“I want to hear it in your own words”

Another writing trope that bugs me, this time one I've seen as often in published fiction (and on TV shows) as in submissions:

A character (usually the protagonist) is being asked questions by someone in authority, usually a police officer. The questioner asks them “Tell me about such-and-such,” and the character says, “You already know all about that,” and the questioner says “I want to hear it in your own words.” Or: “Yes, but tell me again.” Or: “If we go over it again, maybe there'll be a detail we missed.”

I have two issues with this trope:

  • I don't find it very plausible as dialogue. How often do real-world people ask each other to repeat a story they've just told?
  • I don't see the point of it from a storytelling point of view. Why not show us the first time rather than the nth?

It may be that real-world police really do this. The few times I've given a police report, I wasn't asked to tell my story multiple times, but maybe it's common that people do.

But even if that's true, why show it to us? It seems to me that the first time the character tells the story will likely be more engaging than the nth time anyway.

I suppose it's possible that focusing on the nth time allows the character to plausibly tell a more polished and better-organized version of the story, with boring or extraneous details left out. But I don't feel like it's usually written that way.

(Written in 2013, but didn't post 'til now.)

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

2 Responses to ““I want to hear it in your own words””

  1. Vardibidian

    It occurred to me after a while that ‘tell me in your own words’ is totally something I would say to my kids, sometimes to attempt to help with homework, f’r’ex trying to see if the kid understands the math concept or knows what the assignment it. Also if there are contradictory stories going around and I am trying to get one kid to say something of his own that isn’t ‘That’s not what happened. I didn’t do that.’

    Not that those are helpful in terms of enjoying fiction writing, just that it’s an occasion when I ask for someone to re-paraphrase in real life.


    • Jed

      I feel like I led readers astray by my framing of this post, ’cause responses seemed to be mostly about possible real-life scenarios in which someone might say the phrase “tell me in your own words” rather than about the kinds of fiction scenarios I meant to be referring to.

      So to clarify: yep, there are plenty of real-world scenarios in which someone might say “tell me your version of the story.” But the fiction scenario I’m referring to is generally where someone has just told their version of the story (off-camera), and a friendly authority figure asks them to repeat their version of the story, for no clear in-universe reason.

      I don’t see that kind of scenario happen in real life very often; but even if I did, that’s secondary to what I meant my main point to be, which is that I don’t see a reason to do it in fiction. In the specific instances that I’m referring to, I can’t see any reason not to have started the scene earlier to show the first telling of the story, rather than jumping into the scene after the first (or nth) telling in order to show the audience the n+1st telling. (If there were a good reason to show the n+1st telling in a specific scenario, then that would be a different kind of scenario than the kind I’m talking about.)

      But I didn’t convey what I was referring to very clearly in my post; sorry about that.


Join the Conversation