One of the most difficult aspects of writing is getting dialogue right. I got a reminder about that this week when I was working on a scene for my novel that happens on the one week anniversary of the death of my main character's brother. The step-dad in my novel is getting his doctorate in psychology so he's asked a friend who's specializing in grief counseling to help the family. My main character, 14 year-old Matt, is having none of it. The scene is important for a couple of reasons - it brings in the idea that anniversaries or significant milestones can trigger feelings of grief and mourning, which is key to understanding why Matt is telling this story in such detail. It also comes at the point where Matt is realizing there was more going on in his brother's life than he was aware of.
Lorelie, the grief counselor, asks the family to talk about the day Denny died, what they were doing, what Denny was doing, as a way to acknowledge the difference between this Saturday and the one on which Denny died. Matt, who has a near-perfect memory, thinks this is stupid and tells her he remembers everything that happened that day.
In my initial draft of the scene, he rattles off the details of the day starting with waking up at 7:08, taking a shower, smelling his step-dad's burnt toast, eating cornflakes from the blue bowl with the big chip out of the rim, watching TV (with specific shows, of course) and then going up to his room to play on his computer, hearing Denny wake up at 12:18, etc. etc. All written out in dialogue:
"I woke up at 7:08. Alan was making breakfast in the kitchen, I could smell the coffee and burnt toast. I got out of bed. I went to the bathroom then took a shower and got dressed. Then I had cornflakes and watched that TV show where they make warriors from different eras fight each other. It was Marines versus Samurai last week. The Marines won. Then I went upstairs..."
The problem with dialogue like this, besides being really, really boring, is that it made Matt sound psychotic and unbelievable. No one, no matter how good a memory he or she has, can really do this unless there is something else going on for them like a form of autism or a condition known as hyperthymesia, which Matt does not have (when I was researching eidetic memory for my novel, I ran across Jill Price who has near perfect recall of every day she's lived for the past twenty nine years. This article from Wired Magazine explores her exceptional memory, but talks about it as a form of OCD, the product of an obsessive recitation of the events that have happened in her life, so she has perfect recall of everything that has happened to her, but not for events that happened in the world around her - good info, but not what I'm exploring in the novel).
The recitation of Matt's day, complete with time stamps, didn't ring true. Plus, there were other things I wanted to be calling the reader's attention to, like Matt realizing, as he's rattling of this list, that something was different about the music Denny was playing when he woke up. It was a country song not heavy metal, and Matt didn't notice it in the moment of experiencing it (again, really important for one of the themes of the novel about memory and reconstruction of experience). To write it in scene, with Matt's dialogue being given to the reader as it's happening, made this moment clunky. I had to do one of these - 'and I noticed, while I was speaking' - types of things, which are awkward. So I knew I had to narrate the dialogue, tell the reader what Matt was saying rather than showing it:
“I remember all of it,” I say, and start to list everything that happened that day. I include the toast Alan burned, the chipped rim on the bowl I ate my corn flakes out of, mom asking for the laundry in my room. Even as I’m burying them in the details of that day, I recognize how much I’m leaving out, like mom throwing up in the bathroom because I’m not supposed to know she’s pregnant yet. I know, already, I won’t tell them about Denny going out the window or the look he gave me when I get to that part of the day, but I don’t know if that’s because I don’t want them to know it or because I want to keep it for myself.
As I’m talking, I also know how crazy it is that I can remember all of this, how it sounds like I'm obsessed, but I can’t stop. Now that I've started, I need to purge myself, to get it all out.
When I get to Denny waking up, I start to shake, my teeth chattering so it’s difficult to form words as I tell them how Denny started playing music right after one, which is how I knew he was awake. But even as I say it, I feel in my gut how something’s off, the music was different.
In the odd way of writing fiction, the narrated scene feels more real even though the reader no longer gets Matt's exact words.
This is one of the most difficult things to balance as a writer: writing something in a less-than-realistic way in order for it to be more true-to-life. It reminds me of a mantra that we used to repeat in a critique group I belonged to many years ago: Just because it really happened, doesn't mean it makes a good story.