Talking Your Way Into Trouble
One of the first things you learn as a writer of fiction, at least if you want to stand any chance of developing a readership, is the importance of carrying the reader along, of immersing her in the story, of making her feel as though it's happening around her, that she is a part of the action rather than a static observer.
As an author, maybe the best compliment I can receive is when a reader says something like, "I couldn't put the book down!" When I hear or read that, I know I've done my job. The last thing I want as a storyteller is to pull the reader out of the story, because then I've lost her. Do it too many times and she's going to abandon my book for another.
In Fiction-Writing 101, authors learn the golden rule for maintaining a reader's interest, which I'm now going to risk expulsion from the union by sharing with you here. And it's a very simple rule: Show, Don't Tell.
"Show, Don't Tell" is a short, quick way of making the point I started off with - that as an author of fiction you had better engage the reader. What's the difference between showing and telling?
1 - John was devastated when he answered the phone and discovered Mary was breaking up with him. His eyes filled with tears. What the hell was happening?
2 - The phone rang. John glanced at it curiously; he wasn't expecting a call. "Hello?"
"Hi John, it's Mary."
"Mary, hi, when are you coming over?"
"I'm sorry John, but I won't be visiting any more. This arrangement isn't working for either of us. I ... I'm afraid we need to take a break. I'm sorry, I have to go." John heard a sob on the other end of the line and then the call was disconnected. His eyes filled with tears. He had thought things were going smoothly. What the hell was happening?
In both scenarios the reader learns the same basic information - Mary is dumping the unfortunate John, who is not at all happy about it - but in the first, she is given a dry description, basically an information dump; whereas in the second, she is (hopefully) placed into the middle of the breakup, where if the author has done his job, it becomes more than just words on a page; it becomes a relatable situation, one in which the reader becomes invested.
The difference? Dialogue. Properly used, dialogue can become one of the most effective ways for a writer to draw the reader into the action on the page. While this is true for all fiction genres, I believe the effective use of dialogue is particularly important critical in a thriller, especially a thriller like THE LONELY MILE.
The hero in THE LONELY MILE is a regular guy, a divorced small-business owner whose stores are barely staying afloat in a bad economy. He's not Rambo, he's not any kind of superhero, and he certainly doesn't have all the answers when his only child - a high school senior about to graduate and go on to college - disappears as a result of his well-intentioned actions.
This is the type of thriller hero I believe the average person can relate to, and the use of believable dialogue helps thrust the reader into the story. My goal was to make you become Bill Ferguson as his sense of panic and desperation increases.
I didn't want you to picture it, I wanted you to live it, and this is where the use of dialogue becomes critical. No two people speak alike, but certain reactions and certain exchanges between characters would help place you as a reader into the situation, and certain reactions and exchanges would serve to do the opposite, to pull you out of the action, if you were to read them and think, "I would never say that."
The natural tendency is to overreach, to make the characters say overwrought things in an attempt to create drama and tension, when in reality, the situation has already created the drama and tension, my job as a writer is simply to use dialogue which avoids pulling the reader out of that tense situation.
Here's the scene in THE LONELY MILE when Bill Ferguson learns his child has been kidnapped. Hopefully the dialogue accomplishes the goal of drawing the reader into the scenario:
Inside the air was palpably tense. To the left of the door, Sandra sat on the living room couch, weeping, a damp towel pressed to her forehead by her husband. A police officer stood nearby, uncomfortable and clearly unsure of what to do next. In the kitchen, Agent Canfield stood with a mobile phone pressed to her ear in the center of a cluster of officers and plainclothes people Bill assumed must be other FBI agents. He walked down the hallway, and no one paid him any attention.
Bill shouldered his way through the group of people surrounding Canfield. "What happened? Where's Carli?"
Canfield mumbled something into her cell phone and snapped it shut. She turned her dark eyes on Bill, and he knew.
"Oh no," he said.
"We'll find her."
"How did he get her?"
"He stole a school bus and impersonated the driver, drove it away from the school grounds filled with kids, then abducted Carli."
Bill stared at her in disbelief. "He stole an entire school bus? Filled with kids? He was parked right outside her school? How is that even possible? Where is the real driver?"
"Slow down," she said, holding up her hands. "We sent a squad car to the home of the bus driver a little while ago, so the officers should be reporting back soon, but beyond that, yes, it appears he waited outside the high school in the line of buses. After it was fully loaded, he simply drove away with the bus full of kids."
Put yourself in Bill's shoes and ask yourself how you would react if, God forbid, your child were taken away from you. If you can buy into his reaction, then I've done my job.
- Allan Leverone