Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thinking about Dialogue

I’m not usually a big vampire fan, although my 12-year-old daughter has read every Twilight book. But I’m into Charlie Huston’s ALREADY DEAD and like it a lot. It’s fast, and I’m noticing how swiftly Huston’s dialogue propels the story.

In fact, I’ve had to think about dialogue a lot this week. I wrote a story over the summer that I just came back to, revised, and sent off to several publications. The story ends at its climax—and hinges on its final line, which is spoken by the 10-year-old protagonist.

The story has its genesis in a news article I clipped from the USA TODAY last summer, a feature on the Revisiting Hearts Day program, which is a prison program in the U.S. designed to let convicts spend one day each year participating in normal parenting activities.

My story, “364 Days,” is about a boy who struggles as he awaits his annual visit with his convict father and explores the ensuing issues any fatherless boy would face. The story ends with this final scene:

“Did you take that bike, son?” the officer asked, eyes narrowed, head tilted to the side as if uncertain of the situation. He was a large black man and kept looking from T.J. to the $219 price tag hanging like a written confession from the handlebars.
“Uh huh.”
The man’s dark face shone, glistening beneath the moon.
“You did?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why?”
T.J. didn’t answer. He stood staring at the ground.
“Son”—the man knelt beside him—“do you know what you’ve done?”
“Yes, sir.”
“How old are you?”
“Ten.”
“You took the bike just to ride it in front of the store?”
“Uh huh.”
“Son…”
“I’m not your son.
“…you’re in a lot of trouble.”
T.J. nodded.
“Why did you take the bike?”
He looked at the man. Then he looked away, back toward Ridell Street, where his mother was still with Marty, where his days of playing basketball were over. Finally, he turned back and refocused on the ground. “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said.
“What?” the officer said.
“Put me in Garriston,” T.J. said. “Once a year ain’t enough.”

I went back and forth with the ending of this story. In June, the story ended without the final two lines, simply, “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said. Then, after giving it a couple months to rest and coming back to it with fresh eyes last week, I thought the conclusion needed clarity, and I added the cop’s final question and the boy’s explanation in which he names his father’s prison.

Fiction writing is often like a tightrope walk: How much information is too much? I want to take care of my readers. But I also want them to play a part in my story. However, “364 Days” ends at its climax. The pathos must be clear.

It’s a delicate process, one that might not be over.

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