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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *