Like I said, yeah: more perils of lifting dialogue from real life

Are my eyes ever bloodshot today! With good reason, too: I’ve been reading up a storm for the past couple of days, in order to polish off some promised reviews. Everything I’ve been reading has been quite well written, thank goodness — although reading a bad review can sometimes be fun, writing one seldom is — but a certain type of repetition has been making me feel an unusually high level for Millicent.

What species of repetition am I complaining about now, you ask? Let me answer that with an appeal to you: as a reader, have you ever had one of those weeks where every piece of dialogue you scan seems to be a lightly-disguised monologue? Running, perhaps, a little something like this:

“I can’t believe how arrogant that car dealer was!” Sandy fumed. “You’d think he’d never met a woman who wanted to buy a car.”

“Yeah,” Jeff replied.

“I should have told him that I was going home to e-mail the National Organization of Women, to get them to issue a general boycott of his lot.” Angrily, she wrestled to undo the bungee cords that held the driver’s side door onto her 1978 Saab, provided that she never attempted to accelerate above thirty miles per hour. “Did you see how surprised he was that we left?”

“Um-hm.”

“You don’t suppose his telling me that women don’t know anything about cars is his standard sales technique, do you? Other women can’t actually have bought cars after a line like that.”

“No,” Jeff said, crawling into the passenger seat via the smashed back window. “I imagine not.”

Sandy dug under the visor to retrieve the seatbelt. “Well, I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s like those construction workers who yell disgusting things at women walking by their worksites: if it didn’t provoke a positive response at least once every 10,000 times, would they keep doing it? Or do you think that’s just blaming the victims?”

“Could be.”

“Anyway,” she concluded after she had successfully hot-wired the car, so she would not have to force the mangled key into the half-melted ignition, “I guess he won’t be offering five dollars on a trade-in again!”

“Absolutely,” Jeff said, clinging for dear life to what was left of the dashboard.

I ask you: what purpose is Jeff serving in this conversation, other than listener? And if he isn’t in the scene for any other reason, why doesn’t he just shut up and let Sandy blurt out her entire speech, instead of adding line after excisable line of entirely colorless dialogue?

Not to mention repetitious.

As you may have picked up from the subtle clues I’ve left lying around over the past week, dialogue has been on my mind for the past couple of days, because I recently enjoyed a long, gossipy conversation with a very old friend of mine with a very distinctive speech pattern: she says, “Like I said…” every other minute or so. In a long anecdote — to which she is quite addicted, as a world traveler with unusual tastes in traveling companions — she often uses this phrase ten or fifteen times.

Since we grew up together, you would think I would know where she had picked up this rare trope, but I don’t; it’s an adult acquisition. We have both wandered far from home, evidently. But still, you’d think I would have some inkling as to its origin: she and I were so closely allied in high school that at her wedding, her father spent 45 minutes grilling my boyfriend about his prospects and intentions toward me.

You might say that we come from a close-knit community.

Our hometown does in fact have a distinct speech pattern, a mixture of the lilt remaining when a small town in Switzerland (cow and wine country) picked up and became a small town in California (wine and cow country), certain Mexican-influenced words, a smattering of barrel-related French, and a linguistically inexplicable tendency to pronounce “mirror” as “meer.”

Being a farming community (the aforementioned wine), of course, certain agricultural tropes abound in season, such as, “How about this rain? Sure do need it,” “The grapes would have been in by now, 20 years ago” (untrue, incidentally), “Did you hear that bears have been at Farmer X’s grapes?” (true, incidentally; brown bears like expensive fruit), and “Damned drunken tourists have been at my vines again. They think every grape in sight is a free sample.”

But “like I said,” no.

Now, being a sharp-eyed writer with a strong sense of verisimilitude in dialogue, you may have noticed something about all of these phrases, real-life tropes that actual people say quite bloody often in my native neck of the woods. Chant it with me now: they would be DEADLY dull in written dialogue.

As would a character who constantly punctuated her personal stories with “like I said…” Or indeed, almost any of the small talk which acquaintances exchange when they bump into one another at the grocery store. Take this sterling piece of Americana, overheard in Sunshine Foods in my hometown not so long ago:

A: “See you got some sun today, Rosemary.”

B: “I was picking peaches. How did your dentist appointment go?”

A: (Laughs.) “The dentist won’t be buying his new boat on my dime. Was that the Mini girl who just dashed by?”

B: (Craning her head around the end of the aisle.) Could be. She was supposed to be visiting her mother sometime soon. She’s not married yet, is she?”

A: (Shakes her head.) “Oh, hi, Annie. Visiting your mother?”

Me: (Seeking escape route.) Yes. How’s your son? I haven’t seen him since high school. (Murmurs to boyfriend, covered by Mrs. A’s lengthy description of the relative heights, ages, and weights of her grandchildren.) Thank God.

A: And how’s your mother?

Me: Oh, fine, fine. I’d better be going. Nice to see you.

B: Give my regards to your mother.

Me: (Wheeling cart away.) I will. Remember me to Bobby.

A: Well?

B: (Sighing.) Still no wedding ring.

Okay, what’s wrong with this scene as dialogue on the page, over and above its repetition? You can hardly fault this exchange for verisimilitude — it not only is a transcript of an actual conversation, but it sounds like one, literary traits that do not necessarily go hand-in-hand — but it’s missing something, right?

Any guesses, wild or otherwise?

Give yourself three gold stars if you yelled, “Well, it’s hardly character-revealing, is it? Who are these people as individuals, as opposed to representatives of a collective small-town mentality?”

See it now? This exchange might as well have been said by actors, rather than specific people with personal quirks. Granted, as is, it might tell you a little something about the spying capability of my home town’s feared and respected Little Old Lady Mafia, but it doesn’t tell you much about the speakers as human beings, or our relative positions within society.

And if there was a plot (other than to get me married off to someone with whom I might produce more little winemakers, a quest that is ongoing and perpetual), its intricacies are not particularly well revealed by this slice o’life.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this, and recently? Just as real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is SELDOM character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response — and fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Without reader feedback, the writer almost certainly wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in a book.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, um, or a linguistic trope such as our old pal “like I said…” Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

“Like I said…” would be a particularly easy edit, because it would be a pretty sure indicator that the speaker is repeating herself (although interestingly enough, my old friend habitually uses this phrase when she ISN’T repeating herself, I notice). Yes, people do repeat themselves all the time in spoken English. Is it boring on the page? You bet.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Now, since the dialogue in her published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. Because, like I said, if it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

Keep up the good work!

Laying the foundations of plot so they don’t fly up and hit passersby in the nose

What did you expect me to be taking pictures of while workers are crawling all over my yard for months on end — rainbows and cattle?

Last time, I wrote about how frustrating many professional readers find it when a narrative forces them to follow a poor interviewer through an information-seeking process that seems one-sided or lacking in conflict. Or when — heaven forbid — the answers just seem to fall into the protagonist’s lap without significant effort on her part, exactly as if — wait for it — SOMEONE HAD PLANNED IT THAT WAY.

Strange to say, even though a reader would have to be pretty obtuse indeed (or very into the postmodern conceptual denial of individual authorship) not to realize that any protagonist’s adventures have in fact been orchestrated by a writer, a too-obvious Hand of the Creator can yank the reader out of the story faster than you can say, “Sistine Chapel ceiling.”

To work on the printed page, fate has to move in slightly more mysterious ways. Or at least in interesting ones.

Which is to say: interview scenes are legendary in the biz for drooping, even in an otherwise tight manuscript. And let’s face it — almost every plot involves some element of detective work, however minor. It’s worth triple-checking ALL of your manuscript’s interviews for flow and excitement.

Especially, if you’ll forgive my saying so, toward the middle and the end of a book, where protagonists — or is it their creators? — often become a tad tired of searching for the truth. At that point, crucial clues hidden for years like Ali Baba’s treasure frequently start leaping out of the woodwork, screaming, “Here I am — discover me, already!”

As we all know, though, an agent, editor, screener, and/or contest judge needs to get through the early pages of a submission before getting to its middle or end — so it would behoove you to pay very close attention to the pacing of any interview scene that occurs in the first chapter, particularly within the first few pages, as this is the point in your submission where a screener is most likely to stop reading in a huff.

Was that giant gust of wind I just heard the collective gasp of all of you out there whose novels open with an interview scene?

I’m guessing so; an AMAZINGLY high percentage of novel submissions open with interviews or discussions of the problem at hand. The protagonist gets a phone call on page 1, for instance, where he learns that he must face an unexpected challenge: violà, an interview is born, as the caller fills him in on the details.

Or the book opens with the protagonist rushing into the police station and demanding to know why her son’s killer has not yet been brought to justice: another interview scene, as the police sergeant responds.

Or the first lines of the book depict a husband and wife, two best friends, cop and partner, and/or villain and victim discussing the imminent crisis: bingo.

Or, to stick to the classics, this dame with gams that would make the 7th Fleet run aground slinks into the private dick’s office, see, and says she’s in trouble. Bad trouble — as opposed to the other kind — and could he possibly spare a cigarette?

“What kind of trouble?” he asks – and lo and behold, another interview begins.

There are good reasons that this scene is so popular as an opener, of course: for at least a decade now, agents and editors at conferences all over North America have been urging aspiring writers to open their books with over conflict. And conversation is a great way to convey a whole lot of background information very quickly, isn’t it?

Or, to put it in the language of writing teachers, dialogue is action.

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know in order to provide the audience with needed data. As in:

My long-term readers are giggling right now, I suspect, anticipating my launching into yet another tirade on what I like to call Hollywood narration (a.k.a. Spielberg’s disease), movie-style dialogue where characters tell one another things they already know purely in order to provide the audience with background information.

Openings of novels are NOTORIOUS for this. As in:

“So, Molly, we have been shipwrecked on this desert island now for fifteen years and seven months, if my hash marks on that coconut tree just to the right of our rustic-yet-comfortable hut. For the first four years, by golly, I thought we were goners, but then you learned to catch passing sea gulls in your teeth. How happy I am that we met thirty-seven years ago in that café just outside Duluth, Minnesota.”

“Oh, Tad, you’ve been just as helpful, building that fish-catching dam clearly visible in mid-distance right now if I squint — because, as you may recall, I lost my glasses three months ago in that hurricane. If only I could read my all-time favorite book, Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE, which so providentially happened to be in my unusually-capacious-for-women’s-clothing coat pocket when we were blown overboard, and you hadn’t been so depressed since our youngest boy, Humbert — named after the protagonist of another favorite novel of mine, as it happens — was carried off by that shark three months ago, we’d be so happy here on this uncharted four-mile-square island 200 miles southwest of Fiji.”

“Well, Molly, at least for the last week, I have not been brooding so much. Taking up whittling at the suggestion of Brian — who, as you know, lives on the next coral atoll over — has eased my mind quite a bit.”

Since I have lectured so often on this VERY common manuscript megaproblem, I shall let this example speak for itself. Suffice it to say that about the NICEST comment this type of dialogue is likely to elicit from a professional reader is, “Show, don’t tell!”

More commonly, it provokes the cry, “Next!”

Did you notice the other narrative sins in that last example, by the way? Guesses, anyone?

Award yourself high marks if you dunned ol’ Molly for making the mistake we discussed earlier this week, over-explaining the rather uninteresting fact that she managed to bring her favorite book with her whilst in the process of being swept overboard by what one can only assume were some pretty powerful forces of nature.

And as much as I love the work of Jerzy Kosinski, in-text plugs like this tend to raise the hackles of the pros — or, to be more precise, of those who did not happen to be involved with the publication of BEING THERE (a terrific book, by the way) or currently employed by those who did.

Besides, it’s not a very telling detail.

Hear me out. Writers who include such references usually do so in the rather charmingly myopic belief that a person’s favorite book is one of the most character-revealing bits of information a narrative could possibly include. However, this factoid is unlikely to be of even the vaguest interest to someone who hadn’t read the book in question — and might well provoke a negative reaction in a reader who had and hated it.

Out comes the broken record again: it’s never a good idea to assume that ANY conceivable reader of one’s book will share one’s tastes. Or worldview.

Give yourself an A+ for the day if you said immediately, “Hey, if the island is uncharted, how does Molly know so precisely where they are? Wouldn’t she need to have either (a) seen the island upon which she is currently removed upon a map, (b) seen it from space, or (c) possess the magical ability to read the mind of some future cartographer in order to pinpoint their locale with such precision?”

And you have my permission to award yourself a medal if you also cried to the heavens, “Wait — why is the DIALOGUE giving the physical description here, rather than, say, the narrative prose?”

Good call — this is Hollywood dialogue’s overly-chatty first cousin, the physical description hidden in dialogue form. It tends to lurk in the shadows of the first few pages of a manuscript:

Link glanced over at his wife. “What have you been doing, to get your long, red hair into such knots?”

“Not what you’re thinking,” Gloria snapped. “I know that look in your flashing black eyes, located so conveniently immediately below your full and bushy eyebrows and above those cheekbones so chiseled that it would, without undue effort, be possible to use them to cut a reasonably soft cheese. Perhaps not a Camembert — too runny — but at least a sage Derby.”

“I’m not jealous sexually.” Link reached over to pat her on the head. “As your hairdresser, I have a right to know where those luxurious tresses have been.”

Why might introducing physical descriptions of the characters through opening-scene dialogue seem a bit clumsy to someone who read hundreds of submissions a month?

Well, again, it’s common, but this time, at least, that’s not the primary reason. Any guesses?

If you said that Link and Gloria are telling each other things they obviously already know, throw yourself a party. In this era of easily-available mirrors, it’s highly unlikely that anyone would NOT know that he possessed, say, dark eyes, and even the most lax of personal groomers would undoubtedly be aware of her own hair’s color and length.

The only reason this information could POSSIBLY appear in dialogue between them, then, is to inform a third party. Like, for instance, the reader.

That’s a pretty good test for Hollywood narration, incidentally: if a statement doesn’t serve any purpose other than revealing a fact to the reader, as opposed to the character to whom it is said, then it’s Hollywood narration. And it should go.

If you also said that Link and Gloria are engaging in dialogue that does not ring true, give yourself extra credit with sprinkles and a cherry on top. With the exception of medical doctors, art teachers, and phone sex operators, real people seldom describe other people’s bodies to them.

It’s just not necessary. My SO has just walked into the room, but I cannot conceive of any impetus that might prompt me to say to him, “Rick, your eyes are green,” despite the fact that his eyes are indeed green, and I might conceivably want a reader to know it.

In the interest of scientific experimentation, though, I just tried saying it out loud. It did not produce scintillating conversation. Turns out he already knew.

There you have it — several more excellent reasons to read your manuscript OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you submit it, my friends, and an even better reason to have a third party read it before you send it off to an agent or editor: to see if the dialogue sounds like something a real person might actually say (as Hollywood narration doesn’t), and to check that it is interesting enough to keep a reader moving from line to line in those interview scenes.

More on dialogue spiciness next time — that is, if I can resist the burning desire not to take another run at Hollywood Narration. Must…remain…strong…

Somehow, I suspect that I’m going to lose this particular battle. Keep up the good work!

A beautiful picture — and a few tips on increasing your protagonist’s interview skills

Isn’t that photo GORGEOUS? It’s by one of my favorite art photographers, Lana Z Caplan, from her new book, Sites of Public Execution. Here’s a description:

SITES OF PUBLIC EXECUTION: Photographs and stories of former sites of public execution around the world.

Paired with interesting facts and stories of the events that took place in these public places, sepia-toned photographs, shot in Beijing, Paris, London, Florence, Rome and Massachusetts, present the contemporary appearances of locales used for hangings, beheadings, and burnings, some in the transient fury of revolution, some in long-term state-sanctioned spectacles.

For a PDF preview of the book, please visit Lana’s website.

Normally, I wouldn’t post an announcement about a book of photography here on Author! Author!, but Lana’s work moves me deeply — so much so, in fact, that I have one of her pieces hanging where I can glance up at it frequently while I write. We met at an artists’ colony several years ago; then, the provocative work-in-progress hanging in her studio made me downright giddy.

And yes, I HAVE been posting quite a few announcements of new releases lately — for some reason, I know many, many talented people bringing out books this spring. I can only conclude that publishing houses have started weighing connections to me heavily in their considerations.

Or perhaps I just know a heck of a lot of writers. In any case, this spring has certainly enriched my bookshelves, let me tell you.

Okay: on to the topic du jour.

As we’ve been going through various common narrative problems, I’ve noticed something: either due to my excessive saintliness or a desire to save the best, if not for last, at least for later in this series, I’ve been concentrating for the most part upon avoiding some of the more notorious agency screeners’ pet peeves, rather than merely upon what tends to annoy me in a text. For the next week or so, however, I have decided to cut loose and lay bare the narrative problems that make me foam at the mouth, professionally speaking.

That’s right: for the next little while, it’s going to be all about me, me, me.

Today, I’m going to concentrate upon one of my all-time favorite kinds of expendable text: the kind of dialogue that results from a protagonist’s being a really, really poor interviewer.

I heard that tittering out there. Seriously, a protagonist who doesn’t ask good questions — or necessary follow-up questions — can slow a novel, memoir, or creative nonfiction book to a limping crawl.

Why does it matter how skilled a questioner the protagonist is, you ask, unless s/he is a journalist of some sort? Simple: many, many, MANY novel plots require their protagonists to learn something that they do not already know – and, more importantly, that the reader does not already know.

Who killed the Earl of Cheswick, for instance, or why so many people are interested in that darned ugly Maltese Falcon. In the pursuit of answers to these and other burning questions, the protagonist is, necessarily, frequently forced into the role of interviewer, trying to extract information from other characters.

What a pity, then, that protagonists have a nasty habit of slowing down the collective search for truth by neglecting to promising lines of questioning, failing to follow up on something just said, or just plain being too polite to ask the questions the reader is dying to ask herself, but can’t.

It tends to run a little something like this:

“I swear,” Reginald claimed, one hand over his heart and the other hovering over the graying head of his sainted mother, “that’s all I know. Please don’t ask me any more questions.”

Janet drummed her long piano-player’s fingers on the rich mahogany tabletop. Her every instinct told her that he was not telling the truth — or at least not the whole truth. The very fate of Western civilization rested upon her solving this puzzle before midnight tomorrow.

She stood and offered her hand to the old woman. “Charming to meet you, Mrs. Fezziwig. You must come to my house for brunch sometime. I hate to boast, but I make extraordinary deviled eggs.”

Reginald detached their clasped hands so quickly that Janet’s hand burned. “Must you go so soon? Here’s your coat — I’ll walk you down to the cab stand on the corner before I release the vicious dogs that prowl our estate at night to discourage post-midnight visitors.”

Janet fumed, but what could she do? “Goodbye,” she called back from the hallway.

“Don’t forget to sprinkle your eggs with paprika,” she could hear Mrs. Fezziwig bellowing after her. “I love paprika.”

Why would an exchange like this prove annoying to a professional reader like me? Mostly, because it’s a lost opportunity for interesting conflict — rich potential for drama presented then abandoned by the narrative for no apparent reason.

Actually, writers often have what they consider pretty strong reasons for rushing their protagonists away from conflict. Trying to make them more likeable to the reader by demonstrating common courtesy, for instance, or forcing them to work harder to learn the Awful Truth.

Or wanting to stretch the novel from 100 pages to 200. My point is, regardless of the motive, this practice tends to render those of us who read manuscripts for a living a trifle impatient.

Why? Well, in essence, the protagonist becomes the reader’s surrogate in ferreting out information; as a reader, it’s not as though I can jump into the storyline, grab a microphone and tape recorder, and start grilling the usual suspects. After awhile, an inept interviewer can start to annoy the reader by being a poor tour guide to the plot.

I sense some uncomfortable squirming out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some of you suspense-lovers cry, “a too-good interview would give the whole plot away! What about building tension?”

You have a fine point, suspense-mongers: revealing the truth in slow increments is one way to create suspense. It’s such a fine point that I’m going to spend most of the rest of the post talking about how to do just that.

However, before I do, allow me to observe that making information unavailable through the simple expedient of not having the protagonist ask anyone about it tends to fall very, very flat with readers.

Why? Well, while readers do like to second-guess what’s going to happen next, trust me, it’s going to make your protagonist substantially less likeable if the reader keeps thinking, “Ask about the elephant in the room, you fool! Don’t just walk away!”

A professional reader — such as an agent, editor, contest judge, Millicent, or yours truly — is likely to react with even less sympathy, because a disproportionate percentage of submitted manuscripts create suspense by DELIBERATELY withholding information from the reader.

As in details that the protagonist already knows. We pros like to call this creating false suspense.

The most famous example, of course, is the sleuth from whose perspective the reader has viewed the entire case suddenly stops communicating his thoughts on the page — then gathers all of the still-living characters in the nearest drawing room (there always seems to be one handy, doesn’t there?) and announces, “You may be wondering why I asked you all here…”

Darned right we’re wondering — the reader wants to know why you suddenly withdrew your confidence from him, Mssr. Poirot.

Don’t start feeling too smug, those of you who write something other than mysteries — protagonists’ playing interviewer role is hardly limited to that genre. Think about it: it’s rare that any novel — or, indeed, any book with a plotline — does not contain at least one scene where somebody is trying to extract unknown facts from someone else.

Queries ranging from “Does that cute boy in my homeroom REALLY like me, Peggy?” to “Where did the cattle go, Tex?” aren’t just dialogue filler — typically, they call for character-developing and/or plot-satisfying responses. In fact, it’s a fair bet that any scene that contains one character exclaiming, “What happened?” is the precursor to an in-text interview.

Are you already warming up the highlighting pens, in anticipation of my ordering you to aim them at the interview scenes in your work? Good idea. Such scenes are often worth flagging for revision, because they are so very hard to pace well.

This is true, incidentally, even when the information being revealed is inherently exciting (“If you do not get across the bridge before sunset, giant bats will eat you, Reginald.”), emotionally revealing (“The reason I turned to piracy is – YOU, Father!”), or downright necessary to make the plot work (“Yes, George, although I haven’t seen fit to mention it once in the course of our sixty-two-year marriage, I have always dreamed of going spelunking!”).

Why? Well, when the point of a scene is for information to be revealed to the protagonist (and thus the reader), many writers become so focused upon that data’s being revealed entertainingly that they run to the opposite end of the reticence spectrum and have characters (secondary ones, usually) blurt out the necessary information practically BEFORE the protagonist asks for it.

This, too, is an interviewing problem — and one of the greatest sappers of narrative tension the world has ever known.

Many, many submissions where secrets that have been kept successfully for 25 years burst out of the mouths of the secretive practically the moment that the protagonist walks into the room. So why, the reader is left to wonder, if these secret-keepers are so willing to spill their guts to the first person to ask a direct question, has this information not been revealed before?

The apparent answer: because the plot required that it NOT be revealed before. And that, my friends, is never a sufficient motivation.

Or, to be blunt about it, the narrative should not make it EVIDENT that the hidden information would have been laughably easy to get all along, if only someone had thought to knock on the door of the only person who actually observed that the setting of that fire a decade before that shaped the entire town’s subsequent history.

You can just imagine all of the townsfolk slapping their heads in unison behind closed doors after that perky newcomer digs up the arsonist’s name in a single afternoon: why oh why didn’t it occur to any of us to ask Aunt Bessie why her nephew kept the garage stuffed to the rafters with matches?

Surprisingly often, the protagonist doesn’t even need to ask a question to elicit the revelations of tremendous secrets from minor-but-essential characters. Often, all she has to do is show up, and the legendary recalcitrant loner begins singing like a Rhine maiden: “So, Mr. Bond, now that I have you tied to that chainsaw, it’s time for me to reveal my evil plan…”

In many instances, the protagonist is reduced to helpful nods and murmured promptings on the order of, “Oh, really?” while the imparter engages in a soliloquy that would make Hamlet himself start looking at his watch.

A novel, the last time I checked, was not an opera: in real life, most people do not go around shouting out their deepest, darkest secrets at the top of their lungs to relative strangers.

And that’s what makes secrets interesting, right? In real life, it is actually rather difficult to convince folks to cough up the truth — partially because after one has lived with a lie long enough, one often starts to believe it oneself.

When you are trying to increase the tension throughout a novel, recognizing that truth is often hard to elicit is a powerful tool, one that can revolutionize how you handle interview scenes. They do not need to be essentially one-sided information dumps they so often are.

Instead of regarding them as just necessary exposition-through-dialogue, to be rushed through quickly, why not use the opportunity to introduce some conflict? Or heck, if you really want to get adventurous, some character development?

How? By making the information-imparter more reluctant — which automatically both forces the protagonist to become a better interviewer and renders the information-seeking process more difficult.

Automatically, this small switch makes the scene more interesting, by introducing viable (if brief) conflict between Character A (who wants to learn something) and Character B (who has very good reasons not to pass on the information).

A couple of fringe benefits: your protagonist will come across as smarter, more active, and more determined — and the information elicited will seem more valuable. As convenient as a suddenly-garrulous secret-hider is to the plot, too-easily discovered information runs the risk of seeming…well, ordinary.

So eschew the magic wand that turns the timid secretary who saw her boss murdered 15 years ago and ran off to live in a cave to avoid talking to the police into the operatic diva belting out precisely the information she has devoted to her life to hiding, simply because someone finally asked her a direct question about it. Banish the clue that only required someone opening the right cupboard drawer to find. Give your protagonist some killer interview skills.

Take, in short, a page from the time-honored pirate’s manual: make your treasures hard to dig up. The more difficult they are to find, the more engaged the reader will be in the search process.

More interviewing tips follow next time. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Book out TODAY from one of our own — and a writing contest!

Another post on craft follows soon, of course, but I wanted to get the trumpets blowing as soon as possible: the ever-fabulous Joel Derfner, better known to those of us here at Author! Author! as the prolific commenter and blogger extraordinaire Faustus, M.D. has a hilarious memoir coming out today from Random House’s Broadway Books!

Congratulations, Dr. F! Please join me, everyone, in a great big round of applause.

If you live in or around New York, Joel will be reading TONIGHT at 7:30 pm at the Barnes & Noble at 396 Avenue of the Americas . (if you’re like me and rely upon the kindness of strangers to navigate the isle of Manhattan, tell the cabbie that you’d like to go to 6th Avenue and 8th Street.) I have it on pretty good authority that in addition to being a hilarious reader, he also bakes a mean brownie; there may be some baked goods in evidence.

SWISH (which may be purchased from today onward from Amazon, Powell’s, and other fine book emporia) is Joel’s second book, following hard upon the heels of the must-be-experienced-first-hand GAY HAIKU.

Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb for SWISH:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him—he’ll tell you himself).

In SWISH, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to “meet” men—many, many men—or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones—but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets—is a hero destined for legend.

Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers—gay, straight, and in between.

I don’t generally review books here, but I am going to bend my own rules a little in this instance to recommend this book to any of you out there who aspire to write either comedy or memoir, as well as to those enamored of a good laugh. Rarely have I seen a memoirist’s personality emerge so charmingly on the printed page — or so honestly. Over and above Joel’s talent with an outrageous turn of phrase and genuine gift for humor (which is, alas, granted less often by the muse Thalia than those of us who like to read comedy might like), this is a darned fine piece of memoir writing.

So fair warning, Dr. F: I’m going to be blandishing you mercilessly for a guest post on the subject. After your book tour, of course.

In the meantime, I promised you a writing contest, didn’t I? And a contest you shall have. Quoth Joel:

The First Annual Gay-Off

In the introduction to SWISH, I explain that my quest to become the gayest person ever did not turn out to be an unqualified success—which means that the position of the Gayest Person Ever is still open. So I’m having a Gay-Off.

If you’re interested in competing, log onto my website and send me a brief explanation (up to 100 words) of why you should be crowned this year’s Gayest Person Ever. Note, please, that in order to enter you do not have to be gay or even, I suppose, a person. The Gayest Person Ever describes an existential state, irrespective of plumbing and flavor.

The last day to send in entries is Tuesday, June 10. On Friday the 13th, I’ll post the top five entries (as determined by an independent panel of judges) on my website, and from then through the end of Gay Pride (Sunday, June 29) you can vote for your favorite.

At the moment I’m planning prizes as follows: the grand prize is a signed copy of Swish, a signed copy of my first book, Gay Haiku, a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and, depending on geographic location, a tin of homemade brownies made with loving care by me. Second prize a signed copy of Swish, a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and a tin of brownies slightly inferior to the tin the Grand Prize winner gets. Third prize is a Swish T-shirt, a gay haiku written for the winner, and a tin of brownies slightly inferior to the tin the Second Prize winner gets. However, the actual prizes may be different from this, like if I eat the brownies or something.

Good luck, and may the Gayest Person win!

See, I wasn’t kidding about the brownies. Should be a lot of fun — and it’s never a bad idea to run your work under the eyes of folks who already have agents, even if it’s just 100 words.

Congratulations, Dr. F, and please keep all of us here at Author! Author! posted on your book’s success!