Last time, I introduced you to that most pervasive killer of dialogue realism, Hollywood Narration, the perplexing practice wherein backstory is conveyed by dialogue between persons who both already know the information perfectly well — and thus have absolutely no legitimate reason to be having that particular conversation at all. To save you confusion in future critique groups and editorial conversations in the dim, uncertain future, I should hasten to add that the term Hollywood Narration is mine; due to the phenomenon’s widespread unpopularity, it is cursed under many names throughout the publishing world. My personal favorite is the SF/fantasy moniker, as you know, Bob… dialogue.
Whatever you like to call it, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the scourges of both the modern publishing industry AND the screenwriters’ guild.
What’s so wrong with it? From a reader’s perspective, Hollywood narration in dialogue is an interview scene with no interviewer but the author. Leaving the reader to wonder: why the heck is that character responding to questions that no one has actually asked him — and furthermore, whose answers must come as a mind-numbing bore to the character to whom he’s saying it?”
As we discussed yesterday, the reason’s usually quite simple: because the writer wants the reader to learn the answers to those questions, that’s why. So much so that the characters’ motivations and listening preferences are ruthlessly disregarded in favor of audience enlightenment.
Anyone see a problem with this narrative strategy? Anyone?
No? Well, I could just tell you that Hollywood Narration has the characters tell what the narrative doesn’t show — but it would be far, far more effective to show the phenomenon in action, wouldn’t it?
It isn’t always easy to catch in revision, you know. Hollywood Narration can be very subtle, as in this dialogue excerpt:
Lois did a double-take at the stranger — or was he? It was so hard to tell behind those thick, black-rimmed glasses. “You remind me of someone. Funny that I didn’t notice it before.”
Clark grinned shyly. “It is funny, considering that we’ve been working together for the last five years.”
Did you catch it? Clark is telling Lois something that she must have known for, at minimum, five years. So why is he saying it, other than to let the reader know that they’ve been working together for five years?
More often, though, Hollywood narration is laid on with a heavier hand, if not a shovel. Sometimes, the helpings are so lavish that they practically constitute a flashback:
“We could always spend the weekend at our rather derelict lake house,” Roger pointed out. “We’ve owned it for fifteen years now, and I don’t think we’ve stayed in it five times.”
Sandra shrugged, a good trick, considering that her hands were deeply imbedded in the clay turning on the wheel. She was going to need major chiropractic work on her neck some day. “That’s not true. We spent a month there when little Tina came down with the measles during the family reunion, don’t you remember? All 117 of us, the whole extended family as far as it could be traced — or at least as far as Aunt Martha managed to trace it in her three volunteer afternoons per week at the Genealogical Society, bless her heart and reading glasses — locked inside after old Doc Stephens nailed the quarantine sign on the door.”
“I remember. It was the worst three weeks of my life.”
“Worse than the time that we and our three kids fell through that hole in the space-time continuum and ended up chasing the guy we mistakenly thought was Galileo for twelve days? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Which just proves my point,” Arnold said triumphantly. “We need to spend some serious time doing repairs at the lake house. Anyone could tumble through one of those holes and end up in the fourteenth century.”
Reads like an interview scene, doesn’t it? But Arnold didn’t ask Sandra for a recap of their previous adventures — escapades, one hopes, detailed earlier in the book in the reader’s hand, or in a prequel; they sound as though they would be interesting to see fleshed-out, rather than glossed over anecdotally in dialogue — nor did Sandra represent herself as not knowing how long they had owned the lake house. They were talking about their vacation plans — so why the sudden plunge into backstory?
Don’t all shout the answer at once; the narrative itself gave a major clue here. To a professional reader, the fact that Arnold said, “I remember,” is like a neon sign, flashing HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS! fourteen times per minute.
It’s a touch distracting.
Like pretty much every other over-used narrative devices, Hollywood narration can work effectively, if used in miniscule doses and rarely. Unfortunately for our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, manuscripts seldom display the trick sparingly, especially in the openings of novels.
Why do those first few pages tend to be prime display space for Hollywood narration, you ask in all innocence? Because, dear friends, few aspiring writers have the patience to allow backstory to reveal itself over the course of chapters; most want to get it out of the way at once. This is why, in case those of you who have been haunting literary conferences lately, so many agents are prone to advising roomfuls writers not to try to cram the entire premise onto the first page — or, when they choose to express it a trifle more politely, to consider waiting until later in the book to reveal background information.
In other words, the first page of a novel doesn’t need to include all of the information in the book’s pitch. (And if the logical beauty of that statement didn’t make you smack your head with wonder, don’t worry: we’ll start talking about pitching next week.) Confident novelists reveal character and situation over the course of an entire book, rather than within the first few paragraphs.
Was that deafening muttering indicative of some discomfort with that advice? “But Anne,” masses of reveal-it-up-fronters protest, “yesterday, you told me not to have the characters comment to one another on the first few pages; today, you’re trying to dissuade me from having them talk about what happened before the book began. So how on earth am I to introduce these characters to the reader?”
Good question, up fronters. How about by placing them in the middle of a conflict so engaging — and so central to the plot of the book — that the reader quite longs to stick around to find out more about them?
Just a thought.
There are a million other ways to introduce characters, of course. Although Hollywood narration might feel like a satisfying way to cram a whole bunch of information into just a few lines of text, it’s actually one of the weakest kind of openings — so much so that anxious conference-goers are sometimes stunned to hear an agent or editor say that he dislikes manuscripts to open with dialogue at all.
Before the 2/3rds of you whose manuscripts open with dialogue faint, reach for your heart medication, or frantically revise your first pages, let me hasten to add: what this assertion generally means is that the speaker objects to books that open with precisely the type of dialogue that we’ve been discussing all week, poor interview scenes and Hollywood narration, not to any dialogue, ever.
How do I know that, those of you currently clutching your chests demand? One of the things that a savvy writer learns by attending many conferences over the years is that exaggeration and sweeping generalizations tend to be common features of conference-given advice; something about sitting on a dais seems to bring out a desire to lay down all-inclusive axioms.
Another way I know is that I read manuscripts for a living, so I have a pretty darned good idea of just how high a percentage of the submissions agents who express this preference see that open with this type of dialogue. Trying to stuff backstory into the first few exchanges is awfully common. The result is, all too often, unrealistic dialogue — and an opening that feels contrived, as in this glorious example of a first page:
”So, Arnold, how was your work at the paper mill today?” Bertha asked, drying her rough hands on the fraying dishtowel that served her as a makeshift apron.
The burly man chuckled ruefully. “Having worked there for fifteen years — one before we married, two more before the twins were born, and five years since our youngest girl, Penelope, fell off the handlebars of Arnold 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 like walking and chewing gum — I sometimes get sick of the daily grind.”
“Did your boss, the redoubtable Mr. Andrews, terrify you for the fourth consecutive week by sticking his hand into a working chipper to demonstrate how reliable the shut-off mechanism? Doesn’t he recall the hideous accident that deprived your former foreman, Eldon Wheelford, of the use of his left arm, leaving him embittered and lopsided after that unsuccessful lawsuit against his negligent employer?”
“Which he would have won, had Mr. Andrews’ rich uncle, the mill owner, not bribed his second cousin, the judge. It probably also didn’t help that the entire jury was made up of mill workers threatened with the loss of their jobs.”
“I wish you would stand up to management more.” Bertha sighed. “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.”
Tim shook his graying head ruefully. “How could I forget? 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. I never miss one of her performances — nor, indeed, anything that is important to you or 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?” Arnold 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, Arnold, I’d had a crush on you for six months by then, even though I was going out with my next-door-neighbor, Biff 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?” Arnold 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. Make no mistake: this is telling, not showing in its most easily-identifiable form.
Like so many transgressions of the show, don’t tell rule, Hollywood Narration does provide some definite benefits to the writer who incorporates it. placing backstory and description in dialogue instead of narrative text is a shorthand technique, a means of allowing the author to skip showing entire scenes — or, even more commonly, to avoid figuring out how to reveal necessary information in a slower, more natural manner.
It is, in short, a trick — which is precisely how a professional reader who has seen it used 500 times this month tends to regard it. Millicent might not see it as necessarily the result of narrative laziness (although it can be that, too), but at least as evidence of a writer’s not being conversant with the many ways a text can convey information to a reader without just coming out and telling him outright.
Is that a thicket of raised hands I see before me, or did half of my readership just spontaneously decided to stretch in unison? “But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “I don’t quite understand. I see Hollywood narration in published novels fairly often, especially in genre works. Hasn’t it become common enough that it’s simply an accepted storytelling convention by now?”
Good question, hand-raisers or stretchers, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days: you are in fact correct that Hollywood narration has become pretty ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean that an aspiring writer hoping to break into the book-writing biz is going to win friends and influence people in the publishing industry by embracing it. Submission is definitely one time when you shouldn’t be following the crowd in this respect.
That strikes some of you as unfair, doesn’t it? “But Anne,” I hear large numbers of you sputtering, “can you seriously be arguing that dialogue in movies, on TV shows, and in books first published in English aren’t indicative of what an agent might be looking to find in my novel? How is that possible, when I can find such dialogue on the shelves at Barnes & Noble right now?”
I’m betting that the examples you so long to wave at me, oh objectors, are not first novels by North American writers who landed their North American agents within the last five years — and for the sake of this particular discussion, the dialogue in no other books can possibly be relevant. In order to be successful, an aspiring writer’s manuscript usually has to be quite a bit better than what’s currently on the shelves, at least on average.
Why? Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along with me now: the standards governing established authors — i.e., those who already have published books — is considerably less stringent than those agents tend to apply to the manuscripts submitted by writers seeking representation. Established authors have, after all, already demonstrated that their work can charm at least a few people at publishing houses, if not droves of book-buying readers. A new writer, by contrast, is effectively asking an agent to take a chance on her talent without that kind of a track record.
Speaking of relevant backstory.
Setting aside this marketing reality, however, it’s still a good idea to minimize Hollywood narration in your manuscripts — and not just because relying on it in your opening pages is usually a pretty good way to alienate Millicent’s affection for your storyline. Readers tend to have a pretty good ear for dialogue; exchanges that might pass muster when spoken by a gifted actor — whose job, after all, is to make lines read plausibly — don’t always ring true to readers. And dialogue that doesn’t ring true, unavoidably, makes it harder for the reader to suspend her disbelief and sink into the world of the story.
Give it a bit of thought, please. Your readers will thank you for it.
Next time, I’ll give you a few pointers on ferreting out Hollywood narration, bad laughter, and other inadvertent dialogue mishaps. In the meantime, keep up the good work!