This is the third of six observations on writing craft
One of my reader catnips is family. Found family, real family, doesn’t matter. Give me those deep relationships that matter more and can cut deeper than any other relationship. Give me unconditional loyalty and conflicted love.
Something I notice in most of the contest entries I read is that the dialogue between family members or old friends doesn’t have a depth of shared history to it. They don’t sound like people who have known each other forever – they sound like they’ve just met.
Honestly, I understand how this happens, and I feel like it’s even appropriate for a first draft. In a first draft they literally have just met. There were points in late drafts of Untamed when I would suddenly realise whole sections of the siblings’ history with each other was a giant blank to me. They existed only in the bits of their shared past that were recounted or referenced in the story.
It strikes me as a really good place to focus attention, thought and work as a story is developed beyond the first draft.
I think we all know that feeling of being an adult until you go home, and then you’re straight back into a family dynamic that was cemented when you were eight years old and you honestly can’t believe some of the ways you’re behaving. You have a professional job! Where people look up to you! And you’re smart! And mature! Until you’re with your family.
Showing this dynamic is a powerful way to give a sense of history (these people shaped each other) – but it’s also a powerful way to draw your character and make them feel complex. We see them behave differently in different contexts.
When our heroine’s talking to her little brother does she immediately start mothering him and organising things he’s probably entirely capable of doing by himself? Does he enrage her more quickly and effectively than anyone else? Does she not expect him to have a complex inner life? How does she deal with it when she sees signs that he, in fact, does? Do they always joke with each other – a habit that becomes painful when they have something devastating to deal with together?
Dialogue is, I think, the primary place to do this work. The ways family talk to each other – the things they say and don’t say – are going to tell us almost everything we want to know. This goes back to my previous posts on writing for an investigative reader: The inconsistencies between what they say, feel, and don’t say will give the reader room to begin drawing the shape of these relationships.
It’s also a good chance to make the dialogue work harder. It’s a framework for asking: How would this specific character say this thing? What would they say in this circumstance, to this person? If the characters are all in relationship with each other, then they need to speak as their particular self for the dynamics to work.
Another simple but effective tool is thinking about the shorthand they would have developed over years and years. If someone brings up something that happened years ago is it a story they bring up all the time, God, Jenny, we know! Do they all have different positions on what really happened that need to be relitigated every time it comes up? Is it a shared story they can reference with one word in order to illustrate a point? Do they use the name of one particular sister to reference certain behaviour (Don’t Donna me over this!)?
There’s almost no new information you can tell your family – only continuing, evolving conversations, decades long.