The Value of Gossip

Writing is serious business. Sitting down at a desk entails a degree of solemnity akin to the grace achieved by monks. Gossip, on the other hand, is frivolous. So isn’t the title of this post a contradiction in terms? 

I’ll start with the example of Homer, the exemplar of oral storytelling. Where did he get all the tales that fill up The Iliad? Particular attention should be paid to the passages where Achilles is sulking in his tent, complaining to Patroclus. Can’t you imagine Homer standing at the tent flap, eavesdropping on that noble warrior?

That’s because gossip has existed since time immemorial. When you consider that people used to live in small villages, with so little access to entertainment, the arguments of a husband and wife next door provided a welcome break from banality. The affairs between secret partners required a special Commandment condemning them. On the flip side, most of us even today try to maintain placid exteriors to avoid prying eyes. A cellphone game is amusing, but come on, click out of that. Tell me what you think is going on with Harriet.

Everyone has dirty linen they want to hide, and as an author you have a duty to bring it out for the reader to view. The inside info on people is something we all enjoy, even guys. Why do you think the salacious discoveries of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use blazoned headlines for months? Don’t try to tell me that had anything to do with playing baseball. 

Thinking in terms of gossip can be very helpful when you are trying to illuminate the personal side of your characters. What’s the juicy stuff that we, as readers, need to know? Try to think this way at all times: how are you toying with the reader’s desire to hear good gossip? You could make a case that the entire mystery genre is driven by this primal urge. Who was in whose bedroom when—and who was watching?

When this imperative is adopted, it forces an author to ask herself a question: what is so interesting about my main characters that they are worthy of gossip? Nobody passes along dull news. Your protagonist needs to have provocative qualities; she needs problems that a reader can pry her fingers into. Is her background worthy of gossip? That seems like such a strange question. But in fact it goes straight to the heart of the matter. Readers want entertainment, so what dirt do you got? 

Exercise: Review the manuscript for background passages. Are they sounding rather earnest, like the character is St. Joan of Arc about to mount her horse? Instead, ask yourself a simple question. Does the past information you’re providing pass the gossip standard? Would you tell this, behind a raised hand, to your best friend? If not, that character needs more dirt thrown on her. Give her enough so that she can wallow down in the mire with the rest of us. 

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