As individual as a snowflake — but my, don’t those snowflakes start to look alike when they start to pile up (or, as we like to call this post around here, Pet Peeves on Parade, part XXXI, and Structural Repetition, part VIII)

My, that’s a mighty cool image for a midsummer day, is it not? After catching the tail end of a national weather report, I thought some of you fine people could use some visual air conditioning.

And what a refreshing breeze was caused by all of those hands suddenly shooting into the air. “But Anne,” those of you who have been following this series on self-editing and rigorously applying its principles, “air conditioning is felt viscerally, and visual images are seen by the eyes! Is this not, therefore, a mixed metaphor — and aren’t mixed metaphors one of the many, many things that get our old pal Millicent the agency screener’s goat?”

Quite right, sharp-eyed revisers, and well caught. Our Millie has indeed been known to gnash her teeth over analogies that are not quite analogous, as well as sensual organs that pick up sensations beyond their traditional ken. Hearts that skip a pulse, rather than a beat, eyes that observe inflections in tone, facial expressions that convey emotions of such complexity that Marcel Proust would consider their fullness over-examined on the page — all have done their part over the years in depleting Millicent’s goat herd.

She doesn’t have awfully many goats left, people. Choose your words with care.

In an effort to help her conserve a few cloven-footed beasts, I went on at some length last time about the yawn-inducing effect of mentioning characters’ names too often within a short stretch of text. As I tried to show in what was probably an excess of examples, the repetitive force of all those capital letters can be somewhat hypnotic. More seriously, they can be distracting from the story the book is telling.

And that, my friends, is bad news for any submission. It’s worth a novelist’s while, then, to massage the text a little to try to reduce the frequency of those monikers. It’s also worth the memoirist’s while, and the creative nonfictionist’s. Heck, if we going to be honest about it, it would behoove pretty much any writer who presents characters in a format other than a list.

Especially someone who has already performed one (three, five, a hundred and seventeen) revisions on a manuscript. Why? Well, think about it: the more worked-over a manuscript is, the more likely names are to have changed over the course of the revision process, right?

Oh, you thought Millicent wouldn’t notice if your protagonist’s sister was Emily for the first third of the book and Evie thereafter? I can hear her pet goats saying, “Meh!” at the very notion.

Even if this is your first attempt at editing your manuscript, it’s in your best interest to keep an eye on the percussive repetition of those proper nouns, particularly if the names in question begin with the same first letters or sound similar. As we saw last time, repeated first letters in different names can cause the reading eye to leap to unwarranted assumptions, or even — brace yourself, similar name-lovers — cause the reader to mix up the relevant characters.

While you’re already well-braced, I might as well continue with the bad news: character blurring is particularly likely to occur in the opening pages of a manuscript, where many characters are often introduced quite close together.

Resist the temptation, please, to blame the skimming eye, rather than authorial choices, for this species of confusion. It’s hard to blame Millicent for getting confused when eight characters are tossed at her within half a page — especially when that half a page happens to be on page 1, when she cannot reasonably be expected to know which of this cast of thousands is the protagonist.

Oh, you think it’s easy to keep track? Okay, skim over the following sterling piece of literature as rapidly as you can. As always, if you’re having a bit of trouble making out the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

similar name page 1

Be honest, now: right now, based on that rapid reading alone — no fair referring back to the page — could you draw Cheryl’s family tree? Not as easy for a skimmer to keep track of everyone as one might have at first supposed, is it?

The good news (yes, there is some) is that this problem is at least partially avoidable with a little advance planning on the writer’s part. Since skimming eyes zero in on capital letters, readers are likely to confuse Beryl, Bunnie, and Benny. Adopting the old screenwriters’ axiom of avoiding christening characters with names that begin with the same letter will help alleviate reader confusion.

Repetitive capital letters are not the only avoidable bugbears in naming, however. Swift readers will also frequently mix up names with similar sequences of letters, such as Cheryl, Meryl, and Beryl. Or Jenny and Benny. Or even Bunnie and Billie.

Starting to get the picture, or rather the pattern? Millicent is. And her goat is getting antsy.

Believe it or not, even names that merely sound similar can be hard to tell apart on the page. Why? Well, many readers (not usually the speediest text-absorbers, admittedly, but still, potential enjoyers of your prose) will pronounce names in their minds, at least the first time those monikers appear on the page. So while it may seem unnecessary to worry about anyone’s confusing Cheryl and Sherrill in the same manner that they might mix up Cheryl and Meryl, or Meryl and Beryl, it’s actually not beyond belief.

Try saying that last sentence out loud three times fast, and you’ll see why.

Again, advance planning (or most writers’ preferred method, after-the-fact tedious alteration) is your friend here: name your people so they don’t sound so much alike. Millicent will thank you — and, speaking as someone who survived editing a manuscript whose characters were Maureen, Marlene, Doreen, Arleen, and Darlene, I will thank you, too.

There’s another species of naming conducive to character-blurring, one that seldom involves any capital letters at all: avoiding proper nouns altogether. Such narratives have a nickname amongst editors: he said/she said texts.

Or, as I like to call them, he said/he said/he said.

Don’t laugh: name-eschewing is a more common practice than you might think, and not only in mid-book chapters, where the relevant characters are already established. In fact, leaving identification entirely to pronouns is a fairly popular type of book opening, intended (one assumes) to hook the reader by making him guess who the mysterious he (or, more often, she) of the opening paragraphs could possibly be.

Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, given its ubiquity, this type of opening turns up on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Judge for yourself why it might be a goat-getter:

pronoun-only text

Well, are you hooked? Or, to put it in the terms that a professional reader would, are you eager to turn to page 2? If so, how much of the appeal lay in the inherent excitement of the situation and how it was presented — and how much in the fact that the narrative didn’t bother to tell you who any of these people were or much of anything about them?

“Meh,” says the goat. “I could take this story or leave it, at this point.”

I’m with you, Flossie. For the false suspense device to work, the reader has to find being kept in the dark titillating — and overwhelmingly, Millicents do not. When presented with an opening like this, they are all too prone to start asking practical questions along the lines of Who is this broad?, What on earth is going on here?, and Why is this writer withholding relevant information from me? Is this lady’s name a state secret?

Trust me on this one: in a submission (or contest entry, for that matter), it’s the writer’s job to show what’s going on, not the reader’s job to guess. Letting the reader know who is who is more than good Millicent-pleasing; it’s generally considered better writing than false suspense.

Or any other tactic that’s like to result in reader confusion, really. Millicent’s usual response to being confused by what’s in front of her on the page is generally quite dramatic: a cry of “Next!”

Oh, those hands are in the air again. Yes? “Um, Anne?” those of you joining us mid-series inquire meekly. “I have to admit, I rather like this kind of opening. I can see that it’s suspenseful, but what’s false about it? I’ve seen it in plenty of published books. And if there’s only one character in a scene — or only one whose name the protagonist knows, as in that last example — what’s so confusing about not telling the reader who she is?”

Valid questions all, meek inquirers. Yes, this opening is exciting, and yes, there was a time when this strategy was considered pretty nifty, particularly in fantasy circles. But really, hasn’t it been done to death by now?

The rather hackneyed nature of the tactic is not its primary drawback, however: the problem is that the suspense arises not solely from the considerable inherent stress of the situation upon the protagonist, but from the fact that the reader knows neither who she is nor why she is being pursued. (And why is she wearing a party dress in the woods?) Obviously, though, the narrator, the woman, and the author do know the answers to these questions — so the only possible reason not to share this information with the reader is to prompt the reader to be curious about it.

Hey, you — put Millicent’s goat right back where you found it. It’s not her fault (or the goat’s, for that matter) that the author didn’t have enough faith in the action of his opening scene to let it speak for itself. No, he thought had to introduce a narrative device (and a rather tired one at that) in order to interest the reader in his heroine’s plight.

Frankly, this opening doesn’t need it. Take a gander at the same page 1 with the withheld evidence added in:

“Come on, admit it,” the goat says. “It’s every bit as suspenseful, isn’t it?”

Good point, surprisingly articulate barnyard animal. For many readers, it may even be more suspenseful — having a bit of background to this chase enables us to empathize with Alice’s plight more fully.

Let’s go ahead and establish an axiom: unless there is a very, very good reason for denying the reader information as basic as a character’s name — particularly if, as in that last example, it’s the protagonist in a tight third-person narrative where the narrative voice evidently knows everything there is to know about that character — go ahead and call your characters by name the first time they appear in a scene (or the book), rather than referring to them constantly by only a generic he or she.

Believe me, Millicent doesn’t like to guess — and she has a point in this instance. Too little name-calling can be as harmful to the reader’s experience as too much. Even if the reader should in theory already know who is who, even a relatively mild policy of principled name avoidance can often lead to confusion, especially in action scenes.

Take, for example, the following little number — and to make it a fair test, I shall valiantly resist the temptation to give all of the combatants similar names.

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, he pushed back, sending him tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” he cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you were able to follow what was happening, even without drawing a diagram of the domino effect. (Although that would have been fun to see, wouldn’t it?) All a reader would really have to do is read slowly and carefully, perhaps going back and re-reading as necessary to answer any lingering questions.

It is indeed possible, then, for the reader to emerge at the end of this passage unconfused. But is it a good idea for a writer to expect the reader to put in the work?

I can answer that one for you: not if that reader is Millicent — or, indeed, any professional reader. Because clarity is, after all, the absolute minimum requirement of publishable writing, the pros typically regard an unclear passage as a poorly-written one, period. Or if not precisely poorly-written, then at least lazily revised.

At best, it’s an abdication of authorial responsibility: the gap between what the writer meant the reader to take away from the text and what’s actually on the page needs to be bridged by someone. The writer who submits the text at this stage is tacitly conveying the belief that it’s the reader’s job to fill in the necessary details; Millicent, by contrast, will be quite sure that it’s the writer’s job — and that the writer called in sick that day.

Here, Flossie. Where has she gone?

Millicent is also quite sure — and this comes as a nasty surprise to a lot of first-time submitters — that it’s not her job to go back and re-read a sentence because she found it confusing the first time around. So positive is she on this point that if such a sentence (or paragraph, or page) appears on page 1 of a submission, as we saw in the example above, she will often simply stop reading altogether.

Chant it with me now, campers: “Next!”

Does that low, despairing moan mean that some of you remain confused about when to name and when not to name? “But Anne, aren’t you presenting us with a Catch-22? I’m afraid that once I start adding all of the proper nouns necessary for clarity to my manuscript, I shall almost instantly run afoul of our bugbear from last time, too-frequent name repetition. Help! And why is this goat following me?”

Fear not, low moaners: you are not alone. Fortunately for all, the last time I brought this up, perplexed reader Elizabeth was brave enough to speak up:

Reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

Elizabeth speaks for many here: I frequently meet aspiring writers who tell me that their early writing teachers insisted (wrongly, as it happens) that the only conceivable way to avoid confusing a reader by in a scene with more than one he or she is to avoid using pronouns altogether. The result, as she points out, can be name repetition of the most annoying variety.

Let’s see why. To revisit our earlier pronoun-problem example:

Paul poked Herman in the chest, shoving him into Benjamin. Outraged, Herman pushed Paul back, sending Paul tumbling backward into Ed.

“Hey!” Ed cried, unable to save himself from toppling over onto Josh.

Oh, dear: that won’t do at all, will it? Unless a writer wants to stock up on Goat Chow, this seems like a strategic mistake.

It does serve, however, to illustrate an important reason to approach writing advice with caution: all too often, writing guidelines that aren’t applicable to every situation are presented as inviolable rules. Certainly, many, many aspiring writers are prone to take them as such. Matters of style are, unfortunately, often discussed as if they were matters of fact. As a result, accepting sweeping generalizations like the one Elizabeth cites above may actually be harmful to your writing.

Yes, you read that correctly. So here is my advice: never — and I do mean NEVER — accept a writing rule as universal unless you are absolutely satisfied that it will work in every single applicable instance. If you are not positive that you understand why a writing axiom or piece of feedback will improve your manuscript, do not apply it to your pages.

What should you do instead? Ask questions, plenty of them, and don’t accept, “Well, everybody knows it should be this way,” as an answer. Plenty of stylistic preferences have been foisted upon fledgling writers over the years as laws inviolable, and it actually not all that uncommon for writing teachers not to make — how shall I put this? — as strong a distinction between what is indispensably necessary for good writing and what is simply one possible fix for a common problem.

Take the 9/10th truism Elizabeth mentioned, for instance: it’s not uncommon generic writing advice, but it’s not particularly helpful, is it? I suspect that the real intention behind it is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Somehow, through the dim mists of time, what may well have started out as a relatively minor revision suggestion (you might want to think about giving that lady in the forest a name, Gerald), transmogrified into an imperative (thou shalt not use pronouns!).

But that imperative does not exist: there’s plenty of good writing that uses pronouns in abundance. Great writing, even, as even the most cursory flip through the volumes at any well-stocked bookstore or library will rapidly demonstrate. I’ve seen it, and I’m sure you have, too.

Heck, even the goat’s seen it.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering for the past ten paragraphs, I specified that I often hear the proper-name-at-all-costs rule from aspiring writers; professional writers know better. They know that there are many, many means of achieving clarity in writing about people without treating pronouns as if they were infected with some dreadful communicable disease.

Seriously, professional readers see practically pronoun-free first pages more than you might think — although nowhere near as often as the type of proper name-withholding opening we saw above. The trick, as is so often the case for good revision, is to approach each potential name vs. pronoun conundrum on an individual basis, rather than seeking to force every imaginable use of either into a one-size-fits-all rule.

Don’t be afraid to apply your common sense. As Aristotle liked to point out, moderation is the key.

Okay, so he was talking about something else, but obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name, at least occasionally, could reduce confusion quite a bit. (And before anybody asks, the rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in American literature, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself at the time, regardless of the stage of physical transition. While Marci is introducing herself as Marci, rather than Marc, use she; when he would introduce himself as Marc, use he. It’s only polite to call people what they wish to be called, after all, and it will save the narrative from having to indulge in pointlessly confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

Once the reader knows who the players in a scene are, a clever writer can easily structure the narrative so pronoun use isn’t confusing at all. Remember, moderation is your friend, and clarity is your goal.

Let me guess: you want to see those principles in action, don’t you? Okay, let’s revisit a proper name-heavy example from last time, one that might easily have been composed by a writer who believed pronouns were to be eschewed because they have cooties. Behold the predictable result.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, Susan,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?” Sue asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” Susan said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, Susan. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

Susan sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

“Meh,” the goat observes, shaking its horned head, “that’s quite a lot of proper names for such a short scene, isn’t it?”

Far more than Millicent would deem necessary, certainly — which is to say, far, far more than are necessary for clarity, yet more than enough to feel repetitious on the page. Yet simply replacing all of the names with she (or, in John’s case, he) would leave the reader wondering what was going on. Lookee:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” she snapped.

“Why ever not?” she asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

She played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about him?”

“Of course it’s about him,” she huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Her eyes stung for a moment. She always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

She sighed. “Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” she said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Fortunately, those two options aren’t the only tools we have up our writerly sleeves, are they? Let’s try a combination of minimizing the proper nouns by incorporating a little light pronoun use and reworking the dialogue a little:

“I don’t think that’s fair of you,” Louisa snapped.

“Why ever not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, Sue. I’ve known you too long.”

Susan played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about him. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” she said, smiling. “It’s been just him since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. Susan always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we hacked our classmate Elaine to death with sharpened rulers when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Experience even momentary confusion about who was who, or who was saying what when? The goat and I think not. All it took was a touch of creativity, a spot of flexibility, and a willingness to read the scene from the reader’s perspective, rather than the writer’s.

After all, clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the writer, it’s your job to keep that pupil happy by making your narrative a pleasure to read.

Oh, come back, Flossie — Millicent doesn’t like bad puns, either. Keep up the good work!

The Short Road Home, part IV: Tommy! Watch out for that bear lurking at the end of this post! Tommy!

I can’t quite decide whether I am profoundly sorry or oddly pleased that I’ve been digressing from our series-within-a-series on the Short Road Home, my pet name for a storyline that introduces a conflict only to resolve it immediately, sometimes before the reader has a chance to register that the problem raised is at all serious. Yes, too-swift fixes make it harder for the reader to root for the protagonist — or, when faced with a truly galloping case of SRH, to perceive any build-up of narrative tension at all — but since authorial distrust in readers’ attention spans often underlie these apparently self-solving problems, perhaps jumping around between topics has been appropriate.

Those of us who read for a living, however, may be trusted to have attention spans longer than a third grader hopped up on a quart of cola and half a dozen brownies. Oh, our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, may be conditioned to reject most manuscript submissions on page 1, but once she gets into a story, she, like any other reader, wants to see it played out in a satisfying manner.

That seems to be news to an awful lot of submitters, however. You’d be amazed at how often not small, potentially character-revealing conflicts are resolved practically as soon as they appear on the page, but major ones. In book openings, it’s not even all that uncommon to use one of these near-momentary crises as a clumsy means of introducing necessary backstory, as the following sterling piece of dialogue illustrates.

“It’s gone!” Marvin scrabbled around frantically in the dry grass next to his sleeping back, careless of the rattlesnake producing marimba rhythms on its tail a scant yard away. “My beloved late great-great-grandfather’s pocket watch!”

Antoinette gasped. “Not the one traditionally passed from dying father to eldest son for a century and a half, and entrusted to you by your father on his deathbed not four weeks ago?”

“The same.” A silver disk flew through the air at his head, glinting in the firelight. “Why, here it is! Where did it come from?”

The sleeping bag on the far side of the fire jackknifed. Jesse’s red face peered out of the opening. “You dropped it three hours ago. I was waiting for you to notice.”

Marvin flung his arms around Antoinette. “My legacy is safe!”

“What kind of idiot brings an heirloom mountain climbing?” Jesse muttered, trying to regain a comfortable position.

Yes, this is Hollywood narration — all three characters are already aware of the significance of the watch, so the only conceivable motivation for Antoinette and Marvin to explain it to each other is so the reader can hear what they say, right? — but you must admit, it is a darned efficient means of shoehorning the watch’s importance to Marvin into the story. It might not even come across as heavy-handed, if the reader had time to absorb the loss, understand its significance through Marvin’s reaction, and gain a sense of what might happen if the watch were never found.

But here, the darned thing reappears practically the instant Antoinette finishes filling the reader in about it, killing any possible suspense before it’s had time to build. Does that strike you as a narrative strategy likely to entrance a professional reader? Or is it likely to seem like the Short Road Home to anyone with an attention span longer than a drunken gnat’s?

Leaving aside for the moment the burning question of whether a gnat could be trained to hold its liquor, let’s consider how much more annoying this narrative strategy would be if (a) it were used frequently throughout the story, (b) it were in fact the primary tactic for introducing conflict into the story, and/or (c) the conflict in question were one that had been hyped throughout the book as central to the protagonist’s personal journey.

Yes, you did read that last bit correctly, campers. You would be stunned at how frequently Millicent sees a manuscript’s central conflict diverted to the Short Road Home. Often in the last chapter — or on the next-to-last page.

“Oh, Marv,” Antoinette moaned, cradling his bloody head, “you are so close to learning the truth about your family. Before you die, let’s look at that watch one more time.”

With effort, he fished it out of his pocket. The last rays of the sun illuminated its broad face. “Wait — I’ve never noticed that notch before. Maybe it has a false back.”

After the third time he dropped the watch, she put her deft fingers to work for him. “Why, you’re right. There’s been a piece of paper hidden back here all the time.”

She spread the paper two inches from his eyes. With difficulty, he made out the words. “Dear descendent: you will have heard all your life about a family curse. There really isn’t one; I just made it up to scare off competition from my gold mine. Please find attached the true map to your inheritance. Love, Marvin Bellamy the First.”

Suddenly, Marvin felt life once again suffusing his limbs. “Why, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking since we began this long, strange trek!”

Antoinette struggled to contain her annoyance. “And to think, if you’d only given that watch more than a passing glance after your father gave it to you, we wouldn’t have had to spend fifteen months hiking these mountains barefoot.”

“Oh, stop your moaning.” He sprang to his feet. “Your shoes didn’t wear out until month three. Let’s go find the gold mine — it’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“Um, excuse me?” Millicent asks politely. “Is there a reason that I had to read the 312 pages prior to this one? The entire plot has just been sewn up in seven paragraphs.”

Ah, but you should be grateful, Millie: at least this protagonist had to do something in order to send us careening down the Short Road Home. Granted, it wasn’t much; he simply had to manhandle his main prop a little to find his long-sought truth. As you know from experience, many a passive protagonist simply has another character hand the key to the plot to him on a silver platter.

The shadowy figure was closer now, bending over him. If this was Death, he certainly wore nice cologne.

Wait — he knew that scent. Hurriedly, Marvin wiped the dust from his eyes, but he still didn’t believe what they told him. “Dad? I thought you were…”

“Dead?” Marvin the Fifth chuckled ruefully. “No, not quite, son. That was merely the necessary push to aim you toward your legacy. Still got that watch?”

Marvin dug it out of his pocket. Snatching it, the old man cracked it in half.

“My inheritance!” Marvin screamed, horrified.

“Oh, it’s just a cheap knock-off.” Dad poked around in the shards. “But it contained this key to a safe-deposit box located twenty-two feet from this very spot. Come on, kid, let’s go claim your real inheritance. On the way, I’ll tell you all about your great-great grandfather’s plan for making his descendents rich.”

“Do I have to walk?” Marvin whined. “I’m tired from all of that mountain-climbing.”

“Hello?” Antoinette shouted after the pair. “Remember me? The lady who has been carrying your backpack for the last 100 pages?”

Come on, admit it: Marvin, Jr. is not the only one who seems a trifle lazy here. This writer appears to have dropped a deus ex machina into this plot, having a new character waltz into the story at the last minute to explain away all of the remaining mystery, rather than engaging in the hard, meticulous work of setting up sufficient clues throughout the story for the protagonist to be able to solve it himself.

Like other forms of the Short Road Home, the external explainer is a tension-killer. It could have been worse, though: ol’ Dad could have popped up periodically throughout the story, making it clear to all and sundry that he could have filled Marvin in at any time, if so chose he. What a pity that Marvin was just too darned lazy — or dim-witted, or determined that this story would take 324 pages to tell — to ask the obvious question.

Oh, you laugh, but narrators effectively tease the reader in this manner all the time in both novel and memoir submissions, through the use of the historical future tense. The openings of chapters are particularly fertile ground for this sort of suspense-killing narration. Often mistaken for subtle foreshadowing, transitional statements like I was happy — but my illusions were about to be shattered forever. actually minimize the tension to come.

How? Well, before the conflict even begins, the reader already knows the outcome: the narrator’s illusions will be shattered. She may not yet know the details, but you can hardly expect her to begin reading the next scene hoping for the best, can you?

Section-opening paragraphs that tell the reader how the scene how it’s going to end before the scene begins are alarmingly ubiquitous. Sometimes, such foreshadowing is subtle:

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my days of wine and roses were soon to come to an end — and in a way that I could never have anticipated in a thousand years of constant guessing. How was I to know that every child only has so many circuses in him before he snaps?

When my great-uncle Cornelius came down to breakfast waving the circus tickets that Saturday in May, I couldn’t have been happier…

Sometimes, though, foreshadowing is so detailed that it more or less operates as a synopsis of the scene to follow:

My hard-won sense of independence was not to last long, however. All too soon, the police would march back into my life again, using my innocuous string of 127 unpaid parking tickets (hey, everyone is forgetful from time to time, right?) as an excuse to grab me off the street, throw me in the back of a paddy wagon, and drag me off to three nights’ worth of trying to sleep in a cell so crowded that the Black Hole of Calcutta would have seemed positively roomy by contrast.

It all began as I was minding my own business, driving to work on an ordinary Tuesday…

In both cases, the narrative is telling, not showing — and, even more troubling to writing rule-mongers, telling the story out of chronological order. The latter is generally a risky choice, because, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a book that features time travel, most readers will expect events to unfold in chronological order — or if not, for flashbacks to be well-marked enough that the reader never needs to ask, “Wait, when is this happening?”

For the sake of clarity, beginning a scene at the beginning and proceeding to the end without extensive temporal detours is the established norm. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the frequent use of and then tends to annoy your garden-variety Millicent: unless a narrative specifically indicates otherwise, actions are assumed to have occurred in the order they appear on the page. I lost my footing and plunged into the water. And then the bear ate me, therefore, does not convey any more information to the reader than I lost my footing and plunged into the water. The bear ate me.

I hear some of you giggling. “Oh, come on, Anne,” lovers of conversational-style narration and/or run-on sentences protest. “I can see that and then might have been logically unnecessary here, but what’s the big deal about adding a couple of extra words?”

If they appear only once or twice in the course of a manuscript, they might not be a big deal. Given the extreme popularity of chatty-voiced narration, however, and the common conception that first-person narration peppered with conversational conjunctions is a valid reflection of everyday speech, Millicent sees an awful lot of and thens in a work day. Often, more than once on a single page. Or within a single paragraph.

You might want to give it a rest. I’m just saying.

Back to the benefits of telling a story in chronological order, rather than skipping around in time. Showing events in the order they occurred renders maintaining narrative tension easier, particularly in first-person narration: the reader may be safely left in the dark about surprising developments until they’re sprung upon the narrator, right?

Let’s face it, though, if the reader already knows what is going to happen before a scene begins, the temptation to skim or even skip the recap can be considerable. Particularly, say, if the reader in question happens to be a Millicent trying to get through a hundred submissions in an afternoon. Maybe she should run out and grab a latte to perk herself up a little…

All of which is to say: if you were looking for a good place to start trimming a manuscript, running a quick scan for the historical future tense might be a dandy place to start. Often, such opening paragraphs may be cut wholesale with little loss to the overall story. Ditto with premature analysis.

Oh, wait: I’m foreshadowing — and to render it even more confusing, I’m doing it by jumping backwards in time. The last time I addressed this topic, a reader wrote in to ask:

I’m assuming that it’s still okay to occasionally employ the historical future (foreshadowing) comments, as long as we don’t prematurely spill the beans…or choke on them…in our rush to analyze, yes?

That’s an interesting question. So much so that I strongly suspect that if this reader had asked it at a literary conference, agents and editors would glance at one another sheepishly, not wanting to generalize away the possibility that a writer in the audience could wow ‘em with foreshadowing, and then fall back on that time-worn industry truism, it all depends upon the writing.

Which would be precisely true, yet not really answer the question. But did you notice how gratuitous that and then was?

To address it head-on, let’s take another gander at our last two examples. In a novel or a memoir, a writer could probably get away with using the first, provided that the story that followed was presented in an entertaining and active manner.

Yes, Example #1 does provide analysis of action that has not yet happened, from the reader’s point of view — and doesn’t it make a difference to think of a foreshadowing paragraph that way, campers, instead of as a transition between one scene and other? — but it does not, as our questioner puts it, spill the beans. The reader knows that something traumatic is going to happen, and where, but not enough about either the event or the outcome to spoil the tension of the upcoming scene.

In Example #2, by contrast, not only does the narrative announce to the reader the specifics of what is about to occur — told, not shown, so the reader cannot readily picture the scene, so revisiting it seems dramatically necessary — but shoves the reader toward an interpretation of the events to come. After such a preamble, we expect to be outraged.

Which, too, is dangerous strategy in a submission: such an introduction raises the bar for the scene that follows pretty high, doesn’t it? If a text promises Millicent thrills and doesn’t deliver them, she’s not going to be happy. Or impressed. Frankly, though, if she’s already in a touchy mood — how many times must the woman burn her lip on a latte before she learns to let it cool before she takes a sip? — the mere sight of the historical future might set Millicent’s teeth on edge, causing her to read the scene that follows with a jaundiced eye.

Why, you ask? The insidious long-term result of repetition — because writers, unlike pretty much everybody else currently roaming the planet, just LOVE foreshadowing. The historical future makes most of us giggle like schoolgirls tickled by 5000 feathers.

As with any device that writers as a group overuse, it’s really, really easy to annoy Millicent with the historical future. Especially if she happens to work at an agency that handles a lot of memoir, where it’s unusual to see a submission that doesn’t use the device several times within the first 50 pages alone.

Heck, it’s not all that uncommon to see it used more than once within the first five. By the end of any given week of screening, poor Millie has seen enough variations on but little did I know that my entire world was about to crumble to generate some serious doubt in her mind about whether there’s something about writing memoir that causes an author to become unstuck in the space-time continuum on a habitual basis.

Which, in a way, we do. Since memoirs by definition are the story of one’s past, really getting into the writing process can often feel a bit like time-travel. After all, how else is a memoirist going to recall all of those wonderfully evocative telling details that enlivened the day a bear ate her brother?

Tell me honestly: as a reader, would you rather see that bear jump out of the underbrush and devour bratty little Tommy twice — once before the scene begins, and once at its culmination — or only once?

Or, to put it another way, would you prefer to know that Tommy is going to be a carnivore’s dinner, so you may brace yourself for it? Or would you like it better if the scene appeared to be entirely about the narrator and Tommy bickering until the moment when the bear appears — and then have it devour him?

If you’re like most readers — and virtually all professional ones — nine times out of ten, you would pick the latter. And for good reason: genuine suspense arises organically from conflict between the characters as the story chugs along. A surprise that you’ve known was coming for two pages is obviously going to startle you less than one that appears out of nowhere.

Foreshadowing is the opposite tactic: it tells the reader what to expect, dampening the surprise. It’s hard to do without spoiling future fun. All too often, what the writer considers a subtle hint informs the reader that a shock is to come in such explicit terms that when the shock actually occurs, the reader yawns and says, “So?”

That’s a pretty high price to pay for a transitional sentence or two that sounds cool, isn’t it?

Not all foreshadowing utilizes the historical future tense, of course, but it’s not a bad idea to get into the habit of revisiting any point in the manuscript where the story deviates from chronological order for so much as a sentence. Or even — and revising writers almost universally miss this when scanning their own works — for half a sentence.

Why? Well, from a reader’s perspective, even that brief a Short Road Home can substantially reduce a scene’s tension. Take, for example, this fairly common species of scene-introducing prose:

On the day my brother Jacques shocked us all by running away from home, I woke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow him on his uncertain road, leaving the rest of my body behind.

Assuming that the reader had gleaned no previous inkling that Jacques might be contemplating going AWOL, what does the narrative gain from opening with the scene’s big shocker? Yes, announcing it this way might well evoke a certain curiosity about why Frère Jacques departed, perhaps, but why not let the reader experience the surprise along with the family?

Taking the latter tack would not even necessarily entail losing the dramatic effect of foreshadowing. Take a look at the same scene opener without the spoiler at the beginning of the first sentence:

I awoke with a stomachache, as if my intestines had decided to unravel themselves to follow an uncertain road behind the Pied Piper, leaving the rest of my body behind. If this was what summer vacation felt like, give me six more weeks of school.

Mom burst into the room with such violence that I cringed instinctively, anticipating the obviously unhinged door’s flying across the room at me. “Have you seen Jacques? He’s not in his room.”

More dramatic, isn’t it? Starting off with a description of a normal day and letting the events unfold naturally is a more sophisticated form of foreshadowing than just blurting out the twist up front.

Not to mention closer to the way people tend to experience surprises in real life– as a manifestation of the unexpected.

That may seem self-evident, but as Millicent would have been the first to tell you had not I beaten her to the punch, few manuscript submissions contain twists that actually surprise professional readers. Partially, as we discussed earlier in this series, this is the fault of the pervasiveness of the Idiot Plot in TV and film, of course, but it also seems that many aspiring writers confuse an eventuality that would come out of the blue from the point of view of the character experiencing it with a twist that would stun a reader.

Again, it all depends upon the writing. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?) At the risk of espousing a radical new form of manuscript critique, I’m a big fan of allowing the reader to draw her own conclusions — and of trusting her to gasp when the story throws her an unanticipated curve ball. After all, it’s not as though she has the attention span of a gnat, drunken or otherwise.

Unfortunately, many aspiring writers apparently don’t trust the reader to catch subtle foreshadowing; they would rather hangs up a great big sign that says, HEY, YOU — GET READY TO BE ASTONISHED. That in and of itself renders whatever happens next less astonishing than if it came out of the proverbial clear blue sky.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there. “But Anne,” some of you inveterate foreshadowers call out, “what you say about real-life surprises isn’t always true. Plenty of people experience premonitions.”

That’s quite true, disgruntled mutterers: many folks do feel genuine advance foreboding from time to time. Others cultivate chronic worry, and still others apply their reasoning skills to the available data in order to come up with a prediction about what is likely to occur.

Do such people exist in real life? Absolutely. Should one or more of them be tromping around your manuscript, bellowing their premonitions at the tops of their gifted lungs? Perhaps occasionally, as necessary and appropriate, if — and only if — their presence doesn’t relieve the reader of the opportunity to speculate on her own.

In fact, a great way to increase plot tension in a story featuring a psychic character is to show him being wrong occasionally. Mixes things up a bit for the reader. But — correct me if I’m wrong — in real life, most of us don’t hear giant voices from the sky telling anyone who might happen to be following our personal story arcs what is going to happen to us twenty minutes hence.

To those of you who do habitually hear such a voice: you might want to consult a reputable psychiatrist, because the rest of us don’t lead externally-narrated lives. There’s an excellent chance that six-foot rabbit who has been giving you orders is lying to you, honey.

If we were all subject to omniscient third-person narration at the most startling moments of our lives, Tommy wouldn’t have let that bear get the drop on him, would he? Unfortunately for his future prospects, as handy as it would have been had a talking vulture been available to warn him about the nearby hungry beast, that doesn’t happen much in real life.

But that doesn’t mean that if you do find that your life starts being narrated on the spot by a talking vulture, you shouldn’t seek some professional help.

Speaking of professional help: from a professional reader’s point of view, heavy-handed foreshadowing on the page is rather like having a tone-deaf deity bellow driving instructions from a low-hanging cloud bank. Yes, that constant nagging might well cause Millicent to avoid driving into that rock five miles down the road — but, time-strapped as she is, I’m betting that the warning is more likely to convince her to stop driving on that road altogether, rather than hanging on for the now-predictable ride.

Okay, so that wasn’t one of my better metaphors; darn that pesky vulture for distracting me. Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XX: but people really talk that way! revisited, or, what’s up, Doc?

All right, I’ll ‘fess up: last time, I broke one of the cardinal rules of blogging. In Thursday’s post, I blithely signed off with I shall continue to wax poetic on this subject tomorrow. But tomorrow came and went, and so did Saturday. In my defense, I might point out that I stayed away from my keyboard in deference to another cardinal rule of blogging, thou shalt not post whilst feverish. But honestly, with the nastiness of this year’s Seattle Spring Cold (contracted, typically, by rushing out into the elements the nanosecond sunshine breaks through threatening deep-gray cloud cover, madly stripping off the outer layers of one’s clothing and shouting, “Sun! I thought you had forsaken us!”), I might have predicted that tomorrow might see a spike in temperature.

Unless, of course, I was feverish when I wrote the tomorrow bit. Rather than send all of us hurtling down that ethical rabbit hole, I’m just going to tender my apologies and move on.

Or, to be precise, move laterally. I’m taking a short detour from the Short Road Home series — which, as those of you keeping track will recall, was itself a digression from our ongoing Pet Peeves on Parade series — to guide you past a cautionary tale or two. Dropping that increasingly tortured set of compound analogies like the proverbial hot potato, let me simply say that the inspiration for today’s post came, as is so often the case, from the muses stepping lightly into my everyday life to provide you fine people with illustrations of writer-friendly truths.

Thank the nice ladies, please. Where are your manners?

Perhaps I am constitutionally over-eager to put a happy-faced spin on things — my first writing group did not nickname me Pollyanna Karenina for nothing — but I have been thinking for months that one of the many advantages stemming from my long-lingering car crash injuries has been the opportunity (nay, the positive necessity) to have extended conversations with a dizzying array of medical practitioners, insurance company bureaucrats, and folks waiting around listlessly for their dreaded appointments with one or the other. Everyone has a story to tell, and I’ve been quite surprised at how minuscule a display of polite interest will trigger a vivid telling.

Oh, I had expected to encounter an eagerness to swap stories in fellow accident victims — those of you scratching your heads over constructing a pitch for an upcoming conference would do well to spend some time in medical waiting rooms, gleaning summarization technique; the average person-on-crutches can deliver a gripping rendition of how she ended up that way in thirty seconds flat — but you’d be astonished at how readily even the seemingly stodgiest paper-pusher will open up if one asks a few friendly questions. After, of course, getting over his surprise that someone would treat a professional conversation as, well, a conversation.

Admittedly, I am notorious for interviewing people trying to interview me; I’ve seldom walked into my first day on a job in ignorance of what my new boss wanted to be when she grew up, the kind of poetry she wrote in high school, and/or the full details of the time that her beloved terrier, Pepper, got his front right paw caught in that barbed wire fence running along mean Mr. Jones’ alfalfa field. (Mr. Jones’ neighbors, the Heaths, were chronically inept at fencing in their pet pygmy goats, you see.) One never knows where good, fresh material may be found, after all. And having grown up helping authors prepare for interviews and Q&A sessions at book readings, I know from long experience that one of the best ways to be a scintillating interviewee is to learn something about the interviewer.

So on Feverish Friday, after extracting from my chiropractor the exciting story of how his grandfather immigrated by himself from Hungary at age 12, just in time to avoid World War I, and egging on his receptionist as she tried to top his tale with her great-grandparents’ 1880s sea journey from Ireland to Brazil, then around the southernmost tip of South America to San Francisco to establish a community newspaper — isn’t it fascinating how practically every American has at least one forebear with a genuinely harrowing immigration story or a deeply disturbing how-the-federal-troops-displaced-us-from-our-land story? — I hobbled into my next appointment, all set to glean some interesting dialogue.

Why dialogue, you ask? Having been seeing, as I mentioned, an impressive array of practitioners over the last ten months, I had begun to notice certain speech patterns. Doctors, for instance, tend to speak largely in simple declarative statements, with heavy reliance upon the verbs to be and to have, but light on adjectives and adverbs. Frequently, they will lapse into Hollywood narration during examinations, telling the patient what ordinary logic would dictate was self-evident to both parties and asking softball questions to which simple observation might have provided an answer.

By contrast, patients often positively pepper their accounts with descriptors. Although most of their sentences are in the first person singular (“I seem to have misplaced my leg, Doctor.”), they frequently back off their points when faced with medical jargon. They also tend to echo what the doctor has just said to them, as a means of eliciting clarification.

Weren’t expecting that sudden swoop into dialogue-writing theory, were you? I’ll pause a moment, to allow you to whip out your Fun with Craft notebooks.

In the right mindset for some textual analysis now? Excellent. Let’s see what the speech patterns I described above might look like on the manuscript page.

“Let me take a look.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she screamed. “Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

That may have been a vague answer, but it apparently deserved a note on her chart. “You have a dislocated knee, Georgette. It is bent at a peculiar angle and must be causing a lot of pain. It will have to be put back into place.”

“What do you mean, back into…”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.

The doctor smiled at her reassuringly. “You will be in pain for a while. I have written you a prescription for painkillers. Take it to a pharmacy and have it filled.”

Hard to imagine that most of these statements came as much of a surprise to Georgette, isn’t it? She may not have the medical background necessary to diagnose a dislocated knee (although the doctor’s dialogue might have been substantially the same if she had, with perhaps a bit more medical jargon tossed in), but surely, she was already aware that the bottom and top halves of her leg were not connected in their habitual manner. Nor, one suspects, was she astonished to hear that she was in pain, or that prescriptions are filled at a pharmacy.

Yet this rings true as examination-room dialogue, does it not, despite an almost complete absence of medical terminology? That would come as a shock to most aspiring novelists writing about this kind of professional interaction: in manuscript submissions, doctors tend to spout medical lingo non-stop, regardless of context.

Stop laughing — it’s true. Whether they are in a hospital or in a bar, at the beach or at a funeral, fictional doctors often sound like they’re giving a lecture to medical students. Similarly, fictional lawyers frequently use terminology appropriate to closing arguments in a murder trial while ordering a meal in a restaurant, fictional professors apparently conduct seminars on Plato at cocktail parties, and fictional generals are incapable of speaking to their toddlers in anything but terse, shouted commands.

Okay, so that last one was a bit of an exaggeration, but you’d be surprised at how often Millicent the agency screener is faced with manuscripts in which professional credentials are established purely through a liberal dose of jargon.

Why is that problematic? Since your garden-variety Millie not only went to college with people who went on to become doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like, but may well have parents or siblings who pursue those avocations, it’s likely to give her pause when characters spout professional-speak in non-professional contexts. To her, those characters are likely to seem either unrealistic — a scientist who spoke nothing but shop talk around non-scientists would have a difficult time socially, after all — or monumentally insecure, because, let’s face it, well-adjusted doctors, lawyers, professors, and/or generals don’t really need to keep reminding bystanders of their standings in their respective fields. Or indeed, to keep reminding them what those fields are.

However, to writers not lucky enough to have spent much time around professionals in the fields about which they are writing — the non-medically-trained writer whose protagonist is a doctor, perhaps, or the non-cook whose mystery takes place in a restaurant — jargon may appear to be the primary (or only) means of demonstrating a character’s credibility as a member of that profession. Dropping some jargon into dialogue is certainly the quickest way to suggest expertise to the non-specialist: as most readers will not be intimately familiar with the actual day-to-day practices of, say, a diamond cutter, including a few well-defined diamond-cutting terms into a gem-handling character’s dialogue during scenes in which s/he is discussing jewelry might add quite a bit of verisimilitude.

Oh, you were expecting a concrete (or perhaps rock-based) example? Ah, but I follow the well-known writing precept write what you know — and its lesser-known but equally important corollary, do not write about what you don’t know — and if you must write about something outside your area of expertise, do a little research, already.

Okay, it’s a mouthful, but it’s fine advice, nevertheless. Because I know next to nothing of diamond-cutting and its lingo, it’s a good idea for me not to attempt a scene where a character’s credibility hangs on her expertise in gemology. It also would not necessarily make the scene ring any truer to those who do know something about the field if I invested all of twenty minutes in Googling the field, lifted four or five key terms, and shoved them willy-nilly into that character’s mouth.

Which is, alas, precisely what aspiring dialogue-constructors tend to do to characters practicing medicine for a living. Let’s invade poor Georgette’s appointment with Dr. Ferris again, to see what the latter might sound like if we added a heaping helping of medical jargon and stirred.

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.” Dr. Ferris poked around her kneecap, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia. Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

“Lateral sublexation.” That apparently deserved a note on the chart. “You see, Georgette, if the displacement were in the other direction, we might have to resort to surgery to restore a more desirable Q-angle. As it is, we can work on VMO strength, to reduce the probability of this happening again. In the short term, though, we’re going to need to rebalance the patella’s tracking and more evenly distribute forces.”

“What do you mean, rebalance…”

The wrench knocked her unconscious. When she awoke, her entire leg on fire, a piece of paper was resting on her stomach.

Rather than focusing on whether a doctor might actually say any or all these things — some would get this technical, some wouldn’t — let me ask you: did you actually read every word of the jargon here? Or did you simply skip over most of it, as many readers would have done, assuming that it would be boring, incomprehensible, or both?

While we’re at it, let me ask a follow-up question: if you had not already known that Georgette had dislocated her knee, would this jargon-stuffed second version of the scene have adequately informed you what had happened to her?

For most readers unfamiliar with knee-related medical terminology (and oh, how I wish I were one of them, at this point), it would not. That’s always a danger in a jargon-suffused scene: unless the text takes the time to define the terms, they often just fly right over the reader’s head. Stopping the scene short for clarification, however, can be fatal to pacing.

“At first glance, I’d say that this is a moderate case of angulation of the patella.”


“It’s a mistracked kneecap.” Dr. Ferris poked around, nodding whenever she vocalized a negative response. “It must be. You’re a little young for it to be chondromalacia.”

Georgette was afraid to ask what chondromalacia was, just in case she wasn’t too young to get it. She should have asked, because unbeknownst to her, chondromalacia of the patella, the breakdown or softening of the cartilage under the kneecap, is quite common in runners.

A particularly vicious poke returned her attention to the doctor. “Does that hurt?”

“Tremendously,” she whimpered.

Slower, isn’t it? The switch to omniscient exposition (and judgmental omniscient exposition, at that) in the narrative paragraph shifts the focus of the scene from the interaction between the doctor and the patient to the medical information itself. Too bad, really, because the introduction of the jargon raises the interesting possibility of a power struggle between the two: would Georgette demand that Dr. Ferris explain what was going on in terms she could understand, or would she passively accept all of that jargon as unquestionable truth?

Oh, you thought that I was off my conflict-on-every-page kick? Never; passive protagonists are on practically every Millicent’s pet peeve list. Speaking of which, this latest version contained one of her lesser-known triggers. Any guesses?

If you immediately flung your hand into the air and cried, “I know, Anne! Paragraph 4 implied that Georgette had been thinking the entirety of the previous paragraph, rather than just its first sentence,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. Coyly indicating that the protagonist is reading the text along with the reader used to be a more common narrative trick than it is today, probably because it no longer turns up in published YA so much, but that has not reduced the ire the practice tends to engender in professional readers.

“But Anne!” I hear some of you fond of 1970s-style YA narration protest. (You probably also favor the fairy-tale paragraph opening it was then that… , don’t you?) “I didn’t read Paragraph 4 that way at all. I just thought that the narration was cleverly acknowledging the time necessary for Georgette to have felt the fear expressed in the first sentence of Paragraph 3.”

Fair point, old-fashioned narrators, but why bother? Merely showing the thought is sufficient to indicate that it took time for Georgette to think it. Since that would have eaten up only a second or two, showing her so wrapped up in the thought (and, by implication, the sentence that follows, which she did not think) that it requires an external physical stimulus to bring her back to ordinary reality makes her seem a bit scatter-brained, doesn’t it? Combined with the echo of the doctor’s words in her first speech in Paragraph 2, the overall impression is that she quite confused by a relatively straightforward interaction.

Generally speaking, the harder it seems for a character to follow the plot, the less intelligent s/he will seem to the reader. If the distraction had been depicted here as pain-related, it might make sense that someone else would need to remind her to pay attention to what’s going on, but this isn’t a particularly intense thought. Besides, it’s related to what the doctor is doing to her — why would she need to make an effort to think and feel simultaneously?

Speaking of character I.Q. levels, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the use of jargon will not necessarily make a doctor or character in a similar profession appear smarter. In fact, it may well make him seem less articulate: the clichéd fictional male nerd who has trouble speaking to real, live women (although such people tend to study and work beside real, live women every day, TV and movies have conveniently trained us to ignore that fact) is not, after all, a cultural icon for his communication skills. Intelligent people — at least, those who are not trying to impress others with their jargon-mongering — consider their audiences when choosing what to say; deliberately talking above one’s conversational partner’s head is usually indicative of a power trip of some sort.

Or rampant insecurity. Or both.

Yes, really. As a reader — and, perhaps more to the point, as someone who reads manuscripts for a living — if I encountered the last two versions of Dr. Ferris on the page, I would assume that I was supposed to think, “Wow, this doctor is a poor communicator,” rather than, “Wow, this doctor is knowledgeable.” I would assume, too, that the writer had set this up deliberately.

Why? Well, the heavy use of jargon emphasizes the power differential between these two people at the expense of the reader’s comprehension. Indeed, in the last example, Georgette’s reluctance to admit that she does not understand the terms seems to be there almost exclusively to add more conflict to the scene. As the jargon doesn’t seem to serve any other narrative purpose, what else could I possibly conclude?

Oh, you have other ideas? “Yes, I do, Anne,” those of you still slightly irritated by our wrangle over the proper interpretation of Paragraph 4 point out. “Some of us use jargon because, well, that’s the way people in the fields we’re writing about actually speak. There’s no understanding some of ‘em. By reproducing that confusion on the page, we’re merely being realistic.”

Ah, but we’ve discussed this earlier in the series, have we not? Feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-term readers: just because a real-life person like a fictional character might say something doesn’t mean it will work on the manuscript page. The purpose of written dialogue is not, after all, to provide a transcript of actual speech, but to illustrate character, advance the plot, promote conflict — and, above all, to be entertaining to read.

By virtually everyone on earth’s admission, jargon from a field other than one’s own is not particularly entertaining to hear, much less read. Jargon is, by definition, exclusive: it’s meaningful to only those who know what it means.

That’s why in most published fiction, it’s kept to a minimum: since it’s safe to assume that the majority of readers will not be specialists in the same field as the character in question, merely sneaking in an appropriately avocation-specific term here or there will usually create a stronger impression of expertise than laying on the lingo with a too-generous hand.

And please, just to humor me, would everyone mind laying off the professor-who-can’t-stop-lecturing character for a while? I used to teach Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius at a major university, and I’ve been known to speak like a regular human being.

Case in point: go, Huskies!

See how annoying insider references can be? While that last bit may have brought a gleam of recognition to the eyes of those of you who live in the Pacific Northwest (or who are devoted to college football, women’s basketball, and/or cutting-edge cancer research), I would imagine that it left the rest of the Author! Author! community completely unmoved.

That’s precisely how readers who don’t get inside jokes in manuscripts feel. No matter how trenchant a reference may seem to those who happen to work within a particular industry, unless you plan for your book to be read by only people within that arena, it may not be worth including. At least not at the submission stage, when you know for a fact that your manuscript will need to gain favor with at least three non-specialist readers: Millicent, her boss the agent, and the editor to whom the agent will sell your book.

Oh, scrape your jaws off the floor. Few agents or editors — and, by extension, their screeners and assistants — can afford to specialize in novels or memoirs about a single subject area. The agent of your dreams have represented a book or two in which a doctor was a protagonist, but it’s unlikely that she will sell nothing but books about doctors. Even a nonfiction agent seldom specializes to that extent.

It’s in your manuscript’s strategic best interest, then, for you to presume that virtually any professional who will read your book prior to publication will not be an expert in your book’s subject matter — and thus will not be a native speaker of any jargon your characters might happen to favor. Bear in mind that if Millicent says even once, “Wait — I’ve never seen that term used that way before,” she’s substantially more likely to assume that it’s just a misused word than professional jargon.

Try thinking of jargon like a condiment: used sparingly, it may add some great flavor, but apply it with a too-lavish hand, and it will swamp the main course.

Interestingly, US-based aspiring writers have historically been many, many times more likely to employ the slay-‘em-with-jargon tactic in the dialogue of upper middle-class professional characters than in that of blue-collar workers. On the page, doctors, professors, and other beneficiaries of specialized higher education may flounder to express themselves in a social context, but plumbers, auto mechanics, coal miners, and longshoremen are apparently perfectly comfortable making the transition between shop talk and conversing with their non-specialist kith and kin. Unless Our Hero happens to be dealing with a particularly power-hungry plumber, the mechanic-who-turns-out-to-be-the-killer, or someone else pathologically intent upon establishing dominance in all situations, the writer is unlikely to resort to piling on employment-based jargon so that character can impress a casual acquaintance.

To those of us who happen to have had real-world interactions with pathological plumbers, world domination-seeking appliance repair people, and yes, doctors with poor communication skills, prone to responding to their patients’ input by pulling rank, essentially, this seems like an odd literary omission. Professionals using expertise for power is hardly rare in any field. Rather than taking the time to listen to an objection, consider whether it is valid, and either take steps to ameliorate the situation or explain in a manner comprehensible to the layman why the objection is invalid, some specialists routinely dismiss the non-specialist’s concerns purely on the grounds that a non-specialist could not possibly understand anything.

Best leave it to the professionals, dear. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.

According to this logic (at least as it runs in my pretty little head), not only must the non-specialist’s diagnosis of the problem be wrong — her observations of the symptoms must be flawed as well. Since there is by definition no argument the non-specialist can make in response, the professional always wins; the only winning move for the non-specialist is not to play.

Which is why, I suspect, the classic send-up of this situation still rings as true today as it did when it originally aired in 1969. Here it is, for those of you who have somehow managed never to see it before.