Warning: today’s post may seem a bit esoteric. I think it’s pretty darn interesting, and I know it has real-world implications for anyone trying to communicate anything, but if you want to cut to the chase you can always scroll down to the end.
What a difference a word makes!
I’m reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall is a massive historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who, as a trusted counselor to Henry VIII, helped usher in the English Reformation. Although I have my share of interest in history and read plenty of historical fiction as a kid, I rarely read it now. Why? Because I hate clumsy exposition. There is nothing so deflating as to be caught up in the middle of a fictional world, rooting for a character, crying over a sad turn of events, eager to see what happens next, only to be swiftly dumped back into the 21st century when the author stops to explain something. It’s even worse when that something is stuffed, with all the authenticity of a plastic pear, into a character’s mouth.
For example, I somehow missed the much-praised television series, West Wing, when it first aired. My 15-year-old daughter, a latter-day fan through the magic of Netflix, is now eagerly introducing me to what I missed. And, several “seasons” in, I’m very much enjoying it. But I squirmed through quite a few episodes before I got to this point.
Here’s why: West Wing, as you probably know, is about a fictional modern-day U.S. president and his closest staff. He’s got the kind of liberal politics that make it highly unlikely he’d ever have been elected in real life, and his ironclad integrity is even more unbelievable, but these stretches of reality are not what make me squirm. What drives me crazy is that at key points throughout nearly every episode a character will suddenly say something like, “What do you mean, the bill has to be voted on in both houses of Congress?” and another character will answer, “Well, every bill has to be passed in both the House and the Senate…blah, blah, blah.”
This is ridiculous. People who work at the White House don’t ask these questions of each other. Why? Because they work at the White House. They know the answers, and the writers know they know the answers, but they put those words in the characters’ mouths because they want to be sure you, the audience know the answers. And though dialogue like this does serve the function intended, it also yanks us viewers right out of our cozy involvement with the scene, back into our chairs in front of a television screen.
The fact is, the very best television (I’m speakin’ to you, The Wire) manages to avoid this kind of exposition. It does this in part by getting the message across much more subtly, in part by respecting the audience’s ability to catch on. The very best writing does, too.
Which brings me back to Wolf Hall. It’s not easy—at all—to create a work of fiction set in a time or place that’s unfamiliar to readers without inserting a lot of heavy-handed exposition. But Hilary Mantel manages to do it with an awe-inspiring grace.
In some cases, it comes down to one word.
On page 295 of my hard cover edition, a character tells Cromwell he is going to try for permission to visit “our brother Bainham.”
At this point, we’ve never heard of anyone named Bainham and need to be told who he is. A lesser author would come right out and do so (or, worse, have some minor character pipe up from across the room, “who’s Bainham?”) Mantel, writing in present tense as she does throughout the book, does this:
Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by [Sir Thomas] More last year and tortured.
(The brackets are mine—readers of the book know by this point who “More” refers to.)
What’s significant about this sentence is what Mantel could have said, instead:
Bainham is a barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured.
Had she done this, had she used “a” instead of “the,” she would have been talking directly to me, the reader. She would have been bypassing her characters completely and, in the process, lifting me right out of their world and setting me down, with a thud, in 2013. Because both the characters in the room know who Bainham is. They don’t need to know he is “a barrister, etc.”
But it is perfectly within reason that they might need to search their memories for a moment, recollecting for themselves or reminding a friend who he is, in which case they might well say, “You know who I mean—Bainham is the barrister who was taken up by More last year and tortured…”
Do you see the difference?
One little word: the instead of a, and it turns from clunky exposition to a flowing internal conversation.
Yes, I have written this entire post to expound (as it were!) on the tiniest word in a 500+ page novel. But when I read that paragraph, that “the” jumped right out at me. It was so simple. And so perfect.
Ok, I promised you this would relate to the kind of writing you and I do, every day. Chances are, you’re writing neither historical fiction nor television screenplays. But you are writing for an audience, and you need that audience to stay with you, in whatever “story” you’re telling. So you need to remember:
- If you use meaningless jargon—you will lose them.
- If you sound inauthentic—adopt a voice that is too self-consciously hip, or an attitude that is too filled with rah-rah boosterism, or anything that strays from honesty—you will lose them.
- If you are not inclusive—if you use sexist language, or project implicit assumptions that don’t apply to some part of your audience—you will lose them.
- If you make too many careless mistakes in either content or form—you will lose them.
- And if you can’t demonstrate the relevance to them of what you have to say—you will lose them.
Not to scare you or anything, but every word really does matter.
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