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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dialogue Exercise

I was stuck a few weeks ago, not moving forward on my current project.  Then, I used this exercise from the writing workshop to stimulate things:

"Write two pages of dialogue between two characters.  Be fresh and try to show character traits in speech and action.  Now edit the dialogue, removing names, greeting and telling-speak.  Remove all attributes except for he/she said.  Add fiction-speak, action and reaction dynamic."

I haven't written up to this scene yet, but now that I know it is going to happen, perhaps I can find a way to get there.

“Hello Mother.”

At the sound of her voice, I stood, nearly knocking over my orange plastic chair. She looked to the bed where Harrison lay attached to tubes, then gazed to the green line, spiking and descending on the beeping EKG. My hand reached for my pearl necklace as I caught my breath and exhaled. “Dear Lord.”

This older version of Bethany walked slowly across the patched linoleum, reached between the bed rails and touched her father’s arm. “How is he doing? The nurses said he’d be out of it for several more hours.” She touched her hair, shook her head, folded her arms across her chest and stared at me. If it weren’t for that look, I’d have had a hard time reconciling this mature woman with the fresh-faced girl who packed her suitcase and disappeared fourteen years ago. It was the same look she used on her last night at home—when she stamped her foot and said: “All you ever cared about is how things appear to everyone else. Well Mother, I don’t care what people think, I care about what is.” Now though, her skin was pale; her cheekbones gaunt, as if her scull was attempting to swallow her eyes.

“Yes, he’s still unconscious,” I said, leaning over to brush Harrison’s hair back where it lay on his forehead. Then I remembered and pulled my hand away.

“There is so much I’m surprised at today, so I suppose we can add the fact that you are standing in this hospital to a long and disagreeable list. Perhaps you can shed some light on how you happen to be here? Not only has my husband had a heart attack and driven off the road into a retaining wall, but I’ve arrived here to discover he had a companion in the car. That shouldn’t be a revelation, I suppose, since I suspected all along that he was up to something. I hate that I had to become a detective, but all those absences from the office added up. One does like to think one knows one’s husband, and back when, I could set my watch by your father.

"Mother!" She raised her hand as if to stop me, but no. I wasn't through. 

"Not to mention, he never traveled for work in thirty-five years. But when he refused to discuss his comings and goings with me, especially that trip last spring, I was reduced to following him. I was behind him last week when he drove into to one of those cookie-cutter apartment complexes outside of town and let himself in. Seems like they are always building those monstrosities; stacking them onto the hills like Legos. They do nothing to improve the landscape, even Harrison says that. It’s unlike him to choose a place so plebian—I’d expect him to be a bit more creative in the location of his assignations, but like any cuckolded wife, I suppose I don’t know my husband as well as I imagined."

"Mother, listen..." she said.  But I wasn't stopping.  She'd just protect him.  They'd always been a team.  Two against one.  But for the last several days my worries had been churning inside like a cesspool and now they were overflowing.  Harrison tells me I never let anyone get a word in, but at that moment, I had speak, I had to get rid to the words, to vomit them if you must know.  I had to tell someone, even if it was Bethany.  I folded my arms, mirrored her stance and continued:

"No,  You listen.  The girl in the car. Not his lover. A child. A teenager. His daughter I imagine, since according to that idiot nurse who presumed I knew who she was, she has his last name. How the gossip mongers will love that. My husband—conducting a clandestine affiliation long enough for the product of his relationship to become a teenager. That news will keep the old cows chewing for months. And now you appear from God knows where. It’s all too much for me to take, you know.”

On the other side of the bed, my daughter closed her eyes. Shaking her head, she laid her hand on Harrison’s chest. “Oh Mother. It’s like you to jump to that conclusion. You always projected how things would go bad. That was the problem. On the outside, it was all about how things looked, because if things looked right, no one would know about all the things you assumed were going wrong—even when they weren’t. Oh God, I can’t do this right now. I can’t. You are going to have to excuse me; I just wanted to check on Dad. I need to return to pediatrics now and get back to Melanie.”

“Get back to Melanie? You know the girl from the car? You are aware of your father and his paramour? You’ve met his daughter?” The room began to dim. I gripped the side of Harrison’s bed to maintain my balance. “Of course, I didn’t think of that. She’d be your half-sister.” I willed my sight to clear, tightening the muscles in my neck and lifting my chin. “You’ve been in on this with him all along?”

Bethany touched her hair as if she wanted to gather it up, then jerked her hand away, dropping it to side. It’s funny the things you think of at a time like this. She’d finally cut it into a disciplined bob like I’d wanted her to all those years ago—emphasizing her high cheekbones, although she’s a shade too thin for my taste now.

She backed up toward the chair against the wall. “I need to sit for a minute," she said. “This is my fault. I was foolish enough to think I could keep things from you forever. But life has a way of changing the stakes, doesn’t it. I had to come home. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not well. The apartment dad has been visiting does not belong to his love interest. He rented it for me. He’s been helping me. I didn’t want you to know. I never wanted you to know. Now that you do, I’m sure you’ll find it impossible to let things be. But Mother, Dad has not been cheating on you. Melanie is not his daughter, she’s mine.”

As always, any constructive criticism you'd like to offer will be appreciated.


EmptyNester said...

Oh I am so envious! That was great! More!!!

Wine and Words said...

Great twist! Ah Motherhood. We often bang it up don't we. Assumptions are a very dangerous game.

Bish Denham said...

This is excellent, but to me the pieces of dialog are too long. They need to be shorted and or broken into shorter pieces, more exchange between mother and daughter. Particularly that long speech by mom...people don't usually talk in long paragraphs. Other than that, very good Liza!

Talei said...

Very good twist at the end. I agree with Bish, some of the dialogue could be cleared up so it flows more naturally between mother and daughter. Otherwise, a very good snippet! Nicely done. ;-)

Liza said...

Taking Bish and Talei's excellent advise, I have now edited this and tried to break up the paragraphs a bit. My intent was to show the mother, who talks too much anyway, spewing her words, babbling out of shock and horror...but can see that I went on too long. Perhaps the breaks between the paragraphs and the little clarification I added help some?

Jan Morrison said...

Liza - this is great! Will you share your edited version with us too?

Helen Ginger said...

I was able to follow the conversation without any tags - good job. I agree with the previous comments - shorten the dialogue. I think the mother is so angry, she wouldn't go into long diatribes. And the daughter is strong enough to cut her off if she does. Make the conversation zip along. This is a pivotal scene - I can't wait to see what you end up doing with it.

Elana Johnson said...

I thought it was fantastic! Very tense.

And the last line?? PRICELESS.

Mrs B said...

I loved it. Not being a writer myself, I hasten to offer any criticism, but I see what some of the others mentioned. I do know one thing for sure... I'd love to read the rest of that book! It's an excellent storyline and your descriptions were right on the money. I could truly envision both characters in my mind's eye.


Lydia K said...

That was really enjoyable. Very tense and emotional, every line.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

My word, you have skill for drawing in the reader. Amazing. I got shivers at that last line. So vivid, all of it. So genuine. So.Well.Done.

I hope you're writing this story.

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