Last time, I leapt up on my soapbox to point out the pacing dangers inherent to sneaking too much background information or physical description into interview scenes early in a novel submission. (For those of you joining this series in mid-flight, an interview scene is one where a character — generally the protagonist — obtains information critical to the plot and/or character development from another character, extracted through dialogue.)
In both cases, I implored you to take this as your rule of thumb: while not everything that people say in real life makes good dialogue, it’s an excellent idea to make sure that all of your dialogue is in fact something a real person MIGHT say.
And, as I pointed out yesterday, real human beings tend not to tell one another things they already know — except about the weather (“Some heavy rains we’ve been having, eh?”) and the relative progress sports teams (“How about them Red Sox?”), perversely enough.
Adhering to this rule while revising usually results in trimming interview scenes substantially. This is particularly true for interviews that open novels, where Hollywood narration and dialogue stuffed with visual clues about characters tend to congregate — and thus are likely to do the most damage.
Why are these phenomena more dangerous here than elsewhere? It’s not fair, but if the first couple of pages of text are a bit heavy-handed, agency screeners like our old friend Millicent tend to assume that the ENTIRE text reads the same way. An assumption, as you no doubt have already guessed, that conveniently enables Millie to reject the descriptively front-loaded submission immediately and move swiftly on to the next.
I have seen a LOT of good manuscripts done in by this tendency; it’s genuinely hard to handle opening description well. Because this is such a common problem, as an editor, one of the first places I look to trim is that first scene — which, as I mentioned yesterday, is very, very frequently an interview scene.
Want to see why it’s problematic? Take, for instance, this piece of sterling prose:
***”Don’t you go rolling those large hazel eyes at me, Thelma,” Marcel warned. “It hasn’t worked on me since our days in the chorus twelve years ago, in that bizarre road company of Auntie Mame. And you can save the eyelash fluttering, too. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”
Thelma laughed. “That’s a fine criticism, coming from a man wearing false eyelashes. Just because you’re a drag queen doesn’t mean you can’t dress with some taste. I mean, bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”
“What about you?” Marcel shot back. “In your puce bathrobe with purple magnolias dotted all over it still, at this time of day!”
Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. “Because you’re my best friend in the world, I’m going to be absolutely honest with you: you’re too heavy-set for a miniskirt now, darling. Certainly if you’re not going to shave your legs. What are you now, forty-five and a size twenty-four?”
Marcel smoothed down his Technicolor orange wig. “At least at six feet, I’m tall enough to wear Armani with style. Your cramped five foot three wouldn’t even be visible on a catwalk.”***
Admittedly, the banter here is kind of fun, but a judicious mixture of dialogue and narration would convey the necessary information less clumsily, without rendering the dialogue implausible. Try this on for size:
***Thelma rolled her large hazel eyes. Even ensconced in a ratty puce bathrobe that barely covered her short, round form, she carried herself like the Queen of the Nile.
Unfortunately for her dignity, her icy hauteur act had grown old for Marcel twelve years ago, three weeks into their joint chorus gig in that chronically under-attended road tour of Auntie Mame. “You can save the eyelash fluttering, sweetheart. You’re wearing too much mascara, anyway.”
Thelma laughed. “You’re a fine one to talk taste. Bright red lipstick with a pale lavender sweater? Please.”
His thick, black false eyelashes hit where his pre-plucked eyebrow had originally been; his current fanciful impression of an eyebrow swooped a good four inches higher, threatening to merge with his Technicolor orange wig. Even for a career drag queen, his moue of surprise was a bit overdone. “Will you be getting dressed today, darling?” he asked brightly. “Or should I just get you another bottle of gin, to complete your Tallulah Bankhead impression?”
Thelma walked around him, to check that the seams on his stockings were straight. He was getting too heavy to wear fishnets every night; still, not bad gams, for a forty-five-year-old. “If you insist upon wearing a miniskirt, my sweet, you might want to consider shaving your legs.”***
Same information, but more naturally presented, right? But even so, all of that physical description makes the scene drag a bit, doesn’t it?
Which brings me back to my closing question from yesterday: other than the fact that television and movies have accustomed us all to having an instantaneous picture in our heads of a story’s protagonist, is there a valid reason that a narrative must include a photographic-level description of a character the instant s/he appears in the book?
Consider for a moment the possibility that there is no such reason.
To be more pointed about it, consider it, perhaps, while sitting with a hard copy of your first few pages in your hand. Is there backstory or physical description that could come more gradually, later in the chapter or even later in the book?
Or — and this is a possibility that often occurs to professional readers of interview scenes, let me tell you — is that Hollywood narration or description-laced dialogue the book’s way of telling us that perhaps the book opens at the wrong part of the story?
Might, for instance, we learn more about Thelma and Marcel in a more graceful manner if, instead of beginning the novel with the dialogue above, it opened with a short prologue showing them twelve years ago, bright-eyed, innocent, and slim — and then jumped ahead to this scene, to show how they and their relationship have changed?
Dramatic, eh? One might even say character-revealing.
Of course, front-loading an opening scene with physical description is not necessarily an indicator of a structural problem. I suspect that often, writers who use this technique as a means of introducing description are driven primarily by a panicked sense that the reader must be told what the characters look like the instant they appear in the text — combined with a recollection that their high school writing teachers said that too-extensive physical descriptions are dull. So they’re sort of trying to, you know, sneak the physical description in when the reader isn’t looking.
Trust me, a professional reader is ALWAYS looking. It’s her job.
Looking specifically, in the case of an agency screener or editorial assistant ploughing through a mountain of submissions, for a reason to reject the manuscript in front of her. By avoiding the common twin traps of overloading the first scene with crammed-in backstory and physical description, a manuscript stands a much greater chance of cajoling Millicent into reading on to scene #2.
And we all want that, don’t we? Keep up the good work!