Direct, Not Indirect

We all use shortcuts in writing. When we perceive a topic to be of lesser interest, we summarize it, treating it like a minor building block of the story. One way to do that is using indirect quotes. By not putting what is said into dialogue, you are relegating it to a passing mention. 

Indirect storytelling can, however, also be a sign of inexperience. It is much easier to report on a scene than inhabit the characters involved in it and tell it from the inside. Plus, we are all influenced by what we read, and a veteran writer often uses indirect speech—because she knows which pieces don’t merit more attention. Yet we may not realize the distinction when we sit down to write ourselves.

I’ll use a running example to show how relative weights should be assigned. “He told Annie he would be working late” works well in the context of a businessman engaged in an elaborate fantasy about an upcoming dinner with a sexy new client. In his mind at the time, making that tired excuse to his wife is an insignificant matter, and so it should be told that way.

Indirect is the wrong approach, though, when a plot event is crucial. Let’s say that later the husband has to tell his wife he had sex with the sexy client. That same indirect storytelling—“He confessed to Annie that he slept with the new client, and she broke down crying”—is utterly the worst way to engage the reader. What he tells her is not minor anymore. It may make or break his marriage. For that reason, the reader’s emotions will be deeply engaged if the scene is told in full, with dialogue throughout.

I should point out one other aspect of indirect storytelling. It can be a way for an author to shield himself from truths he’d rather not face. Writing is a process of exposing yourself. An author who writes about a cheating husband may in real life be faithful to his wife. So the indirect approach may be the author shying away from a subject that makes him uncomfortable. His wife, after all, may well be the first reader of the manuscript he’s writing. 

A large factor in determining dramatic importance is whether an action is being performed by the scene’s point-of-view character. Direct quotes increase the immediacy of prose, raising your major characters to more prominence. Indirect quotes tend to lower them.  So when a plot event is attached to someone the reader knows, crack open the nut and show what’s inside.

Exercise: If you decide that a passage should be heightened more by dialogue, you don’t have to write out an entire conversation. Sometimes a few lines of exchanged dialogue will provide the proper emphasis. If it needs more than that, add thoughts. In other words, you can calibrate how much you zoom in.

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