Tool #2 — Multi-Tool, Part 3

So we’re still discussing the so called Writing Multi-tool in this Tool Series.  I mentioned in Part 2 that what we are talking about is a writing skill which you can develop and adapt for yourself—customize it—so that it fits your needs specifically.  But basically, the idea is to develop several writing strategies from which you can switch back and forth smoothly when writing a scene.  My basic strategies are these:

    1. Description
    2. Dialogue
    3. Narrative
    4. Action

Each of these strategies requires a different style of writing, obviously.  Let’s discuss Dialogue for a minute.

My definition of Dialogue is straightforward:  Dialogue is when two characters are conversing.  Dialogue is the foundation of stage- and screenplay; it is the script from which the actors take their lines.  And it is a critical element of storytelling in general.  So it is quite important for the writer of fiction to master and use dialogue.

With dialogue, the reader is allowed to “hear” our characters speak and this can be used effectively in developing characters which is to say giving the audience a better idea of who our characters are—what they might be like if we met them on the street.  But if our characters all speak alike and sound like someone reading from a textbook, well then, we’re not really getting the full benefit from our dialogue passages.  Dialogue is the writer’s chance to let his characters shine and capture the audience, to stand out and be unique.  In the following example, not only do we get an idea what sort of person Peggy is but the dialogue, itself, also drives the action which is a bonus for the storyteller.  This scene happens on a bus at night.

“Ma’am?  Ma’am?”

Annabel woke to the gentle touch of a woman passenger who had squatted beside her in the aisle.  They were on the bus and moving smoothy and everything inside was dark and quiet.

“Hi.  My name’s Peggy and I’m a nurse.  Say, I’m really sorry to wake you but I’m a little concerned about your friend.”

She pointed to Axel who was reclined in his seat beside Annabel, his head leaning against the bus window to his left and his mouth ajar.  It took Annabel a second to remember where she was and to process what Peggy was saying.

“Who?  Axel?” asked Annabel.

“Yes, ma’am.  Is he sleeping?  Could we try to wake him?”

“Why?  Why would you want to wake him?”

“I work at a sleep center and a couple of minutes ago your friend was snoring quite loudly—which can indicate a condition called sleep apnea—but a minute ago he stopped snoring and sometimes people do that when they stop breathing.  I just want to make sure he’s all right and that he’s breathing okay.  So could we try to rouse him, just to make sure?”

“Oh sure, sure,” said Annabel.

“Axel?  Axel!”  Annabel shook Axel to wake him but he did not wake.

“Ma’am, may we trade places for a minute?  I need to see if he’s breathing,” said Peggy.

Annabel let Peggy take her seat beside Axel as she stood and watched from the aisle.  It took Peggy only a second to assess the situation.

“No, he’s not breathing.  We’ve got to get him on the floor.”

Another thing that happens with dialogue is that in listening to characters speak we recognize the assumptions they make, learn their biases and prejudices, and are able to form some guesses as to where they might have grown up and what social circles they might have sprung from.  But most importantly, dialogue tells the audience what a character thinks about a given topic and the emotional content that character feels when talking about that particular topic.  These are extremely important facets in the art of storytelling because they provide points of connection for your audience:  It is how your reader connects with your characters and, thus, cares about them and what happens to them.  Here’s an illustration of what I mean (it’s an excerpt from my novel of a dialogue between Olive Galbraith and Anna Graham).

“…So it was a real blow when poor little Dixie died.  Did your mama ever get over it?”

Anna realized that trying to convince Mrs. Galbraith that she was not Millie Larsen would be impossible so she decided to assume the role of Millie, at least for the duration of their brief visit.  It felt cruel to do otherwise since Mrs. Galbraith so badly needed a visitor and wished to visit with Millie, not some stranger from Montana.

“No, not really,” said Anna in response to the question about Dixie’s mother.

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Olive?  I was wondering—”

“Yes dear?”

“Did Mom ever discuss her plans with you about where she planned to move, after Daddy died?”

“Well, yes.  Dot and I had coffee a couple of times after Sam passed.  They thought he had pneumonia, you know; turned out it was blood cancer; went all through his body.  Anyway, after Sam died I asked her, I said Dot, what are you going to do, now that Sam’s gone?  I’ve got to sell the house she said.  Well, where will you go? I asked.  Do you have family?  Yes, she said, in Rhode Island or Vermont, or somewhere like that, is what I recall.  But she said, I just can’t stand the weather out there so I’m going to move south where it’s warm.  But where exactly she went, I don’t know.  Well, now, you would know that.  Where did you all go when you moved away?”

“Florida,” lied Anna.

“Oh well, it’s plenty warm down there, isn’t it?”

One of the ways I like to use dialogue is for backstory.  Backstory is when you want to tell the reader an event that happened in the past because it’s relevant to the story in the present.  Writers are sometimes tempted to just take a timeout from storytelling and dump that information on the reader out of the blue.  But this is where dialogue can be used in a much more interesting way to fill in the information blanks.  Here’s an example taken from Wanderer Come Home.  Axel has met a relative of Dixie’s.  Dixie was the childhood friend who died in an accident when Axel and she were both eight years old.  Axel wants to know what happened to Dixie’s family after he went off to war.  Bill, Dixie’s cousin, was only a little younger than Dixie and knew her family well.  So while riding out to the cemetery where Dixie is buried, Axel asks Bill what ever happened to Dixie’s family.  Here is Bill’s answer:

“Well, the family continued living there on Meridian for several years,” said Bill as he drove his old pickup slowly through town, elbow hanging out the window.  “And we saw them now and then at, say, Thanksgiving or Easter or maybe once in the summer for a cookout or something like that.  But we didn’t see them often.  Then, I think it was right around 1970, ’69 or ’70, when Uncle Sam, dad’s brother, Dixie’s father, came down with what we thought was pneumonia.  It was bad.  Now I remember!  It was the winter of ’69.  Come to find out, after Uncle Sam got worse and they decided to take him to the hospital, that’s when they found the cancer.  It was all though him.  Nothing they could do they said.  He died right away, early February, I think it was.  Aunt Dottie, well, she and the younger girl—   What was her name?” he asked himself.  “Millie!  Her name was Millie.  Anyway, after Uncle Sam died, Aunt Dottie sold the house and she and Millie moved away, all within a year.  Haven’t seen either of them since.  I think Mom said they moved to New Hampshire or somewhere like that.  Maybe Aunt Dot had family up there; I couldn’t tell you.”

So you see, by using dialogue, we can fill in backstory blanks without breaking the story flow.  It may not seem as efficient but, for the reader, it is certainly more interesting to read dialogue than it is to read “info dumps”.

A long blog post today but I hope you got something useful out of it.  Until next time—