Last time, I bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood Narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, there’s a national holiday coming up; I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jello-O molds, and similar American pursuits), Hollywood Narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.
How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood Narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.
The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.
The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt this? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”
Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood Narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.
Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.
Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.
There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.
C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.
Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.
This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood Narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood Narration sound just fine in the mind.
As I mentioned yesterday, it can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughs,a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, 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, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.
It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.
You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.
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!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?
To resurrect one of my favorite examples of Hollywood Narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a GHOST STORY; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.
Trust me on this one.
Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can remember it:
Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?
Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.
Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.
Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!
Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.
Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.
I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.
Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.
As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled, THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:
“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”
“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”
“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”
“Yes, dead. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”
“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”
“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.
“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”
“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.
“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.
“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”
By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.
But if I had the resources to commission Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.
So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?
Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.
Because, among other things, it’s BORING.
Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other delights we saw above.
So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood Narration have abounded still more in manuscripts.
See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood Narrator, more below.
There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling — and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, 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 storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.
Listen: 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 for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject.
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 told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?
Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Hereâ€™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, sometimes 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. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.
A few more tips on eschewing Hollywood Narration follow next time. Keep up the good work!