“Why?” you said.
“Shut up,” I explained.
And so it began.
Okay, a little background first. I’m currently hard at work on the second book in what I ultimately intend will be a series of books under the collective umbrella title of “The Annals of Arrinor.” (Hold on, I hear you say... annals? Why annals? Well, truth be told, I was inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia. But ‘chronicles’ has become, in my humble correct opinion, a very overused writing term in recent years, and so I thought, yikes, we need something a little different to separate my work from the herd. And ‘annals’ popped into my head, as it had a nice alliterative ring to it when you coupled it to Arrinor, the world of my protagonist. Yes, thank you very much, I’m quite aware that technically speaking, ‘annals’ refers to a year by year account, and yes, I’m also keenly aware the action of my entire first novel spans only several weeks. Stop clouding the issue with facts, please. As I said: nice, snappy alliterative ring to it --- again, in my humble correct opinion. Look, just go with me on this.)
But I digress.
So... where were we? Yes... working on book 2, whose current working title is Gryphon’s Awakening. (Book 1 was Gryphon’s Heir --- go to the Reviews tab on this website to see what Kirkus Reviews had to say about it .) And thus we finally make it to my train of thought for today: I foolishly went and got myself into a bit of a jam in book 1, quite without realizing it and certainly without intending to. You see, in pumping up the climactic sequence near the book’s end, I introduced a plot element (I’m trying not to be too specific) that had to be brought about through the actions of a previously unsuspected traitor. My characters didn’t know who the traitor was, and frankly, neither did I --- as a matter of fact, the issue is still unresolved at book’s end, which I smugly/naively thought was rather a nice little nagging touch. (Ah ha! I hear you crow: a pantser! Well, no, at least not completely. I do plan things out in my writing, just as I do in ‘real’ life... but just like real life, I don’t seriously expect things in my stories are always --- or sometimes, ever --- going to work out as planned. And... usually they don’t. Come on... are you going to try and convince me that your life always goes as planned? Puh-leese.)
Sigh. But of course, brilliant ideas always come home to roost, don’t they? And usually, in the process, they make us seriously wonder whether they really were brilliant, or we were just plain out of our minds that particular day... something to do with the lunar cycle or some such.
So it’s been weighing on me --- just as I know it’s been weighing on my characters --- who the hell is the traitor? And we’re approaching that point in book 2 where the characters are: 1) just about in a position to do something about it; and 2) definitely needing to. So this is something that couldn’t be left unknown/undecided very much longer.
I originally had this vague idea one of my main and most trusted characters would be the traitor... which has been, I suppose, standard literary fare even long before Agatha Christie used it to such great success in The Mousetrap. But who? The problem with my main and most trusted characters is that dammit, I like them. A lot. I don’t really want to think they’re capable of doing such a thing. And, just as importantly, what possible motivation could they have to commit such a heinous act as detailed in the book? Yes, I know, I know, people we least suspect often do really awful things... but seldom do they do so without really good reasons. And... I don’t see any of my characters having really good reason for turning on my protagonist like that.
I was writing away, ‘listening’ to a conversation taking place between two characters present when the betrayal took place who were in the process of explaining it to a third character who had not been. Please note I use the word ‘listening’ very literally and deliberately here. C.S. Lewis said, “I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say” and this is an instance where I understand exactly what he meant. Because the third character suddenly, and without any prior planning from me --- I certainly had no idea she was going to say it --- piped up with a “what about this?” kind of suggestion as to who the traitor could be.
And my jaw dropped. Because she was absolutely right. There was the solution. And she had given it to me, almost like a throwaway. That is a marvellous and magical moment for any writer, I can tell you, because in that moment, the character is as alive and real as anybody in ‘real’ life. She spoke it, and there it was. I could have kissed her.
You know, I’m at a loss as to why so many authors seem to have such difficulty writing good dialogue, but evidently they do. Sometimes I read dialogue in books and cripes, it’s like a game of 20 Questions or something: it’s wooden. Or so heavily laced with pontifications about Enormously Important and Philosophical Life Points, you wonder they can actually enunciate the words. Folks, people don’t talk like that. Even heroes and villains.
Here’s how dialogue works, in case you haven’t been paying attention to yourself and those around you every single day of your life: you say something; the other person responds --- usually immediately and completely off the cuff, because we generally don’t sit there thinking of our response for a minute or two --- and you take that gem and respond to it, also immediately and off the cuff. And so on. Each response builds on the last, answering, addressing, introducing new material, so the conversation keeps evolving. And when there’s no new material, or the old has been completely hashed over... the conversation ends. That’s how it works.
Do that in your writing. Especially, know your characters, listen to them, and most importantly, let them do the talking. It’s not hard, really: after all, it’s what you do every day.
And when you don’t know the answer to a question... ask your characters. Like you, they may not know the answer --- but I’ll be willing to state with conviction that they’ve got all kinds of opinions and ideas.
Just like any real person.