Pardon my missing a post yesterday, please — things are a trifle hectic chez Mini at the moment. I’m being interviewed for a Latin American documentary about Philip K. Dick at the end of this week. I’m told that the Dick estate has refused to allow the documentarians access to even photographs of Philip, much less interviews. Since documentaries, like other movies, rely heavily upon visual stimuli, there has been a last-minute scramble to try to find filmable objects. Complicating the process: literally everyone affiliated with my family is and was camera-shy, and PKD biographers, biographer-wannabes, and fans have been filching snapshots from the family albums throughout my entire lifetime.
So to those of you who are planning on being famous after your deaths: document, document, document. Then seal the evidence someplace safe. Your biographers will thank you, and so will your documentarians.
Now, you’d think that, given that I wrote an entire memoir about my relationship with Philip (and no, still no news from my publisher about whether he’s made a final decision about going through with publishing it or not. I honestly haven’t been kidding when I’ve said that decisions within the industry are often made at a rate that would make an evolutionary biologist wildly impatient), I would be used to be interviewed on the subject, but actually, for most of my life, I have been actively avoiding being interviewed by Philophiles.
So this will be the first time I have ever spoken on camera about him, believe it or not. It’s a tad intimidating to talk in public, even in Spanish (okay, so I’ll be dubbed), on my personal experience: as long-term readers of this blog will recall, when I tried to write about it, the Dick estate’s attorneys threatened my publisher. Early and often.
So think good thoughts for me between now and Monday, please. I’ll try to log on and pass along details from the front, of course, but I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to get away to post. Therefore, I’m going to be covering a LOT of conceptual ground today, to give you lots to think about while I’m on hiatus.
Dialogue came in for quite a lot of lambasting on the Idol first-page rejection reasons list, didn’t it? (If you’re unfamiliar with this list, please see my post of October 31.) To refresh your memory, here are all of the dialogue-related quibbles:
17. The characters talk about something (a photo, a person, the kitchen table) for more than a line without describing it, creating false suspense.
25. The first lines were dialogue. (To be fair, only one of the agents, Daniel Lazar, seemed to have a problem with this.)
26. When the first lines are dialogue, the speaker is not identified.
30. Overuse of dialogue, in the name of realism.
51. What I call Hollywood narration — when characters tell one another things they already know. (They don’t call it by my term for it, but they don’t like it, either.)
52. The tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue. (The example used: “She squawked.”)
I’ve dealt with the first three objections in previous posts, but it’s worth noting that a full 8.1% — roughly an eighth — of the Idol objections were dialogue-based, more than on any other single technical aspect. The moral, I think: be very, very sure that any dialogue you use on page 1 is flawlessly executed, scintillating in content, and absolutely necessary. Because, as we may see, agents seem to be a trifle touchy about it.
Actually, while I’m at it, I’m going to add a quibble of my own: too many tag lines. For those of you who don’t know, a tag line is the “he said” part of the dialogue, and a healthy percentage of the industry was trained to believe that in good writing, (a) in two-person dialogue, tag lines are usually disposable, thus (b) writing with fewer tag lines tends to be better than writing with more, and (c) the vast majority of the time, “said” is a perfectly adequate word to describe a human being speaking.
(c), obviously, underlies the critique of “she squawked.”
While, equally obviously, the degree to which a particular speaking verb is problematic varies from reader to reader, #52 (the tag lines are more revealing than the dialogue), is a fairly industry-wide objection. Most of us have had English teachers who subscribe to this school of thought, the type who rapped us on the knuckles if we dared to use an adverb in a tag line, because, well, Hemingway never would have done it, and if the dialogue itself were descriptive enough, no one would need to know that Charles said it laconically.
I’ve posted enough, I think, on the issue of dialogue-only scenes, where the reader isn’t given one iota of hint about how certain things are said or what is going on in the room, for my regular readers to know my opinion on bare-bones dialogue. But over-used tag lines are something different: trust me, if your job were reading hundreds of pages of prose every single day, unnecessary verbiage would be likely to start to annoy you FAST. To try to show you why you might want to go a little light on the tag lines (and on the squawking, while we’re at it) on page 1, here’s a fairly average chunk of dialogue:
“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew said snappishly. “Your soup is ice-cold.”
Joanna sighed, “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”
“Like that’s hard work,” Andrew snorted. “The dumb clucks just sit there.”
“No, actually,” Joanna said priggishly. “Geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”
“Yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew huffed. “I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”
“We have to wait until after dark,” Joanna moaned, “until the birds are asleep.”
“We?” Andrew pounced. “Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”
Now, this excerpt would be especially annoying to a tag line minimalist, as it is reflects a quite common writerly misconception, that the mere fact of enclosing phrases within quotation marks is not signal enough to the reader that a character is speaking the words out loud, rather than just thinking them. To adherents of this theory, the mere idea of not both identifying every speaker and stating specifically that he is, in fact, saying these words out loud is a one-way ticket to anarchy.
However, to most folks in the industry, it just seems repetitive — or, to put it in the language of the biz, time-wasting. Remember, our over-worked and under-dated agency screener has to write a summary of the story of any submission she recommends her superior reads; she wants you to cut to the chase.
So what’s the writer to do, just cut out all but the absolutely essential tag lines, in order that her first page would read 42 seconds faster? Let’s take a gander at what would happen:
“It’s about time you got home,” Andrew snapped. “Your soup is ice-cold.”
Joanna sighed. “I told you that I was going to have to work late. It’s inventory time at Poultryco, honey, and as you know, I am the barnyard manager. Who is going to count the geese, if not me?”
“Like that’s hard work. The dumb clucks just sit there.”
“No, actually, geese are quite aggressive. They’re territorial, in fact. Why, don’t you remember just last year, when young Jeremy Faulkner was pecked to death in the granary?”
“Yes, of course I remember. I sang the Ave Maria at his funeral, right? You know I’m the only tenor in the local Methodist church choir who can hit that top C. But that doesn’t explain why you need to stay out until eleven p.m.”
“We have to wait until after dark, until the birds are asleep.”
“We? Don’t tell me that good-looking ruffian Dario Blaine is working for you again. Why, every husband here in Karaoke City knows his reputation with the ladies. He’s the Don Juan of chicken pluckers.”
A trifle sparse, admittedly, but there isn’t any serious question about who is speaking when, is there? Personally, I would opt for breaking up the dialogue a bit by adding a few character-revealing descriptive elements that are not speech-related, such as the facts that Andrew is wearing a giant panda costume and the soup is cream of bamboo. (Rather changes your view of Joanna’s tardiness, doesn’t it? Would you rush home to that, particularly if you knew that every Thursday’s dessert was Pinecone Flambé?)
Do I hear some of you whimpering impatiently out there, hands in the air, to tell me what else is wrong with this chunk of dialogue? The de-tag lined version made it even more apparent, didn’t it?
Sorry, the Idol agents beat you to it: #51. when characters tell one another things they already know, so that the reader will be filled in on necessary background. Those of you familiar with this blog already have a name for this phenomenon, Hollywood narration; in the science fiction/fantasy community, it also has a name, “So as I was telling you, Bob…”
Either way, it is logically indefensible. It is absurd to the point of impossibility that Andrew does not know his wife’s job title or where she works, just as it is exceptionally improbable that he would have forgotten Jeremy Faulkner’s traumatic death, or that Joanna would have forgotten either the funeral or her husband’s participation in the church choir. And don’t even get me started on ol’ Dario’s local reputation.
More importantly for our purposes here, Hollywood narration tends to annoy the dickens out of your garden-variety agency screener. Not merely because it is so common — and believe me, it is: TV and movie scripts abound with this sort of dialogue, which in turn influences both how people speak and what writers hear — but because it’s kind of an underhanded way of introducing backstory. In a script, it’s understandable, as film has only sound and sight to tell a story. But a book has all kinds of narrative possibilities, right?
There was a sterling example of a VERY common subgenus of Hollywood narration read at the Idol session. It was apparently a mystery that opened with the mother of a recently-recovered kidnap victim badgering the detective who was handling the case to find the kidnapper, pronto. My, but Mom was informative: within the course of roughly ten lines of back-and-forth dialogue, she filled in the detective on the entire background of the case. Because, naturally, as the primary investigator, he would have no recollection of anything associated with it. (Maybe he was suffering from amnesia; having heard only the first page, I couldn’t tell you.) And, equally naturally, she insisted upon being brought in to collaborate on the investigation.
The Idol panelists’ reaction to this piece was fascinating, because every time one of them started to wind down his or her critique of it, another found yet more reason to object to it. Among the objections:
*The characters are telling one another things they already know.
*The opening scene was almost entirely dialogue, without giving the reader a sense of place or character.
*This scene has been in a LOT of books and movies. (Hey, blame Dashiell Hammett.)
*”I’ve never understood why third parties in mysteries always want to investigate the crimes themselves.” (I’m guessing that the agent who said this doesn’t represent a whole lot of cozy mysteries.)
*(After a slight lull in the bloodbath.) “If the kid is back safely after the kidnapping, why should we care?”
Brutal, eh, for less than a single page of dialogue? If you learn nothing else from this series, please take away this one thing: agency screeners virtually never cut any writer any slack. That opening page needs to SCREAM excellence. So it would really behoove you to check your dialogue-based opening scenes very, very carefully to make sure that they are saying PRECISELY what you want them to say about you as a writer.
Where this becomes most problematic, of course, is in very realistic dialogue — which brings me to #30, over-use of dialogue, in the name of realism. We writers pride ourselves on our ears for dialogue, don’t we? A gift for reproducing on the page what people really sound like is highly revered, in our circles. It’s an important part of characterization, right?
So why do some of our best, most true-to-life dialogue scenes make agency screeners yawn? Well, most real-life dialogue is pretty boring when reproduced on a page. Think about it: when was the last time you read a trial transcript for FUN?
If you doubt this, try a little experiment. Take a pad and paper to a public venue — a crowded bus, a busy restaurant, that tedious holiday potluck your boss always insists will boost company morale, but only makes it apparent that the company is too cheap to spring for caterers — pick a couple of conversers, and jot down everything they say for a couple of minutes. No fair eavesdropping on a couple having an illicit affair or a duo plotting the overthrow of the city council, now — pick an ordinary conversation.
Then go home and type it up — dialogue only, mind you, not your embellishment upon it. Just as you would in a novel, take out any references to current TV shows, movies, or political events, because that would date the manuscript. (In many cases, this will eliminate the entire conversation.) With a straight a face as you can, hand the result to one of your trusted first readers. Say that you are trying out a new style of dialogue, and ask if the scene works.
99.9% of the time, it won’t.
Why? Well, real-life dialogue tends to be very repetitious, self-referential, and, frankly, not something that would tend to move a plot along. If you’re in conversation with someone with whom you speak quite frequently, you will use shared metaphors that might not make sense to an outside observer, but you’re not very likely to be discussing anything crucial to the plot of your life over coffee with a coworker.
And even if you ARE, unlike a conversation in a book, where much matter can be compressed into a single exchange, there’s just not a whole lot of incentive in real life for the stakes to be high enough to settle major life decisions within just a couple of minutes’ worth of highly relevant dialogue. Nor are you likely to import lovely language or trenchant symbolism that enlightens the reader about the human condition. It’s not even all that likely to be entertaining to a third party. It’s just talk, usually, something people do to lubricate relationships and fill time.
I’m all for relationship-lubrication on the page, but time-filling can be deadly, especially on page 1 of a book. Remember: move it along. Remember, too, that no writer in the world gets to stand next to a screener, agent, or editor during a first read, saying, “But it really happened that way!”
In a submission, it’s always good to bear in mind that even the readers of the most serious books in the world are generally interested in being entertained. So entertain them.
And, naturally, keep up the good work!