In Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade goes to the hotel room of Caspar Gutman. Gutman is trying to persuade Spade to acquire the fabled falcon statuette for him. It’s an important scene, because we finally get the story of the priceless figure, and while they’re talking, Gutman pours himself a Scotch and soda.
I don’t remember the exact details and I didn’t look them up, but some things still stick with me, and one is Gutman fiddling with the soda syphon. It doesn’t mean anything to the plot, but somehow the white-suited criminal pumping up the cannister and squirting the carbonated liquid into the glass has stayed with me, (so much so that I stole, er, I mean, paid homage to it in Comeuppance Served Cold).
I love reading and writing dialogue. I love stories where I must weigh the characters’ words and decipher what they are saying behind what they are saying. I love clever turns of phrase, repartee, and banter. Having said that, reading long unbroken stretches of dialogue gets exhausting. With or without speech tags, pages of back-and-forth with no physicality makes me drift away from the characters, as if I’m hearing abstract voices, not participating in a story.
Even trying to add physical responses seem tedious after a while. People can only bite their lips, roll their eyes, glance away, clear their throats, etc, so many times. Strangely, dialogue, one of the things I enjoy the most about fiction, can float me right out of the story if it devolves into pure talking heads.
When a character in a dialogue has something to do, even if it doesn’t directly affect the plot (Gutman’s drink doesn’t), it brings them back into focus. Because my mind has to imagine the decanter of Scotch, the glass, ice/no ice, the silver cylinder of the siphon, the action engages more of my attention and pulls me back into the story.
It’s great if the activity does connect with the story, if your characters are trying to piece together the torn-up letter they found, if someone is studying the scrap of evidence under a microscope, someone is grooming a horse, cleaning a weapon, or mixing a healing potion, but it enlivens the dialogue even if they’re changing the oil in their car, chopping vegetables for dinner or fixing the hem on a pair of pants.
In the Brother Cadfael mysteries, by the late Ellis Peters, Cadfael is interested in herbs and acts as a healer. As he addresses the various mysteries, he is often in his garden, pinching back leggy plants, harvesting leaves, grinding dried herbs, stirring a tincture, tisane or syrup as he asks questions of the person with him, and bounces ideas back and forth. Usually, the particular potion he is mixing has nothing to do with the mystery, but it gives us a glimpse of 14th century medicine and reminds us that Cadfael is trying hard to leave a life of violence behind him.
In The Mask of Mirrors, M.A. Carrick centers at least one, and maybe two, important conversations between protagonist Ren and her sister Tess around clothing. Ren is carrying out a daring impersonation, and Tess, who is brilliant with fabric and fashion, is making her clothes. The scenes are visually and kinesthetically pleasing as the authors describe the feel of various fabrics; they remind us of the differences in dress among the various social classes, and they remind us how precarious Ren’s con is. And then there’s the actual conversation, which advances the plot.
Can you give your
character or characters something to do? It’s a multi-purpose tool, and it
enlivens your story. It may even inspire you. You might find, as so often happens,
that those random acts suddenly click into something you can use in the plot.
Give it a try.