Two things can turn me off on page one, sometimes paragraph one. They both have to do with the narrative voice. One are piled on passive sentences riddled with the word was which is like saying "take my word for it, it was cold, it was damp, it was blue, it was deep, etc." And the second one is a piling on of qualifying words and phrases as in "it seems, it may be, possibly, perhaps, about to be, getting there, I think." These two aberrations destroy any sense of dramatic moment and forward moving story or character building.
An old book I can’t recall the author was entitled How to be Brief. I read it when I was in Junior High. I can’t say that I am always brief, especially when discussing something close to my heart or ranting on an injustice—my thing. However, when editing a piece of writing you can’t be too brief. Script writers know this well. The economy of words in a scene in scripts amazes me. Some scripts have fewer words than a lot of poems. Paul Newman won an Academy Award on a handful of lines he spoke in The Road to Perdition, and the entire movie has so little dialogue but the words are powerfully right on. Economy of words in dialogue is something I still work at today.
Off top of my head let me paint a paragraph that needs for the author to come back to it and “dialogue it” because as is, even written in an “active voice” style lacks the drama that dialogue could bring to the scene. First in “rough draft” it is:
Thomas thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye slip beneath the sofa. Alexis saw the expression on his face and winced. She wondered what they were doing here in the house where Laurel Cooke was murdered the night before. She grabbed Thomas by the arm and asked him exactly that, but he shook loose, going deeper into the interior. He mumbled something about their maybe finding something the cops had missed. “I think we’re breaking the law, here, Thomas. This is a crime scene. Maybe we oughta go.” He ignored her, going deeper, in search of the blood spatters. “I wanna see where Laurel died.” He said it as if he had no choice.
On a rewrite consider what I call “dialoguing it” –that is asking far more of the characters. Asking them to walk, talk, move on stage, and to put their five senses to work. The scene above is converted to the one below in far more “Showing” fashion, in far more dramatic fashion as in a stage play or film or TV script:
“Did you see that?” Thomas jumped as he spoke, pointing to the creaky floor boards between sofa and boarded up window. “Thought I saw something slip under there.”
“Something? What kinda something?” Alexis inched closer to Thomas and his flashlight.
“Probably just a mouse.”
“What’re we doing here, Thomas?”
“What’s it look like? We’re poking around.”
“In the place where they found Alexis’s body we’re poking around!”
“She wasn’t murdered here, just dumped here by her killer.”
“How do you know that?”
“Overheard those cops talking last night after she was discovered.”
“Whole town was looking for her.”
“Yeah, maybe her killer, too.”
“Killers often join in the hunt.”
“For their own victims?”
“Sure, yeah. It’s how they keep up on what the cops know and don’t know.”
“You mean like you did--eavesdropping?”
Thomas frowned and shook his head. “Yeah, like I did, but I’m no killer.”
“What else do you know about Laurel’s killer?”
“Well I’m no FBI profiler but—” he hesitated. His beam found a far back room, door slightly ajar. “I think that’s where they found her, in there.”
“But what? You’re not an FBI profiler but what?” She didn’t want to focus on the other room or the circle of light on the door ahead.
“But I do know that killers often like to come back to the scene of the crime. It’s true.”
“Then we could be in danger just being here.”
“Doubt it. He’ll at least wait until the crime scene tape is down.”
“You trying to think like this guy, this monster?”
“Kind of a hobby of mine. I read true crime books and I write mysteries—do a lot of research. Now come on.” With his beam ahead of them, Thomas led Alexis deeper into the interior.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea, Thomas. I mean how many laws’re we breaking here? Like you said, the crime scene tape is still up.”
“I just want to understand why I—he—chose this place to dump the body.”
Alexis looked him in the eye. “Thomas, you’re still taking your medications right? Didn’t miss your ah . . . whataya call that stuff?”
“Not everyone on lithium is a danger to himself and others, Alexis.” He grabbed her and pushed her through the door. “But I am.”
“That’s what I thought,” she replied, holding up her cell phone camera to his mad eyes. “Cops’re coming through the doors, windows, and crawl spaces now, Thomas.”
The unmistakable shouts of Alexis’s backup police entourage poured into the room.
“Laurel was my best friend, Thomas—The Canyon Killer—and she married me the day you abducted and killed her, and I knew I was next on your list.”
Okay, this is how dialogue moves story and reveals character and often a surprise or two as well. Dialogue provides action, equals movement, equals active voice, equals dramatic and engaging, and yet it is done for only two reasons – either to reveal character or to push the storyline along—and when it does both at once, that’s great too.
Next time you’re re-reading, re-writing your story or novel seek out and destroy “Telling Paragraphs” that read like a first draft and beg for you to “dialogue it.”
Robert W. Walker, author of PSI Blue, Psychic Sensory Investigation (Echelon Press), City for Ransom, Shadows in White City, and City of the Absent (HarperCollins).
Contact Rob for editorial services for your opus!