12.19.2017

By the Way

A primary concern for any author is creating a variety of approaches to the subject matter. If you are devising a conversation about a subject that has been covered in a hundred other books, such as a mother-teenage son argument, how do you write something original? Unless you are writing science fiction, the world of options for this type of conversation is limited.

One idea that works is creating cross currents. When writing a novel, you assume that your two characters will sit down and have the conversation you mean to tackle. After all, that’s what they’re supposed to do at this point in your planning: talk about X. That isn’t the way many conversations go in real life, though. If you can get your teenager to look up from his phone or stop playing video games, you have achieved a minor miracle. To him, at that moment when he’s about to top his best score ever, fighting once again for the rights to the car is a petty annoyance.

The same is true of a spouse that has just come home from work. In her mind she may be still fuming about an incident on the commuter bus. She is inventing what she really should have said to the bragging lout on his cell phone, and your polite request to talk about something really serious may need to be reinforced with “Are you listening?” and then “Hello, Earth to Lauren.”

That’s the way life really is. Ships cross in the night, and each one is intent on his own nautical chart. When one party is initially disengaged, you also can reveal more about the relationship. That’s because a stock, inattentive answer is one that the character knows will usually get the other off his back. You can still work the scene so that the two parties engage fully, but this way you have revealed two layers of interactions: the present issue and the way things have gone in the past.

A variety of the initial disconnect involves the character bringing up the topic of concern. If Ellen is worried how the other party will respond, that allows you several possibilities for exploration. By her reasoning out how to ease into the subject, you show the reader what the other character likes. On the flip side, you reveal the anxieties that Ellen normally has in creating a confrontation.

Exercise: Review the manuscript for dialogue patches. Do any of them seem like bits heard on too many TV shows? Stop to consider the lead-in. How does the character feel about raising the topic? Is he irate? Is he begging? Next, consider where the other character is at this point in the book. Given what she’s had to put up with, how receptive is she to defend herself on this point?

“No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” 
—Karl Popper

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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