMES, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and KNOW YOUR CONSTITUTION rolled up into one. (He also, several episodes suggested, had a passing familiarity with the KAMA SUTRA as well — but then, it was the ’70s.) Whenever anything needed explaining, up popped Dietrich, armed with the facts: the more obscure the better.

The best thing about the Dietrich device is that the show’s writers used it very self-consciously as a device. The other characters relied upon Dietrich’s knowledge to save them research time, but visibly resented it as well. After a season or so, the writers started using the pause where the other characters realize that they should ask Dietrich to regurgitate as a comic moment.

(From a writer’s perspective, though, the best thing about the show in general was the Ron Harris character, an aspiring writer stuck in a day job he both hates and enjoys. Even when I was in junior high school, I identified with Harris.)

Unfortunately, human encyclopedia characters are seldom handled this well, nor is conveying information through dialogue. Still, we’ve all become accustomed to it, so people who point it out seem sort of like the kid in THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

“Why has Mr. Spielberg stopped the action to let that man talk for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”

“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”

Well, in a book, there’s PLENTY odd about that, and professional readers are not slow to point it out. It may seem strange that prose stylists would be more responsible than screenwriters for reproducing conversations as they might plausibly be spoken, but as I keep pointing out, I don’t run the universe. I can’t make screenwriters do as I wish; I have accepted that, and have moved on.

However, as a writer and editor, I can occasionally make the emperor put some clothes on.

By and large, agents, editors, and contest judges share this preference for seeing their regents garbed. It pains me to tell you this, but I have actually heard professional readers quote Hollywood narration found in a submitted manuscript aloud, much to the disgusted delight of their confreres.

What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that an over-reliance upon Hollywood narration is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.

There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.

And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent.

This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.

Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:

Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.

Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.

To professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.

But think about why the example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration?

More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?

The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny doesn’t mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.

I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.

I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”

The short answer is yes.

The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration in our lives that it is often hard for the author to realize she’s reproducing it. Here is where a writers’ group or editor can really come in handy: before you submit your manuscript, it might behoove you to have an eagle-eyed friend read through it, ready to scrawl in the margins, “Wait — doesn’t the other guy already know this?”

For self-editing, try this little trick: flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that. Reexamine these sentences to see whether they should be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.

Another good indicator: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.

Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least give you a start. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, OTHER than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”

And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.

Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?

If you answered no to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader REALLY need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?

Worth a bit of mulling over, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!

In which I lose my struggle to stop myself from condemning Hollywood Narration yet again

Before I justify that rather Dickensian title, allow me to a little something to those of you reading this outside the confines of the United States, its territories, and wherever its military happen to be traipsing about these days: today is Memorial Day, the national holiday originally established to honor the dead of our Civil War, but expanded in an effort to conserve holiday time after World War I to include perished servicepeople of all of our wars and police actions.

In a similar conservation push, the birthdays of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were collapsed into a single day in February. And nowhere is the birthday of the late Millard Fillmore celebrated at all, except perhaps in his hometown.

So why, you may be wondering — and who could blame you? — have I seen fit to commemorate the day with a close-up shot of Montana ledge stone?

Because, it may shock you to learn, people who don’t happen to be addicted to writing frequently use three-day weekends for home improvement projects. And mattress sales, apparently.

Anyway, it’s pretty, isn’t it? What more do you people want from me?

Last time, I introduced you to the Short Road Home’s glamorous first cousin, Hollywood Narration, the all-too-common phenomenon of one character’s telling another things they already both know, purely for the sake of filling in the reader. Hollywood Narration is when information is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having this conversation at all.

As in this little gem of human interaction:

“So, Tim, how was your work at the steel mill today?” Sally asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Sammy, fell off the handlebars of Tim Junior’s bike and sustained brain damage, forcing me to quit my beloved teaching job and stay home to help her re-learn basic life skills — I imagine you sometimes get sick of the daily grind. But you are my husband, my former high school sweetheart, so I try to be supportive of all you do, just like that time I went down to the police station in the middle of the night in my pink flannel nightgown to bail you and your lifetime best friend, Owen Filch, out after you two drank too much near-beer and stole us the biggest Sequoia in the local national park — renowned for its geysers — for our Christmas tree.”

Tim shook his graying head ruefully. “Ah, I remember; I had gotten you that nightgown for Valentine’s Day the year that little Betty, then aged six, played Anne Frank in the school play. As you know, Sally, I am committed to working hard to support you and the kids. But since our eldest daughter, the lovely and talented Selma, won that baton-twirling scholarship to State, I have felt that something was lacking in my life.”

“Why don’t you go downstairs to the workshop you built in the basement with the money from that car-crash settlement? You know how much you enjoy handcrafting animals of the African veldt in balsa wood.”

“What would I do without you, honey?” Tim put his arms around her ample form. “I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, clutching a test tube over a Bunsen burner in Mr. Jones’ chemistry class in the tenth grade. That was when the high school was housed in the old building, you recall, before they had to move us all out for retrofitting.”

“Oh, Tim, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff Grimley, at the time! Isn’t it funny how he so suddenly moved back to town, after all those years working as an archeologist in the Sudan?” Tim did not respond; he was kissing her reddish neck. “But you always were an unobservant boy, as your mother Gladys, all sixty-four years of her, always points out when she drops by for her weekly cup of Sanka and leftover cookies from my Tuesday night Episcopalian Women’s Empowerment Group social.”

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme example — but honestly, anyone who has read manuscripts professionally for more than a few weeks has seen Hollywood Narration almost this bald. Make no mistake: this is telling, not showing in its baldest form.

The term Hollywood Narration is mine, of course; due to its widespread unpopularity, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue. Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild.

For today, I had planned to leave my brief warning to this: when you are scanning your submission for this type of dialogue — and you most assuredly should; I’m not the only professional reader it drives completely nuts — try VERY hard, please, not to imagine those fine actors you’ve mentally cast in the movie version of your book (c’mon, every writer does that) reading these lines.

Why? Well, due to the unfortunate ubiquity of Hollywood Narration in movies, it might just sound logical to you.

I meant to leave it at that; truly, I did. But on Saturday night, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a GHOST STORY; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can remember it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not so long ago. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled, THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration and turgid poetry of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dead. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem here: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems, it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other delights we saw above.

As we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood Narration have abounded still more in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg.

Oh, don’t get me started — but since you have, let me suggest something radical: readers tend to be pretty smart people. They are often, bless their respective hearts, quite capable of looking at an opening like this and remarking, “Hey, wait a minute: real people would have no reason to say these things to each other. Isn’t it just possible that the author is placing this dialogue into their mouths merely so I will know what’s going on?”

And you know something? They would be right. But that’s not all that’s going on here.

Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood Narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.

It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.

Next time, I’m going to talk a bit more about this form of sleight-of hand and why so many aspiring writers seem to be so very fond of it. In the meantime, if you find yourself standing in front of a wall of drawers in a Korean morgue, keep your hands to yourself, okay? Maniacally-laughing, high C-singing spirits tend to be a trifle hard to shake once wakened.

Keep up the good work!

Laying the foundations of plot so they don’t fly up and hit passersby in the nose

What did you expect me to be taking pictures of while workers are crawling all over my yard for months on end — rainbows and cattle?

Last time, I wrote about 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 — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED IT THAT WAY.

Strange to say, 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 interesting ones.

Which is to say: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. And let’s face it — almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor. It’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — 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 — discover me, already!”

As we all know, though, 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 — so 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 a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone 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.

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.

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: bingo.

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 trouble?” he asks — and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with over conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

My long-term readers 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 in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

My long-term readers 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 purely in order to provide the audience with background information.

Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for this. As in:

“So, Molly, 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, Tad, 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.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. Suffice it to say that about the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the cry, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Molly for making the mistake we discussed earlier this week, 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.

And 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, it’s not a very telling detail.

Hear me out. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic 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.

Out comes the broken record again: it’s never a good idea to assume that ANY conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes. Or worldview.

Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said immediately, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Molly 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 tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Link glanced over at his wife. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria 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 sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

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?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. 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.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party. Like, for instance, the reader.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: 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.

If you also said that Link and Gloria 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. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.

There you have it — several more excellent reasons to read your manuscript OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time — that is, if I can resist the burning desire not to take another run at Hollywood Narration. Must…remain…strong…

Somehow, I suspect that I’m going to lose this particular battle. Keep up the good work!

Is that a plot flare I see before me, or did a line of text just spontaneously combust?

Over the past couple of posts, as I was making the case for setting up necessary character plot development well before it is needed to explain what’s going in a particular scene — or, heaven help us, the climax of the book — I made passing reference to what I like to call Plot Flares, an early screaming indication that something specific is going to happen later in the story.

Except, I now notice, I never managed to call them by name — so much for my clever plan to refer back to the concept a week or two hence, eh? And now that it occurs to me to check, I realize that I haven’t actually written a post on Plot Flares since sometime in 2006.

This is one of the dangers of blogging so much, you know: the archives start to blur in the blogger’s mind. I’ll be writing along, minding my own business, when all at once a side issue pops to mind. “Oh, I don’t need to attend to that now,” I mutter to myself, resolutely pushing it to the back of my mind for another year. “I blogged about that only a couple of months ago.”

Except it will turn out to have been a couple of years ago. So if I start throwing around terminology more recent readers don’t recall, please don’t hesitate to ask what the heck I’m talking about, okay?

So: plot flares. Once again, this is a phenomenon familiar to all of us from movies: the eventual startling plot twist is revealed in some small way within the first twenty minutes. If the heroine is going to have to shoot the villain at the climax as her Own True Love lies bleeding and weapon-free, for instance, she will almost invariably make a statement about her (a) loathing for guns, (b) aversion to violence, and/or (c) having witnessed some incredibly graphic murder during her formative years during the first act.

Ostensibly so we poor viewers can understand why anyone might have an aversion to, say, picking up a gun and shooting someone in cold blood or some other hard-to-grasp concept like that.

In novels, creative nonfiction, and memoirs, foreshadowing of the denouement often happens within the first 50 pages — or even the first chapter. Heck, it’s not all that uncommon for an actual SCENE of the climax to open the book as a prologue, with the plot jumping backward in time immediately thereafter to figure out how our hero ended up there.

Or, to put it in cinematic terms: “Rosebud.”

From the author’s POV, these hints are generally subtle, mild foreshadowing of events to come. As character development and background, small hints are often advisable, or even unavoidable. If these hints aren’t AWFULLY subtle, though, they can give away the rest of the book, deflating suspense as surely as helium comes out of a balloon when you jab a needle into it.

And to professional readers, who see every plot twist in the book, so to speak, on a literally daily basis, a poorly-done foreshadowing hint glows in the middle of a page like a flare set up around a midnight highway accident: don’t go there.

There are, of course, the classics common to both the silver screen and the printed page: if the female lead faints or mentions putting on weight, she’s going to turn out to be pregnant; if any man announces that he’s counting the days until retirement, he’s going to be killed (and, heaven help us, “Danny Boy” will be played on the soundtrack); if our hero is a sad guy, he will inevitably turn out to have had a beautiful (and often, in the flashback, silent) wife and possibly cherubic child who were slaughtered before his eyes while he watched, helpless.

Pathos, pathos.

And it’s not just lowbrow entertainment that embraces this strategy. These clichés transcend genre or even writing quality: that last example about the dead wife and child was the backstory for both half the action films Charles Bronson ever made and the Sidney Poitier character in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (courtesy of a car crash), as well as for the Antonio Banderas character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (courtesy of Bad Men with Guns). It gets around.

The list of such common plot flares is practically endless. In a television detective story, the actor with the best résumé (who therefore cost more than the other players) will turn out to be the murderer; so will Ray Liotta, John Malkevich, Ice-T, and/or Christopher Walken — unless, of course, the directors have elected to incorporate what I like to call the Liotta Lapse, where they use an actor so habitually typecast as the guy you’re SUPPOSED to think did it, so the twist can be that someone else did.

Actually, I’ve always found it rather amusing that people in the movie industry continue to think that we’re all surprised by plot twists set up three miles in advance — in manuscripts, these cliché set-ups tend to be dismissed in the first read-through. I once attended a memorable preview of a forgettable thriller where one of the actors, unfortunately, had shown up to speak to the audience. A fairly well-known TV actor, he swore up and down that the first time he had read the script, he was stunned by the eventual plot twist.

When several audience members laughed uproariously (including, I’ll admit it, your humble narrator), the actor was unwise enough to ask us why. I spoke up: “Because ten minutes into the film, someone mentioned that the guy who turned out to be the murderer ‘had a tough childhood.’ The screenwriter might as well have erected a road sign with a big arrow that read ‘psychopath here.'”

The actor looked at me as if I had just spontaneously derived the theory of relativity from scratch on the spot. “I didn’t catch that,” he claimed, straight-faced.

Now, because I prefer for the sake of the republic to assume that most adults are reasonably intelligent, I assume the actor was lying about his own perceptions in order to protect his film from the all-too-deserved charge of predictability. For such a cause, I can cut him some slack.

However, in book form, agents, editors, and contest judges tend not to cut the author of a manuscript any slack at all. Remember, these are not charitable readers, as a rule, but business-oriented ones. They’re looking for plot twists that are genuinely surprising, not set up by plot flares a hundred pages in advance.

And that’s a problem, because most aspiring writers just LOVE foreshadowing.

Keep your foreshadowing, when you use it, SUBTLE — which means, of course, that unless you’re writing comedy, you might want to avoid having characters say of your politician protagonist in early childhood scenes, “That Harry! Some day, he’s going to be president.”

Um, can anyone out there give me even one good reason that a professional reader like me SHOULDN’T regard this as a glaring instance of telling, rather than showing?

Because it is, to my eye: the author has chosen to tell the reader point-blank that Harry has the qualities that would lead one to expect him to be president, rather than showing him exhibiting the individual characteristics through action.

Ultimately, that’s often the writerly motivation for inserting plot flares, I think: the author doesn’t trust that the reader is going to be able to figure out the irony…or the pathos, or the twist to come. Instead, try letting the circumstances lead naturally to dramatically satisfying conflicts and resolutions, rather than sending up plot flares every few pages to make sure that the reader is following along with the point.

As a writer, I have to assume that every one of my potential readers is as sharp as I am at picking up those clues. Admittedly, I was the person in the theatre who whispered to my date fifteen minutes into THE SIXTH SENSE, “Why aren’t any of the adults consulting with Bruce Willis about the kid’s case? Totally unrealistic, either in the school system or with the parent. He’s gotta be a ghost,” so we’re talking a rather high bar here, but I like plot twists that make readers gasp ALOUD.

If the reader’s been alerted by a flare, that gasp is never going to come, no matter how beautifully the revelation scene is set up. At most, the reader will have a satisfied sense of having figured the twist out in advance.

Keep it subtle, my friends. If there’s a cat in that bag, keep it there until it’s startling for it to pop out. There’s no need to have it meowing all the time first.

Keep up the good work!

PS to those of you currently residing in California: FAAB Joel Derfner is going to be giving readings from his new book, SWISH, in the week to come. If you live in the LA or San Francisco areas, drop by and say hi. Because, really, the primary reason for anyone to go to an author reading is to talk about ME, right?

Seriously, Joel has a lot of interesting things to say about the publication process, so this would be a tremendous opportunity to ask questions not only about how to become the gayest person ever, but about writerly concerns.

Monday, May 19, 7:30-9:00 pm — West Hollywood, CA
A Different Light, 8853 Santa Monica Boulevard

Tuesday, May 20, 7:30-9:00 pm — Long Beach, CA
Barnes & Noble, 6326 East Pacific Coast Highway

Thursday, May 22, 7:30-9:00 pm — San Francisco, CA
Books, Inc. in the Castro, 2275 Market Street

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

  

Yes, Fitzgerald fans, you have guessed correctly: today, we shall be delving into the wonderful world of the flashback, with special emphasis on avoiding redundancy. Sounds like a good time, eh?

Before the screen begins to go wavy, kudos to reader Sharon for reminding me yesterday that there are in fact cliché-finding programs, as well as websites that will tell you if a particular phrase is (or is close to) a cliché. I tend to downplay the usefulness of such tools, out of fear that they will tempt writers to use them as a substitute for — chant it with me now, everybody — reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting it to anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

See how hypnotic repetition can be?

Implemented judiciously, though, cliché-spotting programs can be very helpful indeed, particularly for writers who are not native English speakers or native speakers who do not happen to have grown up in Manhattan or LA. Or at any rate, not in a TV studio, sound stage, or publishing house in either.

As if that weren’t enough help in the self-editing department for one post, public-spirited long-time reader Chris Park, he of the impressive PC skills, has been kind enough to cobble together a shareware program for writers, specifically intended to catch repetition in a text. It’s called Manuscript Analyzer, straightforwardly enough, and because Chris is a generous guy, you may download it for free from his website.

Chris, I am delighted to report, will also have an excerpt from his latest novel, ALDEN RIDGE, used as an example of fine storytelling in Chris Roerden’s soon-to-be-released book on, you guessed it, self-editing, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION. Congratulations to Chris — and to Chris, too, while we’re at it!

Okay, now the screen may begin to go wavy.

In my last installment on self-editing, I went to town on the twin dangers of factual redundancy intended to remind readers of salient points (“As I mentioned back in Ch. 2, Maude, I stand to inherit a hefty chunk of change when my Uncle Mortimer dies.”) and screen clichés that have made their way into real life and vice versa (“Say ‘ah,'” kindly Dr. Whitehairedman told the child.). As I pointed out, both species are problematic in submissions, because they are so common.

Translation: professional readers get really, really tired of seeing examples of them. (And your garden-variety cliché-finder program is only going to catch the latter, please note.) But both types of repetition also tend to be, I am happy to report, some of the easiest sentences to cut.

And if you’re like so many aspiring writers in the current market — you know, the ones who clutched their hearts instinctively the first time they heard that a first novel over 100,000 words (estimated — and if you don’t know how to do that, please see the WORD COUNT category at right) is much, much harder for an agent to sell than one that, well, isn’t — this should be very good news indeed.

Because, contrary to popular belief, trimming a manuscript need not necessarily involve cutting entire scenes. Believe it or not, it can be done line by line.

Yes, really. Seriously, I’ve cut 50 pages out of a 400-page manuscript this way.

Redundant lines can often be trimmed wholesale, with no cost to the text at all. And clichés, like pop culture references and jokes that don’t quite work, are often digressions in a scene or dialogue, rather than integral to it. Much of the time, they can be deleted without adding any additional writing.

Which is a pretty good indicator all by itself that a line should be cut anyway, actually: if you wouldn’t miss it if it were gone, it should probably go.

Take, for instance, the following piece of purple prose, full of sentences just begging to hop into the tumbrel and ride to the guillotine. As you read, try to figure out how much could be cut without harming the relationships or plot of the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning, revisiting in his mind his last encounter with Cardinal Richelieu, two months before, when they had shot those rapids together in the yet-to-be-discovered territory of Colorado. Despite moments of undeniable passion, they had not parted friends. The powerful holy man was known for his cruelty, but surely, this time, he would not hold a grudge. “Can I bum a cigarette?” Marcus asked, to buy more time to recap the plot in his head.

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. “Tobacco had not come to Europe in your time.” He shook two out of the pack and stuck both into his mouth. “And barely in mine.”

He lit the pair and handed both to his erstwhile lover. They sat in silence for a moment, the smoke winding its way around the cardinal’s red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

Finally, Marcus Aurelius decided he could take this brutal wordlessness no longer. “I’ve come for some information, Armand.”

Richelieu’s hand tightened on his sawed-off shotgun. “You’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what I need to know.”

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “go a little faster if you were more specific.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu waved a bejeweled hand toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

Tell me, how much cutting did you manage to do?

Other than the obvious, that is — as a major Stoic, Marcus Aurelius clearly would not have folded so quickly under the pressure, and the suggestion that he would might conceivably pull a well-read reader out of the story; I give you that. But even ignoring the philosophical problems and the time travel that seems to have happened here, there’s room for some fairly painless trimming that would speed up the scene:

Marcus Aurelius paced the room, frowning. The powerful holy man before him was known for his cruelty, but surely, he could not still be holding a grudge about how they’d parted in Colorado. “Please tell me, Armand. For old times’ sake.”

Richelieu laughed brutally, but with an undertone of affection. The smoke from his cigarette wound its way around his red hat and through the halo of St. Jerome, who was standing nearby.

“It might,” St. Jerome suggested gently, “be helpful if you were more specific about what you wanted.”

“Yes, do come to the point.” Richelieu lifted a bejeweled hand from his sawed-off shotgun to wave languidly toward his wall-sized TV screen. “American Idol is on in an hour.”

That’s 123 words, down from 231, a substantial cut obtained through the simple expedient of removing the movie clichés (the double cigarette bit is straight out of the Bette Davis vehicle NOW, VOYAGER) and unnecessary repetition.

Do I see some hands in the air out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you ask, and rightly so, “was it really safe to cut that much? How did you know, for instance, within the context of an isolated excerpt, that the references to the Colorado scene probably referred to something that happened earlier in the book?”

Call it well-honed editorial instinct: this kind of micro-flashback almost invariably recaps a scene told more fully elsewhere — and when it isn’t shown at some point in the book, it probably should be.

Seem paradoxical? It isn’t.

A micro-flashback usually provides one or more characters’ motivation(s) in the scene occurring at the moment: here, the earlier romantic interlude has set the stage for Marcus’ belief that Richelieu would do him a favor, as well as Richelieu’s current attitude toward Marcus.

Clearly, then, this past episode is important enough to the development of both characters that the reader would benefit from seeing it in its entirety.

Which makes removing the micro-flashback from this scene an easy editorial call. To work as character development — as explanatory asides that deal with motivation must, right? — the reader really should have this information prior to the scene. Like a joke explained after it is told, character development presented as explanation of what someone has just done tends to be substantially less effective than presenting the relevant info earlier in the book, than allowing the reader to recall it at the proper moment.

Makes the reader feel smart, that does.

Think about it: a reader’s understanding of a complex character (or situation, for that matter) doesn’t really need to come in a single lump, does it? Isn’t the reader likely to develop a deeper sense of who the person is if the puzzle pieces are revealed in small shown-not-told increments?

By this logic, the micro-flashback should be cut — or at any rate minimized. If the Colorado rapids scene did happen earlier in the book, the micro-flashback here would be redundant; if it did not, the micro-flashback is not memorable enough in itself to make a lasting impression upon the reader to deserve retaining.

In other words: snip, snip.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: emotionally important scenes are almost always more powerful if they are SHOWN as fully-realized scenes, rather than merely summarized. (Oh, come on — you DON’T want to know what happened on those rapids?)

Keep an eye out for those micro-flashbacks, my friends: they’re often flares telling the editor what needs to be done to improve the manuscript. As we saw yesterday, they are often little editors, jumping up and down in the text, shouting at the tops of their tiny lungs, “Show, don’t tell!”

In this case, the cut can only help: by removing the explanatory summary here, the author will need to make sure that the earlier scene made enough of an impression upon the reader that she will remember it by the time Marcus Aurelius comes looking for information.

Yes, even if that means going back and writing the earlier scene from scratch. Sometimes, adding a fresh scene is actually a quicker and easier fix for a manuscript that drags than merely trimming the existing text.

The metaphor that I like to use for this kind of revision comes from flower arranging, believe it or not. Everyone seated comfortably? Here goes:

Think of your draft as a wonderfully immense bouquet, stocked with handfuls of flowers you have been gathering over the last couple of years. It’s lovely, but after it has been rejected a few dozen times, you’ve come to realize that maybe the bouquet is too big for the room in which the agent of your dreams wants to place it; it does not fit comfortably into the only vase she has.

So you need to trim it — but how? A good place to start would be with the most common flower. Pull out half of the daisies; a few are nice, but handfuls make the daisy point a bit more often than necessary.

Where to begin? How about with your favorite phraseology and sentiments?

If I were editing Scott Fitzgerald’s work, for instance, I might scan first for beautiful-but-misunderstood heroines staring into nearby mirrors and moaning things like, “I’m so beautiful — why can’t I be happy?” It’s sort of an interesting statement the first time one reads it (if only to provoke the question, “Would any real woman actually SAY that?”), but it occurs something like 17 times throughout his collected short stories.

This is what the literary criticism people call a trope; professional readers call it by a harsher name: redundancy.

Either way, I’m thinking that 16 of Fitzgerald’s iterations could go. Back to our bouquet metaphor.

You could start searching for the flowers that have wilted a little, or are not opening as well as others. Pulling out the wilted flowers renders the bouquet both smaller and prettier — and the ones that wilt the fastest are the ones that are borrowed from other sources, like movie tropes, which tend to date a book, anyway.

Already, your bouquet is looking lighter, more vibrant, but you liked the color that some of the discarded flowers added. Rather than pulling the cast-off blooms out of the compost bin and putting them back into the vase (as most self-editors will do), adding a fresh flower here and there is often more beneficial to the overall beauty of the bouquet.

So be open to the possibility that trimming your manuscript may well mean writing a fresh scene or two, for clarification or character development. Search your manuscript for micro-flashbacks that may be telling you what needs further elucidation.

If you apply a truly diligent eye, you may well find that a single, well-developed past scene inserted early on will replace scores of micro-flashbacks down the line.

It happens. All the time, in fact.

Like a good joke, motivation goes over better with the reader if it can be presented cleanly, without excess in-the-moment explanation. Bear that in mind as you revise, and keep up the good work!

Hearsay vs. first-hand observation, or, “He ran into the room and said…”

Last week, I waxed poetic on the joys and perils of showing, rather than telling, as we writers are so often urged to do in our work. Theoretically, this advice makes oodles of sense: it is far, far more graceful to allow the reader to draw conclusions unassisted than for the author to state point-blank that a character was like this or that, right?

Well, I guess that settles that. In other news…

Wait a minute: contrary to what some hit-and-run advice-givers would evidently have you believe, in practice, it isn’t always so obvious what should be shown and what for reasons of parsimony or pacing should be merely summarized. Today, I am going to talk a little about how striking a balance between what you choose to show and what you choose to tell can affect a reader’s perception of what’s going on in a story.

Summaries, while often necessary, have the nasty propensity to compress acres and acres of fascinating action into, well, a compressed little bundle. Why is this a problem, you ask, if a writer is trying to cover quite a bit of material quickly?

Well, many aspiring writers make the serious mistake of assuming that if what’s being DESCRIBED is interesting or action-packed, the summary automatically will be as well. However, this is often not the case. Even when the summarized activity is inherently exciting, glossing over it as quickly as possible tends to sap its impact upon the reader. Compare, for instance:

Ghislaine flung her well-muscled arms around her long-lost lover, Robert. In the midst of one of the most passionate kisses the world has ever known, her eyes closed fully for the first time in seven years. Gone was the crowd of blunderbuss-wielding soldiers awaiting her culinary artistry; vanished were the king, queen, jack, and rook whose movements across the checkered floor had diverted her from her labors. Even the snarling dog at her heels, Lord Augustine’s pet, faded from her consciousness until it savagely ripped her foot off at the ankle. As she fell to the ground to be worried into sandwich meat, she saw her kid brother rush forward and stab her one true love between the third and fourth rib.

With:

Ghislaine hugged Robert. Lord Augustine’s dog bit her, and as she fell, her kid brother stabbed Robert.

Both of these passages are describing exactly the same event — and there’s no denying that the second moves the plot along pretty expeditiously. But when speed comes at the expense of enough detail for the reader to understand what’s going on, the story suffers.

And lest you nonfiction writers out there have been feeling a bit smug throughout the discussion of show, don’t tell, over-summarization can also seriously undermine an argument as well. Often, summary in nonfiction will take the form of presenting conclusions before (or even instead of) the detailed facts from which the author is deriving the conclusions.

Don’t believe me? Check out this historical summary about today’s poster girl:

Lucilla was a Roman empress of ill repute. Actually, we only have her successors’ word for that — her younger brother, the emperor Commodus, was no prize himself. The two of them were continually trying to assassinate each other, and Commodus, after having his sister executed, was left in charge of her reputation. As has often been the case with history since, the victors in Roman times used to work overtime to smear the reputations of those whom they deposed. Recently, scholars have begun to argue, albeit not very loudly, that Caligula, Macbeth, and Richard III might not have been such bad guys.

Leaves you wanting something more, doesn’t it? Evidence to support these contentions, for instance, or perhaps some indication of WHY Marcus Aurelius’ children might have been at each other’s throats? Clearly, this is a paragraph that deserves to have SHOW, DON’T TELL scrawled in the margin next to it — in Latin, presumably — even though everything in it is factually correct.

(Yes, really — someone actually is trying to rehabilitate Macbeth’s reputation. Hard to believe that he would care much at this point, but still, it’s kind of sweet.)

In both fiction and nonfiction, readers tend to perceive summarized information as less important than detailed accounts — unless, of course, the author has overwhelmed them with five million tiny facts, each presented as equally important.

We’ve all experienced this as readers, right? As we saw above in poor Ghislaine’s case, if a narrative presents a scene vividly, it’s inherently more memorable than summarized action. In the reader’s mind, s/he was there for the former, but merely told about the latter.

Try this on for size: when the herald comes running into the banquet hall to announce that the army has lost the battle and the enemy is about to storm the castle’s walls — as anyone who has ever seen a filmed costume drama or Shakespearean tragedy would naturally expect him to do — you might want to ask yourself, “Would this scene be more exciting if I SHOWED the army fleeing and the enemy scaling the walls, instead of having good old George just turn up and tell all the rest of the characters about it?”

I’m sensing some discomfort with that last suggestion. “But Anne,” I hear some of you herald-huggers out there protesting, “isn’t George’s running into the room active and exciting? If I show the marauding hordes approaching, won’t that cut into the sense of surprise in the room when they find that they’re under siege?”

Well, yes, announcement aficionados, George’s flinging the door open and yelling at the top of his lungs would indeed be action — but is it the most effective (or important) way to impress upon the reader the practical implications of being overrun? Would it not perhaps be more startling if the revelers had no advance warning at all, so the reader just saw them react when a hundred armed Amazons broke down the door?

I’m just saying.

The classic active-teller vs. shown action misstep is somewhat more complicated than this: a character’s narrating a scene s/he observed to a third party. Here’s an example from Louisa May Alcott’s potboiler BEHIND A MASK, a highly amusing and ethically dubious tale of Jean Muir, an actress who infiltrates an affluent English country family with an eye to the main chance. (The outcome will, I promise you, surprise most readers of LITTLE WOMEN.)

Fair warning: there is more than one problem in this passage; see if you can spot the full array. Lucia has been sitting with her presumptive fiancé, Gerald, who keeps flitting away to spy on his brother and sister being enchanted by the mysterious governess:

Lucia looked at her cousin, amazed by the energy with which he spoke, the anxiety in his usually listless face. The change became him, for it showed what he might be, making one regret still more what he was. Before she could speak, he was gone again, to return presently, laughing, yet looking a little angry.

“What now?” she asked.

“‘Listeners never hear any good of themselves’ is the truest of proverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Ned, and heard the following flattering remarks. Mamma is gone, and Ned was asking little Muir to sing that delicious barcarole she gave us the other evening.

“‘Not now, not here,’ she said.

“‘Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough,’ said Ned imploringly.

“‘That is a very different thing,’ and she looked at him with a little shake of the head, for he was folding his hands and doing the passionate pathetic.

“‘Come and sing it there then,’ said innocent Bella. ‘Gerald likes your voice so much, and complains that you will never sing to him.’

“‘He never asks me,’ said Muir, with an odd smile.

“‘He is too lazy, but he wants to hear you.’

“‘When he asks me, I will sing — if I feel like it.’ And she shrugged her shoulders with a provoking gesture of indifference.

“‘But it amuses him, and he gets so bored down here,’ began stupid little Bella. ‘Don’t be shy or proud, Jean, but come and entertain the poor old fellow.’

“‘No, thank you. I engaged to teach Miss Coventry, not to amuse Mr. Coventry,’ was all the answer she got.

“‘You amuse Ned, why not Gerald? Are you afraid of him?’ asked Bella.

“Miss Muir laughed, such a scornful laugh, and said, in that peculiar tone of hers, ‘I cannot fancy anyone being afraid of your brother.’

“‘I am, very often, and so would you be, if you ever saw him angry.’ And Bella looked as if I’d beaten her.

“‘Does he ever wake up to be angry?’ asked that girl, with an air of surprise. Here Ned broke into a fit of laughter, and they are at it now, by the sound.”

Leaving aside the editor-annoying facts that people do not generally shrug anything BUT their shoulders and that if Gerald could hear the others laughing, chances are that Lucia could, too, did you catch the show-don’t-tell problems here? Or was the over-use of the verb to look just too distracting?

Give yourself a big gold star if you said that the first paragraph watered down Gerald’s changed mien by filtering it through Lucia’s conclusions about it. Give yourself two if you murmured that the transition between her perspective and his was a trifle abrupt.

If you are like most readers, though, none of these things would have qualified as this passage’s biggest problem: its real downfall is the soporific effect of having Gerald narrate this scene, flattening out all of the individual characters’ quirks. To render the reader even sleepier, the tension is lax, since we knew (because the narrative TOLD us) that he returned right away; evidently, then, what he had to tell could not have been particularly dramatic, or at any rate not life-threatening.

Zzzz.

Yet this scene could have been rather amusing and revealing, with slightly different authorial choices. By making Gerald not only the reader’s eyes and ears in a scene in which he is a passive listener AND using him as Lucia’s eyes and ears as well, this scene becomes all about Gerald’s perceptions, not about the actual dialogue he is reporting.

Had our friend Louisa instead elected to hide him behind a curtain and OBSERVE that scene, the narration could have embellished, shown each speaker’s tone, and increased the tension by introducing the possibility that he might get caught eavesdropping.

Instead, Ms. Alcott decided to keep it all from his perspective AND in his voice — anyone out there care to guess why?

To a professional reader, it’s pretty obvious: clearly, because the author wanted to use the line And Bella looked as if I’d beaten her, an impossibility UNLESS Gerald was the narrator at that juncture.

Believe it or not, an aside like this is not an uncommon reason for drafting an uninvolved actor into narrator service.

While I’m on the subject of characters narrating others’ activity, I should probably mention a pet peeve shared by scores of agents, editors, and contest judges the world over: when the narrator reports things s/he could not possibly know, presumably in the interest of not switching out of the chosen narrative voice.

This is VERY common in first-person narratives — where necessarily, ALL the reader should logically hear about is what the narrator can observe or recall. So how could the narrative possibly include other characters’ thoughts, feelings, or incidents that occurred when the narrator was not physically present?

Most of the time, writers choose one of two paths around this problem, both extremely hard to pull off on the page: abandoning the chosen narrative perspective just long enough to include necessary information that the narrator can’t know (dicey, unless the perspective shifts to an omniscient narrator) or by having someone like Gerald lope up to the protagonist and tell him what happened.

I blame television and movies for the pervasiveness of both of these strategies.

Just as the limitations of film have told writers that all human experience should be conveyed merely through the audible and the visible, leaving out other stimuli except as verbally described by the characters, they have also instructed us that where the camera can go, so can the narrator. But in a first-person narrative, this logically is not true.

I have quite a bit more to say on this subject, but for today, suffice it to say that from a reader’s perspective, just because character is shown summarizing action doesn’t make it any less a summary than if the same information appeared in a narrative paragraph. On the showing vs. telling continuum, it tends to fall toward the telling end.

Every so often, consider giving that poor herald a rest. Let the actions — and actors — speak for themselves.

Keep up the good work!