Try This: Making a Hole
Getting Your Characters Heard
Talk to me a little and I can tell if you were an only child. Talk a bit longer, and I can tell your place in the birth order of your siblings. It’s likely I can also tell whether your family was crawling with aunts, uncles, and cousins. And how close together all of you lived.
It’s easy. Only children and those raised with one other sibling simply state things. They can be certain to be heard.
A personal revelation quivers on the horizon…
Anyone from a large brood — especially the middle born — has to battle to seize attention. It takes a battering ram to exclaim, “Oh, you’ll never guess what’s outside.” Or, “I don’t know if I should tell you this.” My younger sister would sit on the living room rug with the newspaper open in front of her and shout, “It’s so sad! Guess who died!” She only did so to claim space in the constant chatter of high talkers.
A person — or a fictional character — from a large, loud family will rattle on until other talkers cede the floor. Years back, aboard a local bus I overheard a teenage girl who must’ve been raised by a family of chatterboxes. Before telling the meat of a story, she cleared the decks by saying, “So I told him, I said, this is me, I go, I’m like, I’m telling him, I’m all, I say to him…”
Her eventual reveal escapes me. But she was magnificent. To date I listen for such stalling and baiting devices. Annoying, yes, but such tricks build tension while they corral the full attention of the listener.
“So I told him, I said, this is me, I go, I’m like, I’m telling him, I’m all, I say to him…”
In The Great Gatsby, my guess is that Daisy Buchanan harkens from a big family. The rambling Carraway clan, being Nick’s cousin. The “tell” is that she says almost everything twice. Often once as a statement, and secondly as a question. Or vice versa. For example:
“Gatsby?” demanded Daisy. “What Gatsby?”
“In two weeks it’ll be the longest day of the year.” She looked at us radiantly. “Do you always look for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always look for the longest day of the year and then miss it.”
“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”
“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of — a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: ”An absolute rose?”
In journalism school they taught that vital information should not be delivered via quotes. No, instead quotes serve to add color or to rephrase information already delivered in clear prose at the top of the story by the journalist.1 This jibes perfectly with the Minimalist rule that dialog must never further plot. Dialog should be poetry that suggests character. In this case to demonstrate an only child or someone from a huge clan who’s always unsure about being heard.
To grab attention, to make a hole, stick your attribution just before the key part of your statement. Attribution provides the silent pause that paces dialog the way an actor would. It keeps your reader from rushing through. But even if your character harkens from an overcrowded, Dickensian orphanage you don’t need a long, prattling, shaggy dog preamble to make a hole. A little well-placed attribution and gesture will make room for your dialog and cue the reader to listen2. In effect:
“If you’re looking for Lester,” she said, “you can call it off.” She looked at Blake, at the gun in Blake’s hand, and said, “Your brother’s dead.”
In good storytelling the reader should be miles ahead of Blake. The reader should at least strongly suspect the brother is dead. By making the reader feel smarter than Blake you make the reader feel sympathy for Blake. Poor Blake. Better yet, you make the reader right. People will adore you for making them right.
For now, listen to strangers. Do they state themselves once and plainly? If so, are they only children? Or do they have to bust a hole in the world before they can have their say?
(Insert manipulative prompt for for subscribers…)
Consider how nowadays, especially on video, the television news crew never goes to the witness for information. Instead, the reporter asks, “How did it feel to see the victim die?” The person being quoted is asked, “What are you going through since you heard the verdict?” Quotes aren’t for information. Quotes are for color. Quotes are for FEELINGS.
Or do the Daisy Buchanan trick of saying everything twice. Have you said it twice? If something is especially unimportant and vacuous, maybe say it three times?