Sorry to have skipped a day, my friends: a too-long writing session evidently made a couple of my vertebrae go on strike, and my chiropractor advised me to go easy on activities that might require, say, staring straight ahead for any period of time, operating a mouse, or looking down at a manuscript for hours on end while clutching a pen.
In other words, my usual workday. So picture me shrugging repeatedly as I write this.
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. Almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor, after all, so it is worth triple-checking your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.
Why? Well, interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. So it would behoove you to pay particular 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/woman and best friend/cop and partner 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 — and can he 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 all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open with conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?
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:
*** “So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years. For the first four, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth.”
“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now. If only you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert, was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy.”
“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 the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”
When you are scanning your submission for this type of dialogue — and you should — don’t forget to keep an eye out for its 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.”
“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 that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?
If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, give yourself full marks. 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.
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. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.
There you have it — two more excellent reasons to read your manuscript out loud 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. In the meantime, I’m off to ice my neck. Don’t tell my chiropractor I wrote so much, please, and keep up the good work!