I am in a mood to talk about writing, and so I am gonna. Instead of writing. (hey, I only need 1500 to finish the chapter, I’ll get there!) Hand pain is making things a bit rough though. My wrist looks like an orange. Or a baseball. Anyway.
As Fru Lilja might put it, my poison of choice is the novel. I don’t write shorter works and I have not read them much until lately. One I have read was kind of bugging me, and about a fourth of the way through, I realised what it was.
It took that long for anything to actually happen.
I have a passionate love for dialogue. Writing it, reading it (aloud, if it’s really good) and it is most definitely my favourite delivery system for a story’s humour. I love my deadpan snarkers and witty banter. The latter has often been the basis for and strongest display of romantic relations between some of my characters. My novels are character-driven and steeped in dialogue.
So if a writer gets me to wave my Monty Python polearm in the air while bellowing, “GET ON WITH IT!” then this is a clear sign that something is not right.
It has always been my understanding that a short story or flash fiction has to be concise. This puts it on an even tighter constraint than a chapter in a novel. Rambling is bad enough in a novel, but you can skip ahead a page or two if there is a conversation that is dragging on. But in a short story, you’ve only got so much space/time/whatever.
This is one of the reasons that I don’t write shorter works. When writing a chapter, I slog ahead with my word count goal in mind, and can sometimes drag a few things out because I am somewhat driven by the numbers. But I have these things I cannot escape. They are called awareness and also skill. I know that I can’t just ramble my way to the end of the chapter and then expect to pick it up from there.
Things have to actually happen.
In Chapter Six of my current novel, the viewpoint character visits her friends to say goodbye before leaving on what is effectively a business trip, is needled by her supervisor about the fact that she hides the existence of her friends from her co-workers, finds the flat she shares with said co-workers in disarray and one of them most mildly injured, kills a rabid household pest, finds some awkward fellow feeling with her most murderous colleague, teases the other for an unexpected amorous embarrassment, and ends quite cheerfully prepared to enter a different world.
In 3011 words.
And this is in a chapter without a whole lot of impetus towards an end. She spends the entire day out and about, arriving back at the flat a professed “fifteen minutes” before they need to depart. There are a lot of ways to continue indulging dialogue while not interrupting the flow of the action. It can be as simple as utilising beats to suggest or report movement towards a destination or goal.
As long as there is a sense of movement. Pacing is important. Had I stopped the action completely to let the viewpoint character focus completely on talking about the friends she is going to visit, puttering about and not moving, it would have dragged on and then I would have had an even longer sequence to write in order to get her to her friends’ homes on the intended circuit of visits. And I would have just buried the chapter in talking if I had not glossed over the visits with a couple of vague paragraphs.
Why would I do that? Telling instead of showing, my goodness. There are times to do that. Think how boring and confusing, even pointless it would be to introduce her friends as though they were recurring characters. I have my fun, and I let a lot of new elements get introduced to drive and change the story, but I still run a tight ship. I’m not going to waste my reader’s time having this girl chat with someone who will probably never show up again and also adds nothing to the story. These friends are important to the story only so far as they relate to this character. They do not need their own scenes in which to shine.
This is not a rant, and I’m not accusing anyone specific of doing this stuff. It’s just a problem with which people struggle. If you have 4000-6000 words in which to tell a story, especially if you begin with your characters in a desperate or time-sensitive situation, then a thousand words spent with them bickering uselessly is a very real detriment to the story.
It’s even worse when it’s clear that they are supposed to be funny or clever and fail to actually deliver on either. That’s a failing anyway, but it makes reading the dialogue even more of a chore.
I was going to try to write an example of failed humour/cleverness, but that’s really hard to do on purpose. Instead, I’m going to write the other example I had in my head, brought up by the irritation that comes when a character has stated that the situation is dire and speed is of the essence, and yet continues to bicker and set up the lines for the other character. It’s like the writing equivalent of visible pantylines.
“I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Should have listened to me and put the kid on a leash. Or better yet, a shock–”
“Shut up! It’s really dark, Edith. If he went into the forest…”
“He’s not that stupid, is he? I mean, granted, he is your son but his da–”
“We have to find him. Come on.”
Arm is grabbed, they leave to go do stuff. The second character is trying continuously to be a smart-ass, but the situation is such that the first is having none of it. Thus, tension is created and there is no obvious sign of the writer indulging in back-pats because character #2 is ‘teh wit’.
So yeah. Things have to happen, and if dialogue is actually stopping the story, this gets increasingly problematic as the intended length of the work reaches the shorter end of the spectrum. How pathetic that I had to ramble myself over this subject. Ah well.