Welcome Wednesday guests for October:
10/01 Finding Sky author, Susan O'Brien;
10/08 Award-winning Hank Phillippi Ryan (Truth Be Told);
10/15 Indie authors Polly Iyer (Backlash) and Ellis Vidler (Prime Target);
10/22 Murder by the Month author, Jess Lourey;
10/29 Marilyn Levinson, Golden Age of Mystery Book Club Mystery author.

Gloria Alden's latest publication is nonfiction. Boys Will Be Boys: The Joys and Terrors of Raising Boys. Edited by Cher'ley Grogg was recently released and available on Amazon. Gloria wrote three essays and two poems in her chapter included in the book.

Don't miss this month's release of Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays on October 7th, in which WWK bloggers Shari Randall ("Disco Donna") and E. B. Davis ("Compromised Circumstances") have short stories.

KM Rockwood's
short stories will appear in two anthologies released in October. They are: "The Lure of the Owl" in Swamp Mansion and Other Dark Stories, to be released as a ebook, and "Aunt Olga and the Werewolf" will be included in the third Creatures, Crimes and Creativity anthology release by Intrigue Publishing. at their conference in October.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Battling Backstory, Part II

by Ramona DeFelice Long

Last Friday here at WWK, I began a pretend story to illustrate different ways to address backstory in the first chapters of a novel. The first post focused on narrative; this week is dialogue; next week will be internal dialogue.

Part 2 - Backstory through dialogue.

Learning information through characters conversing is usually more interesting than reading it in a chunk of narrative. Why usually? Because sometimes writers make the mistake of having characters speak in chunks of narrative. When characters do this, they become Talking Heads.

Talking Heads are characters who are actually talking to the reader, sharing information that gives the story logic. But isn’t that what all dialogue is meant to do? Yes. The difference between talking characters and Talking Heads is that the Heads say things that people in real life would never say to one another.

Below are two examples of backstory given in dialogue. The first has a bad case of Talking Headitis. As a learning exercise, and to reinforce my love of office supplies, mark what you think sounds unnatural with a highlighter.

Here’s a hint: Does Mark need to inform Jane that they have been partners for 10 years? No. Jane knows this, so he is really informing the reader, but in reality, would he say this? No. That makes him a Talking Head. That should get a highlight. Now you try:

“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Det. Jane McCoy grumbled. “Both of us, even though you showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a dinner matinee. People wonder how you can afford those suits on a detective’s salary. I always knew that, one day, your vanity would get us in trouble.”

Det. Mark Hatfield stared at her over his coffee cup. “You always knew that? In the ten years we’ve been partners, you’ve never mentioned it before. You’ve mentioned how I always drive, and I always choose the lunch spots and I always take the lead in interviews.”

“That’s because you always mention your one year of seniority on me,” Jane said.

“And you always mention how you’re from the nice side of MyFavoriteTown, and I grew up on the shady part. I know everybody in town. That helps us clear cases,” Mark said. “ What else do people wonder about me?”

Jane leaned forward over the desk they shared. “For starters, you and that dispatcher over in the next precinct. And how, every time we get a female witness, you have to put your big comforting arms around her so she can cry in them.”

Mark set down his coffee cup. “What are you saying? Do my clothes and my one year of seniority and my attractiveness to women offend you so much you want a new partner?’

Jane leaned back. “Of course not, Mark. You know we are a good team. We clear our cases. You might overdress and make me eat hot dogs so you can visit your haberdashery on our lunch break, but I’ve seen you run down a much younger suspect because you keep in such good shape. You are punctual and your reports are always spot on. You tell good jokes and you keep the car neat. People gossip about your personal choices, but if I can put up with you, it’s not their business.”

The Sarge’s door opened. “McCoy! Hatfield! Get in here!”

“Show time,” Mark said. He straightened his tie. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. You’re a good cop, too, Jane. So is your little brother. That’s why I’m willing to put up a round at Two-Bits for him and his beat cop friends.”

“I appreciate that,” Jane said. “I just wish you’d let me drive once in a while, and didn’t check yourself out in the rear view mirror so often. Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to pretend in front of your wife that I don’t know anything about that dispatcher.”


Now, in example two, we have a third character. See how he interjects the information about their 10 years together. Is this more natural?


“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Detective Mark Hatfield said.

“Us?” His partner, Jane McCoy, slammed down her coffee cup. “I’m not the one who lost evidence because I showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a Broadway play. I knew your vanity would get us into trouble one day.”

“When have I ever gotten you into trouble?” Mark said. “Name one time my so-called vanity kept me from answering a back-up call or be late or let a perp get away because I couldn’t run him down.”

“I never said you weren’t a good cop,” Jane said. “You are. You even tell a good joke. But it would be nice if you let me drive or choose lunch or lead an interview once.”

“That’s not vanity, that’s seniority.”

“One year,” Jane grumbled. “One lousy year you got on me.”

"Yeah, and don't you forget it."

The Sarge’s door opened. “McCoy! Hatfield! Get in here!”

Five seconds later, Sarge said, “I read your incident report, Hatfield. All squared away, per usual. Except for why you dropped that flashlight.”

Mark said, “Sir,” at the same time Jane said, “Sarge.”

The sergeant chuckled. “You know, I pegged you two for a lousy team. Miss Nice Side of MyFavoriteTown and the homeboy who knows every lowlife in town but dresses like a million bucks? I bet you drive her nuts checking yourself out in the rear view. But you clear your cases, your car is spotless and I even hear you stand rounds at Two-Bits.” He looked at them. “How long you been partners?”

“Ten years,” Mark said.

Sarge said, “Well, I guess one bit of questionable judgment in ten years is not too terrible, Hatfield. One that’s on paper anyway.” He waved at the door. “Get out of here.”

Back at the desk, Mark said. “What the hell did he mean, questionable judgment?”

“I don’t know, maybe he’s heard stuff.”

“Stuff? What stuff?”

“Stuff like how can you afford those suits on your salary? How come you spend so much time at the next precinct with that dispatcher?”

“Who’s saying that?" Mark demanded. "Your little brother?”

“No. Everybody except my little brother.”


A third party can do the job in dialogue of asking questions that the primary characters would not ask, because they know the answers. Try it.

Next week, we get away from Talking Heads and get into heads with Backstory through Internal Dialogue.

6 comments:

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Sure makes a difference when the backstory comes out "reluctantly" and with tension between the characters than in a data dump.

I can't wait to see how you handle the internal dialogue -- an area I personally need to work on.

~ Jim

Weldon Burge said...

I love old-time radio. The Shadow. The Green Hornet. Inner Sanctum. Lights Out. Great stuff--and also a great way to learn how NOT to write dialogue for backstory. You'll hear lines like: "Marvin, didn't we just arrest this fellow yesterday? And didn't he rob the bank?" Unless Marvin has a short-term memory problem, this is Talking Head dialogue, just as Ramona has described.

The use of a third character is a great way to handle backstory, as Ramona points out. For example, consider a couple arguing in a restaurant--the waiter can not only help with backstory, but can add another dimension to the couple's argument that can increase or decrease the tension, or even add humor to the scene. The backstory (why the argument occurred in the first place) is then offered almost as a second thought.

Of course, this all requires careful, if not meticulous, orchestration on the part of the writer. But, hey, that's what we get paid the big bucks for, right?

Ramona said...

Jim, so many writers don't take advantage of the joy that is internal dialogue. I will try to have some fun with it next Friday.

Ramona said...

Weldon, I never considered the Green Hornet a Talking Head, but now that you point it out, those radio show writers had a real challenge. Everything had to be delivered in dialogue, save some cheesy sound effects.

The Sarge (third character) is kind of a cheat to ask questions and make comments, but who says writers can't cheat--as long as it works?

Weldon Burge said...

Ramona, it's only a cheat if the reader perceives it as a cheat. After all, isn't fiction ultimately just cheating and lying for fun and profit? Readers want to suspend disbelief, i.e., want to be lied to and cheated. They just don't want to know when you're doing it! ;)

Ramona said...

Cheating and Lying for Fun and Profit--that is either a country song, or a writing workbook.