How to Create Energy in Dialogue with Summary

1 Jul
Smith Henderson's highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called "the best book I've ready so far this year" by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Smith Henderson’s highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called “the best book I’ve ready so far this year” by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Dialogue is not the same as real-life conversation. While this isn’t exactly news to anyone who’s tried to write a story or novel, it’s something we often forget. Most obviously, dialogue is brief, a few pages at most (and that’s some very extensive dialogue), whereas even short conversations, if transcribed, would last at least probably twice as long. There are some common ways to condense dialogue: skip the greetings and chit-chat. Get down to business. Jump ahead to the tense part of the dialogue—the bit where something is at stake. Leave out the filler that we often think is required to get to the good stuff but which can usually be cut.

But what if it’s all good stuff? What if, for instance, a character is telling another character a story, and it’s all tense and interesting, but it’s also going on and on? How do you keep the material but shorten the dialogue? One answer is to use summary.

A great example of using summary in dialogue can be found in the highly-praised debut novel Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. It was published by Ecco, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

In the novel’s opening scene, a social worker, Pete, has been called out to a dispute between a woman and her teenage son. A neighbor called the police, and after subduing both individuals, the cop called the social worker. In this piece of dialogue, the officer is telling Pete what happened. Notice what Henderson puts into dialogue and what he summarizes:

Pete nodded and wrote some more…

“And the situation when you got here? ”

The situation was a perfect fucking mess. The situation was the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.

Then the situation got interesting.

“The mother has the air rifle and—”

“No way,” Pete said.

“Yeah, fuckin way,” the cop said.

“She shoot him? ”

“Before I get to her, yeah, she shoots. You can see the big old welt on his forearm.”

Pete started to write.

“And then what?”

At this point, dialogue moves back into summary, describing what happened next between the boy and his mother. Take another look at the dialogue and imagine if the summarized part (the paragraph that begins with “The situation was a perfect fucking mess”) had been put into dialogue. In other words, what if the police officer had told the entire story in his words? It would have taken longer—perhaps only slightly longer, but if you’ve ever listened to someone tell a good story, anything that slows the pace is annoying.

So what does Henderson summarize? Notice where the summary ends and the dialogue picks back up again: “Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.” The summary has given us the setup, the logistics of the story: who and where and what. But when the setup turns into a moment of action, of potential drama becoming actual drama, the scene is told through dialogue. We’re put immediately into the question of what happened:

“The mother has the air rifle and—”

“No way,” Pete said.

The dialogue is saved for the moment of greatest intensity and interest. Everything that is required to get to those moments is summarized.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s summarize within sections of dialogue, using the passage from Smith Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek as a model:

  1. Choose the scene. You’ll need two or more characters and a story for one of them to tell. While the story doesn’t need to be connected to the immediate situation (people just sitting around, telling stories), the dialogue will feel more pressing if it impacts the characters. Henderson makes his story impactful because the story dictates how the social worker will handle the situation. One way to handle the scene is to have a character enter in a hurry, or with great purpose, and begin telling a story that must be told. Think of a child running into a house to tell his mom that his brother is hurt. The story will answer the question, “What happened?” And what happened will dictate what the mom does next. So, how can you invent a scene where a character enters in a hurry and causes another character to ask, “What happened?”
  2. Write out the dialogue in full. Don’t worry about summarizing yet. In a way, you don’t know what to summarize because you don’t yet know the entire story or how it will unfold.
  3. Listen for the slow parts. As you reread the dialogue, or as you write it, attune yourself to the voice in your head telling the story and also the voice that’s listening to the story. When does that second voice begin to lose interest? When does its attention flag? When does it perk up?
  4. Summarize the slow parts. Slow doesn’t mean uninteresting, only less interesting than the most exciting parts. Usually, these parts are the interstitial moments, the parts of the story that connect the moments of true drama. Imagine telling the story at a bar or coffee shop. When the listener leans forward and says, “And then what?” that’s almost certainly a moment of high interest or suspense. Put that part in dialogue. The setup that was required to get there can be summarized.
  5. In the summary, use sentences that emphasize action. It’s almost like you’re blocking out a scene for a play, directing the actors where to stand and what to do. Henderson does this with -ing words: “the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight.” These words give the scene a sense of immediacy because the make the action ongoing, rather than completed and over with. We do this naturally: “So I was standing there, minding my own business when…”
  6. In the summary, use sentence structures that emphasize latent energy. Latent energy is the energy required for a substance to undergo a transition (water: ice to liquid; a car: not moving to rolling down a hill). Latent energy is what makes an audience lean forward and ask, “Then what?” Notice the latent energy in this sentence from the scene in Henderson’s novel: “the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight.” The kid is applying force to the carport, and at a certain point, that force may supply the necessary latent energy for the carport to fall apart. In story terms, the act of the boy jumping on the carport is also applying force to his mother. When the force is strong enough, she will act. So, in your scene, find a way for one character to apply a type of force against another character: you’re looking for the amount of force that will supply the necessary latent energy to make that character act. When the character is about to act, that’s when you quit summarizing and begin using dialogue again.

Good luck!

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One Response to “How to Create Energy in Dialogue with Summary”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Smith Henderson | Read to Write Stories - July 7, 2014

    […] To read an exercise on using summary in dialogue and an excerpt from Fourth of July Creek, click here. […]

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