Often I’ll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.
– Doug Lawson
In my short story, “No Breaks,” Millie and her friend Jessica are driving up to a cottage when the main brakes fail. The following excerpt shows Millie going where she would rather not go but her only other choice is a possible collision.
This calls for controlled action, Millie decides. She steers the car over to the shoulder of the road, hits the parking brake, and when the vehicle slides into a stop, switches on the car’s double blinkers. The shakiness sweeps through her body. Her fingers smash against her open purse, knocking out most of its contents.
“Shit,” she says.
“Millie,” Jessica replies. But it is only a half-hearted reprimand. Jessica is bent almost into a ball ready to roll onto the floor. But she’s still hanging onto The Berry. Mille can see it peeking out from her right hand.
“You okay, pal?” Millie asks. “Hey, come on, we’re going to make it…”
(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).
As you can see from the above passage, readers find out about your characters from what they say, what they do, what they think and what other characters say about them. What they do ties in with Doug Lawson’s quote above. And it is better to show what your characters are doing instead of telling the reader. That can be incorporated with the other three criteria.
Let’s look at what characters say and how their dialogue shows them to the reader. In the above conversation between Jessica and Millie, we can see that Millie is irreverent, speaks first and thinks later, has a short fuse, is probably scared and is definitely not pleased at the situation she finds them in. When Millie really looks at her friend, she realizes how scared she is and tries to reassure her.
We can also see from Jessica’s actions that she is scared. She is bent over double but she’s still hanging onto her BlackBerry (nicknamed The Berry by Millie, which also shows something about Millie – that comes earlier in the story – Millie is not a fan of current technology).
Both women are scared, but they each react differently.
Let’s look at another excerpt from further along in the same story. Millie and Jessica have finally found a gas station with a bay. While waiting their turn to get the brakes fixed, they go for a sundae at the attached fast food place.
“Want a sundae, pal?”she asks Jessica.
“All right. But no whipped cream.”
Jessica develops stubbornness to a fine art when the pasty-faced counter girl oozes whipped cream on top of her vanilla sundae.
“Remove the whipped cream,” Jessica says.
“But it comes with the order,” the girl replies.
“Then take it off.”
“I can’t. It’s already on.”
“Oh, here,” Millie says. “Give me that sundae, and the other one you make you just hold the whipped cream. Get it?”
“But you wanted chocolate.”
“So? Here, let me.” Millie grabs the spoon, removes the whipped cream, places it on a napkin and pushes the sundae towards the girl. “Okay, now you can bring the chocolate. And I want the whipped cream.” (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).
Here we have a problem with a food order where the server messes up. Instead of telling the reader what happens, the dialogue and the characters’ actions show the reader. We learn that Jessica isn’t just the scaredy-cat we might have thought and we also see that she is particular about her food. It is also her way of gaining some control in the bad situation of the main plot. The server is shown as someone who won’t accept responsibility for her mistakes. Millie again shows she is impatient and has to take some action so she butts in. We can visualize this scenario and relate to it because we’ve all had bad restaurant service at some time and maybe we didn’t have the nerve to do more about it than complain to our dinner companion. So, here we are connecting to the reader emotionally as well in an “aha” way.
The other points to remember about creating dialogue (besides showing the reader the characters) are:
- Dialogue must be relevant to the story, not just the characters, and move the plot along. The first dialogue excerpt above does this.
- Dialogue must be relevant to the characters. We’ve looked at what the characters are like from their dialogue but you wouldn’t have characters speak out of well, character. For example, an uneducated young man would probably say “ain’t” but wouldn’t speak like a university professor or vice-versa. However, remember, characters can change as the story progresses and they have to learn how to deal with their situation. That won’t make the uneducated young man suddenly talk posh – unless he goes through a Professor Henry Higging remake as in the play and movie, My Fair Lady.
- You can also work a character’s looks into dialogue. In “No Breaks,” at one point Jessica says that Millie has a nice heart-shaped face.
- Incorporate the character’s emotions into what she says rather than telling the reader. In the second excerpt above, it is clear that Millie is riled by their brake situation and so uses the sundae episode to try to take control…of something.
- Remember, the reader should be able to hear your characters speak.
Show not tell
Sharon A. Crawford