Over on Facebook, a reader mentioned a scene in FC:1 that she really liked. I like to investigate this sort of specific feedback–the good and the bad–to see what worked and what didn’t work for my readers.
I remembered the scene she mentioned in general, but not in detail. The main reason I wanted to investigate, though, was that her description of it as dialogue-free was not my recollection; I remembered it as being chatty to the extreme, as two swoony teenaged girls prattled on about how divine it was going to be to see Sarah Bernhardt on stage. (For those of you out of the 19th-century loop, Sarah Bernhardt was the Lady Gaga of her day.)
So, I pulled down my copy of The Year the Cloud Fell and tried to figure out what this reader had meant when she referred to the scene’s “”
I found the scene (in FC:1, Chapter Nine, for those following along), I indeed it was filled with the dialogue of gushing teenage girls, at least until their parents (Libbie and Custer) had a…”discussion”…about whether the girls should be allowed to stay up so late.
The girls’ attention alternated between parents as the battle waged. Libbie renewed her suspicious glare. Custer tried boyish charm. Libbie intensified the accusation in her look. He countered with a shrug of honest intents gone athwart of a greater power. Her gaze softened with the return of good humor. He encouraged it with a smile and open arms. Libbie conceded defeat and embraced him, chuckling.
I remember writing that scene, mostly because of lopsided research-item-to-written-sentence ratio it had–I researched Sarah Bernhardt, the National Theater, La Dame aux camélias, and the colloquial use of the word “divine” as “wonderful,” all for a two-page scene–but I also remember that paragraph.
After the Chatty-Kathy back-and-forth dialogue from the two girls, the scene needed a break. Libbie and Custer needed to resolve their parenting issues about the girls staying out so late, but more dialogue–especially boring, real-life parenting stuff–was not the ticket. So I went with a bit of non-verbal sparring. It changed the pace, gave us a rest from the column of the girls’ short, breathless sentences, and also reinforced the way Custer and Libbie worked with (and around) each other’s strong personalities.
In retrospect, I might say that there’s a bit too much “telling” in this excerpt. Being told from Custer’s POV, I allowed us some insight into Custer’s intentions but still kept the description of Libbie’s expressions and reactions free from commentary. Of course, informing the above is the subtext of Custer’s real intentions; the reader knows what he’s really doing, but Libbie (and the girls) do not, so there is an underlayment of conflict and tension here, as Custer tries to control the situation.
I’d like to say that all these considerations came naturally, without thought or effort, but the truth is that they did not. I’m not that adept. I worked on this as I work on most scenes, considering it from several angles: its structure as a scene, its pacing in relation to the rest of the chapter, the characters places along their individual arcs, whether the language worked, the verbs, descriptions, continuity, etc., and (of course) historical accuracy.
To some writers, this sort of thing might be second nature. Not so with me.
I’m glad it worked for this reader and, as I see sales of the Fallen Cloud Saga continue, I hope it works for new readers as well.