Saturday, August 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Using Dialog to Build Tension

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through September 19.

This week’s question:

Is this dialogue/scene working effectively or does it need to be longer to build the tension?


Market/Genre: Women’s Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: Anna Barnes, mother; Lily, her 24 year old unwed mother with is 3 1/2 months pregnant. Jesse - unknown to both Anna and Lily, but is Anna's half-sister. Scene is about 100 pages into full-length novel - Lily and Jesse have traveled to NY for week-end. POV is first person/protagonist is Anna.

I glanced at the caller ID. Lily calling from New York. Wonderful, I thought. I haven’t heard from her since yesterday. “Hi, sweetheart. How’s the trip going?”

“It’s not Lily, Mrs. Barnes. It’s me, Jesse.”

Odd that Jesse was calling from my daughter’s phone. “What’s up?” Jesse’s voice sounded funny, like maybe she’d been crying. I imagined the worse. It was probably only a split second before Jesse responded but it seems like minutes before I heard . . .

“Keep calm, Mrs. Barnes. Lily’s okay. We’re at the hospital. She got sideswiped by a taxi outside Central Park an hour ago. The cab just grazed her, but she lost her balance and hit the curb. She was unconscious for a few minutes. They’re checking her out now.”

“Oh my god! Let me talk to her.”

“She’s up in X-ray now. They say she’ll probably be fine.”

“I’ll catch a flight out tomorrow morning. At a time like this, she’ll need her family.”

“Don’t be anything drastic, please. Lily’s bruised and shaken up but nothing’s broken. They just want to monitor her overnight in case of concussion. She asked me to tell you not to worry. But Mrs. Barnes . . . Anna . . . she, she . . .”

I heard a catch in Jesse’s voice. She wasn’t telling me everything. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I said.

“I’m so sorry, Anna.” She took a deep breath. “She . . . she lost the baby.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

I glanced at the caller ID. Lily calling from New York. [Wonderful, I thought.] small thing, but I’m not sure if this is an honest reaction or a sarcastic one I haven’t heard from her since yesterday. “Hi, sweetheart. How’s the trip going?”

[“It’s not Lily, Mrs. Barnes. It’s me, Jesse.”] This is nice, as it’s unexpected, so it suggests something is wrong
Odd that Jesse was calling from my daughter’s phone. “What’s up?” [Jesse’s voice sounded funny, like maybe she’d been crying.] Perhaps move this up to the first thing she thinks after hearing Jesse’s voice? That would help build on the tension created by the unexpected call [I imagined the worse.] Which is what? Could be a potential spot to show what she fears It was probably only a split second before Jesse responded but it seems like minutes before I heard . . .

“Keep calm, Mrs. Barnes. Lily’s okay. We’re at the hospital. She got sideswiped by a taxi outside Central Park an hour ago. The cab just grazed her, but she lost her balance and hit the curb. She was unconscious for a few minutes. They’re checking her out now.” Since we now know the problem, and know Lily is okay, the tension fades a little. But if readers know she’s pregnant, this could still be a concern to worry over. Also, Jesse says a lot before Anne responds, so perhaps have her interrupt after “hospital?” That would help suggest the panic

“Oh my god! Let me talk to her.” This might be a potential spot to think about the baby

[“She’s up in X-ray now. They say she’ll probably be fine.”] There’s an opportunity for tension/subtext here. Is she trying not to tell her about the baby?

“I’ll catch a flight out [tomorrow morning] The delay in flying out lessens the tension a little. At a time like this, she’ll need her family.”

“Don’t be anything drastic, please. Lily’s bruised and shaken up but nothing’s broken. They just want to monitor her overnight in case of concussion. She asked me to tell you not to worry. But Mrs. Barnes . . . Anna . . . she, she . . .”

I heard a catch in Jesse’s voice. She wasn’t telling me everything. “What is it? What’s wrong?” I said.

“I’m so sorry, Anna.” She took a deep breath. “She . . . she lost the baby.”

The question:

1. Is this dialogue/scene working effectively or does it need to be longer to build the tension?


Mostly, though you could build it even further if you wanted to. There’s a wonderful opportunity to show Jesse trying hard to focus on what matters—Lily is alive and okay. She’s trying not to tell Anna about the lost baby. It hurts her to do so, and she knows this will bring pain. That’s not quite coming through yet (readers chime in here).

If readers know Lily is pregnant, they’ll likely be worried about that, and they’ll fear for the baby same as Lily, and be desperate for Jesse to answer that oh-so-important question. Delaying that answer will raise tensions even more. It’s a fine line between just right and too much, so try playing with it to get the right balance. Perhaps let Jesse resist just enough so it feels reasonable, but not so much it feels like you’re purposefully dragging it out.

(Here's more on writing subtext)

To find the right balance, consider what readers will naturally be worried about. If the first thing they'll think about is the baby, then you probably won't need a lot of nudging to get them worrying. If the baby isn't the first thing, they might need a few more nudges.

What you want them to worry about also plays a role. If you want them fearing for the baby all along, more hints that push in that direction would work to build tension in that area. If you want this to be a shock, then you might distract readers same as Jesse is doing and build the tension in other areas before surprising readers with the real problem.

You might also consider a little more internalization from Anna on what she’s worried about. It’s natural for her to have a serious emotional reaction, and that would help readers feel the same emotions.

Also think about how people react in times of crisis. Jesse tells Anne a lot of information in the middle, and it seems to me that a panicked mother would have butt in and not wait through so much. At the very least she’d probably have a physical reaction and maybe a thought even if she’s too shocked or scared to speak.

(Here are more tips on creating tension)

Overall, this is pretty close, and a little tweaking could make this a really tense and emotional moment.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

2 comments:

  1. I was thrown from the outset by what I took to be a sarcastic response to Lily calling her mother. That set me up to imagine a conflicted relationship between the two, as in Lily was a worrywart and Anne was a busy woman who didn't expect/need constant calls.

    Anne's surprise at the caller being Jesse doesn't come across as extreme, as I'm just told about Jesse's voice sounding funny and the internal question seems distant to me. So, from my misinterpreted stance to being told Jesse might have been crying to imagining something is wrong just doesn't happen for me.

    The suggested re-positioning of indicating Jesse's tone of voice would help, but what would help me more is some outside influence, like being given some physical reaction by Anne. Is she driving when she gets the call? Dusting? Walking to a meeting? Whatever she's doing, if I'm shown that the discovery of Jesse being the caller causes her to stop or slow what she's doing, my 'ears' will prick up.

    Then, being told "I imagined the worst." followed by being told how long it seemed before Jesse answered leaves me with no anticipation and no emotional lead-in to or investment in the upcoming information. I have become an observer instead of bonding with the events and characters in the scene.

    I would want to see the red flags flying from the first moment the phone rings and Anne sees (as we all have caller ID) that it's Lily, her pregnant daughter calling. If they just spoke the day before, and the two have just arrived in the city (or it is presumed they haven't been there long), then Anne's response to the call could be more pronounced...any underlying concern could be revealed here. This could set Anne up for feeling she'd worried or been concerned needlessly, when told that Lily isn't in danger, as Anne could assume that to mean that 'all' (including the baby) was okay -- then the roller coaster would dive again when she's told of the loss.

    I would like to see more reaction in the scene, more body language that allows me to relate emotionally.

    A last note: the delay in Anne questioning the status of the pregnancy, along with the delay in flying out (as Janice pointed out) combined with the statement "At a time like this, she'll need her family." spun me in several circles. The dialogue statement feels distant, and almost like internal thought, plus sounds a bit cruel to Jesse, who is simply the messenger of bad news.

    End of scene: I dislike Anne, feel sorry for Jesse, and wasn't allowed to feel anything for Lily.

    This is a tough scene to write, as Janice indicates, but just a few tweaks and it'll be great. You can do it! Thanks for taking the hot seat so everyone can learn.

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  2. I want to second something that's been said here: physical reactions. Since the scene's core action is just voices (and a caller ID) on a phone, it could gain a lot of contrast by adding a few moments of clenched stomach, hoarse voice, and other signs of fear.

    Or, for a further layer of contrast, Anna's surroundings. Is there a sound that breaks in on her at an odd moment?

    In fact, Anna doesn't have many thoughts in here; she usually goes straight from hearing news to answering it. That might be just what you want, to show that she's focusing right on each moment, but you might think about how these other things can happen inside or around her even in mid-sentence, and whether you want to show any. (Her not having these is one reason Jesse gets out the whole explanation about the x-ray, without Anna either interrupting her or feeling her own reaction in the meantime.)

    A lot of this depends on how you usually write; if you don't use much of this in your other scenes, that may be reason enough to leave it out. And of course you want the right balance of each in each moment. But I think they're dimensions you want to look into.

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