Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Next Line 19

I had an instinct that I was being set up, which is why I came to the cabin through the swamp. The ID had been blocked when the call came in. I didn’t think much about it at the time.

“Chuck Brody.”

“Hello, Mr. Brody. Pay attention. I’ve got some information regarding the case you’re working on.”

“Which case? I have several,” I lied.

“The lady.”

“Care to be more specific?”

“Golden.”

“What kind of information?”

“Information you want to have,” he said, and something made me think Boston.

“Why don’t you just tell it to me over the phone?”

“Look, you want the information, you do it my way.”

“Who is this?”

“That’s not important. Just understand this is information you’ll want to have, and it’s urgent.” He gave me directions to the shack.

“When?”

“As soon as you can get there.”

“Why do we have to meet eight miles from nowhere?”

“You’ll understand when you get there.”

“I need a better reason than that.”

“No, you don’t.”


“Get up,” said the voice belonging to the man who’d slammed me with something in the back of my head just as I’d reached the clearing near the cabin; my instincts had been right on target. “Up, Chuck. Now!”

I fingered the throbbing bulge on the back of my skull, lifted my face up out of the weeds, and hurled on his Hush Puppies, obliging him.


Dialogue: Wonderwood.....The Next Line: Robin Sinnott

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

EE -
I'm at a loss trying to figure out what sort of comment you want.

pacatrue said...

Sort of like Robin's continuation, I too thought that 'chuck' in 'chuck brody' was a verb. Took me 3 readings to realize it was the first name. I assume this wouldn't be a problem in the book unless this is the first page.

Dave said...

I thought the "upchuck" joke was cute. There's nothing like vile, green vomit on hush puppies in a swamp to make my day!
;)

Anonymous said...

Do you want comments like this?

I had an instinct that I was being set up, [Passive tense! Yawn!] which is why I came to the cabin through the swamp. The ID had been blocked when the call came in. [Passive tense! Snooze!] I didn’t think much about it at the time. [This is where the author tells us that the private dick went to the cabin after an anonymous phone call. The dialog below is where the author tells us that the private dick went to the cabin in the woods after an anonymous phone call. HUH? Did I repeat myself? Yes, I did repeat myself. In fact, I repeated myself twice. No, no, no, no not the word "myself," the other words. And let me say it again, just to hit the reader with a 2x4 – The private dick is going to the isolated cabin in the woods because of an anonymous phone call! (18 words out of the original dialog.)]

“Chuck Brody.”

“Hello, Mr. Brody. [He's a snitch and he's polite.] Pay attention. [Why? Did Chuck answer the phone to ignore the call?] I’ve got some information regarding the case you’re working on.”

“Which case? I have several,” I lied. [Why? What motivation would anyone have to lie in this situation? ]

“The lady.” [Vanishes, tee hee]

“Care to be more specific?” [He has three lady clients and four men. He's a busy private dick, you know. ]

“Golden.” [Eight words to answer "The Golden Lady." What's the caller going to say – information about a the last case you solved?]

“What kind of information?”

“Information you want to have,” he said, and something made me think Boston. [WOW, would the caller sell him information he doesn't need?" Only if he's swindling the detective. This is a stupid line of dialog.]

“Why don’t you just tell it to me over the phone?”

“Look, you want the information, you do it my way.”

“Who is this?”

“That’s not important. Just understand this is information you’ll want to have, and it’s urgent.” He gave me directions to the shack.

“When?”

“As soon as you can get there.” [Isn't this part of the information to get to the shack? Why waste the reader's time? Don’t you see the redundancy in "He said meet me. I asked when. He said ASAP. Why not say in the line above: "He gave me directions and time."? Better yet, make the previous line from the caller say: "If you want the information, you'll come to the cabin in the woods in 30 minutes (an hour, two hours, next year). Otherwise, go suck lemons."]

“Why do we have to meet eight miles from nowhere?” [Does it matter, I'm sure you're going to describe the trip to the cabin or the cabin itself. Then you can say in the exposition that is' 8 miles from the middle of nowhere, or town, or the strawberry stand at the roadhouse.]

“You’ll understand when you get there.”

“I need a better reason than that.”

“No, you don’t.” [Why does the reader care? It's a take it or leave it proposition. Why even put a line like this in to slow the reader unless the cabin is so crucial to the plot you need to telegraph it to the reader. However, that would remove all suspense form the novel, wouldn't it?]

McKoala said...

Smart, smart ending.

For my taste, the dialogue was a little too clipped in this one. And I'm not sure that the call was tantalising enough for me to go to a cabin in the swamp. I'd need something more specific; something I couldn't resist.

Evil Editor said...

No, we don't need the piece picked apart sentence by sentence. Stick with the big picture. Is the dialogue realistic? Confusing? Interesting? Where are the problems?

Passive is not a tense. I had an instinct is past tense. An instinct was had by me would be passive voice.

One would lie about having other cases to create the impression one is successful. Who wouldn't want to create that impression?

A detective known to be working on a big case may get numerous anonymous calls, many of which don't pan out. It's probably normal to try to find out what the caller knows by asking lots of questions. You don't want to go out in the middle of nowhere unless you're pretty sure the guy actually knows something.

That said, to me it's not immediately clear that the author is going to give the details of the call. It might be better to dump the opening and start with the call, or just open with: The call came in at ten o'clock. "Chuck Brody here," I said.

It would be more efficient if it went
“Look, you want the information, you do it my way.” He gave me directions to the shack. "Be there in an hour," he said.

This avoids repeating "information you want to have," and eliminates a couple questions by answering them before they're asked.

pacatrue said...

Active and passive. Very confusing sometimes. The difference between the two revolves around who does the action of the sentence and whether or not that actor is the subject or not. In a classic active sentence, the actor is the subject, hence the name 'active'. 'John kicked the ball'. John did the kicking and John is also the subject. In passive, as everyone here likely already knows, the actor is either not the subject or dropped entirely from the sentence. You can say 'the ball was kicked by John' as well as just 'the ball was kicked.' In the former, the person who acts, the kicker, is still there but demoted to a silly little prepositional phrase. In the latter, we have no idea who did the kicking.

The bad reason I think to avoid passive voice is because we are told to avoid it by our middle school teacher and Microsoft Word. An OK reason is that passive voice bugs some readers. A great reason to avoid passive is that if we want to have a book full of action, with interesting people doing interesting things, then we don't want to use a thousand sentences where the actor is demoted to the ends of the sentence or completely dropped. I think of it as a version of "show don't tell". We want to see someone kicking a ball and not just be told that a ball was kicked.

The first sentence in the dialogue is particularly confusing voice-wise. That sentence was 'I had an instinct that I was being set up...." Confusing because there are two clauses here, a main clause and a subordinate. As EE says the main clause 'I had an instinct' is active voice and just past tense. The person who 'had', the actor here, is also the subject, which is what makes it active. In the subordinate clause, 'that I was being set up', we do find passive voice, I believe. The person who is doing the set up is not the subject. That mysterious person is dropped entirely from the clause so we don't know who it is. Could be Gator, EE, Satan, or the dreaded 'someone'.

So ideally the author would just consider the different options and choose the one she or he feels best conveys what they want. The active version, 'I had an instinct someone was setting me up,' has some virtues over the passive subordinate clause, but it has some drawbacks as well. The big thing is that all we've learned about the actor by restoring them as the subject is that they are 'someone' which doesn't tell us anything. You might consider just 'Someone was setting me up' or 'I was being set up.' That gives us the critical information in a more exciting manner. It would, however, drop the MC's reliance on instinct, which is bad if that is a critical fact for the reader to know.

If the story or novel actually opens with this dialogue, it might be good to find more exciting verbs for your first sentence than 'to be' and 'to have', which are the two most common verbs in the language. (Just read this comment and see how many of my sentences used 'to be' as the verb, and then think how horribly boring this comment is.) If the dialogue is not the start, then it's likely not as big a deal.

How's that for beating a stylistic grammar point to death? I should do caveats here. 1) My training on passive versus active is designed to describe voice phenomena in hundreds of languages, not just in English, so it's possible that what I am saying is not what an English Grammar book would say. I haven't read an actual English grammar book in 18 years or so. 2) Perhaps there are modern stylistic things that I just don't know either. 3) I'm also an idiot.

BuffySquirrel said...

A story beginning with a teaser and then going straight into flashback is a pet hate of mine. I want a story to move forwards, not backwards. A good rule of thumb with flashbacks is to use them when they provide information that the reader needs to know at that point. That doesn't seem to be the case here, so the flashback slows the story down instead of propelling it onwards. It's a good thing not to answer the reader's questions up front--wondering what the answers are is what keeps them reading.

Could you find a way to show the reader that the narrator is lying about having several cases, rather than stating it in a dialogue tag? I know EE asked for scenes that were primarily dialogue, but this does seem very bare of narrative.

Twill said...

The scene is duplicative and contradictory.

Paragraph 1 -
A) I had an instinct.
B) I came a secret way.
C) Caller ID was blocked.
D) I didn't think about it.


Either B or D doesn't fit. Then you need a transition before the dialog.

As it is, the first sentence of dialog is in a white room. Is a frog talking to him? Is it a command from a
mangrove tree? Are these some words he is hearing from inside the cabin? No, he has jumped back to remember the phone conversation.

Always keep the reader oriented, especially in a mystery. Make it absolutely clear what is physically happening, and let the motivation and other whys and hows carry the mystery component.

That being said, eight miles from nowhere is a long way to go for an anonymous call. I'd expect most PIs to just say so, in an effort to extract more information.

"Ain't gonna happen. I've been pranked seven times this year, and your story is not good enough. Thank you for calling Chuck Brody Investigations." Click.

Brody knows that the other guy wants him there more than Brody wants to be there. So it's Brody's game. The guy *will* call back.

Robin S. said...

Hi wonderwood,

Mysteries/thrillers are the only genre fiction I read regularly. I really like them.

Using EE's guidelines on critiquing dialogue (Stick with the big picture. Is the dialogue realistic? Confusing? Interesting? Where are the problems?) -

I think your piece reads realistically. It is not confusing.
It is interesting, except I think it may go on a little too long for me, as straight dialogue, without something descriptive in there as well - to hold my attention. I'm wondering if cutting a few lines wouldn't be better.

Obviously, I haven't seen your entire story/novel, so I don't know if this applies to the
big picture. It would also matter if this is the opening, or dialogue pulled from the middle of the work.

Bernita said...

The big problem for me is that it reads rather generic.
Standard scene. The mysterious phone call.Slightly dumb/curious/over-confident PI.
But it's thin. Could stand some backstory, imho.

The author said...

Thanks for all the comments. This piece of dialogue needs some work, which is why I submitted it. EE's comments pretty much nailed the weaknesses and are very helpful. This isn't the opening of the story, it's plucked from the middle of a chapter, so some of the other comments don't apply. Taken in context it's very clear that the MC is reflecting on the phone call he received, and for good reason. I'm not worried much about that. I felt the dialogue was somewhat clipped, as McKoala pointed out. I agree it goes on a bit too long, and EE's suggestions will shorten it. Thanks again, I definitely got my money's worth with the comments!

--Wonderwood

the author said...

Oh, and for anonymous 11:28, I'd probably take your comments more seriously if you didn't think "passive" was a tense. But thanks for picking it apart line by line, there's probably some useful information in there somewhere.

Anonymous said...

If there's room for one more comment: I didn't find this at all confusing, and I like clipped, terse dialogue. The line, ' “Which case? I have several,” I lied.' is efficient and amusing--at least, I interpreted it that way. The conversation does go on too long, though. If you telescoped the last half or third, you'd keep your readers' attention. Terse dialogue should occur in brief conversations. I like this excerpt.

-another anonymous

McKoala said...

I think that if it was a bit shorter then the terse nature of it wouldn't bother me, so if you're trimming then you're probably solving that too.

Robin S. said...

Hi anonymous 11:28 pm.

I was short on time when I read your comments yesterday. I just read them.

You are well and truly an asshole.
An anonymous asshole.

What fun you must have, rubbing all over yourself with those brilliant thought orgasms of yours.

Wonderwood said...

I can't believe no one mentioned the MC's thought about Boston. I thought it would raise a few questions. I guess it's good that it's subtle, but it does have some significance.