Yes, yes, I know: we had all been expecting that my next post would revert to our series-in-progress on the Short Road Home, too-quick resolution of potentially absorbing plot-moving, character-illuminating, and/or relationship-defining narrative conflict. However, a thoughtful reader posted such an interesting follow-up question to our last discussion that I couldn’t resist devoting a post to it. Quoth Nancy, in a slightly abbreviated form:
How do you handle dialogue in a scene…where the two speaking are both medical professionals? I have an emergency room scene in my novel and, after a considerable amount of research, I used one drug and three medical terms. I didn’t go overboard or anything, but do you think two doctors working on a patient in that setting using professional jargon is too much for the reader? The only people in the room participating are the medical personnel so it seemed appropriate to me.
Now, there are a couple of ways to responding to a question like this. The first — and, I must confess, the one that appeared most reasonable to me in the state of end-of-a-day-stuffed-with-medical-appointments exhaustion in which I initially read it — would be to take the issue very literally. What would happen if we took that jargon-crammed example from last time…
“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.
…and changed it from a doctor/patient interaction to a doctor/doctor conversation? It could, after all, be achieved as easily as simply having another doctor walk into the room for a consult.
“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. “But what do you think, Dr. Wheel?”
The specialist frowned, fishing around in the capacious pockets of his lab coat. “She’s a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Ah, there it is. Move your hand, Dr. Ferris.” He raised a small silver hammer far over his head, bringing it down viciously on the side of Georgette’s knee. “Does that hurt?”
“Tremendously,” she whimpered.
The two doctors exchanged significant glances. “Lateral sublexation?” Dr. Ferris suggested with a sign. “Darn, I was hoping to get in there surgically.”
“A pity, but it can’t be helped. If the displacement were in the other direction, we could have restored a more desirable Q-angle surgically.”
“What does that mean?” Georgette asked.
Ferris turned back to Wheel. “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.”
“Indubitably,” Dr. Wheel agreed.
“Hello?” Georgette shouted. “It’s my leg, remember? What precisely are you planning to do?”
The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach, and the doctors were leaving the room.
“That’s a prescription for painkillers,” Dr. Ferris called back over her shoulder. “You can have it filled at any pharmacy.”
A voice wafted back from the hallway. “You might try some ice.”
What do you think? From a purely realistic perspective, we can see that Nancy’s justification for why those particular people might use those particular terms makes a lot of sense: doctors might well say these things to each other. But as a reader, how did you feel about having all of that medical jargon tossed at you?
Don’t be shy — there is no single right answer here, merely what works on the page. If you said, “Gee, Anne, I felt that this use of jargon added to the credibility of these characters. I might not have understood all of the undefined terms they were throwing around so vigorously, but I feel like that around real doctors. An A for realism!” then you are thinking like many aspiring writers. For many a creator of a character with advanced degrees or specialized technical knowledge, jargon makes the man.
If, on the other hand, you yawned and said, “I did what I always do when confronted with technical mumbo-jumbo — I just skipped it. Wake me when the scene shifts back to some action that might actually interest me, please,” then you are like the average reader conditioned by shows like House, M.D. to regard the cessation of normal speech and a sudden barrage of medical terms as normal behavior for doctors. Best to lay one’s head down, take a brief nap, and rejoin the story once the folks in scrubs have gotten it out of their systems.
And if you said, “Wow, I couldn’t get enough of that jargon! I would have been happier if the doctor characters hadn’t spoken any comprehensible non-medical English at all,” well, you’re probably not being very realistic about this manuscript’s target audience. Few stories with a doctor’s office scene have the luxury of being able to appeal only to those with medical degrees.
Approaching the question literally gave us an important insight, didn’t it? Let’s go ahead and phrase it as an aphorism: whether the level of jargon use in dialogue is appropriate or too heavy depends not exclusively upon who the characters speaking it are, but upon who the expected readers are.
Which brings me, not entirely coincidentally, to the second way to approach an issue like this: practically. If your target reader will have trouble following what’s going on in a jargon-stuffed scene — or, as we saw above, might be bored by it — it matters far less whether those people might speak that way. Dialogue’s first duty is to be comprehensible, its second to be entertaining. If realism in dialogue were the only or even the primary criterion for judging its aptness, why would an agent seeking to a medical drama to represent look to a writer who didn’t have a medical degree to write it?
Oh, you may laugh, but hands up, anybody who has ever heard an aspiring writer defend lackluster dialogue with, “But people really talk that way in real life!” They may well, but that doesn’t mean a reader will want to pay $27 to read a transcript of it in hardcover.
Not practical enough for you? Okay, consider this: even in the unlikely event that the scene above is an excerpt from the first fiction series ever aimed exclusively at knee surgeons with a little spare time on their hands for reading, at the submission stage, Millicent and the agent for whom she works are the book’s target audience. If either of them is either confused or bored by a character’s — or, in this case, two characters’ — professional chattering, it’s not going to help to produce a tape recording to prove that doctors might indeed have said these things in real life. If dialogue is unclear or dull, it’s not going to make it past Millicent.
That made some of you just a tad defensive, didn’t it? “But Anne,” jargon-huggers the world over shout in dismay, “that’s not how an ordinary reader would respond. I don’t think a doctor character’s making few references to specific prescription drugs or referring to a body part by its Latin name is going to dissuade most readers. I understood enough of that second scene to be able to deal with it; surely, most readers would be willing to put up with a few unfamiliar nouns in the name of verisimilitude.”
Good point, jargon-lovers — often, the average reader is surprisingly tolerant of jargon. And, like you, s/he will often simply assume that what appears on the page is legitimate jargon used correctly.
You’d be astonished at how often it isn’t: add terminology and stir is quite a common recipe for realism in dialogue. All too often, writers will conduct some minimal research, dig up a few key terms, and simply plop them into the middle of a scene. It drives readers actually conversant with the subject matter nuts.
As any maddened specialist reader or frustrated Millicent would happily tell you, an astoundingly high percentage of such borrowed terms tend to be nouns or adjective-and-noun combinations. So to aficionados of poorly-applied jargon, a strong contrast in the complexity of the subject and verb choices is a tip-off that the writer might not be as familiar with the character’s professional lingo as the narrative might pretend.
So is the appearance of an undefined term in the middle of an array of otherwise relatively simple sentences. Take, for instance, how a fictional exchange between American politics professors might appear in a manuscript.
“Mason is being cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “He can’t afford to act on his political beliefs.”
Bella straightened her notes. “You just watch him. It is a multi-player Nash equilibrium. You just watch it play out.”
“I couldn’t disagree more, my dear, but time alone will tell.” Jack rose. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a class to teach.”
The undefined jargon just leaps off the page at you, doesn’t it? These two people don’t sound like experts; they sound like they are doing precisely what the writer is, throwing a limited technical vocabulary around.
But simply adding more jargon won’t make them seem more credible, even if it does make the characters sound more true-to-life. Let’s take a peek at the same scene as someone who has taught in a political science department might expect it to appear:
“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point. Ideology is an exogenous variable here.”
Bella wanted to throw the nearest book at him. “You’re conflating ideology with rational self-interest. It’s not a zero-sum game; Mason’s operating within a multi-player Nash equilibrium.”
“Oh, I see.” His tone was rich with sarcasm. “How silly of me not to reduce complex reality to an everyday collective action problem.”
She leapt to her feet. “And how ridiculous of me to expect someone who regards any two things that have ever happened simultaneously as inherently correlated! You’ve never met a dependent variable you didn’t like.”
“Look up parsimony in a dictionary,” he snarled. “It will change your life.”
Not much fun to read, is it? Yet as someone who has, for her sins, spent a heck of a lot of time in a political science department, the second version is a much better reflection of reality than the first.
But ‘fess up: even those of you who preferred the jargon-heavy doctor scene above were less tolerant of Professor Bella and Professor Jack’s speaking the lingua franca of their profession than you were of Dr. Ferris and Dr. Wheel’s technical talk, weren’t you?
If so, you’re in good company: the less familiar the field is to the reader, the more alien the jargon will seem. Thanks to Dr. House and his literary and filmic brethren and sistern, a lot of us built up quite a tolerance to barrages of medical terminology. But let the talk stray into a less-often-fictionalized field, and it’s cue the yawning.
So where does that leave Nancy’s revision difficulties? Clearly, the mere fact that two characters are purportedly experts in their fields is not sufficient justification for having them spout technical terms all over the place, yet scattering a select few phrases doesn’t ring true. The reader needs to know what they are talking about, of course. However, shoving definitions of relevant terms into the narrative portions of the scene can stop it dead in its tracks.
“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. Cross-pressuring is when one constituent group wants something diametrically opposed to what another constituent group is clamoring to see happen.
He had a point: if Mason voted for the bridge, commuters would love him, but the powerful boating lobby would hate his guts. “True,” Bella said, “but aren’t you conflating ideology with rational self-interest?”
Jack paused to consider that. Mason’s political principles, such as they were, had always been tempered by a healthy tendency to weigh what would be the best for himself in the long run. It would never do to conflate them, combining two distinct factors into a single explanation.
Enough, already: this is supposed to be a novel, not a lecture. And, as we saw yesterday, the result is not much better if one character’s role in the conversation is to lob softball questions at the other, so the reader can hear the answers.
“Mason’s cross-pressured,” Jack scoffed. “I can’t see his party jeopardizing a marginal district just to make a philosophical point.”
“Cross-pressured?” Bella asked.
“Subject to conflicting demands from constituents. I tell you, ideology is an exogenous variable here.”
Exogenous who? “Meaning?”
“Meaning that what he believes is not going to affect the outcome.” He gathered his lecture notes together. “Honestly, Bella, where did you go to grad school?”
Where indeed? By turning Professor B into little more than a mouthpiece for the reader’s probable questions about Jack’s jargon, the narrative has instantly made her seem less professionally credible. Not to mention dropping her I.Q. by about fifty points.
So what’s a reviser to do? I would advise applying what I like to call the Scotty test for jargon density.
Yes, as in the original Star Trek: its various iterations have tended to do a spectacularly good job at depicting technical specialists discussing scientific matters without overloading the audience with jargon. Look how little technical-speak is in this scene all about technical problems — and keep your ears perked up, if not actually pointed, for a brilliantly simple-yet-unobtrusive line of explanation for viewer having trouble following what’s going on.
Yes, a couple of a key phrases crop up, but did you notice how neither pacing, conflict, nor character were sacrificed pacing is seldom sacrificed to proving once again that these characters are experts in their respective fields or lengthy explanations of the physics involved? That works, because the audience can see for itself what the basic operation is — and both Scotty and Spock come across as a competent enough professional that we were willing to trust that he knew what he was doing.
And in case anyone got confused? There was just that elegant, terse line about how the transporter actually operates, cleverly placed in the mouth of the room’s only non-expert on technical matters.
The Scotty test, then, is three-pronged. Print out the scene, so you may read it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. (It’s easier to catch both grammatical and cadence problems that way.) Then ask yourself:
(1) Is the jargon actually necessary to the reader’s understanding of what’s going on in that particular moment, and thus adding to the scene? Or is there primarily because I thought an expert in this situation might actually say something like that?
If it’s the former, move on to part 2; if it’s the latter, try lightening the jargon, if not tossing it out altogether.
(2) Is the jargon here because I’m not sure whether my expert comes across as credible? If so, do I really need to prove yet again that Scotty knows how the engines work?
You’d be surprised how often narratives will re-establish specialist characters’ credentials again and again throughout the manuscript. If the character is introduced solidly and is well established in the reader’s mind as knowing what s/he is doing, it’s usually not necessary.
(3) Is the technical talk obscuring anything else in the scene? If I took out some of the jargon, would more character or relationship complexity be revealed? If my expert were less authoritative, would that add anything to the scene?
All too often, expert characters walk into crisis scenes, bark a pronouncement — and effectively stop a nice, building conflict dead in its tracks. Adding an element of uncertainty can make a scene like this spring back to life. So can having someone question the so-called expert’s authority, even if the questioner is the expert’s own doubting psyche.
If you find you can’t come up with a definitive answer to any or all of these questions, try handing the scene to two or three people who habitually read books in your chosen book category — or, if you don’t happen to have any of them handy, round up a really intelligent 10-year-old or two. (They make great readers — their sense of story tends to be very strong, and if you bore them, they will have no hesitation in telling you.) Have them read the scene, then tell the story of the scene back to you. If the context is sufficiently explanatory for the dialogue to make sense, even someone who doesn’t understand the technical terms should be able to reproduce the story. If not, the jargon is probably dominating the scene.
The answer to Nancy’s question, then, as it so often is with revision questions, is this: it all depends. All by itself, because the character might actually say that in this situation is never a sufficient justification; neither is oh, the reader doesn’t need to understand that. Millicent does need to understand, and so does your target reader. They also need to be entertained.
Thanks for raising this thought-provoking issue, Nancy, and as always, everybody, keep up the good work!