All right, I’ll ‘fess up: last time, I broke one of the cardinal rules of blogging. In Thursday’s post, I blithely signed off with I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. But tomorrow came and went, and so did Saturday. In my defense, I might point out that I stayed away from my keyboard in deference to another cardinal rule of blogging, thou shalt not post whilst feverish. But honestly, with the nastiness of this year’s Seattle Spring Cold (contracted, typically, by rushing out into the elements the nanosecond sunshine breaks through threatening deep-gray cloud cover, madly stripping off the outer layers of one’s clothing and shouting, “Sun! I thought you had forsaken us!”), I might have predicted that tomorrow might see a spike in temperature.
Unless, of course, I was feverish when I wrote the tomorrow bit. Rather than send all of us hurtling down that ethical rabbit hole, I’m just going to tender my apologies and move on.
Or, to be precise, move laterally. I’m taking a short detour from the Short Road Home series — which, as those of you keeping track will recall, was itself a digression from our ongoing Pet Peeves on Parade series — to guide you past a cautionary tale or two. Dropping that increasingly tortured set of compound analogies like the proverbial hot potato, let me simply say that the inspiration for today’s post came, as is so often the case, from the muses stepping lightly into my everyday life to provide you fine people with illustrations of writer-friendly truths.
Thank the nice ladies, please. Where are your manners?
Perhaps I am constitutionally over-eager to put a happy-faced spin on things — my first writing group did not nickname me Pollyanna Karenina for nothing — but I have been thinking for months that one of the many advantages stemming from my long-lingering car crash injuries has been the opportunity (nay, the positive necessity) to have extended conversations with a dizzying array of medical practitioners, insurance company bureaucrats, and folks waiting around listlessly for their dreaded appointments with one or the other. Everyone has a story to tell, and I’ve been quite surprised at how minuscule a display of polite interest will trigger a vivid telling.
Oh, I had expected to encounter an eagerness to swap stories in fellow accident victims — those of you scratching your heads over constructing a pitch for an upcoming conference would do well to spend some time in medical waiting rooms, gleaning summarization technique; the average person-on-crutches can deliver a gripping rendition of how she ended up that way in thirty seconds flat — but you’d be astonished at how readily even the seemingly stodgiest paper-pusher will open up if one asks a few friendly questions. After, of course, getting over his surprise that someone would treat a professional conversation as, well, a conversation.
Admittedly, I am notorious for interviewing people trying to interview me; I’ve seldom walked into my first day on a job in ignorance of what my new boss wanted to be when she grew up, the kind of poetry she wrote in high school, and/or the full details of the time that her beloved terrier, Pepper, got his front right paw caught in that barbed wire fence running along mean Mr. Jones’ alfalfa field. (Mr. Jones’ neighbors, the Heaths, were chronically inept at fencing in their pet pygmy goats, you see.) One never knows where good, fresh material may be found, after all. And having grown up helping authors prepare for interviews and Q&A sessions at book readings, I know from long experience that one of the best ways to be a scintillating interviewee is to learn something about the interviewer.
So on Feverish Friday, after extracting from my chiropractor the exciting story of how his grandfather immigrated by himself from Hungary at age 12, just in time to avoid World War I, and egging on his receptionist as she tried to top his tale with her great-grandparents’ 1880s sea journey from Ireland to Brazil, then around the southernmost tip of South America to San Francisco to establish a community newspaper — isn’t it fascinating how practically every American has at least one forebear with a genuinely harrowing immigration story or a deeply disturbing how-the-federal-troops-displaced-us-from-our-land story? — I hobbled into my next appointment, all set to glean some interesting dialogue.
Why dialogue, you ask? Having been seeing, as I mentioned, an impressive array of practitioners over the last ten months, I had begun to notice certain speech patterns. Doctors, for instance, tend to speak largely in simple declarative statements, with heavy reliance upon the verbs to be and to have, but light on adjectives and adverbs. Frequently, they will lapse into Hollywood narration during examinations, telling the patient what ordinary logic would dictate was self-evident to both parties and asking softball questions to which simple observation might have provided an answer.
By contrast, patients often positively pepper their accounts with descriptors. Although most of their sentences are in the first person singular (“I seem to have misplaced my leg, Doctor.”), they frequently back off their points when faced with medical jargon. They also tend to echo what the doctor has just said to them, as a means of eliciting clarification.
Weren’t expecting that sudden swoop into dialogue-writing theory, were you? I’ll pause a moment, to allow you to whip out your Fun with Craft notebooks.
In the right mindset for some textual analysis now? Excellent. Let’s see what the speech patterns I described above might look like on the manuscript page.
“Let me take a look.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she screamed. “Does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” she whimpered.
That may have been a vague answer, but it apparently deserved a note on her chart. “You have a dislocated knee, Georgette. It is bent at a peculiar angle and must be causing a lot of pain. It will have to be put back into place.”
“What do you mean, back into…”
The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.
The doctor smiled at her reassuringly. “You will be in pain for a while. I have written you a prescription for painkillers. Take it to a pharmacy and have it filled.”
Hard to imagine that most of these statements came as much of a surprise to Georgette, isn’t it? She may not have the medical background necessary to diagnose a dislocated knee (although the doctor’s dialogue might have been substantially the same if she had, with perhaps a bit more medical jargon tossed in), but surely, she was already aware that the bottom and top halves of her leg were not connected in their habitual manner. Nor, one suspects, was she astonished to hear that she was in pain, or that prescriptions are filled at a pharmacy.
Yet this rings true as examination-room dialogue, does it not, despite an almost complete absence of medical terminology? That would come as a shock to most aspiring novelists writing about this kind of professional interaction: in manuscript submissions, doctors tend to spout medical lingo non-stop, regardless of context.
Stop laughing — it’s true. Whether they are in a hospital or in a bar, at the beach or at a funeral, fictional doctors often sound like they’re giving a lecture to medical students. Similarly, fictional lawyers frequently use terminology appropriate to closing arguments in a murder trial while ordering a meal in a restaurant, fictional professors apparently conduct seminars on Plato at cocktail parties, and fictional generals are incapable of speaking to their toddlers in anything but terse, shouted commands.
Okay, so that last one was a bit of an exaggeration, but you’d be surprised at how often Millicent the agency screener is faced with manuscripts in which professional credentials are established purely through a liberal dose of jargon.
Why is that problematic? Since your garden-variety Millie not only went to college with people who went on to become doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like, but may well have parents or siblings who pursue those avocations, it’s likely to give her pause when characters spout professional-speak in non-professional contexts. To her, those characters are likely to seem either unrealistic — a scientist who spoke nothing but shop talk around non-scientists would have a difficult time socially, after all — or monumentally insecure, because, let’s face it, well-adjusted doctors, lawyers, professors, and/or generals don’t really need to keep reminding bystanders of their standings in their respective fields. Or indeed, to keep reminding them what those fields are.
However, to writers not lucky enough to have spent much time around professionals in the fields about which they are writing — the non-medically-trained writer whose protagonist is a doctor, perhaps, or the non-cook whose mystery takes place in a restaurant — jargon may appear to be the primary (or only) means of demonstrating a character’s credibility as a member of that profession. Dropping some jargon into dialogue is certainly the quickest way to suggest expertise to the non-specialist: as most readers will not be intimately familiar with the actual day-to-day practices of, say, a diamond cutter, including a few well-defined diamond-cutting terms into a gem-handling character’s dialogue during scenes in which s/he is discussing jewelry might add quite a bit of verisimilitude.
Oh, you were expecting a concrete (or perhaps rock-based) example? Ah, but I follow the well-known writing precept write what you know — and its lesser-known but equally important corollary, do not write about what you don’t know — and if you must write about something outside your area of expertise, do a little research, already.
Okay, it’s a mouthful, but it’s fine advice, nevertheless. Because I know next to nothing of diamond-cutting and its lingo, it’s a good idea for me not to attempt a scene where a character’s credibility hangs on her expertise in gemology. It also would not necessarily make the scene ring any truer to those who do know something about the field if I invested all of twenty minutes in Googling the field, lifted four or five key terms, and shoved them willy-nilly into that character’s mouth.
Which is, alas, precisely what aspiring dialogue-constructors tend to do to characters practicing medicine for a living. Let’s invade poor Georgette’s appointment with Dr. Ferris again, to see what the latter might sound like if we added a heaping helping of medical jargon and stirred.
“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” she whimpered.
“Lateral sublexation.” That apparently deserved a note on the chart. “You see, Georgette, if the displacement were in the other direction, we might have to resort to surgery to restore a more desirable Q-angle. As it is, we can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”
“What do you mean, rebalance…”
The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.
Rather than focusing on whether a doctor might actually say any or all these things — some would get this technical, some wouldn’t — let me ask you: did you actually read every word of the jargon here? Or did you simply skip over most of it, as many readers would have done, assuming that it would be boring, incomprehensible, or both?
While we’re at it, let me ask a follow-up question: if you had not already known that Georgette had dislocated her knee, would this jargon-stuffed second version of the scene have adequately informed you what had happened to her?
For most readers unfamiliar with knee-related medical terminology (and oh, how I wish I were one of them, at this point), it would not. That’s always a danger in a jargon-suffused scene: unless the text takes the time to define the terms, they often just fly right over the reader’s head. Stopping the scene short for clarification, however, can be fatal to pacing.
“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.”
“It’s a mistracked kneecap.” Dr. Ferris poked around, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “It must be. You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia.”
Georgette was afraid to ask what chondromalacia was, just in case she wasn’t too young to get it. She should have asked, because unbeknownst to her, chondromalacia of the patella, the breakdown or softening of the cartilage under the kneecap, is quite common in runners.
A particularly vicious poke returned her attention to the doctor. “Does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” she whimpered.
Slower, isn’t it? The switch to omniscient exposition (and judgmental omniscient exposition, at that) in the narrative paragraph shifts the focus of the scene from the interaction between the doctor and the patient to the medical information itself. Too bad, really, because the introduction of the jargon raises the interesting possibility of a power struggle between the two: would Georgette demand that Dr. Ferris explain what was going on in terms she could understand, or would she passively accept all of that jargon as unquestionable truth?
Oh, you thought that I was off my conflict-on-every-page kick? Never; passive protagonists are on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Speaking of which, this latest version contained one of her lesser-known triggers. Any guesses?
If you immediately flung your hand into the air and cried, “I know, Anne! Paragraph 4 implied that Georgette had been thinking the entirety of the previous paragraph, rather than just its first sentence,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. Coyly indicating that the protagonist is reading the text along with the reader used to be a more common narrative trick than it is today, probably because it no longer turns up in published YA so much, but that has not reduced the ire the practice tends to engender in professional readers.
“But Anne!” I hear some of you fond of 1970s-style YA narration protest. (You probably also favor the fairy-tale paragraph opening it was then that… , don’t you?) “I didn’t read Paragraph 4 that way at all. I just thought that the narration was cleverly acknowledging the time necessary for Georgette to have felt the fear expressed in the first sentence of Paragraph 3.”
Fair point, old-fashioned narrators, but why bother? Merely showing the thought is sufficient to indicate that it took time for Georgette to think it. Since that would have eaten up only a second or two, showing her so wrapped up in the thought (and, by implication, the sentence that follows, which she did not think) that it requires an external physical stimulus to bring her back to ordinary reality makes her seem a bit scatter-brained, doesn’t it? Combined with the echo of the doctor’s words in her first speech in Paragraph 2, the overall impression is that she quite confused by a relatively straightforward interaction.
Generally speaking, the harder it seems for a character to follow the plot, the less intelligent s/he will seem to the reader. If the distraction had been depicted here as pain-related, it might make sense that someone else would need to remind her to pay attention to what’s going on, but this isn’t a particularly intense thought. Besides, it’s related to what the doctor is doing to her — why would she need to make an effort to think and feel simultaneously?
Speaking of character I.Q. levels, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the use of jargon will not necessarily make a doctor or character in a similar profession appear smarter. In fact, it may well make him seem less articulate: the clichéd fictional male nerd who has trouble speaking to real, live women (although such people tend to study and work beside real, live women every day, TV and movies have conveniently trained us to ignore that fact) is not, after all, a cultural icon for his communication skills. Intelligent people — at least, those who are not trying to impress others with their jargon-mongering — consider their audiences when choosing what to say; deliberately talking above one’s conversational partner’s head is usually indicative of a power trip of some sort.
Or rampant insecurity. Or both.
Yes, really. As a reader — and, perhaps more to the point, as someone who reads manuscripts for a living — if I encountered the last two versions of Dr. Ferris on the page, I would assume that I was supposed to think, “Wow, this doctor is a poor communicator,” rather than, “Wow, this doctor is knowledgeable.” I would assume, too, that the writer had set this up deliberately.
Why? Well, the heavy use of jargon emphasizes the power differential between these two people at the expense of the reader’s comprehension. Indeed, in the last example, Georgette’s reluctance to admit that she does not understand the terms seems to be there almost exclusively to add more conflict to the scene. As the jargon doesn’t seem to serve any other narrative purpose, what else could I possibly conclude?
Oh, you have other ideas? “Yes, I do, Anne,” those of you still slightly irritated by our wrangle over the proper interpretation of Paragraph 4 point out. “Some of us use jargon because, well, that’s the way people in the fields we’re writing about actually speak. There’s no understanding some of ‘em. By reproducing that confusion on the page, we’re merely being realistic.”
Ah, but we’ve discussed this earlier in the series, have we not? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-term readers: just because a real-life person like a fictional character might say something doesn’t mean it will work on the manuscript page. The purpose of written dialogue is not, after all, to provide a transcript of actual speech, but to illustrate character, advance the plot, promote conflict — and, above all, to be entertaining to read.
By virtually everyone on earth’s admission, jargon from a field other than one’s own is not particularly entertaining to hear, much less read. Jargon is, by definition, exclusive: it’s meaningful to only those who know what it means.
That’s why in most published fiction, it’s kept to a minimum: since it’s safe to assume that the majority of readers will not be specialists in the same field as the character in question, merely sneaking in an appropriately avocation-specific term here or there will usually create a stronger impression of expertise than laying on the lingo with a too-generous hand.
And please, just to humor me, would everyone mind laying off the professor-who-can’t-stop-lecturing character for a while? I used to teach Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius at a major university, and I’ve been known to speak like a regular human being.
Case in point: go, Huskies!
See how annoying insider references can be? While that last bit may have brought a gleam of recognition to the eyes of those of you who live in the Pacific Northwest (or who are devoted to college football, women’s basketball, and/or cutting-edge cancer research), I would imagine that it left the rest of the Author! Author! community completely unmoved.
That’s precisely how readers who don’t get inside jokes in manuscripts feel. No matter how trenchant a reference may seem to those who happen to work within a particular industry, unless you plan for your book to be read by only people within that arena, it may not be worth including. At least not at the submission stage, when you know for a fact that your manuscript will need to gain favor with at least three non-specialist readers: Millicent, her boss the agent, and the editor to whom the agent will sell your book.
Oh, scrape your jaws off the floor. Few agents or editors — and, by extension, their screeners and assistants — can afford to specialize in novels or memoirs about a single subject area. The agent of your dreams have represented a book or two in which a doctor was a protagonist, but it’s unlikely that she will sell nothing but books about doctors. Even a nonfiction agent seldom specializes to that extent.
It’s in your manuscript’s strategic best interest, then, for you to presume that virtually any professional who will read your book prior to publication will not be an expert in your book’s subject matter — and thus will not be a native speaker of any jargon your characters might happen to favor. Bear in mind that if Millicent says even once, “Wait — I’ve never seen that term used that way before,” she’s substantially more likely to assume that it’s just a misused word than professional jargon.
Try thinking of jargon like a condiment: used sparingly, it may add some great flavor, but apply it with a too-lavish hand, and it will swamp the main course.
Interestingly, US-based aspiring writers have historically been many, many times more likely to employ the slay-‘em-with-jargon tactic in the dialogue of upper middle-class professional characters than in that of blue-collar workers. On the page, doctors, professors, and other beneficiaries of specialized higher education may flounder to express themselves in a social context, but plumbers, auto mechanics, coal miners, and longshoremen are apparently perfectly comfortable making the transition between shop talk and conversing with their non-specialist kith and kin. Unless Our Hero happens to be dealing with a particularly power-hungry plumber, the mechanic-who-turns-out-to-be-the-killer, or someone else pathologically intent upon establishing dominance in all situations, the writer is unlikely to resort to piling on employment-based jargon so that character can impress a casual acquaintance.
To those of us who happen to have had real-world interactions with pathological plumbers, world domination-seeking appliance repair people, and yes, doctors with poor communication skills, prone to responding to their patients’ input by pulling rank, essentially, this seems like an odd literary omission. Professionals using expertise for power is hardly rare in any field. Rather than taking the time to listen to an objection, consider whether it is valid, and either take steps to ameliorate the situation or explain in a manner comprehensible to the layman why the objection is invalid, some specialists routinely dismiss the non-specialist’s concerns purely on the grounds that a non-specialist could not possibly understand anything.
Best leave it to the professionals, dear. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.
According to this logic (at least as it runs in my pretty little head), not only must the non-specialist’s diagnosis of the problem be wrong — her observations of the symptoms must be flawed as well. Since there is by definition no argument the non-specialist can make in response, the professional always wins; the only winning move for the non-specialist is not to play.
Which is why, I suspect, the classic send-up of this situation still rings as true today as it did when it originally aired in 1969. Here it is, for those of you who have somehow managed never to see it before.
I’m sure we all have our own favorite real-world examples of this phenomenon. I spent my formative years, for instance, listening to my mother being berated by a monumentally ill-tempered Italian car specialist named Rolf who insisted that any problems she might be experiencing with our Fiat must inevitably have been the result of her genetically-induced fundamental misunderstanding of the workings of the internal combustion engine — instead of, say, the fact that some part integral to the running of that internal combustion engine had ceased to function. Since he was the only mechanic within a 20-mile radius who serviced European cars, she and all of the other female drivers in town either had to put up with his frequent assertions that automobiles simply disliked being driven by women or walk.
Eventually, Mother started driving a Chevy. Where the customer is always wrong, flight is sometimes the only dignified option.
As those of us unfortunate enough to have tangled with the Rolfs of this world know to our sorrow, specialized knowledge can be used as a weapon. Bearing that in mind, let’s reconsider the power dynamic between Georgette and Dr. Ferris. Specifically, let’s take another look at all of those statements of fact with an eye to how they contribute to the tension of the scene, even without the benefit of jargon.
“Hold still and let me take a look.” Dr. Ferris poked around the kneecap, nodding whenever her patient screamed. “Does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” Georgette whimpered.
She made a note on the chart. “You have a dislocated knee. It is bent at a peculiar angle and must be causing a lot of pain. It will have to be put back into place.”
“What do you mean, back into…” The wrench knocked her unconscious.
When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, Dr. Ferris was scribbling on a pad. “You will be in pain for a while,” she said. “I am writing you a prescription for painkillers. Take it to a pharmacy and have it filled.”
First, hands up, everybody who was surprised to learn that Dr. Ferris was female. I wouldn’t be astonished if it was most of you: even today, unless a reader is specifically told that an authority figure is a woman, s/he will usually assume it is a man. Especially in a scene like this, where the character is laying down the law, most readers associate conversational dominance with maleness. (True of both jargon use and a working knowledge of the internal combustion engine, too, by the way, possibly due to the unholy sway of Rolf and his ilk.)
These simple declarative statements serve another purpose in this sterling piece of dialogue, however: by naming what is almost certainly pretty obvious to everyone concerned, Dr. Ferris is establishing her authority as the sole interpreter of reality in the room. And with good reason: the same medical background that enables her to label Georgette’s knee as dislocated (as opposed to, say, being fractured or having snapped back into place by itself) is about to lead her to do something highly unpleasant to her patient’s leg. If she spoke in less definite terms, Georgette might resist the treatment.
That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, people concerned about establishing and maintaining authority tend not to incorporate a great deal of if/then logic into their speech, the way, say, a good teacher would. Language that implies doubt invites discussion, right? (As, indeed, that last sentence was intended to do.)
Take a gander at how different the exchange above would have been had Dr. Ferris tried to elicit even a minimal amount of information from her patient, rather than immediately beginning to make non-negotiable statements about what is, after all, Georgette’s knee. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s allow the narrative to take a greater interest in what happened from her point of view.
Georgette staggered into the examination room, her bruised eye blinking against the harsh fluorescent light. With effort, she hoisted herself onto the cold table to wait. After a few futile efforts to find a comfortable position, she gave up and just leaned back against the wall, regardless of the pain.
Eleven minutes later, Dr. Ferris walked into the room, eyes glued to her chart. “So, Georgette, what’s the matter today? You’re having some problem with your knee?”
Instinctively, her bloody hands flew to her leg. “I tumbled off my hovercraft when I was going 120 miles per hour, Doctor. I had to dog-paddle around the lake for half an hour before I found the bottom half of my leg.”
“Well, you seem to have done a good job of reattaching it.” Dr. Ferris poked around the kneecap’s ring of crude black stitches, poking the yarn neatly into the wound wherever it poked out. “How much does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” Georgette whimpered. “It feels like my kneecap’s shattered.”
She made a note on her chart. “I’m not surprised, given the level of swelling. A dislocated kneecap can be very painful, but we’ll soon fix that. Ready, Georgette?”
“Ready for what?” The wrench knocked her unconscious.
When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, Dr. Ferris was scribbling on a pad. “How are you feeling?” she asked brightly.
Tricked? Outraged? Like she’d fallen into the hands of a witch doctor? “A little better.”
“Good. Go home and elevate it, icing it as much as you can bear.” Dr. Ferris held a slip of paper just out of her patient’s reach. “If I gave you a prescription for painkillers, would you promise me to use them only to sleep?”
Yeah, right. “Naturally, Doctor,” Georgette said primly, snatching the prescription.
See how much reducing the number of flat factual statements opened up the conflictual possibilities of the scene? (Many readers would also find Dr. Ferris more feminine in this version.) Declarative statements imply that there is no room for debate, short of flat contradiction. Thus, in the earlier versions, the doctor’s heavy reliance on to be: this is the way things are, and if you don’t agree with my interpretation of reality — which is, like all individual interpretations of reality, subjective, if only in how I frame my ostensibly objective questions about your subjective experience — well, that’s a problem in and of itself.
That parrot’s not dead. The expert said so.
At least, I think he did; I may not have understood the jargon. Oh, my pretty little head. Keep up the good work!