With “How to Write Dynamic Dialogue,” we examined shaping characters by using rhythm and style techniques within dialogue. This week we’ll look at multi-dimensional writing, which is using words and phrases to carry multiple levels of information.
Three layers of data build plots.
- Information that carries the story forward.
- Information that adds to character development.
- Information that fills in backstory.
Communicating all three elements within every scene is your goal. If you get two or more into a line of dialogue, that’s even better.
I’ll use the two writing examples from my last post to illustrate single element and multi-dimensional writing. First, the single level.
“Does he think were all stupid?” Beth says with a bite in her voice. “Doesn’t he know we already know all this stuff?”
What does this first paragraph convey? Just one level information: Beth is insulted by what she read. It does however, set up the question, who is she talking about? Writers must set up questions throughout a scene which can only be answered by further reading.
The older man stays in his menu. The din of college chatter and tinny pop tunes envelope them both. “I don’t think Irv thinks we’re dumb at all,” he says looking up, “but sometimes obvious things are overlooked and he’s writing articles more as reminders than to-do lists.”
The information: Beth is with an older guy in a noisy college hangout. How old is Beth? We don’t know. And the older man seems to understand Podolsky’s writing more than she does.
“Well, I got bored reading his post. I didn’t learn anything new. And I don’t have time to waste for junk content!”
This is a repeat of Beth’s initial position: She doesn’t like what she read. Still, no character development, no backstory.
“You didn’t get what I said,” Dan retorts. “Irving is simply reminding us to use our real life’s experience as a guide for writing complexity. If we don’t observe complexity, we won’t be able to write it.”
We now know the man is named DAN with more explanation of Irv’s advice. What Irv writes is not as important as the couple’s argument. But there is nothing interesting about it. Why? Because we don’t have enough information to care about these people. So far everything written has addressed only one element: advancing the story. And nothing has changed so far.
“What are you doing?”
This last sentence was a set-up for the next line. We suspect Dan might be miffed about what is to come but there is not enough description to define that.
“Texting Dana,” she says. “Her birthday’s tomorrow.”
Okay, we now have two levels of information. We have a plot shift with Beth’s decision to leave the conversation. Deciding to send a message in the middle of a conversation also supports the character development. Beth can be rude and she would rather leave an intellectual argument than pursue it to its conclusion.
What is missing from this scene? BACKSTORY and DETAILS, along with nuances of behavior. Information is expounded within dialogue and not action. That’s BORING! Why? Because there is nothing for the reader to DISCOVER.
The next version plants subtle clues as to what Dan and Beth are about. This kind of writing gives the reader something to figure out and a reason to be involved.
“I’m NOT in the third grade,” Beth drawls, rolling her eyes. “What’s he thinking?”
First sentence tells us that Beth feels her intelligence was insulted. But by whom and why? If we can start a scene with a dramatic question, reader-connection happens faster.
She waits for an answer. But her friend, a man fifteen years older and looking very lawyerly, stays hidden behind his raised open menu.
This second, two-sentence paragraph, sets up the scene dynamic. We know that Beth is with an older man in a restaurant who is separating himself from her. More questions are raised. What kind of friend is he? Why is he annoyed with her? And why is he ignoring her?
“Oh…so now we’re playing, Ignore-the-Bitch.”
This third line is powerful. It establishes they have a history, that the man’s behavior is not new and that Beth believes her lawyer friend has a low opinion of her. Beth would never call herself a “bitch” which means she assumes he would, or maybe he has already. Either way, the tension is primed.
“I’m not ignoring you,” he says flatly. “I’m trying to order. And this place is so damn loud you’re screaming at me.”
Of course he’s ignoring her, and he’s angry. We know that because he hates the loud ambience of the restaurant. Did Beth choose this place? Is he annoyed about that? Or is there something else? (You see how the location ambience was worked into the dialogue as opposed to just being stated with description?)
Beth leans over the table, flattens Dan’s menu and whispers, “Irving Podolsky bores me.”
Question: Who is Irving Podolsky?
“Then don’t read his stuff.”
Answer: He’s an author. But is Podolsky the person Beth was referring to at the top of the scene?
“You insist I do.”
“Insist” is an important word. It reveals a clue about their backstory. We know he’s fifteen years older than Beth, and when an older man insists that a younger woman do something, it establishes dominance. Beth didn’t say, “you insisted,” implying once. She said “You insist I do,” suggesting a pattern and an established relationship.
His gaze drops to the pastas on the cardboard now lying on his plate. “You want to be a writer, Podolsky writes about writing.”
Question answered – Podolsky is the topic of conversation. And we also now know that Beth is a fledging author and that her older friend doesn’t think she IS one yet. That’s because he said “You want to be a writer,” and since he went back to scanning the menu when he said that, we can assume his encouragement is beginning to wane. He’s not pressing his advice with any eye-to-eye contact.
A set up for the next line.
“He writes about life, not about characters in other romance novels.”
This line carries all kinds of info. On the surface it tells us that Beth reads romance and is writing romance.But it also subtly reveals that he doesn’t think Beth has enough life experience to be a serious writer, which means in his mind, she’s YOUNG. Could he be condescending?
“You’re calling me a hack?”
This line tells us that Beth thinks he IS condescending. And worse, that she’s cheating at writing by emulating other novels.
Dan flips to the wine list. “No. Just insulated.”
Now we know his name is DAN and he’s devaluing her by suggesting she hasn’t lived outside her bubble, which might be the case. But because he said that while scanning the wine list, he’s blowing her off. Why? What did she do to deserve this passive/aggressive punishment? (You see how we’re layering dramatic questions as well?)
“I wouldn’t be if you’d say more than eight words in my direction!”
Good. She’s calling him on it.
His eyes rise to hers. “Then take that damn phone off the table. You’ve texted three times since we got here.”
Okay, NOW we know why Dan so mad. Beth’s attention left him three times while she texted her friends. Dan was insulted. No, hurt. And through this scene he has retaliated by denying Beth his own attention.
Seconds pass in a stare-off. Beth’s face hardens. “Oh… So that’s it.”
Beth dismantles their mentor-lover relationship. She’s feeling controlled even more.
“If Dana’s so important, this should have been HER date.”
Is Dana Beth’s best friend? Probably, because Dan knows her, meaning this is not a first time issue.
(This is where the reader fills in the blanks.) Is Dan jealous? No. He feels neglected, which means he values Beth’s devotion and wants her full attention. He wants to make this evening intimate but she won’t do it.
Dan’s eyes stay locked onto hers, waiting for…an apology. It isn’t coming, at least not now. Up goes his menu.
What Dan is waiting for, is Beth’s recognition that he cares for her more than a casual friendship (presumably with sex). If she doesn’t want him as much as he wants her, then she reduced him to a sugar daddy.
“You ARE jealous!”
Nope. She doesn’t get it.
More silence behind his wall. This date is not going well.
Dan just gave up and Beth has no real understanding why, which means this relationship will end soon.
This polished scene is an example of multi-layering information. Single element delivery won’t engage readers anymore, not with the acceleration of everything else in the media and communications. And with all of us now trained in multi-tasking and thinking, we process information faster. Anything slower than we can handle is boring. And BORING in the cardinal sin of writing.