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Thumbspikes and crazy drafts: how fiction evolves into story

"Amaris has to tell Baz stuff but the scene is wooden"

This question popped up recently on a forum: "I've just reached a point in my WIP where two characters get together after a while apart and one has to tell the other what's been happening. It's important stuff. I haven't found it easy, but I never find it easy to write the 'telly' stuff - particularly the links between the telling and the rest of the scene that is happening around them. Anybody have any words of wisdom?" There were some good responses, and I found mine developing into a blog post, so here we are.

So if Amaris has to tell Baz about the Battle of Xanadu, the first thing is to work out whether the reader already knows about the Battle of Xanadu, or not. If they do, then this bit of the scene only has two jobs:

  • to make the reader aware that Baz now knows it. We don't need the details repeated but we do need a sense that the telling happens, because we need to believe in the consequences of the telling. That means practicing ways to compress or expand the narrating of a scene.
  • to show us at least some of Baz's reaction - which may include him withholding what he thinks and feels from Amaris. If you're working from inside Amaris's point-of-view, that means practicing conveying what's going on inside the head of a non-viewpoint character: working with Baz's speech, body-language, revealing tics so we "read" his real reaction, and know how Amaris reads it (which may not be the same).

But if this is information that's new to the reader, and if we need to know it (you'd be surprised how much detail the reader doesn't need to know) then it gets trickier. The main thing to do is to avoid slabs of speech unbroken by any other narrative element. Even if it's realistic because Baz is mute, and they're both tied to chairs, for the reader speech with no physical, bodily element happening in parallel makes our imaginations lose the 3-D anchors of this scene. So the first thing to do is break it up with things such as

  • a not-strictly-necessary speech tag‘I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care, and I never want to see you again ever at all in my life!’ he yelled. ‘But I do love you.’
  • actions which are just part of the passing scene - things going on in the road or the house, someone scratching their ankle.
  • if we're in Amaris's point-of-view as she speaks, then her thought - probably expressed in free indirect style.
  • if we're in Baz's point-of-view, then his thinking about what Amaris is saying.
  • actions and dialogue which express Amaris's take on what she's saying. Does she believe it? Is she lying, or being economical with the truth? How does the fact that it's Baz she's telling affect the way she tells it? Why does she need to say it? And above all, what is Amaris trying to make happen by saying it? What does she want the outcome of her recounting the facts to be? That's what really matters - so that's what should most shape the way Amaris tells the story, and so drive the narrative.
  • actions and dialogue which express Baz's take on what Amaris is saying. Does he help her telling, helpfully and silently lighting a candle? Does he hinder, passive-aggressively sighing as she embarks on the next bit? Does he believe her? How does the fact that it's Amaris telling him affect the way he takes it? How does what he's hearing change what he understands of the past and how he'll act next? That's what really matters, and should most shape Baz's actions and reactions.
Which, you'll have spotted, means thinking far beyond just the need to convey the events at Xanadu, towards understanding how to work with everything else that's part of this story and the function of this scene of A-telling-B-about-X in the overall structure. Frankly, if you can't think of a reason to drive Amaris to tell the story to Baz, then you need to find another way to convey the necessary facts, because the scene will just be Tremain's "inert data" on the page. Then there are things to help in the way that you write the scene:
  • exploit voice to the max: make Amaris' as human-voicey, as unlike written narrative, as you possibly can, complete with informal grammar, hesitations, incomplete sentences, what I inaccurately think of as phatic speech ("Innit", "You know what I mean?"), diversions ("It's cold. Could you shut the window?").
  • remember it's a conversation: make sure Baz says/asks/objects to things, jumps in, interrupts, or ostentatiously doesn't interrupt (not with actual speech, that is).
  • exploit the full range of psychic distance and the moves between showing and telling, to bring energy to the reader's experience of the narrative.
  • re-examine your decision about point-of-view. Which character's viewpoint will give you more scope to counterpoint the basic telling of the information with something which will provide tension, interest, narrative drive? It may not be the obvious point-of-view: who actually has most at stake in this scene? Or would it make sense to switch point-of-view? When?

And then there are things which are part of your broader storytelling purpose:

What order does Amaris tell things in, another commenter on the forum suggested. And at what kind of length? Those are also conditioned by her reasons for telling all this. Does she blurt out the most important thing first - defeat at the Battle of Xanadu? That in our terms is a plot spoiler, but it's very natural in real life, and how will you then keep us wanting to know the details? Or does she need to explain, carefully, bit by bit, so Baz is led gently towards understanding all the ramifications before he knows they were defeated, rather than blowing his top at the first word and then storming straight out of the house to avenge the death of his king?

Can you compress some sections - see the link in the first bullet point - into a lively, showy sort of "Tell", and give other parts in real-time dialogue? That can actually add energy to the scene, as well as focusing the reader's experience onto the crucial emotional and factual turning-points. 

Can you stall the information-giving, at a point where we're desperate to know more, and then start it again later? You could think of it as a fortunately-unfortunately: "Fortunately Baz was alone and Amaris could speak. Unfortunately, they had to go to Mass. Fortunately, the homily was short. Unfortunately her mother-in-law insisted on coming to lunch". Make sure sure we will want to know more, though, not have our hearts sink (as they do with the person who insists on explaining their story to the bitter end, long after we 've got why it was funny). And make sure the reasons for stopping, and picking up again, are believable as a form of characters-in-interaction.

- Interweave the telling of those events with some other aspect of the plot that needs telling, even a trivial one. If Amaris has to recount the Battle of Xanadu - how the army was defeated and what that means for their own allegiance to the royal household - give Baz a completely separate agenda. He needs Amaris to change her mind about cutting down the West Wood (which was part of her marriage settlement so technically belongs to her) to sell for timber to pay off his mother's debts. Then plait the two, competing conversations together, each voice as voicey as possible.

So, how do you know if it's working?

- Reading aloud is a good test: if you feel your voice has been droning on forever, then so will other readers. It's also a good test for whether you've lost touch with the character's voice and slipped into textbook mode, which is very easy to do, especially with chunks of history or geography or other researched material.

- Bring up the file to show at least two whole pages, and preferably more. Can you see huge chunks of pure speech? Do something about them.

- And finally, a silly test. Imagine you've changed the story, and there is no longer a Battle of Xanadu, but you still need the argument about the West Wood. You'd have to fish the battle out but keep some version of this scene. Have you made that job as infuriatingly difficult as possible? Is each bit about the battle so naturally woven in with everything else that (to change the metaphor) pulling them all out would be like finding all the tiny bones in a large fish, pulling them out, and then reassembling the fillets to look like a fish? If the thought of doing that fills you with dread, then you've done a good job.