Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Objection! Narrative!

Lawyers always like to know what comes next. They like to know what the answer is to every question before it is asked, and they like to know the exact order of the information that has yet to be delivered. Before the witness opens her mouth. Before the jury hears what she has to say. Before the "bell has been rung." Why? So they can object to anything they don't want the jury to hear. So they can stop the information from being delivered. So they can muffle the darn bell.

For this reason, lawyers will object to any question that elicits a narrative response. Like so:
Plaintiff's Counsel: "Mrs. Smith. Please tell us, in your own words, exactly what happened that day, starting from the moment you woke up, and ending when you found the letters."
Defense Counsel: "Objection. Narrative."
Judge: "Sustained."
(Defense Counsel objected, here, because he knows that, sometime around noon, Mrs. Smith had a conversation with her husband that is protected under marital privilege, in which he confessed to her that he was engaged in criminal activities with the letter writer. Mrs. Smith isn't allowed to testify about that conversation, the judge has already told her she can't testify about it, but defense counsel doesn't trust her to keep her yap shut about it.)
This is how proper testimony should go:
Plaintiff's Counsel: "Mrs. Smith, what time did you get up that morning?"
Mrs. Smith: "Round about 6:00."
PC: "And was your husband in the bed when you woke up?"
MS: "No, he weren't."
PC: "When did you see him next?"
MS: "At lunchtime."
PC: "And did he tell you anything of interest when you saw him?"
Defense Counsel: "Objection, your honor, may we approach?"
(Defense Counsel wants to approach the bench so he doesn't have to tell the jury that the witness is about to say something they aren't allowed to hear. A completely confused jury is better than a semi-confused jury with food for their imaginations.)
You see the difference? So much easier to object when you know what information is going to come next, right?

And what does that have to do with writing? Readers don't want to know what comes next, do we? We like to be surprised, right?

Well, to a point. What readers do like is to have narrative dialogue flow logically. We want to be able to predict the next subject that will be addressed in the character's speech. We don't like the following:
"Why'd you fall for Mother if you liked dark-haired women?" [Hero] asked.
"Man can love lots of women but only one gets to lay claim to his heart. Your mother was a beauty. Still is and so smart it ain't funny. Don't know why in the hell I'm tellin' you this tonight. Guess it's because you brought up the [name of bar redacted]. Think I'll go on in to bed. We got hay to put in the barn tomorrow. You going to help or go out and wreck another one of my vehicles tomorrow?"
No, I didn't skip anything. Yes, this is from an actual published book, the most recent in a series. (I didn't read the first books before I picked this one up.) Yes, Dad's answer could also draw an objection for being non-responsive. Anyone get why Dad fell for Mom? Just 'cause she was beautiful and smart? Aren't there lots of smart beauties around? What made Mom special? More to the point, anyone a bit thrown when we're suddenly talking about hay? Anyone have a clue how we got there from women without even a pause for breath?

Now, I'm not an expert, but here's how it could have gone:
"Why'd you fall for Mother if you liked dark-haired women?" [Hero] asked.
"Man can love lots of women but only one gets to lay claim to his heart." Dad smiled and stared up at the stars. "Your mother was a beauty. Still is and so smart it ain't funny." He shook his head as if he were clearing cobwebs from his hat and rubbed his beard stubble. "Don't know why in the hell I'm tellin' you this tonight. Guess it's because you brought up the [name of bar redacted]."
Dad stood, looking suddenly old and bone-tired. Hero knew better than to ask any more questions tonight. "Think I'll go on in to bed," Dad said. "We got hay to put in the barn tomorrow. You going to help or go out and wreck another one of my vehicles tomorrow?"
Not perfect, but better, yes? So what's the difference? In theatre, it's called stage business. In writing, it's called beats. In reading, it's called the-stuff-that-signals-a-possible-change-in-subject. Like the logical progression of questions in a trial, doing without it completely is objectionable.

I should mention that the set-up for this book seems really fun. I'm intrigued by the characters and the premise, but turned off by the objectionable narrative dialogue. I skipped ahead to see if this sort of thing continued after all the series exposition was out of the way. It did. Let's do another, shall we? This is from about two-thirds of the way into the book:
"Want to expound on [what you want] while we wait on our drinks?" [Hero asked.]
"Nothing to discuss. If you are [Hero], you know what I want. If you are [Hero's alter ego] you know how important it is to me. This is a neat place. I wonder if the ladies at home would learn to cook crawdads. If they would, I'd put one just like this in [the town where our alter egos met]. Any one of those old empty buildings would do to start. I'd finance it and we could give the [alter-ego-town restaurant] some competition. I'd best stop thinking about [Heroine's alter ego] and [Hero's alter ego]. [Heroine] bought you so I'd better get into character."
Oh, yeah. You know what I want: crawdads. Or not. How's this:
"Want to expound on [what you want] while we wait on our drinks?" [Hero asked.]
"Nothing to discuss. If you are [Hero], you know what I want. If you are [Hero's alter ego] you know how important it is to me." Heroine looked away from him, almost desperate to change the subject. She caught sight of the fishnets hanging behind the bar counter. Mother would hate them. 
She smiled. "This is a neat place. I wonder if the ladies at home would learn to cook crawdads. If they would, I'd put one just like this in [the town where our alter egos met]. Any one of those old empty buildings would do to start. I'd finance it and we could give the [alter-ego-town restaurant] some competition."
She turned back to Hero, but he was looking at her with a familiar gleam in his eye. She sighed. Nothing but trouble that direction. "I'd best stop thinking about [Heroine's alter ego] and [Hero's alter ego]," she said with a scowl. "[Heroine] bought you so I'd better get into character."
As you might have noticed, I hate ragging on published books, which is why I've tried to remove all identifying information above. Still, this author isn't new. She has several published books to her name (whatever it is) and the very fact that her publisher is still buying books in this series is a sign that there are readers out there who enjoy them. For myself, I'm actually a bit torn on whether I want to finish this. Yes, the dialogue is driving me crazy, but I like the story (what I've read of it). *Sigh*

Anyway, please don't do this in your book. And, if you're beta-reading my book, please make sure I'M not doing it. We're not writing plays or screenplays. We can't rely on the actors to fill in the stage business for us later. We have to do it ourselves. Everything our characters say not only has to be motivated, but that motivation must be understood by our readers.

What do you think? What drives you crazy about not-quite-perfect dialogue?

2 comments:

  1. Great post. And I love what you've done with the dialogue. What makes me crazy is internal dialogue about the same thing that keeps getting repeated. I get it already!

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  2. Oh--yes! Or No! Repetition (I found one recently that repeated information within the same paragraph!!) is muy distracting. I always have an annoying sense of deja vu and have to go back to figure out where I heard that recently. Totally stops the forward progress.

    *Adds "remove repetitious internal dialogue" to her to-edit list*

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