Monday, April 30, 2012

The Word Became Flesh: Show, Don't Tell Week 3

This week, I have asked you to include dialogue, and so this post is more about what not to show.

Let's face it.  Most of our conversations are patterned, tell fairly little unique information, and can be pretty boring.

Consider the phone:

"Hello?"
"Hello.  May I speak to Paulo?"
"I'm sorry.  He hasn't come in yet.  Would you like him to call you when he gets here?"
"Oh, no thank you.  I'll call back later."
"Okay.  Goodbye."
"Goodbye."

Now, if we were writing fiction, we would have perfect license to make that scene a whole lot more interesting.  We could have the person receiving the call interrogate the person calling.  We could have the person calling demanding to know why Paulo isn't there.  We could do a million things to mix it up.  But in this case, we are writing memoir, and we can't just do that.

So what do we do?

We can gloss it over.  Sue Grafton often writes, "We made the appropriate mouth noises...."  You could do that here:

We made the appropriate mouth noises, and the caller agreed to call back later.

You could leave the whole thing out entirely unless it reveals something necessary.  Perhaps Paulo had said he was going to be at that location and this call blew a whole in that story.  In that case, you can gloss it over but say why it's important:

I had no idea that Paulo would lie to me until I called Frank's house where he said he was staying and he wasn't there.

Or, if the knowledge conversation produces is important--not so much the words--then you can dramatize it but make certain to paint out the action:

"Hello?"  I heard Frank's mom answer the phone.

"Hello.  May I speak to Paulo?"  

Paulo tutored Frank every Tuesday evening, but he'd left really early today, saying that Frank's mom had called for an emergency session to make certain Frank was ready for his math test.  "It's his last chance for him to get his grades up before they make the decision for the AP classes!"  said Paulo, imitating her voice.  Now that I was hearing Frank's Mom on the phone, I realized that Paulo was a pretty good actor.

Frank's Mom paused a minute before answering.  "I'm sorry.  He hasn't come in yet.  Would you like him to call you when he gets here?"

My head was suddenly reeling.  Did Paolo lie to me or did he have an accident?  Why wasn't he there?

"Oh, no thank you,"  I stuttered, my hand now clutching the phone.  "Umm, I'll call back later."

"Okay.  Goodbye."

The phone clicked in my ear as I echoed, "Goodbye."  

I stared at the phone in my hand for a few minutes before sprinting to the car, determined to retrace Paolo's steps and ensure he was all right.  If he hadn't died on the way, then I was determined to kill him when I found him.


Not everything needs to be dramatized.  There are things that you can gloss over.  But when the role of the conversation is important, as it is in this last hypothetical example, then you might want to take the time to draw it out and help the reader gather insight into the situation and the characters you want us to know.

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