Before I launch back into dissection of the all-too-pervasive Hollywood narration phenomenon, I should amend an oversight from last time: I brought up the concept of bad laughter without really talking about why it can be death to a manuscript submission. Rather than leaving those new to the concept whimpering in confusion, I’m going to revisit it briefly now.
A bad laugh, for those of you who missed yesterday’s post, is a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. It typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.
Or, most commonly, just a really, really bad line of dialogue. It can spring from many sources, but in the moment it occurs, it invariably shatters the reader or viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief, causing her to stand, however briefly, outside the world created by the story.
Hollywood narration is NOTORIOUS for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.
Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!”
Openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins. Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning PRECISELY what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance.
We’ve all grown accustomed to this, right? Yet there’s actually seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.
Listen: as I have undoubtedly pointed out before, TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon 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.
So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell. Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.
Unfortunately, I gather that my view on the subject is not shared by all movie producers.
How many times, for instance, 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 otherwise excellent 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 be accompanied by visual clues to 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 — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. 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 of books 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 either of the released versions of the director’s cut, knock over anybody you have to at the video store to grab it from the shelf, proto. 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 for three solid minutes about backstory, Mommy?”
“Hush, child. There’s nothing odd about that.”
Well, in a book, there’s PLENTY odd about that, 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 occasionally 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.
What may we learn from this degrading spectacle? At minimum, that an over-reliance upon Hollywood narration is not going to win your manuscript any friends if your characters tell one another things they already know.
There’s a lesson about bad laughter to be learned here as well: if a device is over-used in submissions — as Hollywood narration undoubtedly is — using it too broadly or too often in a manuscript can in and of itself provoke a bad laugh from a pro.
And that, too, is bad, at least for your manuscript’s prospects of making it past Millicent.
This danger looms particularly heavily over first-person narratives, especially ones that aspire to a funny voice. All too often, first-person narratives will rely upon the kind of humor that works when spoken — the anecdotal kind, the kind so frequently used in onscreen Hollywood narration — not realizing that pretty much by definition, a spoken joke does not contain sufficient detail to be funny on the printed page.
Especially on a printed page where the narrator is simultaneously trying to sound as if he’s engaging the reader in everyday conversation and provide the necessary backstory for the reader to follow what’s going on. Think, for instance, of the stereotypical voice-over in a film noir:
Someone kicked my office door down, and this blonde walked in on legs that could have stretched from here to Frisco and back twice, given the proper incentive. She looked like a lady it wouldn’t be hard to incite.
Now, that would be funny spoken aloud, wouldn’t it? On the page, though, the reader would expect more than just a visual description — or at any rate, a more complex one.
To professional readers, humor is often a voice issue. Not many books have genuinely amusing narrative voices, and so a good comic touch here and there can be a definite selling point for a book. The industry truism claims that one good laugh can kick a door open; in my experience, that isn’t always true, but if you can make an agency screener laugh out loud within the first page or two, chances are good that the agency is going to ask to see the rest of the submission.
But think about why the example above made you smile, if it did: was if because the writing itself was amusing, or because it was a parody of a well-known kind of Hollywood narration?
More to the point, if you were Millicent, fated to screen 50 manuscripts before she can take the long subway ride home to her dinner, would you be more likely to read that passage as thigh-slapping, or just another tired piece of dialogue borrowed from the late-night movie?
The moral, should you care to know it: just because a writer intends a particular piece of Hollywood narration to be funny doesn’t mean that it won’t push the usual Hollywood narration buttons.
I shudder to tell you this, but the costs of such narrative experimentation can be high. If a submission TRIES to be funny and fails — especially if the dead-on-arrival joke is in the exposition, rather than the dialogue — most agents and editors will fault the author’s voice, dismissing it (often unfairly) as not being fully developed enough to have a sense of its impact upon the reader. It usually doesn’t take more than a couple of defunct ducks in a manuscript to move it into the rejection pile.
I hear some resigned sighing out there. “Okay, Anne,” a few weary voices pipe, “you’ve scared me out of the DELIBERATE use of Hollywood narration. But if it’s as culturally pervasive as you say it is, am I not in danger of using it, you know, inadvertently?”
The short answer is yes.
The long answer is that you’re absolutely right, weary questioners: 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?”
For self-editing, try this little trick: flag any statement that any character makes that could logically be preceded by variations upon the popular phrases, “as you know,” “as I told you,” “don’t you remember that,” and/or “how many times do I have to tell you that. Reexamine these sentences to see whether they should be cut, or at any rate reworked into more natural dialogue.
Another good indicator: if a character asks a question to which s/he already knows the answer (“Didn’t your brother also die of lockjaw, Aunt Barb?”), what follows is pretty sure to be Hollywood narration.
Naturally, not all instances will be this cut-and-dried, but these tests will at least give you a start. When in doubt, reread the sentence in question and ask yourself: “What is this character getting out making this statement, OTHER than doing me the favor of conveying this information to the reader?”
And while you’re at it, would you do me a favor, please, novelists? Run, don’t walk, to the opening scene of your novel (or the first five pages, whichever is longer) and highlight all of the backstory presented there. Then reread the scene WITHOUT any of the highlighted text.
Tell me — does it still hang together dramatically? Does the scene still make sense? Is there any dialogue left in it at all?
If you answered no to any or all of these questions, sit down and ponder one more: does the reader REALLY need to have all of the highlighted information from the get-go? Or am I just so used to voice-overs and characters spouting Hollywood narration that I thought it was necessary when I first drafted it but actually isn’t?
Worth a bit of mulling over, isn’t it? Keep up the good work!