Hello, readers —
I’ve chosen a relatively light-hearted topic on this unseasonably sunny pseudo-spring day: today, I am going to introduce you to the Short Road Home’s glamorous first cousin, Hollywood Narration. I was stunned to realize that I had not yet written a whole post on this, because honestly, as far as I’m concerned, Hollywood Narration is one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild. So dig out your dusty sunglasses from the bottom of your backpack, and we’ll get started.
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, Bob, 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 Bob 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.”
Bob 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?” Bob 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, Bob, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Tad 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?” Bob 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.
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. Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions.
I blame television and movies for this — and going back even farther, radio plays. As I pointed out a few days ago, TV and movies are technically constrained media: they can utilize 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.
As a result, TV, movie, and radio broadcasts are positively crammed with Hollywood Narration — thus the name. How many times 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 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 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. 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 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 the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, pronto. 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, Mommy?”
“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”
Well, in a book, it IS odd, 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 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. At minimum, it is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.
The problem is, 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?”
In self-editing, there is an infallible device for detecting Hollywood narration: any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by the phrase, “As you know…” should probably be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.
I’m off now to enjoy this beautiful day. I’m told that Seattlites lead the nation in sunglass sales, and are right at the bottom in terms of per capita umbrella ownership. (“Rain?” we ask puzzled visitors who timidly suggest that it might be prudent to shade one’s head from a downpour. “THIS isn’t rain. THIS is a thick mist.”) Which means that we are either as a group charmingly optimistic or totally deluded about our climate. Or perhaps merely that, like moles, our long, gray winter renders our eyes unaccustomed to bright light.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini