Thursday, May 24, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #138: People Don’t Speak in Complex Sentences

People don’t speak in complex sentences. This is not only because our minds aren’t quite fast enough to nest clauses on the fly, but also because we know that we’re always about to be interrupted, so we lay out our thoughts one at a time, in case we don’t get to finish.

People, as a rule, don’t listen to each other. Even when we try, we frequently hear only the version we want to hear, not what the other person is actually saying. But the truth is that we rarely even try to listen carefully. Instead, we generally do one of two things:
  • Listen just long enough to guess at the gist of what the other person is saying and jump in to complete the thought if we think we agree, or jump in to dispute it if we disagree. 
  • Simply ignore what the other person is saying, and wait for a chance to complete whatever statement we were making before we got interrupted.
We do this to others, and we know they’ll do it to us, so we speak to others with the assumption that we’ll be interrupted. We know that if we’re interrupted in the middle of a dependent clause, our entire sentence will be meaningless.

Even when we know for certain that we won’t be interrupted, such as when we’re giving a speech, it sounds awkward to speak with dependent clauses.  It sounds like a prepared text, and not extemporaneous talk.  Linguists criticized John Kerry for using too many dependent clauses in the 2004 presidential race, and praised George W. Bush for speaking simply, even if his speech patterns greatly distressed the American intelligentsia. 

Another problem with dependent clauses, especially out of the mouth of someone like Kerry, is that they sound like prevarication, so they’re inherently unsympathetic.  If you say “If A and B, then C”, that sounds weasel-y.  If, on the other hand you say, “C!  Because A!  Because B!  C!”, then you’ve said basically the same thing but you sound like more of a leader. 

Writers are used to seeing their words on a page, where dependent clauses can nest comfortably, which is why we’re often shocked to hear how mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy our dialogue sounds when spoken out loud. 

Simon Kinberg said that when he was shepherding Mr. and Mrs. Smith to the screen, he learned that you get completely different types of notes at each level of development... 
  1. First, junior execs give you nothing but plot logic and structure notes. 
  2. If you make it past them, you get to the studio heads, who only want it to be “tight” with a lot of set-up and pay-off.
  3. If you make it past them, you get to the directors, who only care about tone and set-pieces.
  4. If you make it past them, you get to the true seat of power: the actors, who are the first and only people who care about the dialogue.  First they insist you cut out all the exposition.  Then they want you to eliminate all that set-up and pay-off, which sounds phony.  Then they want to eliminate not just the complex sentences, but all the complete sentences.
Actors insist that nobody they know speaks in complete sentences.  Writers insist that this is because all the people they know are actors.  Nevertheless, they have a point.  When in doubt, chop it up. 


j.s. said...

This all makes perfect sense. But I'd be more inclined to stick by the "speaking simply so as no to be misunderstood and to complete one's statement with due urgency" line of reasoning than the "speaking simply because nobody actually listens--they're all just waiting for their turn to talk." After all, isn't that exactly what gets praised in good performances? Just watch any great actor when he/she isn't speaking. What they will be doing is listening with their full attention (albeit fully in character, which, of course, might include some degree of the selfish motive "waiting to speak").

Steve Bird said...

I suspect the "speaking simply because nobody actually listens--they're all just waiting for their turn to talk" may resonate from family experience. Just a guess.

Beth said...

Of course, you could use the complex sentenses to build a wind-bag character. Wasn't Owl from Winny the Pooh like that? Also Noam Chomsky is a good example (no offense to his genius). He isn't invited to talk on TV anymore because he can't use simple declarations, but talks in paragraphs. I guess in a story, you'd have other characters struggling to get a word in edge-wise or just wandering away, rolling their eyes.

Funny to mention family experience...I have some chatty long-winded relatives who are oblivious to interuptions. Great series of posts!

christinembird said...

Also, actors want you to eliminate other actors' lines, but leave theirs in.