It never fails, campers: every time I start talking here on the blog about Hollywood narration — when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader– the world around me hastens, nay, lunges to provide me with an abundance of examples. Indeed, one can hardly turn on a television set without encountering backstory being conveyed via 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.
Nurse (catching up to Orderly in an antiseptic hallway): So how is Naomi doing today?
Naomi (seated sideways in wheelchair, limbs akimbo, face covered in bruises): Unnngh.
Orderly (clutching the handles of Naomi’s wheelchair passionately): “How should she be doing, Clara? What she needs is physical therapy and minute-to-minute care, but Dr. Barton treats her like a…thing. He doesn’t believe she will ever get better.
Nurse: Now, now, you know that Dr. Barton has a fine reputation. He’s been running Seacoastcliffwaterview Convalescent Hospital for seven and a half years now.
Orderly (lowering his voice): But what about those mysterious deaths in the wee hours of the morning, when, unlike most medical facilities that purport to give round-the-clock care, all of us on staff steal off to take four-hour naps?
Nurse (shaking her head thoughtfully): That is a mystery. But no good is going to come of asking disruptive questions.
Our hero (flashing identification from some city/county/federal agency too quickly for any human eye to glean any information whatsoever from it): Excuse me, but I’m trying to learn something about Mr. McGuffin’s death at two o’clock yesterday morning. Has anything unusual been going on here lately?
Nurse (exchanging meaningful glances with Orderly): No, nothing.
Naomi: Unnngh. Unnngh!
Orderly (patting her on her shoulder): There, there. I’d better get you back to your room for your 1:30 AM appointment with Dr. Barton. I just hope you’re going to last the night, honey.
Doesn’t exactly hide the goods, does it? Like much Hollywood narration, this sterling little exchange contains backstory that the reader (or, in this case, viewer) might legitimately need to know, but presented this ungracefully, Naomi might as well have been holding a blinking neon sign in her lap that read PAY ATTENTION — THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT TO THE PLOT.
Think about it — why else would the author bother to include such an improbable exchange unless it were going to be vital for the viewer (or reader) to remember later on? Like the otherwise unmotivated close-up in a movie (“Wait, I recognize the murderer now — the camera paused on his face for no apparent reason half an hour ago!), Hollywood narration is seldom subtle. It’s merely a shortcut for the writer.
It’s just so darned convenient, isn’t it? But as we saw above, it’s also conducive to another guaranteed professional reader-annoyer, a little something I like to call a plot flare: a line of text that warns the reader — sometimes in a subtle manner, sometimes by tossing a brick through the nearest window — about a plot twist to come.
The socially inept stepdaughter of foreshadowing, the plot flare believes it is being clever and unobtrusive, but usually, it’s anything but. It can pop up in the form of a coy clue, but it can also be as simple as an over-reaction to that old writing truism, never have a character vital to the book’s climax appear later than one-third of the way through the story:
Fiorello rushed into the thick of the dancing crowd, searching frantically for his baby sister. Bombarded by writhing bodies on all sides, he tried not to grope anyone as he pushed them out of his way.
He failed, apparently, vis-à-vis a punked-out blonde. “Hey,” she snarled, brandishing her spiked bracelet at him, “those belong to me.”
Fiorello blushed all the way from his receding hairline to his button-down collar. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss…Miss…”
“The name’s Allegra.” She flashed him a crooked smile. “Wanna dance?”
Was that Bitsy pogoing near the bandstand? “Oh, excuse me. I have to go.”
“Come find me sometime,” Allegra called after him, “when you’re in less of a hurry.”
Hands up, anyone who would be surprised when Allegra turns up in a coffee shop three scenes hence. Or 150 pages from now. Or if she — who could have seen this coming? — turns out to have a heart of gold that belies her tough exterior.
Believe it or not, this is actually rather subtle for your garden-variety plot flare. Most of the time, Millicent the agency screener finds herself gasping with annoyance over clues so broad that they seem to insult the reader’s intelligence. A popular choice: recounting what is about to happen under cover of a planning session.
Kirk mopped his manly but weary brow. “Here’s how it’s going to happen, everybody. Fifi, you keep the engine running outside the bank. George, you walk in wearing the Bugs Bunny mask. Arnold, you start juggling the flaming torches. While everyone is watching you, I’ll slip around behind the tellers, crack open the vault, and steal the million dollars. Then we’ll all meet back at the car. Any questions?”
Fifi raised a timid hand. “If it’s really that simple, why should anyone continue reading?”
“Ah, but we all know that any story focused on a heist won’t go exactly as planned.” Kirk tapped on his wrist. “Who lifted my watch? We need to synchronize them.”
Okay, so character aren’t always so obvious that they forget to pretend that they are not characters in a novel, but with common plotlines, they might as well be. If the path through the story is so well lit with plot flares that Millicent can tell the basic contours of the plot by page 6, she doesn’t have a lot of incentive to keep reading.
So here’s a radical notion: why not introduce some of that backstory later in the book, rather than within the first 5 pages?
Most novels and memoirs front-load their opening scenes with information about their characters’ pasts, and with good reason: that is how the writers think of these characters. But if the initial conflict is exciting enough, why slow it down with details that aren’t actually relevant to the situation at hand?
You want to see concrete examples, don’t you? Here is a fairly typical front-loaded opening, complete with standard-issue Hollywood narration:
Exhausted from working a fifteen-hour day at the non-union coal mine, Almanzo stopped at the neighborhood bar before returning to his long-suffering wife of four years, Jenny. He peeled the work coat from his strong, wiry frame, shedding black dust everywhere.
“The usual?” Joe the bartender asked.
Almanzo grinned, white teeth contrasting oddly with powder-dark skin. “Isn’t that the definition of usual? Boy, I’ve had a terrible day half a mile below the earth’s crust. Those old-fashioned rope-pulled carts are bound to break and crush somebody someday.”
Joe chuckled, pouring neat cognac into the snifter he always kept warm for Al at the end of the day. “Don’t be silly. Those ropes have been holding steady for a hundred years now.”
Almanzo sipped the potent brew. “Gee, I hope you’re right. Now that the safety inspectors have all been laid low by that mysterious flu, I don’t know how many miners would be killed if there were an accident.”
Harboring any doubts about what’s going to happen in the pages to come? Neither is Millicent.
So why give her and other readers the heads-up? Wouldn’t it be more exciting to begin slightly later in the story, saving the background for later on? In a manner, say, rather like this?
Rope stretched beyond its capacity makes a sound like a giant, stressed-out violin: a mammoth twang of frustration. Almanzo felt it reverberate down the mineshaft even before he heard the sound. He scrabbled his way halfway to side tunnel before it occurred to him to warn the men down the line.
“Runaway cart!” he shouted, but the creak of wheels drowned him out.
More of a grabber, isn’t it? You’d be surprised at how many manuscripts contain both the slow, backstory-laden opening and the conflict-focused one, usually in that order. Aspiring writers often seem reluctant to jump into the story. Unfortunately, if plot flares have already tipped Millicent off about the trajectory of the plot, she’s not likely to keep reading as far as that interesting action scene.
I’m bringing this up not merely to alert you to the plot flare phenomenon — trust me, once you start looking for them, you’ll spot them everywhere — but also as a revision tip for the unhappy many seeking to trim pages from their manuscripts. You might want to take a long, hard look at your opening pages and ask yourself: does the story begin on page 1, or are the opening pages devoted to backstory? If it’s the latter, what would happen if I cut the lead-in and just tossed the reader right into the central conflict of the book?
You might also want to take a quick peek at all of the dialogue scenes in the book. Because Hollywood narration is about backstory, rather than the scene going on in the moment, it can usually be excised with no ill effect whatsoever on the scene.
I sense some raised hands out there. “But Anne, that seems counterintuitive. A paragraph or two of Hollywood narration can replace pages and pages of backstory. So won’t I end up with a longer text if I cut the summary statements out of the dialogue?”
Not necessarily — often, that information isn’t actually vital to the story. Oh, it may be essential to understanding the character to know that she has three children, two ex-husbands and a current one, as well as an English sheepdog, but since there are probably scenes in the book that feature at least a few of those players and relationships, why stop the early pages of the book cold in order to introduce the information?
For most aspiring writers, the answer to that last question is pretty straightforward: because we’ve all seen both plot flares and Hollywood narration used so often in TV shows and movies that it seems like normal storytelling. The latter is one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information, after all, and plot flares are almost as common. (Oh, does anyone out there hear, “I would be lost without you, Muffy,” spoken by the protagonist in the first third of a film and not spend the next hour awaiting Muffy’s unfortunate encounter with a speeding bus?) Because we’ve all seen and heard it done so much, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory and foreshadow in these frankly pretty clumsy manners.
The inevitable result: Millicent 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 about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already be aware that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”
That, 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.
Oh, you thought I was going to give that advice a rest?
Why read it out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be possible to speak aloud. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true, or if part of it should be cut. 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 anywhere else, for that matter. 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 writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as the major characters in their novels. By saying the dialogue (or first-person narration) in your voice, rather than your favorite actor’s, you’re more likely to catch awkwardness.
C’mon, ‘fess up: practically every aspiring writer does a little mental casting. 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 hearing actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. So imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.
Mentally casting a familiar celebrity voice as your protagonist’s can also render it more difficult to tell when a joke is or isn’t funny — and render it nearly impossible to ferret out what the pros bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy. You can tell that a laugh is a bad one 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 — wait for it — 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. 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 all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, a couple of years ago, 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. Much of the remaining screen time 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.
Because that theory has never been tested cinematically before.
For the benefit of those of you who have never seen a horror film, should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital, 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 — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But my braver film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample:
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: (clearly 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 soothe my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was probably lurking in my closet. 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 titled “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, dear. 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, 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 Gregory Peck and Sarah Bernhardt to read those very lines to you (or the efficient séance facilities), I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s actors’ 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?
And even if they were, Hollywood narration is not especially plausible. Generally speaking, real 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, 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 descriptive 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 backstory for an awfully long time.
Novel and memoir openings 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 call upon 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. 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. See for yourself:
Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “Why, hello there. 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 New York, New York. When my girlfriend left me two weeks ago, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”
Pretty neighbor (edging her way into his good lighting: “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 psychic, 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 come to believe that 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 world nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Sir Lawrence Olivier as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. So if your narrative was relying upon tone and/or delivery to make the dialogue or first-person narration funny, poignant, surprising, or anything else, you’re going to run into difficulties at submission time.
Chant it with me now, campers: a professional reader can only judge a submission by what’s on the page. Don’t expect her to guess what your casting preferences are. Oh, and keep up the good work!