A Short Guide to Handling Speeches in Fiction

Whether they take the form of lectures or diatribes, speeches are rarely enjoyable to listen to–unless they happen to combine the talents of a gifted orator and a skilled speechwriter. But this combination is rare. The average speech is, well . . . average. This is generally true in real life and especially true in fiction.

Yet many aspiring novelists think it’s a good idea to include speeches. They appear either as formal addresses to a captive audience or, more commonly, informal monologue. Here’s an example of the latter.  During a coffee break at the lab, Dr. Saurus, a mad scientist who’s secretly recreating extinct creatures in test tubes, lectures his colleagues about the natural history of the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods. But more about the good doctor later.

The problem with speeches is that your plot typically goes on vacation during them, so everything grinds to a halt. The grave danger is that the reader will get bored, impatient, or exhausted and will consign your book to the trash can. Obviously, you don’t want that to happen, so what should you do about speeches?

First, consider the purpose of each speech. What does the speaker want to achieve? Cut out anything that’s irrelevant to that purpose. If, for example, Dr. Saurus wants to reveal the nature of his experiments to his colleagues, he should confine his words to those experiments. He shouldn’t ramble on about the Triassic, Cretaceous, and Jurassic periods; the scientists know about them already, and he comes off looking pedantic. He’s also committing the terrible sin of information dumping, which brings me to my second point.

Include only information that’s vital for the reader’s understanding of what’s happening. Anything beyond that is extraneous. If readers want an in-depth discussion about the Jurassic period, they’ll google it or pick up a book on the subject. Don’t pummel them with paragraph after paragraph of facts and figures. When you do, they forget they’re even reading a novel and imagine they’ve mistakenly wandered into a textbook. Remember that few things destroy the fictive dream like a big information dump in a speech. A far better approach is to eliminate such speeches altogether and weave their content bit by bit into the narrative instead of depositing it all in one place.

But if you’re still committed to keeping a speech in and have done your best to rid it of irrelevant material, it may still be too long. If so, there’s a lot more you should be doing. Try interrupting the speech. Consider for a moment that many authors write speeches without properly supporting them with narrative. Reading this is much like listening to the radio; you hear a voice, but you can’t see where the speaker is or what he’s doing. This results in an incomplete sensory experience for the reader. Interrupt monologue with lots of supporting details about characters’ actions, gestures, and expressions. In the Dr. Saurus example, one of the scientists might jump up and down excitedly after hearing about the experiments and spill coffee on a colleague. Remember that the speaker isn’t talking to zombies (well, not usually) but to actual human beings who react to what’s being said, so interrupt using questions or comments from listeners as well. Another of Dr. Saurus’s colleagues might ask him why he wants to recreate extinct creatures and accuse him of playing God. Dialogue and interaction are inherently more dramatic than monologue, which is essentially static, so don’t hesitate to turn speeches into conversations.

As well, you can briefly summarize many points of a speech in narrative form while giving your character choice lines highlighting the most important or dramatic points. For example, you could summarize Dr. Saurus’s experimental procedures in a paragraph but allow him to talk about the exciting results of his work: a baby stegosaurus hatching in his lab right before his very eyes!

Much like Dr. Saurus, you as an author get to play God. You’re in control of everything that happens in your book, so unruly characters needn’t get away from you and run the show. You probably wouldn’t let someone drone on and on in real life uninterrupted, so why let it happen in your fiction? Use the above techniques to more effectively handle speeches. They may take work, but the payoff is prose that will keep readers thoroughly engaged in your work.

 

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