Friday, August 14, 2020

Distant Dialogue: Pros and Cons of Including Emails, Letters, Social Media Posts, Texts, Phone Calls, and Journal Excerpts in a Book

Voices are only a small part of human communication. We read emotions via gestures, eye movement, and facial expressions, as well. In books, you can add setting to the mix--whatever the character notices in her environment emphasizes the emotion she's feeling. It's a rich mix.

I often hear from students who want to include letters, diary entries, texts, or social media posts in their stories. Can you do this, they ask, without losing the reader? And how much is too much?

I remember Mary K., one of my long-time students from Minneapolis, had this question when she was working on her award-winning book, Maja and Me, about her daughter coming out as lesbian. At one point in the story, Mary needs to tell Maja about a new ruling in the Lutheran church that allows same-sex couples in committed relationships to be ministers. This is key because Maja's partner, Cara, is in training as a minister. But Mary is in Minneapolis, and Maja and Cara are in Sioux Falls.

Mary originally wrote the scene as a phone call. But as we discussed it, we decided a phone call registered low on reader response--not emotional enough for such a key event. We're missing Mary, Maja, and Cara's visual cues, the setting they're in, to convey their excitement and Mary's own joy for this new step of freedom.

Mary asked about more options: Cara and Maja talking afterward about the phone call? Possible, I said. But did she want to change Cara and Maja into point of view characters? Right now, it's a memoir and she's the main character--all the chapters have her as a participant. She'd be absent from this scene. Dialogue that takes place away from the main character is awkward in memoirs. It feels as if the author is using a very visible device to deliver information.

It came down to this: was she set on a scene with dialogue, instead of just summarized narrative ("I told Maja and Cara about the church's decision and I could hear their excitement over the phone.")? If yes, she needed to bring in her location a lot more. And she needed to recreate the dialogue so that it was pared down to tenser stuff.

For example:
* add in sensory detail about the room she was in during the call
* add in objects in that room--a photo? something that showed how far they had come?
* add in weather and season--was it snowing outside, raining, sunny in the room?
* add in body sensations--how did her throat feel when she told them, tight or open?

These clues give a reader emotion when the dialogue is low-key.

What about even more distant devices, such as emails, letters, texts, and posts?

Several clients lately have asked about using social media posts or texts in their novels. This can be a fun device--one of my favorite uses is in Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple is an expert on using these distant forms of dialogue, though--skim a few pages and see how she keeps the pace lively by using short excerpts and staggering them with real scene. Never do we feel too far from the characters.

What this creates is interruption. Because real-life communications are full of interruption--people breaking in, pausing, changing the subject. If you can use distant dialogue devices and incorporate plenty of interruption, you might mimic the natural pace and variation of speech. But take a page (lesson) from Bernadette's story, and make them short.

And check out the UK's Prospect Magazine article here about how millenial authors are using texting in their prose. (If the link doesn't work, google the magazine and search for "texts in fiction.")

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