by Ramona DeFelice Long
Welcome to WWK’s final episode of our three part series on Battling Backstory. The series ends with a look at characters' private thoughts and feelings expressed through internal dialogue.
But first, let’s review. In Part I, we discussed why and how to inject backstory into a story’s second chapter through narrative. Our sample tried to let the reader learn about the relationship between the two characters without resorting to the all-purpose Info Dump.
In Part II, dialogue was the device used to articulate information, rather than narrate. To be or not to be a Talking Head was the illustrative point as Mark and Jane, and eventually Sarge, shared the story through speaking.
This week, let's use internal dialogue, to show how a character’s innermost thoughts adds to the story. Internal dialogue comes straight from a character’s head, but only the reader can hear it. As such, a few rules apply.
1. In internal dialogue, the character (in this case, Jane McCoy) always speaks the truth, as she knows it. A reliable character can certainly lie to or mislead other characters, but she will not lie to herself. In Parts I and II, everything Jane said about Mark was accurate, because it was presented as fact. But if Jane secretly thinks he’s a lousy cop and a rotten partner, she may say, “You’re a good cop, Mark,” out loud, but internally, she would add, Good enough until I can get a better one. A character speaking through internal dialogue does not lie to the reader. Why? Because internal dialogue addresses the Self. Jane can lie to Mark, to Sarge, to her brother, etc., but she would not lie to herself.
(Note: Jane is a reliable narrator. Everything, and everyone, in this story is/are as they appear. An unreliable narrator would tell the truth as they know or believe it, although their “truth” may be wrong because of denial, delusion or some other reason.)
2. Effective internal dialogue is responsive and reactive to the plot. Like people in real life, characters react to what’s happening around them. When the Sarge yells for Jane and Mark, she’s not going to start thinking about her upbringing in MyFavoriteTown. Like a normal person, she’ll wonder why Sarge is yelling, and she will guess or contemplate about what’s going on. In other words, internal dialogue stays on task. If the scene is about their handling of the body found at the river, her thoughts will focus on that and the private thoughts she has about it.
3. Because internal dialogue is private and true to the character, it can reveal motivations and insights that are not available through spoken dialogue. If the Sarge asked Jane, “Does Mark’s vanity ever worry you?” she might say, “No, sir. Mark’s got his peculiarities, but so do I. As long as we clear our cases, I’m good.” This is what she’d say out loud, while internally she may wonder, Is this a test? If Mark thinks I’m going down with him because he has to look good, forget it, Bud. Is this a fishing expedition because of those rumors about Mark’s clothes and that dispatcher?
What the reader gets from internal dialogue, in addition to backstory or factual information, is a closer glimpse into the character’s heart. Good internal dialogue is not filtered; it is immediate and honest. It takes the reader inside the character’s head for a private, intimate tour.
To illustrate, I’ve rewritten our Mark-Jane scene by giving us a private glimpse into what’s really going on inside Detective McCoy:
“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Det. Mark Hatfield said.
Jane McCoy stared at her partner over her coffee cup.
“Us?” she said. “I’m not the one who showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a dinner matinee.”
She set down the cup, remembering last week at Two-Bit’s bar, when she overheard a couple of beat cops wondering out loud how someone could afford designer suits on a detective’s salary. And now this.
Damn it, Mark, she thought, I always knew your vanity would get us in trouble one day.
Mark shrugged. “So I take pride in my appearance. You never complained about it. You complained about how I always drive, and I always choose the lunch spots and I always take the lead in interviews.”
“Like complaining would do any good,” Jane said. “I know you’d just pull your seniority card.”
Mark laughed, and didn’t deny it.
At least he’s honest about it, Jane thought. Not that he’s so honest to his wife, or that dispatcher.
Sarge’s door opened. “Hatfield! McCoy! Get in here.”
“Show time,” Mark said, straightening his tie.
Jane followed him into the office. Show time was right.
She knew other cops were curious about them. They were both from MyFavoriteTown, but Mark was a homeboy who knew half the low-lives in town, and her family had zero experience with police until she’d become one.
But they were good partners and had the case record to prove it. Mark was punctual, kept the car clean, wrote flawless reports, and even told a good joke. It’d be nice if he didn’t check himself out quite so often in the rear view, but he was decent to her little brother, he could run down a suspect decades younger, and he always answered a fellow cop’s call for back-up.
At Sarge’s door, he let her go first.
Ten years, she thought, and he’s never let me down.
She paused in the doorway. “Don’t worry, Mark,” she whispered. “I’ve got your back.”
WWK Blogger Paula Gail Benson has two short stories running in Kings River Life Magazine this weekend, "Pelican Spring" and "The Mama Factor." Both are Mother's Day short stories. You can read them by going to: http://kingsriverlife.com/category/kings-river-reviewers/terrific-tales/
Linda Rodriguez is a finalist in two categories for the International Latino Book Awards (given out at BEA the end of May)--one for Every Last Secret and one for editing Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Lives (with Gloria Vando, Anika Paris, and Anita Velez-Mitchell). Congratulations, Linda!
The second SinC Guppy anthology, Fish Nets, has been released by Wildside Press. WWK authors, Gloria Alden, Warren Bull, Kara Cerise and E. B. Davis have short stories in this volume, which can be bought at Wildside Press, the usual retailers and will be available at the Malice Domestic Conference. Look for "the story behind the stories" on May 1 here!
Upcoming Salad Bowl Saturdays include authors Sasscer Hill on 5/18 and Carolyn Mulford on 5/25. If you are interested in being a guest blogger, send a message to Jim Jackson at email@example.com.