Hi, everyone, and happy Thursday!
You’re going to be hearing a lot from me about the all-important “Show, don’t tell” rule for writers. It’s pretty difficult to merely tell you what “Show, don’t tell” means, so I’m going to show you with one of the most powerful and effective ways to do it. Keep reading…
Dialogue: A Classic “Show” Device
Dialogue is one of the foundations of effective prose. Skillfully and subtly written dialogue engenders a feeling of trust in your writing ability. If not done well, however, it can light up a red “amateur” button in editors’ and agents’ heads.
One of the handiest dialogue techniques found in novels, autobiographies, and even self-help books is the telephone conversation. An effective one is not merely fluff; it’s a tool to serve your writing objectives. It can move the plot along quickly and smoothly, reveal a character’s personality, or illustrate the relationship between two characters.
Extremely Good and Incredibly Seamless
Here’s an example of a beautifully constructed phone conversation from Jonathan Safran Foer’s fantastic and unusual Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Penguin, 2005). Nine-year-old Oskar fakes being sick and his widowed mother calls from work to see how he’s feeling:
Schell residence…Hi, Mom…A little bit, I guess, but still pretty sick…No…Uh-huh…Uh-huh…I guess…I think I’ll order Indian…But still…OK. Uh-huh. I will…I know…I know…Bye.
Look how easy Foer has made it for us to figure out what Oskar’s mother is saying on the other end of the line. We know she asked how he’s feeling and what he’s going to have for lunch. We also notice that she probably told him Indian food isn’t so good for someone who doesn’t feel well (“But still”), and made him promise not to order it (“OK”). Oskar gets impatient with his mother’s questions (“I know”) and doesn’t seem to be too interested in communicating with her. What do you learn by the fact that such a young child is ordering lunch out?
In less than 40 words, Foer has communicated personality, relationship, information, and emotion.
Extremely Problematic and Incredibly Fixable
The conversation below is based on one that appeared in a manuscript I recently evaluated. See if you can find both the obvious and the not-so-obvious areas in which this paragraph can be improved:
“Helloooooo.” Mary Smith’s voice was abnormally high pitched as she tried to hide her excitement. “Yes, this is Mary Smith!…You want to come for Thanksgiving because you live on campus and no meals will be served that day? Yes, of course you can come; we’d love to have you…What’s our address? Twenty-three Oak Road …You don’t know where that is? No problem; I’ll give you directions…And you want to bring two friends? That’s fine! Of course we have room for all of you. We eat at 4, and we’re really looking forward to meeting you…Oh, you don’t need to thank me…You want to bring something? That’s sweet of you, but we’re okay. Now, let me give you directions to our house…”
Step 1: Make it Real
Unless this is a young children’s book, it’s better to make a phone conversation sound as close to real life as possible. Eavesdrop on the people you live with, or sidle up to strangers on cellphones (it’s all in the name of getting your book published). With very few exceptions, real people don’t repeat what the other person says on the other side of a telephone line. Therefore it would also sound clunky and artificial in both young adult and adult fiction.
Step 2: Make it Subtle
Let the reader figure out what the person on the other side of the line is saying via the responses of your character. We don’t need to know everything the invisible person is saying, just the important things and the gist of the rest.
Look again at the Extremely Loud example. Do we know exactly what Oskar’s mom is saying to him toward the end of the conversation? No we don’t, but via Oskar’s responses and their length, as well as the repetition and emphasis of certain words, we know that she’s a worrier and that he’s getting impatient. Once Foer communicates the main points, all we need for the rest is the big picture.
Step 3: Go through it Line by Line
After you have written your initial phone conversation, read each chunk of dialogue (even aloud) and ask yourself: Am I hitting readers over the head with information? Does it sound real? Is my character repeating him- or herself? Am I communicating to the reader what I wanted to communicate? Does this conversation have a function such as moving the plot along or revealing another facet of one or more of my characters?
Let’s deconstruct the above conversation. The blue is edited text; the red is my commentary:
“Helloooooo.” Mary Smith’s voice was abnormally high pitched as she tried to hide her excitement. “Yes it is!… (The other person obviously said: “Is this Mary Smith?” Most people wouldn’t answer by repeating the question and giving their name again.)
“Yes, of course; we’d love to have you. I remember when I was in college far from home. It was so lonely that first Thanksgiving. And I was starving!” (We now know that the caller is in college, is far away from home, is asking to come for Thanksgiving, and will have no food if she stays on campus.)
“Twenty-three Oak Road…No, not too far, and it’s easy to find; I’ll give you directions… (The starving student obviously asked where Oak Road is and/or if it’s far from campus. Or maybe she told Mary that she has no idea where anything is in this town. It doesn’t matter, unless it’s important to the plot that we know exactly what the student asked – in which case we would have to tweak Mary’s answer.)
“Yeah, no problem; they’re both welcome. In fact, the more the merrier!…Yes, I’m very sure, don’t worry…” (This is a seamless way to show that the student not only wants to bring two friends but that she was a little embarrassed to ask.)
“Let’s say four o’clock, and we’re really looking forward to meeting you…Oh, really, it’s a pleasure… (These were pretty subtle, and didn’t necessarily have to be changed. Nevertheless it’s smoother, because “We eat at 4” and “You don’t need to thank me” give a hint of spoon-feeding the reader.)
“No, just bring yourselves, but thank you for offering. Now, let me give you directions to our house…” (By now you’re an expert, and know exactly why the original needed to be changed. Notice that the unusual use of the word “bring” in this sentence shows us that the student asked if she could bring anything.)
Step 4: Put it All Together: A Conversation Reclaimed
“Helloooooo.” Mary Smith’s voice was abnormally high pitched as she tried to hide her excitement. “Yes it is!…Yes, of course; we’d love to have you. I remember when I was in college far from home. It was so lonely that first Thanksgiving. And I was starving!…Twenty-three Oak Road…No, not too far, and it’s easy to find; I’ll give you directions…Yeah, no problem; they’re both welcome. In fact, the more the merrier!…Yes, I’m very sure, don’t worry…Let’s say four o’clock, and we’re really looking forward to meeting you…Oh, really, it’s a pleasure…No, just bring yourselves, but thank you for offering. Now, let me give you directions to our house…”
Now it’s Your Turn
Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write a 2:00 am conversation between a clerk at the police station and the mother of a teenager who has just been rudely awakened by her phone ringing. Who will be featured in the dialogue, and who will be on the other side of the line? Through this one-sided conversation would we be able to figure out the back story and the teenager’s basic personality, or even what type of relationship he or she has with the mother? How would this scene move the plot along if it were a short story or a full-length novel?
When you finish, be sure to hit Reply and send it to me, or paste it in the Comments section. I will publish the three best pieces in my next blog, along with my comments.
Good luck, and have fun!
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