Wordsmith Wednesday–More about Dialogue

I’m just completing a novel (which I will not identify) for my monthly book club meeting and have been trying to evaluate why it’s been a burdensome read. It’s a thriller, the kind of book that should keep you turning pages and reading late into the night. But that hasn’t happened for me. If I had to make a diagnosis, one symptom I’d target is the dialogue.

Consider the term “information dump.” Think of long, rambling paragraphs in which a character  exposes volumes of background data to enable the reader to understand the premise of the plot. To do this, the author has one character “teach” another. You’ll most likely find this in novels that require knowledge of a specialized field in order to follow the plot. These stories might involve science, medicine, government protocol or religion.

How do you achieve the goal of giving your reader what he needs without lectures? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Avoid long rambling paragraphs by breaking up dialogue into questions and answers along with interruptions or description.

Here’s an example from “Winter is Past.” I needed to give the reader some basic information about the kidney transplant procedure. Here’s how I could have written the scene:

“You must be wondering what the process is. Kathryn will meet with a pre-transplant nurse. They will draw her blood and test it for blood type and antigens that will tell us if the donor is a match. Then she will meet with a transplant physician who will do an examination. After that, she will have her blood drawn every month until the transplant to make sure that there is no change. They mail it to the transplant center in San Francisco. It takes a while before you will know if there’s a match. Then the donor has to go through a lot of testing to make sure that they are healthy enough to go through the procedure and live the rest of their lives with only one kidney. (The donor) has to go to San Francisco for some of the testing. Today Kathryn will meet with a social worker and (the donor) has to go through a psychological evaluation to make sure that they are making a free choice to donate and that there is no financial incentive…”

Kinda boring, isn’t it?

This is how I wrote it:

“You want me to explain how the whole thing works?” I asked Michael. Without waiting for his response, I dug into my own memories of the experience. “First of all, Kathryn meets with the pre-transplant nurse who’ll draw her blood. Then, the transplant center doctor will examine her.”

“What kind of blood test?”  Michael asked.

“Blood type and antigens, the proteins that the immune system builds up against foreign invaders. The same test they’ll do on (her donor) to evaluate their compatibility.”

Michael fixed his gaze on me, soaking in every word.

“While Kathryn’s waiting for surgery, they’ll draw her blood every month and mail it to San Francisco—sometimes things change.”

“How long before we know if (the donor) is a match?”

“I don’t remember.” I plumbed the archives of my recollection. “It seemed like forever.”

“I think Kathryn had to go through all kinds of poking and prodding,” Josh said.

“You’re right there were a ton of procedures. Didn’t she have to go to San Francisco for some of them?”

“I’d forgotten about that” Michael said. “Anything else?”

“Yeah.” I squirmed in the uncomfortable chair. “She’ll meet with a social worker today. I remember it well—I was so afraid something would happen to Kathryn but the counselor reminded me to trust, to leave it to them to keep her safe.”

Michael spoke up again. “Kathryn had a psychological work-up, too, didn’t she?”

I nodded and glanced at a couple entering with a teenage son, a boy the color of yellow chalk. “You bet. They’ll make sure (her donor) is stable and that there’s no financial incentive.”

The three of us watched as the young patient’s father helped him into a chair then went to sign in at the receptionist’s desk. A smile broke across the child’s face. He nodded in my direction and gave me a thumb’s up.

In this example I’ve deliberately obscured some of the information. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot.

  • Another simple way is to include either a forward or a glossary that gives basic facts that contribute to the reader’s understanding of the story. In his novel, One Second After, William Forstchen explains EMP (electromagnetic pulse) with the help of an introduction by Newt Gingrich. That’s a thriller I found hard to put down (and thrillers aren’t a genre I usually gravitate toward).

I don’t want to ruin your reading experience, but take notice of how the authors you read give you the facts you need to know. Do you have other suggestions?


The Gift of an Organ Transplant

In 2001, I was blessed with the gift of a kidney transplant. As I had no relative able to donate, a co-worker stepped in and offered to be my donor. We matched in two out of six antigens. Paula had to go through a battery of tests to show that she was healthy enough, emotionally stable and not acting out of some less-than-selfless motivation. She moved to another state before I needed the kidney and I thought that I would have to wait until someone died to receive a transplant.

Several months later, Paula called to let me know where she was and to assure me that she had called the transplantation center in San Francisco to let them know she was still available. When the time came, we brought her back to Reno then drove to the Bay Area for the procedures.

Throughout this process, my greatest fear was the possibility that something would happen to Paula or that, down the road, one of her children might need a kidney. When I asked her about it, she said simply, “I have to believe that if God is putting me here for you, if my children need my help, someone will be there for them.” I think of this often and although we’re not in constant contact, she’s always present in my prayers, my gratitude and in my living.

My novel, “Winter is Past,” began with this question: “What if something happened to my donor–who would be there for her?”

Winter is Past–A Novel

I read somewhere that you shouldn’t use biblical quotes as a title. Why not if it conveys something integral to the story?

That being said, it’s important to accept the advice of an agent or editor who might have a better idea of what will sell. But, for now, the working title of my novel is “Winter is Past.” I’ve toyed around with other options but so far I’ve come up empty.

My purpose in writing this novel is to remind the reader that we have within ourselves the strength we need to survive. The idea for the story emerged as a typical “what-if?” scenario.

I am a kidney transplant recipient and my biggest fear surrounding the whole process was “what if” something happened to Paula, my friend and living donor. When just such a situation occurs in my novel, Claire Bergano must deal with the source of her own inordinate fears and accept the harsh realities that will come her way over the course of a year.

“For, lo! The winter is past. The rains are over and gone. Flowers appear in our fields.” Song of Solomon, 1:11-12 In Spring, Claire discovers the strength and beauty that was within her all along.

The title may or may not work, but the story is a message of hope.