The Neutral Physical
Stripped-down prose can be a valuable means of maintaining a strong narrative pace. Many times “He shrugged” is all that’s needed in between lines of dialogue. The reader gets the general idea. The character is not impressed, or doesn’t care, or a variety of common responses to what is said.
Such a device does not work as well when you’re trying to use these brief narrative asides to help define the lead character(s). Assuming the paramount need to keep the pacing tight remains the same, how do you make them more telling? You link up an aside to a corresponding gesture by another character.
Among persons we know, we can tell by the smallest signs what they’re thinking. This insider knowledge can be employed when, for instance, you’re trying to establish how patrol partners work together. Rather than shrugging, Mike might tell the reader some inside dope. “Jose liked to put on the hard-guy routine with reporters” is just one of myriad quick observations that moves the narrative beyond a neutral stance.
With characters that don’t know each other, following up one piece of physical business with a corresponding one creates a subtext for a patch of dialogue. If an attractive reporter follows up Jose’s rudeness with a beguiling smile to Mike, the reader can learn something about the way Mike acts with women in general by his response in this one case. “He gave her a hopeless shrug, since that worked a lot of the time.” You’re not beating your chest, declaiming a torrent of emotions. You’re taking the power of suggestion a step further.
I should note that pacing will suffer if you change out ultra-brief responses too often. You want to keep the dialogue snappy. So you mix in more personal information maybe every 3-4 lines of dialogue. That approach helps to balance out the dialogue with narrative, which you want to do anyway. The book is still charging hard, but it’s richer. The extra prose is given to the characters you want the reader to identify with (or hate). You want them to be leafy.
Exercise: Using a wider arsenal accomplishes another objective as well. By using a wealth of alternate observations, you avoid the boredom of book-long repetition. The reader gets through the reactions of lesser characters faster, and they don’t count as much anyway. Over time, though, the accretions given to your chosen one or few add up to a solid basis for reader identification.
“Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Copyright @ 2016, John Paine