3 Steps To Writing Amazing Dialogues

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

I like to see how things are done behind the scenes, so I figured maybe you guys would, too. Here, I set aside one of my early drafts of The Water Castle to show how I evolve my patented dialogs.

(So many people find writing good dialogs to be difficult, so we have discussed it before, here, here and here.)

My characters tend to talk a lot, but they – like yours – have to do things during the conversation or it gets dull fast.

So I laid out the process in a little different manner this time.

First, I think up what these people need to convey in the scene.

Then I try to have each person’s speeches be quick, pithy, and irreverent. Sarcastic. Not mean, because they love each other, but instilled with the barbs that only friends and family can trade.

That's a lot of steps!
That’s a lot of steps!

Second, I add the beats

– the little actions people do while talking, like scratch their head when they’re confused – to make the scene seem real.

THEN it gets edited.

So this is the unedited version. When I reread it, I’ll tweak and trim and hope it comes together, then my amazing critique partners will make suggestions to tighten it even more.

And when humor is required, my characters need to say something VERY unexpected, often very un-PC, and usually very surprising to the other character – and the other character needs to react like it was a surprise, too.

Okay, enough setup. Here goes.

PART ONE: JUST THE WORDS

When I do this, I just bang it out like a script or a play. This is big part of your voice, how you’d say something.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

“Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up. You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God!  No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good. How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

“She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

“She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things.”

“Like everything. I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

“Him, who? Your dad?”

“Yeah. Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“She made decisions she had to make.”

“She made bad ones.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“Sounds like somebody else I know.”

“All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after Steve passed away. Your mom did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

“Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point. You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the sports car’s glistening yellow exterior as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to. Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know. Mom would get mad.”

“Good thing she’s not here. The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the Onstar. So let’s see. Send. Let’s go check.”

The walked to the car.

“Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks. There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.

“I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

I can see this coming together. Maybe.
I can see this coming together. Maybe.

PART TWO: JUST THE BEATS

A list of some things you do when you get in a car to go to the airport.

Get in car

Adjust seat belt

Touch up makeup

Fix hair

Pick at or check your teeth

Start ignition

Start driving

Look in mirror

Look at passenger

Notice other cars

Take the exit into the airport

Pull up to the curb

Get out the bags

Hugs and kisses

Go inside

Drivers pull away from the curb

Take the exit on the interstate

Merge into traffic

Make a few turns

Pull onto your street

Next, after dropping off the traveler

You get in car

Maybe you start the engine

You put the car in drive

You slowly pull on the street

You get some instructions on how to keep the car the proper lane, with a new driver

You speed up or slow down

Usually more issues on keeping car centered, with a new driver

Then making a turn

Turning onto a side street

Speed up

Hold onto dashboard

Grip wheel

Yell at each other

Well, maybe that last one...
It’s easy – just be yourself.

PART THREE: COMBINE AND STIR

Blend. It’s not math, it’s jazz. Put in what feels right from the list and add whatever else comes to mind. Visualize what the people are doing and try to describe it. The list is really a prompt, not something to use verbatim. Stuff for here and there, that you might add. Now it should read more like a story.

Gina took the passenger seat as Sam settled in behind the wheel. “Okay, kid, time to roll. Which way?”

“That way. Airport exit.”

“Aha. I think I missed that one last time.”

Gina buckled her seat belt. “Last time?”

“So tell me what’s up.” Sam put the car into drive and pulled away from the curb. “You seeing any guys? Going steady? Getting laid?”

“Oh, my God! No.”

“Really? I mean, good. That’s good.” She merged the vehicle into the flow of the airport traffic. “How’s your mom been lately? I worry about her.”

Gina stared out the window. Somewhere behind the office buildings and housing developments, the sun dipped into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sending brilliant orange and yellow reflections onto the clouds. “She’s okay. She’s all work, all the time, just like always.”

“What about this weekend. Is she okay? That’s partly why I came.”

“I guess so. She…”

Sam glanced at Gina. “She what?”

“I guess – it’s just not fair sometimes. I mean, how things went.”

“Like what things?”

Gina threw her hands in the air. “Like everything.” She sighed. “I’ve seen pictures from when I was a kid. We had a nice house, we had a pool. She alternates between idolizing him and being mad at him for not being here and our lives turning to shit.”

Sam looked for her exit. “Him, who? Your dad?”

“Now we live in a crappy part of town and- ”

“Hey, your mom made decisions that she had to make.”

Gina continued watching the scenery go by. The houses got smaller and older as they went. “She made bad ones.”

Sam made a turn. “I… I don’t know about that.”

“She’s so boring. She never goes out, except for work. She doesn’t date or anything.”

“That sounds like somebody else I know.”

Gina propped her elbow on the door, resting her chin in her palm. “All she does is work and fuss at me.”

“Well that sucks. Meanwhile, you’re suffering because you lost one parent but you’re pushing the other one away. Look, the big house, the swimming pool, those are just possessions. Money was tight after… your dad passed. Nikki did what she had to do for you and your little brother. He was just a baby.”

“That I practically had to raise myself.”

Sam nodded. “Yeah… so she scaled back. And I admit it, you did have to grow up kinda fast. But money, well, it doesn’t buy happiness.”

“Said the woman who reserved a Corvette for the weekend.”

“Good point.” Sam pulled over. “You drive. You need some practice anyway.”

“Drive what?”

“That.”

The headlights illuminated the glistening yellow exterior of a sports car as it sat in front of the house. Its fiberglass body was so sleek and curvy it looked more like a Transformer or space ship than an automobile.

Gina leaned forward. “I get to drive that?”

“If you want to.” Sam sat back, folding her arms. “Consider it additional punishment for accidentally acting like a regular teenager by skipping school.”

“I don’t know.” Gina’s voice fell to a whisper. “Mom would get mad.”

Sam chuckled. “Good thing she’s not here.” She plucked her phone from her purse. “The text message says the keys are under the driver’s side door mat. And if I reply with my confirmation number, they’ll unlock it with the OnStar. So let’s see.” She pressed a button. “Okay. Let’s go check.”

They walked to the Corvette. Gina stared at it in amazement. “Do I really get to drive this?”

“Only if it unlocks.” Sam stared at the doors, waiting. A short, slightly rumbly noise emanated from the car, along with a flash of the tail lights. She smiled. “There we go. Get in.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Sam opened the passenger door. “Time to loosen up and have fun, sweetie. Be a kid for a while. Break a few rules. And if you drive, I can have a nice glass of merlot with my aged beef, bacon wrapped, cooked medium, filet mignon.”

Gina opened the driver’s door. “I’m under age. That would be illegal.”

“Not as illegal if I drink and drive. C’mon.”

Okay, so now you can read the completed draft and see where it can be cut or tightened.

 

You got this!
You got this!

Remember, I don’t really make a list per se; I do lay out the speech and then go back and add the linear actions that have to happen (you have to get to the airport before you take your suitcase out of the car), but stuff life resting your head on your palm, that needs to come from the feel of the scene. Then I add placeholder beats – you’ll see quite a few sighs – to remind me to have an action there, just not necessarily that action. Or that action conveyed differently.

 

That’s it. The final draft will be completed later, but I wanted to show one method for writing amazing dialogues! Hope it helps!

 

What kinds of methods do YOU use to show good dialogs?

.

Your humble host.
Your humble host.

REBLOG me! Or SHARE this post on Facebook and Twitter! See that “F” and “T” buttons down below? Click them. Put on your glasses. There they are.

Got a QUESTION? ASK IT! Hit the Contact Me button and I’ll see what I can do.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.

5 Easy Tips For Writing GREAT Dialogue

I’m told I write great dialogues.

It’s true. I do.

People love my characters’ conversations.

(That wasn’t always the case. I used to have baskets full of dialog tags – even flowery ones. I was told those would make my editor cry, so I tried hard to stop – but it was a hard habit to break.)

scared%20mom
Yeah, we don’t want that.

It’s easy to write good dialogues, but it takes some practice.

Here is what you need to know to write GREAT dialogues.

TIP #1: Decide what message the dialogue is supposed to convey.

Mary wants to tell her husband she’s pregnant. Joe bought a lottery ticket for Fred – and it won. We’re out of pickles. Whatever the message is, decide that first.

TIP#2: HOW do people converse? Write that. Fast.

I write down what two people would say, and I write it as fast as I can. It’s half jibberish, too, because I’m a lousy typist.

In real life, people cut each other off, or change topics in midstream. That can be helpful, making the characters more realistic – or it can be a disaster, making the author seem like a lunatic.

Worry not. Locking you up as a crazy is much harder than most people think.

There are examples below, but think about WHY the conversation is interesting, or how it can be MORE interesting.

Boring, readers can get from their spouses. They want excitement and drama. Give it to them.

TIP #3: Adding tension adds to, well, everything.

One character might hem and haw. The other might be angry. Use the schizophrenia within you and be two minds, each with their own goal in the conversation. Joe wants to keep the lottery winnings; Fred wants to know if he won. Conflict! Mary’s husband asks for a divorce the day she gets the news about being preggers. Or he’s shipping off to a new promotion and won’t be home much for the next 12 months. Doesn’t matter, any tension adds to the dialogue. 

eevn rough drafts aer hard wrk
eevn rough drafts aer hard wrk

TIP #4: Beat ’em up.

Since you wrote as fast as you can to get the conversation parts down, go back and add in the “beats” – the little actions and other stuff that people do during conversations. Because if I try to do it all at the same time, I usually miss something.

Like the timing or pace of a conversation, which is important. That takes practice, and most of you won’t have that on day 1.

People don’t just sit and talk. They react physically to what they hear. They move while they talk, communicating their thoughts through body language. Readers understand that. Use it.

What does a stressed out lady do when she’s sitting at a table? Tug at her earring? Twist up a napkin? Stuff like that makes for good beats.

Without that, your conversation will be… lacking. Readers understand that, too.

I'm a talentless fraud!
I’m a talentless fraud!

EXAMPLES:

A great technique to create realistic dialog is to make a point and then answer the way people do when they’re arguing.

DIALOGUE ONE – written fast, NO BEATS

“What? No, it isn’t!”

“How would you know?”

“I, well, I wouldn’t. But it sounds wrong.”

“There’s some logic at work. Thanks, Hemingway.”

“Who?”

“Exactly.”

Oh, and add some sarcasm. (That’s just fun.)

Write things the way YOU argue – and do it quickly. Go back and add in the commas and other punctuation afterwards, and make sure the conversation is slightly combative.

Write like that witty person you always wished you could be in an argument. You can – in your writing.

TIP#5: People tease and contradict.

Look at your text messages between you and your friends. Are they all facts or is it fun? Does your Facebook chat contain witty banter?

No? Time to make some new friends!

Yours are kinda dull
Yours are kinda dull.

If yes, then use that as a guide.

Get it down first, then finesse it, soften it, whatever.

And don’t worry about grammar. Why? Because very few people speak with proper grammar.

Sorry, grammar Nazi friends. If necessary, tweak it later.

Well, maybe that last one...
Hi! I’m Tweak!

Now, the conversation above was like 4 lines long, then I went back and added an insult. Cos people do that, even if they like each other. Then I added the last two lines because it can be amusing to see one person start to go off the rails and the other person not bother to reel them back in. It’s fun for me.

But that’s a template you can use!

Emulate good ideas while you develop on your own. (Notice I said emulate, not plagiarize.)

 

DIALOGUE TWO – beats added

“What?” Bill threw his hat down. “No, it isn’t!”

Ted glared at him. “How would you know?”

“I, well, I wouldn’t. But it sounds wrong.”

“There’s some logic at work. Thanks, Hemingway.” He turned and started off.

“Who?”

Ted nodded, not looking back. “Exactly.”

You get the idea.

You may mess up your dialogues until you develop an eye/ear for what works, which requires being a bit of an actor…

Which is a lot of work, actually.

But hey, who said it would be easy? Oh, I did.

Good dialogues do one more thing: they make your characters memorable – which makes your story memorable.

Which makes YOU memorable!

You are SO memorable!
You are SO memorable!

Get a FREE copy of “25 Great eBook Marketing Tips You Wish You Knew,” FIRST SHOT at new stories, and exclusive behind the scenes access! SUBSCRIBE TO MY FREE NEWSLETTER

head shot
Yeah, we don’t want that.

REBLOG me! Or SHARE this post on Facebook and Twitter! See those little buttons down below? Put on your glasses. There they are. Click them. The FOLLOW button is now in the lower right hand corner.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

10 Tips For Writing Believable Drama

cover

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

DRAMA

You’ve probably gotten tired of hearing the phrase “this is tricky” from me, but it’s true. As J. K. Rowling said, you’re going to kill a lot of trees before you get it right. I’ll give you my thoughts below, so as not to spoil too much of what you’re about to read.


Chapter 18 “FINAL”

“Oh my God.” Mallory sunk to the floor, holding the counter top with one hand to keep from falling completely. “Oh my God!”

Her face turned gray.

I rushed past the broken ceramic bits allover the kitchen tiles. “Honey, what’s wrong?” Squatting next to her, I put my hands on her face and looked into her eyes. “What is it? What happened?”

Sparkles barked, on high alert. He ran through the broken pieces of coffee cup. I grabbed him and picked him up.

“No, no, NO!” Mallory screamed, slapping the floor. She was almost gasping now. “I . . .” Then tears the started. She looked up at me with a fearful face.

“What is it?” I pleaded, my heart in my throat. “Tell me.”

“The dream,” she said, shaking her head. “The dream you were talking about, with the lions . . .”

“Oh, that? That was, that . . .” I wanted to sound dismissive. That dream had kept me up all night. I didn’t want it to bother her. I must been telling it too intensely. “That was just—”

“No.” She choked, barely getting her words out. “I had it, too.”

It was like a punch to my gut. I staggered backwards. “Wh- what? What did you . . .”

She sobbed with each syllable. “I had the same dream. The lions. In the woods.” Tears streamed down her face. “Tearing open a white package.” Her voice cracked. “Four of them. It’s the same dream you just described. I’ve been having the same dream!”

I sat, my mouth hanging open, unable to process what I was hearing.

“I’ve been having that same dream for weeks.” Mallory whispered fiercely. “Weeks!”

“You . . .” I swallowed. “You must have told me about it.”

She shook her head slowly, yesterday’s mascara blackening the sides of her face. “No. I never mentioned it. Never.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded, her eyes wide. “I never said a word. On purpose.” She looked down. “I thought I was going crazy.”

“You’re not crazy.” Stepping over the broken mug, I rubbed her shoulders. “If you are, I am. And I’m not.” I whispered, kissing her cheek. “But I wonder what it means. I woke up just when the big lion started ripping—”

“Don’t!” Mallory pushed me away and grabbed her ears. “Don’t say it! I can’t hear it right now! Not with all that’s been going on.”

“About the package?”

“Don’t!”

“Shhh. Okay, okay.” I hugged her tightly, then leaned back to look into her eyes. “Listen, just . . . just tell me what you saw.” I spoke slowly and cautiously, stroking her back. “Let’s move to where there’s less broken stuff.”

I held her arm and guided her to the kitchen table, pulling out a chair. “What was your dream? Can you tell me?”

Eyes squeezed shut, she nodded.

“In my dream, the last lion rips into the package. But it turns out not to be a package at all. Is that your dream, too?” Sliding into the chair across from here, I took a deep breath. “What was in the package in your dream?”

She dabbed at her eyes with the bottom of her shirt. “It wasn’t a package.”

I nodded, waiting.

“It was . . . a baby.” Her head dropped into her arms and she collapsed on the table. “Our baby! It was Sophie! God, what kind of people have dreams about an animal killing their own daughter?” Her shoulders shook with each heavy sob. “My baby was just there and the lions were just attacking her and . . .”

There were no words, just a low, pained moan that squeezed out between the uncontrollable crying.

I took her hand in mine and stroked it. I wasn’t sure what to do. My heart was thumping away inside me, but—

“Mommy?”

We both looked over at the doorway to the kitchen. Sophie stood there with a terrified expression on her face.

“Oh, no!” Mallory leaped up and ran to our daughter, scooping her up.

Sophie’s cheeks glistened with tears. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?”

“No, sweetie,” Mallory lied, hugging our daughter. “Mommy’s not crying. Mommy has a cold.”

“Do you need the nebbalizer?”

“The what, baby?” Mallory sniffled and pushed her hair behind her ears, forcing herself back from the brink.

“When I was sick, I had to take—I have to use the nebbalizer.”

Nebulizer.” Mallory wiped her eyes, smiling. “No, sweetie, mommy doesn’t have to use the nebulizer. Mommy isn’t sick like that.”

“I wasn’t feeling good before,” I said. “And now Mommy isn’t feeling good. So it would really help a lot if you gave her a hug. A really big hug.”

Sophie complied, burying her face in her mother’s shoulder.

They stood, eyes closed, rocking back and forth for a moment, as if they would never let each other go ever again.

“Mmmm! I love you. You’re so sweet.” Mallory cooed to Sophie, kissing her. “I would never let anything happen to you.” Then she turned to me.

“Go!” She ordered. “Go now! See whoever you need to see.” She stood firmly in her kitchen with our daughter in her arms. “You find out whatever you have to find out. We have to figure out how to fix this thing, how to handle this thing, whatever it takes.”

Her voice grew more forceful as she clutched Sophie tighter. “Call the church, get whoever you talked to. Call them right now!”

She’d had enough.

“Call your church guy or find somebody else who can help us.”

Standing amongst the pieces of broken coffee mug, the objective was as clear as the morning light streaming in the windows.

“Find someone who can tell us what the hell is going on.”


 

Original Chapter 18, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

“Oh my God, oh my God!” Michele shouted.

Her face was gray. She gripped the countertop so she would not fall.

“Hey, honey, it’s okay, it’s just a coffee cup…” I said absently as I opened the door to let Buddy in. I picked the dog up so he wouldn’t run through the broken porcelain mug that now lay in pieces on the kitchen floor.

“No, no, NO!” Michele screamed, pounding the counter. I looked at her. She was almost gasping now.

“I…” she began. Then tears the started. She looked up at him with a fearful face.

“What is it?” I pleaded. I was confused, and starting to worry now.

“The dream,” she said. “The dream you were talking about, with the lions…”

“Oh, that?” I interrupted, dismissively. “That was just – ”

“I had it too!” She said.

I was shocked. “What?”

“I had the same dream. The lions. In the woods. Four of them. Ripping open a package.” Tears were now streaming down her face. Her voice broke. “I’ve been having the same dream!”

I stood there, shocked, listening.

“I had the exact same dream!” Michele whispered fiercely. “I’ve been having that same dream for weeks!”

That surprised me. “Well, then, you must have told me about it,” I said, trying to shrug it off and calm her down. “That’s probably what put the dream into my head.”

She shook her head slowly. “No. I never mentioned it. Never.”

“Are you sure?” I was completely baffled.

She nodded, eyes wide. “I never said a word. On purpose.” She looked down. “I thought I was going crazy…”

I stepped over the broken mug to comfort her, rubbing her shoulders. “You’re not crazy. If you are, I am. And I’m not.”

“But I wonder what it means,” I wondered aloud. “I woke up just when the big lion started ripping – ”

“Don’t!” Michele grabbed her ears. “Don’t say it! I can’t hear it right now! Not with all that’s been going on.”

“About the package?”

Don’t!”

“Shhh… Okay, okay,” I said tenderly, holding out his hands, “Listen, just tell me what you saw.” I spoke slowly, cautiously, gently rubbing her back. “Let’s sit down.

I held her arm as we moved to the kitchen table. “What was your dream? Tell me. In my dream, the last lion rips into the package. But it turns out not to be a package at all. Is that your dream, too?”

Eyes squeezed shut, she nodded.

“What was in the package in your dream?” I whispered.

She dabbed at her eyes with the bottom of her shirt. “It wasn’t a package.”

I waited.

“It was… a baby.” She blurted out. Her head dropped into her arms and she collapsed on the table. “Our baby! It was Savvy!”

She began to sob. “My baby was just there and the lions were just attacking her and tearing her to pieces!”

I took her hand into mine, stroking it as she sobbed. I wasn’t sure what the hell to do.

“Mommy?”

We both looked over at the doorway to the kitchen. There stood Savvy with a terrified look on her face.

“Oh, no!” Michele leaped up and ran past the pieces of broken mug, scooping her up. Savvy began to cry.

“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Savvy said. “Are you crying?”

“No, sweetie,” Michele lied, hugging her daughter. “Mommy’s not crying. Mommy has a cold.”

“Do you need the nebbalizer?” Savvy said, mispronouncing it.

“The what, baby?” forcing herself back from the brink.

“When I was sick, I had to take, I have to use the nebbalizer.”

“Nebulizer,” Michele corrected, with a laugh. “No, sweetie, mommy doesn’t have to use the nebulizer.” She wiped her eyes. “Mommy isn’t sick like that.”

I chimed in. “I wasn’t feeling good before, and now Mommy isn’t feeling good… So it would really help a lot if you gave her a big hug. A really big hug.”

Savvy complied. They stood, rocking back and forth for a moment, in a big hug, tears stopped and then flowing again.

“Mmmm, I love you, you’re so sweet,” Michele cooed to Savvy, kissing her. “I would never let anything happen to you.”

Then she turned to me.

“Go!” She ordered. “Go now! See whoever you need to see.” She stood firmly in her kitchen with our daughter in her arms. “Find out whatever you have to find out. We have to figure out how to fix this thing, how to handle this thing, what to do.”

Her voice grew more forceful, as she clutched Savvy tighter. “Call the church, get whoever you talked to. Call him right now!”

She’d had enough.

“Call your church guy or find somebody else who can help us.”

Standing amongst the pieces of broken coffee mug, the morning light streaming in the windows, the objective was obvious.

“Find someone who can tell us what the hell is going on!”


ANALYSIS

Drama Takes Practice 

What I will tell you about writing drama is this:

  • 1. Outline the scene. Sketch out in your head what’s going to happen. The glass is going to break, the wife is going to break down, the husband is going to console her, the daughter is going to walk in.
  • 2. Now, imagine that scene as it plays out on the imaginary TV screen that is your head. The characters are going to see things and say things. But
  • 3. they’re also going to feel things. And whatever it is they would be feeling, simply imagine yourself as one of them hearing it. Be Doug when Mallory says one of her lines. How would he take it and what would he say – that keeps with your outline? 
  • 4. Don’t be afraid to stammer, or to start with one word and then change and and go in a different direction. That’s what people do in real life. Perfect lines of speech make for perfectly dull characters.
  • 5. But don’t go full dialect. A little spice in the dialogue soup  goes a long way. And too much reality talk is bad. Real conversation is horribly cluttered when we write it down verbatim. Be snappy but real sounding.
  • 6. Don’t be afraid to show your characters are confused or afraid, by thinking about what somebody you know’s face looks like when they are confused or sad. Think of the face they give you and described it. 
  • 7. Don’t go crazy with TEARS. Yes, we cry tears. But not every other line. Use tears sparingly, and substitute in other words that also happen when you cry. Sniffling. Can’t get words out. Voice breaks. Wipe your eyes. Mascara cheeks. On and on. Then, tired red eyes.

Then come through one more time with our stagecraft like we talked about in the prior post.

When the daughter walks in, it needs to catch everybody by surprise. Did I do a good job of that?

Finally, after you sketch it out for the bones and go back and add in the physical actions, go back again and fill in the emotions,

  • 8. Read it out loud to yourself and try to imagine it as you are saying it, to see if it makes a cohesive scene. You’ll hear repetitive words and redundant emotions described. Fix em. You’ll look like a genius to your critique partners.
  • 9. Then let it sit for a few days, maybe a week, and look at it again. Odds are you’ll seen some things to change. Change them.

It’s an art not a science, and people have been doing drama for thousands of years. There’s a reason. Audiences like drama. Don’t be afraid to go there. If you get it wrong, nobody reaches through the Internet and punches you in the nose. If you get it right…

  • 10. If you can  bold and brave and put it out there as raw and real as you can make it, you will be rewarded.

Dig deep inside the pain we’ve all felt and paint it onto the page.

Now:

head shot

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Writing Dreams Scenes (That Don’t Make Readers’ Eyes Roll)

cover

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

DREAMS

By their very nature there are no rules to dreams, so there can’t be a lot of rules to writing dream sequences – except that they not suck.

And most dream scenes suck.

Why? Because we try to be all ethereal, defying logic and physics in our dream scenes. Which is totally fine, because dreams do that. But as readers, we need rules in stories to suspend our disbelief. Gravity has to work unless you create a basis for it to not work. Your dining room table doesn’t float away and it doesn’t turn into a dragon – unless those are the rules you created in the world you created.

It’s hard to do, and most new writers don’t do it well.

The literary exceptions are rare and notable, whereas in movies and TV, it’s much easier. They give us visual clues to let us know we are heading into a dream sequence, like a wavy TV screen or putting a fog transition in.

Or they don’t, and they scare the heck out of us when the dream is a dream inside a dream, like a character dreaming who wakes up in the dream, but then wakes up for real – like American Werewolf In London.

See? It’s confusing just to write that.

My approach is to ease into it and let the reader know it’s a dream. Then I try to tell the story as best as I can for that scene, acting as if it’s real. Then I let the reader know dream time is over with an announcement like: I woke up.

Simple, effective, and best of all, understandable by your reader. Probably.

Let’s see how I did

 


Chapter 17 “FINAL”

By 3am, I was still wide awake but the cold sweat had faded.

I silently cursed the churrasco and salsa, but that wasn’t the reason. After changing out of my drenched t-shirt, I dug through the pantry to find some Tums. Plopping down on the living room couch, I sorted my thoughts in the darkness and tried to put the lion dream behind me.

There wasn’t much point in going back to the church. They weren’t going to advance the ball. Father Frank had gotten my wheels turning—he seemed to think I wasn’t crazy, and that was a pretty good start—but a conventional church approach was never going to be the right way to go. Not for our situation.

What did I really know about whatever this was, anyway? Somehow, I had to find someone to help me connect the dots—if the dots were supposed to be connected. Father Frank seemed to think they were.

Maybe the church doesn’t go into stuff like this. Maybe that stuff like exorcism is just for the movies. Maybe I should try to find some other options, and then go back and give the church another shot if those didn’t pan out.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, rubbing my stomach. The lion dream really shook me up. Who dreams about being chased by lions, anyway? I mean, once they’re older than five?

It was just a stress dream. I used to have them all the time back when I worked for this jerk of a boss, in a really crappy job. Waking up and going to that job was a real downer. With a psycho tyrant manager whose goal was to find for ways to ruin everybody’s day, I constantly felt like I was about to lose my job. It was an ugly time.

I kept having what I called stress dreams. I had the same problem years before, when I worked for a different psycho tyrant boss, in a different job. There aren’t a lot of psychos out there, but I guess they all find their way to middle management.

The stress dreams were awful things, making me toss and turn all night, then wake up more tired than when I went to bed. They made no logical sense as far as I could tell.

I’d be in a room full of copiers, twenty or thirty of them, all whirring and popping and cranking out some important report. One by one, each of the copiers would jam or otherwise fail in some way. Maybe they ran out of paper; maybe the feeder got stuck. It was completely random, but in the dream it was my responsibility to keep that report cranking out, so I’d be running from machine to machine, hurrying to see what was wrong. Right about the time I’d get one copier working, another one would stop. Or two. And all the while, the stress was building and building. Keep the machines running! Keep them running!

It was the craziest thing, making me toss and turn for hours until I woke myself up. Then I’d sit there with a headache, dreading going back to sleep and hating the thought of staying awake. I’d end up exhausted, and if I went back to sleep, the stress dream would start all over again.

I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t care. Eventually I got a new boss and the stress dreams stopped. Same job, different boss, no more crazy dreams.

That’s not to say I never had a nightmare after that. I’m sure I did. Not more than any other person, but they would happen occasionally. I couldn’t think of the last time I had a nightmare. Probably a year ago, maybe longer.

Until the lion dream started happening.

It didn’t make sense, but what nightmare does? I was walking down the street and when I looked up, I was in a forest. I glanced around but couldn’t see a way out. However I got there, I couldn’t see anything but trees and the tall brown grass of autumn all around me. The sun was high in the sky, so I wasn’t worried about being lost in the dark, I was just confused about how I ended up there.

In the distance I glimpsed an opening in the trees. A big, horseshoe-shaped clearing with a large tree stump off to one side.

As I approached the clearing, the grass by the far edge moved. Not like the wind had blown it, but together, in a group, like the grass there was all connected. Then I saw eyes.

I stopped in my tracks. The surreal aura of a dream faded and the grip of real fear spread through me. The big, yellow eyes stared at me, watching. Between the long brown blades of grass, I made out the snout and ears, then the massive ring of fur around the animal’s enormous head.

I held my breath. A lion, just sitting there. I might have walked right into him. I stood perfectly still, knowing if I tried to run it would trigger his chase instinct and he would attack. So I just stood there, very still. The only sound in the woods is the chattering or small birds overhead, oblivious to the scene unfolding below.

I stared at the lion. He just stared right back at me.

I had no idea what to do. Sweat formed on my forehead, my heart pounding. I could never outrun a lion, and they are better climbers than I’d ever be.

The lion’s foot rested on something, a white lump in the grass. He probably wanted to keep that, whatever it was, and he needed to know I was not there to take it from him. His unblinking yellow eyes stayed fixed on me, telling me all I needed to know.

Twigs snapped behind him as something else approached. It moved through the grass, slinking between the trees. Another lion, even bigger than the first one, emerged from the woods. It nosed the first one away and off the package.

The newcomer sniffed the bundle, pawing at it. As he did, more noise reached me—from behind. The crunching of heavy feet, stalking along the leaves and sticks of forest floor. An icy wave shot through me, causing the hairs on my neck to stand. I didn’t move, didn’t flinch, didn’t breathe. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lion in front of me, but I had to know what was behind me.

Before I could look, there it was.

A third lion brushed right past me. Little flies buzzed around his ears and a pungent smell of musk filled the air. The lion’s large muscles flexed under his brown coat, his claws retracted but visible with every step. He ignored me, striding straight to the white bundle the other lions had toyed with.

The growl filled the woods, a deep, guttural roar from the gaping jaws of the third lion, like a horrible, rumbling moan from deep inside a cave.

He brandished his long white fangs. In a flash, the two large beasts exchanged swipes, standing and grappling, but only for a moment. The bigger of the two, the newest arrival, staked out his domain, forcing the loser away.  The third lion now stood over the little white bundle, sniffing at its cloth wrapping and pawing at whatever was inside.

I stood there, unable to move.

A fourth lion crashed through the trees. I flinched, stepping back. He opened his massive jaws and growled, a hellish, deafening groan that caused my insides to quiver. The other lions disappeared into the brush. The chattering noise of the woods became completely silent as the echo of the fourth lion’s roar rolled like distant thunder through the trees. I could hear nothing but my own heartbeat, completely deaf to everything else.

The lion stood alone now over his prize, confident and focused, not even glancing in my direction.

I couldn’t move my legs. My eyes were glued on the animal before me. With a quick swipe of its massive paw, the lion laid open the bundle, lowering his enormous head and snapping up the contents. Meat. He ripped into it with his long teeth and claws, smearing his face red as he pulled it apart. Throwing back his head, he opened his enormous mouth, emitting a growl I felt but didn’t hear. Overhead, birds scattered from their trees. Everything within earshot knew he was the victorious one. With a quick flip of his head, the next mouthful slid down his throat.

He paused, eyeing me, causing a painful shockwave of adrenaline to rip through me. I swallowed, slowly stretching my fingers to the nearest tree for support. The lion lowered his head for another bite.

On tiptoes, I strained to see what he was eating. Meat, of some sort, but what? It was small, compared to him, but obscured by the grass.

The beast drew his head up, part of his dinner dangling from the side of his mouth. Then, in horror, I could see.

It was a small arm. A tiny arm with a bloody string of tendons hanging from the lion’s mouth.

My hearing returned for the piercing, high-pitched cry.

It was a child. A toddler, being eaten alive.

My stomach clutched. I looked away to avoid to not see the feet kicking as the lion’s massive paw pressed downward on the body while his huge teeth ripped the child apart. I didn’t want to watch. I didn’t want to know.

But I did know.

Forcing myself awake, I bolted upright on the couch, panting like I’d just run a mile. I was covered in sweat again and shaking, my chest pounding and my pulse throbbing in my ears.

I raced up the stairs to my daughter’s room and threw open the door.

Holding my breath, I looked to her bed.

She was fine. She was right there, illuminated by her princess night light and curled up among her stuffed animals and Winnie The Pooh blanket.

I knew she would be, but I had to look anyway. Closing my eyes, I held the door frame and let my head fall onto my arm, a huge sigh filling me, washing away my panic.

I knew.

In the dream, three lions came to attack my daughter, each one bigger than the last. The attacks got worse each time, but damage was just scratches until the fourth lion showed up. He was certainly the one who would kill her.

I wiped my eyes and shook my head, going back down to the couch and turning on the TV. I needed a distraction to help my mind focus on anything other than the terrible dream. On the 24-hour weather channel, the forecasters debated about when they would upgrade the tropical storm to a low-level hurricane.

Terrific. I grabbed the remote.

Clint Eastwood, as a young cowboy with no name, finally took my thoughts from lion dream, letting my heart settle back in my chest and my breathing to return to normal. I calmed down. It was only a dream, after all.

After a long while, my eyes wouldn’t stay open. In a semi-asleep state, I reached over and clicked the TV remote. The set went black and I drifted off to sleep. The lions did not return.

In the morning, I was awakened on the couch by our dog jumping on me. That meant Mallory was up. Sparkles wouldn’t leave her side and come downstairs if she was still sleeping.

I guess I got enough sleep. Plodding to the back door, I let Sparkles outside and then returned to straighten up the couch.

“Good morning.” Mallory wiped the sleep from her eyes as she headed toward the coffee pot. Hopefully she slept better than I did.

“Good morning, honey. I let Sparkles out.”

She peered at the throw pillows on the floor. “Did you sleep down here all night?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“You look like you didn’t sleep at all.” Disappearing into the pantry, Mallory emerged and dug through the cupboard until she produced her favorite coffee mug—the one with the Christmas picture of her and Sophie on it.

Pre-coffee Mallory might hear me talking, but the words wouldn’t sink in right away. She idly placed her red mug under the coffee maker and waited patiently for it to fill.

I finished pushing the sofa cushions back into place as the aroma of coffee wafted over me. I stretched my arms. My back was going to exact revenge all day for sleeping on the couch. “I had a bad dream last night. Too much churrasco.”

Mallory snorted. “You always say that.”

“It’s always true.” I smiled at her. “It’s your fault. You’re too good of a cook.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyway, I was tossing and turning, having a stress dream.” Placing my hands on my shoulders, I twisted a few times to work the kinks out of my spine. I figured I should tell Mallory about my nightmare so she didn’t worry that I was becoming an insomniac for no reason. “It was terrible. I kept having the same dream over and over.”

Sparkles’ face finally reappeared at the back door. I went over to let him in. “I was walking down the street—our street, I guess—and all of a sudden I was in a forest. Then, one by one, these four big lions appeared, and—”

Crash!

I whipped around to see shattered pieces of the Christmas mug scattering all over the kitchen floor.

White faced, Mallory gripped the counter, gasping. She stared at me with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open as all the blood drained out of her face.


 

Original Chapter 17, An Angel On Her Shoulder

It was 3am, I was wide awake, and I was drenched in a cold sweat.

I think I may have been a little stressed out. About several things.

The middle of the night isn’t exactly when I do my best thinking, but churrasco and salsa had seen fit to direct me otherwise. After chewing some Tums, I went back and sat on the couch in the darkness, thinking. The sweat from the nightmare had subsided.

I don’t think there was much point in going back to the church. They weren’t going to advance the ball. Father Frank had gotten my wheels turning – hell, he seemed to not think I was crazy; that was a pretty good start! But it didn’t seem like the church was the right way to go. Not for this.

What did I know, anyway? Not much. Not yet. There wasn’t much to go on, so there wasn’t much for them to do. Somehow, I had to find someone to help me connect the dots – if the dots were supposed to be connected. Father Frank seemed to think they were. Maybe the church doesn’t go into stuff like this. Maybe that stuff like exorcism is just for the movies. Maybe I should try to find some other options, and then go back and give the church another shot if those don’t pan out.

Then there was the dream. The nightmare, really. Lions, for Pete’s sake. Who dreams about being chased by lions? I mean, once they’re older than five?

It was a stress dream. I used to have them all the time back when I worked for this real a-hole boss, in a really crappy job I had. That was back in the days when waking up and going to work was a real downer. The job just sucked, because the boss was a psycho tyrant who seemed to just look for ways to ruin your day. I was about to be awarded the President’s Circle at that company but I felt like I was about to lose my job. It was an ugly time.

I kept having what I called stress dreams. I had the same problem years before, when I worked for a different psycho tyrant boss, in a different job. There aren’t a lot of psychos out there, but I guess enough of them work their way to middle management so they can terrorize their employees instead of committing mass murder or something. When they were kids, they probably wanted to be bullies when they grew up.

The stress dreams were crazy things, making you toss and turn all night, and wake up more tired than when you went to bed. They made no logical sense in any way, shape or form, as far as I could tell. I was a sales manager in a branch office; I had a dozen salespeople under me, and the psycho tyrant over me. I worked with salespeople all day: recruiting them, going on sales calls with them, teaching them how to be successful. It was a great job, all except for the psycho tyrant, who seemed to look for ways to mess with me each day.

Anyway, working with copier machines was not part of the job. I mean, I had to make a copy of something now and then, like anybody else in an office would, but working with copiers, or fixing them, or doing lots of copies on them, that was not even remotely part of my job.

So it was bizarre to me when, at night, I would be tossing and turning, dreaming about copiers. In the dreams, I would be in a room full of copiers. There were twenty or thirty of them, and they were all whirring and popping and cranking out some sort of important report. One by one, each of them would jam or otherwise fail in some way. Maybe they ran out of paper; maybe the feeder got stuck. It was totally random. One in the front would jam, and then one in the back would stop for some other reason. Then another one would go down. The machines were constantly stopping and breaking, and in the dream it was my responsibility to keep all of them cranking out that report. I’d be running from machine to machine, hurrying to see what was wrong and how to fix it. Right about the time I’d get one working, another one would stop. Or two. And all the while, the stress was building and building. Keep the machines running! Keep them running!

It was the craziest thing. I’d toss and turn for hours until I woke myself up. Then I’d sit there in a cold sweat, and maybe a headache, dreading going back to sleep and hating the thought of staying awake. I’d end up exhausted. And if I went back to sleep, the stress dream would start all over again.

I don’t know what it meant and I don’t care. I got a new boss and miraculously, the stress dreams stopped. The new boss liked me and we got along really well. Same job, different boss, no more crazy dreams.

That’s not to say I never had a bad dream after that; I did. Not more than any other person, I’m sure, but it would happen. But not often. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a nightmare. Probably less than once a year, if that.

So when the lion dream started happening, it made me take notice.

It didn’t make sense at first. I mean, what nightmare does? But I was just walking down the street by myself somewhere, and I looked up and I was in a forest. Well, I guess it was a jungle if there were lions in it, but the trees looked like the oak trees in my front yard, so I thought it was a forest. I was walking along a sidewalk on a sunny day, and then I looked up and I was in the middle of a forest full of trees.

I looked around, and I couldn’t see my way back out. However I got there, I couldn’t see anything but trees all around me now. When I looked up, I could see that the sun was still out, so I wasn’t worried about being lost in the dark or anything; I was just confused about how I ended up there.

Then I can see there’s an opening in the trees. A big, horseshoe shaped clearing with a tree stump off to one side.

I go and look, and suddenly I can see a lion! They blend in, so I didn’t notice him at first. He was just standing there. I might have walked right into him. But he had my attention now! I looked at him, and he looked right back at me. But he wasn’t coming after me. I stood still, because I thought if I tried to run, it would trigger his chase instinct, and he would run after me and attack me. So I just stood there, very still, watching him.

He doesn’t come after me. He has his foot on something that he wants to keep, and he looks at me as if I would try to come and take it. He is having none of that. That, it is obvious, is something he will attack me over. His big yellow eyes tell me all I need to know: stay back.

Then, noises. Some twigs cracking under foot, as something else walks up behind the big lion. I see something moving through the trees. It is another lion, even bigger than the first one. The second one kind of pushes the first one away and off the package he was keeping. But the second lion starts to sniff and claw at the package. As he does, there is more noise. This time, it’s behind me. Something is coming through the woods, in my direction. I freeze. I don’t want to take my eyes off the lion in front of me, but I need to know what’s behind me so I don’t get attacked. But before I can look, there it is.

A third lion approaches, walking right past me. I am standing so still, his side actually brushes my hand as he walks up, like a house cat would. I feel his fur under my fingers, and hear little flies buzzing on him. I notice his smell. But he ignores me; his focus is all on the package that the second lion has toyed with. It’s like a bundle. A sheet, or something.

The two large beasts grapple for a moment, before the newest arrival scares the other one off. The third lion is now standing over the package. He scratches at it, pawing at whatever’s inside.

I have no idea what to do. I just stand there.

Then, in a sudden leap, a fourth lion appears. He growls loudly and the other lions disappear into the brush. The chattering noise of the woods becomes completely silent as the echo of his roar fades. He stands alone now over his prize. I am frozen with fear. I can’t move my legs. My eyes are glued on this remaining lion. With a quick swipe of massive white paw, he lays open the package. Before I can see what it is, he lowers his enormous head into the package and snaps back up with the contents. It is meat. He easily tears at it with his long teeth and claws, pulling it apart and smearing his mouth red in the process. He growls happily, letting anything within earshot know that he is the victorious one. The next mouthful goes down his throat in an instant.

He pauses for a moment, looking at me with a menacing glare before lowering his head again for another bite. I strain to see what he’s eating.

Meat, of some sort. But what?

It’s small, compared to him, whatever it is. I see some red…

He draws his head up. Something hangs out of his mouth.

It is an arm. There is a string of tendons attached to some torn meat.

Then a piercing cry.

It is a child.

Horrified, I look away because I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know.

But I do know.

It’s my daughter.

I forced myself awake, bolting upright on the couch. I’m panting like I just ran a mile. I am sweating and shaking. My chest is pounding.

I run to my daughter’s room and open the door. It’s quiet. She is right there, sleeping peacefully, not a care in the world. Night light, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals.

In the dream, three lions came to attack her and each one was bigger than the last. The attack got worse each time, but damage was just scratches until the fourth lion showed up. He was certainly the one who would kill her.

Fuck, I am losing it.

I wipe my eyes with my hands and I shake my head. I go back down to the couch and turn on the TV so I can have some sort of distraction, something that will make my mind focus on anything other than the terrible dream. On the 24 hour news channel, the weather man is debating about when they will upgrade the tropical storm to a low-level hurricane. Terrific. I grab the remote. Maybe a late night movie…

It works. It distracts me from the dream, and I calm down. It was only a dream, after all…

After a long while, I drift off. The lions do not return.  In a semi-asleep state, bouncing back and forth between conscious and unconscious, I reach over and click the TV remote. The set goes black, and I drift off to sleep.

In the morning, I am awakened on the couch by our dog Buddy jumping on me. He wants to go out; that means Michele is up. He wouldn’t leave her side and come downstairs if she was still sleeping.

I guess I got enough sleep. I let Buddy outside and started straightening up the couch.

“Good morning,” my wife says, wiping the sleep from her eyes. Hopefully she slept better than I did.

“Good morning, honey,” I reply. “I let Buddy out.”

“Okay. Thanks.” She looks over to where I am putting the throw pillows back on the couch. “Did you sleep down here all night?”

“Pretty much. I slept rotten, though.”

“I bet,” she replied. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all.”

She worries when that happens. I don’t think it happens much, but she would disagree. But then, she has always needed a lot more sleep than me, so it’s not a fair comparison.

Michele disappeared into the pantry for her coffee, then started digging through the cupboard for her favorite coffee mug. The one with the Christmas picture of her and Savvy on it.

“I was having some really bad dreams,” I said. “Crazy stuff.”

Pre-coffee, Michele might hear a lot, but it doesn’t all sink in. She idly hugged her green and red mug while staring patiently at the coffee maker, waiting for it to gurgle.

I pushed the couch cushions back into place and started folding the green blanket that someone had generously draped over me in the night. “Yeah, it was some wild stuff. Too much churrasco.”

“You always say that.”

“It’s always true,” I said, looking over at her. “You’re too good of a cook.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyway, I was tossing and turning, having a stress dream,” I finished folding the blanket and it in the cabinet. “I was in a forest and there were these lions and they kept coming, one after the other. Can you believe it? Lions!”

Still clutching her mug, Michele had turned to look at me, but I my back was to her.

Buddy was taking his time outside, so I sat down and leaned back on the couch. Closing my eyes for a moment felt good. Maybe I needed some more sleep after all. I wanted to finish telling Michele about my dream. I didn’t want her to worry that I was becoming an insomniac for no reason; it was just too much steak.

“It was terrible. I kept seeing these lions coming, one after another, and they were ripping at this package.” Buddy’s face finally reappeared at the back door.

“Anyway, a fourth lion come in and rips open the package,” I continued, getting up to let the dog back in. “And that was the really scary part. He rips it open and it isn’t a package at all. It’s -”

Crash!

I turned around to see the shattered pieces of the Christmas mug all over the kitchen floor.

Then I looked up at Michele.

She was gripping the counter, white as a sheet with fear. All the blood had drained out of her face.


ANALYSIS

Aside from what we already said about dream sequences being horrible in general, we did some neat things here.

That’s how I get you. By solving more than one problem at once.

Did you see how in the original version I was telling you a lot of things? I was saying people were scared.

In the second version, the final version, I was physically describing the things that were happening to let the reader conclude the character was scared.

That tends to make for a more enjoyable reading experience.

Your reader doesn’t want to watch from afar as the roller coaster goes up and down, they want to be ON the roller coaster, gripping the bar with both hands and feeling the wind pull at their hair as their stomach drops when the car goes screaming down the hill.

So, you know –  do that for them.

Can You Words?

Also, and we touched on this before, word choice matters. In my example here of the roller coaster, say “screaming down the hill” not “going down the hill.” Plunging and racing are good, but if your bold authorness allows you, use screaming. It’s what’s happening and it’s poetic license if you don’t do it too much. Kinda purple prose stuff.

Also also, I took out the swear words, Father Frank is probably the only place this story will use bad words.

Also also also, we did a little bit of, for lack of better phrasing, stagecraft.

Timing Is Everything. Dun Dun Dunnn!

In the original, we had all just gone through the dream with Doug. The only person who didn’t know was Mallory, so if he told his wife, we knew what he was going to say. No need to repeat. BUT.

We wanted to make sure we put a lot of the build up before the revelation.

In other words, we had to set the stage with her getting coffee and waiting for the coffee and getting her mug – all that had happened while he was starting to tell her what had happened.

SPOILER ALERT

See, as soon as Mallory hears the word “lion,” she reacts –  because she’s been having the same dream. So that word LION has to wait, and her reaction has to it has to be swift and severe.

The punchline, so to speak, in the Final version came after a little bit of the build up and right before her dramatic reaction. In the Original, we buried it in there, but she would have reacted right away. It wasn’t set up for the dramatic reveal.

It’s simple when you see them side-by-side but it’s not obvious when you’re writing it the first time. Obviously, it wasn’t when I did it!

If you thought it was effective, make a note. When you see other authors do things like that, highlight it.  Write it down. Take a picture of it.

Emulate what works and then put it in your own words.

Your writing will be better for it

Now:

head shot
your humble host

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Writing Effective Storytelling Sidebars

cover

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 31 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and see them side by side and see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

SIDEBARS (also known Side Roads, or as, wait, what just happened?)

If your reader trusts you – and after 15 chapters they do or they would have bailed out a long time ago – you can do a lot of things. You have to be telling a good story, but you can take occasional trips down the side roads and explore the scenery there for a while. The goal of a side road or sidebar is to tell the reader more about a character or a motive.

Here, we have Doug awake in the middle of the night reading a letter he wrote a long time ago.

At this point, doing this is a bit of a risk, but great writing isn’t safe.

Does this slow the pace of the story? Do we lose the reader’s interest?

It’s risky because we have already jumped around in this story, but so far I think all the readers can keep all the story lines straight.

  • We have the main story about Doug and his family today, dealing with a possible possession of their daughter.
  • We have the story of Doug (Dougie) and Jimmy from his Doug’s youth.
  • We saw a few other sideline stories that are really Doug’s memories, but they are nonetheless still stories inside the main story. Mrs. Billen, and now this letter to Carl.
  • It’s safe to assume that 15 chapters in, and with 45 chapters overall, there may be a few more of these sidebars in the remaining 30 or so chapters.

Whether they are a flashback or just an interesting scene, they are happening. So under the big umbrella of Doug’s present day journey, we have lots of little stories happening – and each has their own obstacles. (For example, Doug went to the church, but he had to overcome the obstacle of not having an appointment. That’s a tiny rock to throw at a character already up a tree, but it was fun to watch him interact with the receptionist.)

I think readers can pay attention to all those things and follow them effectively.

However

Sometimes you go to far.

Here we have 1000 or so words that might not fit extremely effectively at this point in the story. Read it and see for yourself.


Chapter 16

 

Dear Carl,

I had prepared for the death of my mother for years.

I was an adult when mom died, and afterward there were many things that reminded me of her that I could have never predicted. They came out of nowhere. My wife and I went to the Florida state fair and they had a taffy pulling machine. Mom always loved salt water taffy, and whenever we were at a fair in Indiana when I was a kid, she would always get some. My first, immediate thought when I saw the taffy machine was, I should get a box and send it to mom. My second thought was, I can’t because she’s gone. I can never send her any gift, ever again.

Be strong for your daughter. Losing her mother at the young age of 12 will be something that may cause unexpected sadness at strange times.

Your daughter will be surprised by things like that and how they affect her, so let her know that she will have these thoughts because she really cared for her mom. I believe the amount of pain we feel at a loved one’s passing is a testament to how much we loved them.

I can tell you this: when my mother died, she had been sick for quite a while—years in fact—and we all knew she didn’t have a lot of time left. Mallory and I visited, I got to see Mom one last time, and a few weeks later she was gone.

I knew it was coming and I expected it. I didn’t cry when I visited her in the hospital, not when I got the news in the middle of the night, nor at the visitation.

But when I was at her funeral mass, in the church I grew up in, where I sat, Sunday after Sunday, next to her when I was a child . . . Now, in front of the altar was her coffin, cold and alone. When they started playing her favorite church song, the one she loved to sing at Mass, I cried like a baby.

I sobbed uncontrollably and unashamedly.

I wept in front of my family, my friends, and my God.

My young wife, sitting next to me, was unsure of what to do except hand me tissue after tissue and hold my hand.

I was overwhelmed. My mother was gone.

I could not stop the tears, and I didn’t want to.

I loved my mother and the world is not a better place without her in it, and on that day at that moment is when it hit me, even though I thought I was prepared and I knew it was coming and I thought I was handling it well.

I believe I honored my mother that day, and I will tell you, I doubt anybody who saw me crying thought any less of me for it.

Even though I had moved away from home many years before, and I rarely visited or even called to chat, there was something nice about knowing I could. Now, even that was gone.

I would never again be able to buy Mom her salt water taffy at the fair. I couldn’t spontaneously call her up at Christmas just to playfully ask the names of the Three Kings. I couldn’t pop in for a quick weekend visit on my way to some fun, other place.

I couldn’t do any of those things, ever again.

So when I say to expect the unexpected from your emotions, that is what I mean. Ultimately, you will all be fine because you have a strong family and a great loving network. The emotions you or your daughter feel during this time are valid, so don’t feel bad about having them—any of them.

At the first Christmas after my mom had died, we had our traditional family gathering. Before we all opened our presents, my brother offered a toast to those who we loved but who are no longer with us. It let everybody address the elephant in the room, have that emotion, and then move on to enjoy the rest of the day. It was a smart move, and it helped a lot.

Just like people feel guilty about the joy of having a new baby when another close relative’s parent is dying of cancer, grief and joy are both allowed in the same room.

So just do what you have to do. Expect the unexpected from your emotions, and if I can help in any way, let me know.

Our hearts are with all of you in this difficult time.

Try to enjoy Thanksgiving, my friend!

Doug

 

With trembling hands, I folded the yellowed photocopy of the letter and placed it back in my desk drawer. I turned off the light and sat in the darkness, leaning back in my chair as the growing winds from the tropical storm howled outside.

Few people would make a copy of a handwritten letter they were sending to a friend, but when I finished this one I realized I’d written it to Carl as much as I’d written it to myself. The letter was like a solemn vow of some sort. Reading it was a kind of prayer.

Someone who had put so much effort into shaping me as a person, who went to every swim meet and soccer game, who taught me about so many things . . . it seemed a waste that my mother’s influence would never pass to her granddaughter. Mom drilled me incessantly with multiplication flash cards so I would learn my “times tables,” volunteered at our school and at the YMCA, taught me—through her actions—about our role in the real world and not just book stuff like the nuns at school. What a huge benefit to my daughter, to have had that resource, but they would never meet.

And yet, they had a commonality.

I saw it in the delivery room when Sophie was born. The first time I gazed upon my newborn daughter, I remember thinking that she had the combination of a wrinkly old man’s face and my mother’s, a round face with dimples and bright eyes. It only lasted for a moment. When I looked again, it was gone, but it was there.

My wife didn’t care much for that description—wrinkly old man—but all babies are kind of wrinkly and odd-looking when they’re first born. Babies look a lot more presentable after the nurses clean them up, weigh them and wrap them in the soft white hospital blankets, and put the little hat on them.

Newborn baby gets a routine doctor’s exam and get discharged, but that’s not how it went for us. On the day of our planned release, to go home with our addition to the family, our examining doctor felt there was something not quite right as he pressed the stethoscope to my daughter’s chest. He said he heard something that bothered him. That bothered me.

Tests confirmed his uncanny suspicion. They found a rare and potentially fatal heart condition, one that no doctor could ever have heard through a stethoscope—and yet this doctor did just that. And off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit we all went.

We watched, with the empty feeling of helplessness eating away at our insides, as our daughter, just 24 hours old, clung to life. And we and the parents of the other babies in the NICU wept and prayed. In the midst of all that, I felt a something I had not felt before. At a time when I should have been scared, I grew to feel strangely calm.

My dad, a physician, said it was a miracle. He said that there must have been an angel on the examining doctor’s shoulder that day, whispering in his ear. If we had taken my daughter home, she might have died with no warning, like so many others with the condition.

We were lucky. There was an angel on the doctor’s shoulder that day. Or one on my daughter’s.

I was unprepared for the emotions I would suddenly have from out of nowhere after the death of my mother, so I understood when people said they could no longer drive by a certain intersection where their kid had crashed a car and almost died. It changes you, like the NICU changed us.

The street light outside my window illuminated the falling rain. The drops came down almost horizontally in the whipping winds of the storm.

For a long time, a word or phrase that someone would innocently say to me, or something they’d do in passing, would instantly plunge me back into that cold, dark church in Indiana where I would again find myself staring at a shining coffin in the dim glow of candles. The box that now held my mother for eternity.

I’m not sure I told my mom enough that I loved her. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m sure I didn’t. I showed it at her funeral, and I could write about it in a letter to my friend, but I doubt I did enough to show her while she was alive. Women are different that way. I see that now, watching my wife with our daughter. A mother always wants another kiss or hug. She can’t hear “I love you” enough from her child. I won’t make the same mistake with my daughter that I made with my mom. I tell Sophie that I love her all the time.

It would fall to me, then, to teach her the good things about my mother. Sure, there were many things to be learned from Mallory’s side of the family. They are good and decent folks. Sophie loves them and we visit their farm all the time. She helps throw old bread to the cows and holds the basket when they collect chicken eggs from the coop. At three years old she was catching her own catfish with Mallory’s father in the pond.

Sophie will build her own fond memories of childhood, and she will build her strengths and weaknesses as she does. I’m not sure how you could teach your daughter about her other grandmother anyway, especially when she can’t see it for herself. I’m not sure I would even know how to teach her, or whether I could if I did know how. And that seems like kind of a waste.

I guess that’s why I hang onto the copy of that letter. To help show her one day.

But that’s not the only reason I keep it.

 


Original Chapter 16, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

Dear Carl,

 

I had prepared for the death of my mother for years.

 

I was an adult when mom died, and afterward there were many things that reminded me of her that I could have never predicted. They came out of nowhere. My wife and I went to the Florida State fair and they had a taffy pulling machine. Mom always loved salt water taffy, and whenever we were at a fair in Ohio when I was a kid, she would always get some. My first, immediate thought when I saw the taffy machine was, I should get a box and send it to mom. Then my second thought was, I can’t because she’s gone. I can never send her any gift, ever again.

 

Be strong for your daughter. Losing her mom at the young age of 12 will be something that may cause unexpected sadness at strange times.

 

Your daughter will be surprised by things like that and how they affect her, so let her know that she will have these thoughts because she really loved her mom. I think the amount of pain we have at a loved one’s passing is a testament to how much we cared for them.

 

I can tell you this: when my mother died, she had been sick for quite a while – years in fact – and we all knew she didn’t have a lot of time left. Michele and I visited, I got to see Mom one last time, and a few weeks later she was gone.

 

I knew it was coming and I expected it; I didn’t cry when I visited her in the hospital, not when I got the news in the middle of the night, nor at the visitation.

 

But when I was at her funeral mass, in the church I grew up in, where I sat, Sunday after Sunday, next to her when I was a child… Now, in front of the altar was her gold colored coffin, and they started playing her favorite church song, the “Ave Maria” which loved to sing at Mass… .

 

I cried like a baby.

 

I sobbed uncontrollably and unashamedly.

 

I wept in front of my family, my friends, and my God.

 

My young wife, sitting next to me, was unsure of what to do except hand me tissue after tissue and hold my hand.

 

I was overwhelmed. My mother was gone.

 

I could not stop the tears, and I didn’t want to.

 

I loved my mother and the world is not a better place without her in it, and on that day at that moment is when it hit me, even though I thought I was prepared and I knew it was coming and I thought I was handling it well.

 

I believe I honored my mother that day, and I will tell you, I doubt anybody who saw me crying thought any less of me for it. They probably thought more of me for it.

 

Even though I had moved away from home years before, and I rarely visited or even called to chat, there was something nice about knowing I could. Now, even that was gone.

 

I would never again be able to buy Mom her salt water taffy at the fair. I couldn’t spontaneously call her up at Christmas just to playfully ask the names of the Three Kings. I couldn’t pop in for a quick weekend visit on my way to some fun, great, other place.

 

I couldn’t do any of those things, ever again.

 

So when I say to expect the unexpected from your emotions, that is what I mean. Ultimately, you will all be fine because you have a strong family and a great loving network, and any emotions you or your daughter feel during this time are valid, so don’t feel bad about having them – any of them.

 

At the first Christmas after my mom had died, we had our traditional family gathering. Before we all opened our presents, my brother offered a toast to those who we loved but who are no longer with us. It let everybody address the elephant in the room, have that emotion, and then move on to enjoy the rest of the day. It was a smart move, and it helped a lot.

 

Just like people feel guilty about the joy of having a new baby when another close relative’s parent is dying of cancer, grief and joy are both allowed in the same room.

 

So just do what you have to do. Expect the unexpected from your emotions, and if I can help in any way, let me know.

 

Our hearts are with all of you in this difficult time.

 

Try to enjoy Thanksgiving, my friend!

 

Dan

 

 

 

I folded the yellowed copy of the letter and placed it back in my desk drawer. Keeping it was like a solemn vow of some sort, to myself. Reading it was a kind of prayer.

 

It was a shame that my daughter Savannah would never know her grandmother. They had never met. Mom died years before Savvy was born.

 

Someone who had put so much effort into shaping me as a person, who went to every swim meet and soccer game, who taught me about being good to others… She drilled me incessantly with multiplication flash cards so I would learn my “times tables.” Volunteered at our school and at the YMCA. Taught me about God’s role in the real world and not just in books like the nuns at school did… What a huge benefit to my daughter to have all that accumulated information around. What a resource she had been to me, and would never be to my daughter. Such a waste… They would never meet. A person who had such influence on me and shaped my life in so many ways, would play no role in my daughter’s.

 

And yet, they had a commonality…

 

I saw it in the delivery room when Savvy was born. The first time I saw the face of my newborn daughter, I remember thinking that she looked like a combination of a wrinkly old man’s face and my mom’s, a round face with dimples and bright eyes. It only lasted for a moment. When I looked again, it was gone, but I’m sure it was there.

 

My wife didn’t care much for that description. Wrinkly! But all babies are kind of wrinkly and odd looking when they are first born. Babies look a lot more presentable after the nurses clean them up, weigh them and wrap them in the soft white hospital blankets, and put the little hat on them.

 

Then the newborn baby gets a routine doctor’s exam and get discharged. But that’s not how it went for us. On the day of our planned release, to go home with our new baby, our examining doctor found a rare and potentially fatal heart condition; one that no doctor could ever have heard through a stethoscope – and yet this doctor did just that. He felt there was something not quite right as he listened to my daughter’s chest. Tests confirmed his uncanny suspicion – and off to the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit we all went.

 

Then, as my daughter, just 24 hours old, clung to life in the NICU, I felt a something that I had not felt before.

 

At a time when I should have been terrified, I was strangely calm.

 

My dad, a physician, said it was a miracle. He said that there must have been an angel on the doctor’s shoulder that day, whispering in his ear. If we had taken my daughter home, she might have died with no warning, like so many others with the condition.

 

We were lucky. There was an angel on the doctor’s shoulder that day. Or one on my daughter’s.

 

I was unprepared for the emotions I would suddenly have from out of nowhere after the death of my mother, so I understood people when they said that they couldn’t drive by a certain intersection where their kid had crashed their car and almost died. I got it when people struggled with things like that. For a long time, a word or phrase that someone would innocently say to me, or do in passing, would remind me of Mom. It would plunge me back into that cold gothic church in Ohio, where I would again find myself staring at her shiny gold colored coffin in the dim glow of candles. The box that now held for eternity a person who had influenced my own life in so many huge and positive ways, and who now would play no role in the upbringing of my daughter.

 

I’m not sure I told my mom enough that I loved her. Actually, that’s a lie. I’m sure. I didn’t tell her enough. I showed it at her funeral, and I could write about it in a letter to my friend, but I doubt I did enough to show her while she was alive. Women are different that way. Watching my wife with our daughter, I see that it’s never enough, and in a good way. Mommy always wants another kiss or hug. She can’t hear “I love you” enough times from our little girl. It’s nice. It has shown me not make the same mistake with my daughter that I made with my mom. I tell Savvy that I love her all the time.

 

It would fall to me, then, to teach her the good things about my mother. Sure, there were many things to be learned from Michele’s side of the family. They are good and decent folks. Savvy loves her grandma Judy and grandpa Wain. She spends every Thursday with them on their farm. They feed the cows, they collect chicken eggs from the coop… Grandpa Wain even taught Savvy how to fish. At three years old, she was out there catching her own catfish in the back pond!

 

Savvy will build her own fond memories of childhood, and she will build her strengths and weaknesses as she does. I’m not sure how you can teach your daughter about her other grandmother anyway, especially when she can’t see it for herself. And I’m not sure I would even know how to teach her, or whether I could if I did know how. And that seems like kind of a waste.

 

I guess that’s why I hang onto the copy of that letter. To help show her one day.

 

But that’s not the only reason I keep it.

 


ANALYSIS

I put this sidebar in to explain Doug’s feelings about his mother, who he refers to occasionally in the story. She’s important to him (and therefore the story) but she’s not really in the story except when he thinks about her.

You would think that would be the case with anybody’s deceased mother, and you won’t necessarily know why this is important when you read it. That underscores the importance of beta readers. They are not necessarily taking this piece by piece, they are more prone to looking at the entire story as a whole unit, and IF YOU ASK they can tell you “I’m not sure you needed that scene” or “I’m not sure you needed that chapter.” Or sections of chapter.

(Don’t poison the well. Write your questions down and ask them after the beta readers have read the whole story.)

Is This Sidebar Effective?

Maybe, maybe not. You decide. I think it’s emotionally sound, and adds a nice layer to Doug’s emotional state, but it might not be important enough to make it through the final edit.

Most writers don’t tell their stories in anything other than a straight line. Mine tend to wander around a bit – and that usually makes them more fun.

It can also be an unnecessary distraction, like that history of grape growing we had to cut!

Now:

head shot

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

 

 

 

The Art And Science Of Brevity

cover

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

Today, A Quiz

You’ve been following along, learning my techniques for a while. Read the two versions of this chapter and tell me why I did what I did. I’ll see you below and give you my answer.


Chapter 15 “FINAL”

By the time I got home from my visit to the church, dinner had been waiting. That’s never good. Things were already tense enough at home.

My wife is a terrific cook. We don’t cook at home as often as we should, but we do it more now that we have a kid. It takes effort, and being on time to appreciate that effort is, well, appreciated. Mallory didn’t seem upset, though, so maybe I could slide.

Everybody has their own favorite steak. Mine used to be a rib eye, but somewhere along the line we found out about churrasco. It’s skirt steak, what they call peasant food. I think we went to a Spanish restaurant, and while enjoying a really awesome dinner, Mallory kept saying, “You know this isn’t that difficult of a steak to make. I bet we could make this at home . . .”

Tonight, that’s what she made—and I mostly missed it.

The thing about churrasco is, like all steaks, it tends to be a heavy meal. That means it’s delicious, but you can easily overdo it and eat too much. Like every time we have it. That’s the risk. I have been known to lose control when churrasco steak is on the menu.

Later in the night, after stuffing myself with chips and salsa and beer and delicious skirt steak, I will not have indigestion—if I’m lucky. I’d had a roller coaster ride of emotions with Father Frank, followed by some near nightmare style daydreams, if you can call them that. The floodgates were open, and Father Frank had opened them.

There were only one or two problems.

First, he didn’t really answer my question. Maybe I didn’t ask it right, but I wanted to know what we should be doing about all the things that were going on. I got caught up in Father Frank’s conversation that allowed for the fact that I wasn’t going crazy, and that was good, but we didn’t take the next step. What was I supposed to do about what was happening?

Second, what do I tell my wife?

Strangely, she didn’t ask. I think she knew that I’d get around to telling her eventually, but she may have also been happy not to hear if it was bad news. Or she may have just not wanted her nice day spoiled. Either way, she didn’t bring it up. And since we were having a good time with Sophie, who was always within ear shot, that was probably best.

Maybe the plan was to let our daughter fall asleep first, and then talk after we put her to bed. Good plan.

The only flaw in it was, since we were both full of skirt steak, we all fell asleep on the couch after dinner. Somewhere around midnight, Mallory woke up and carried Sophie off to bed, covering me with a blanket as I snored on the couch.

Then around 3am, I woke up with my throat and belly on fire, and my forehead full of sweat. I’d like to blame the churrasco, or the howling gusts of wind from the start of the tropical storm . . .

But the nightmare about the lions in the woods is what did it.


Original Chapter 15, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 

It was late when I got home from my visit to the church. Dinner had been waiting.

 

That’s never good.

 

Things were already tense enough around here.

 

My wife is a terrific cook. We don’t cook at home as often as we should, but we do it more now that we have a kid. It takes effort, and being on time to appreciate that effort is, well, appreciated. Michele didn’t seem upset, though, so maybe I could slide.

 

Before Savvy came along, Michele and I ate out or ordered in a lot. Probably at least three times a week. There were hardly ever any dishes to do back then.

 

That sure changed when Savvy came along. There was a constant stream of bottles that needed to be washed. I mean, it was just constant. And both of us chipped in. Our kitchen sink area became one huge bottle washing station.

 

Somewhere in that conversion, we decided – and by we, I mean my wife – decided that we needed to eat healthier. I don’t know why I bought into it this time, as opposed to all the other times she had introduced the prospect of eating healthier, but it may have had something to do with the idea of developing healthier habits as a way of setting a good example for our kid. I think that’s the part that got me. You can never know for sure; wives are sneaky that way.

 

Anyway, it was a good idea before and an even better idea now, so I got on board. When a young couple has their first child, they kind of fall off the face of the Earth for a while. It’s an accumulation of lack of sleep, and being bent into a pretzel over a new schedule that they do not control. It takes a toll, but friends notice it most when they get together for happy hour and ask, hey, where’s so and so? We haven’t seen them in ages.

 

You have a lot more sympathy for that stuff after you go through it yourself.

 

So, partly to set a good example, and partly to eat healthier, we started eating at home more, and that meant cooking more. For me, it was an interesting transition. I liked to cook, I just sucked at it. I think I had one or two things I could make really well, and that was it. But every day, I ran on a treadmill, and there was a TV parked in front of it, with a recorder. It was there as a method of keeping me from getting bored. I had twisted my knee a few years earlier, running on uneven surfaces like roads; the doctors advised that a treadmill would be best if I wanted to keep running into my old age. And since I did, I bought one.

 

It was a big transition, going from running outside in the fresh air, to running inside staring at a wall. But there were advantages. For one thing, no stray dog was likely to attack me on the treadmill. Also, as it turns out, it rarely rains in the house, where the treadmill is located. There is air conditioning, cable TV, and a cool drink just a few feet away on the counter.

 

So I learned to love my treadmill in a way I never enjoyed running on the street. The only down side was that it got boring. That’s where the TV came in.

 

You can only watch so much news or sports, so when we made the decision to eat healthier, I scanned the DVR to find cooking shows. There were lots of them to choose from, but just like any other TV series, there are enough different ones on that you can find something that works for you.

 

Each day, I’d climb onto my treadmill and watch world famous chefs make things, and I’d pick up some ideas along the way. Because my wife is a good cook, we usually already had the ingredients, or she knew where to get them. Then we’d chop celery or shred carrots – is it shred? Or grate? Anyway, we learned to make good tasting soups and all kinds of new entrees.

 

I learned to make bread. Yep. By hand. And I got pretty good at it.

 

Don’t go patting me on the back just yet, though. Making bread was just one step away from making pizza, and I love me some pizza. Under the guise of eating healthier, I worked it so that I got to eat pizza WAY more often. My bread is good, but my pizza rocks.

 

Anyway, we started cooking at home more, and that meant we spent even less time out and about, but it was okay. We had our little bundle of joy keeping us entertained, and we had a stack of bottles that always needed washing. So, yeah, we kind of fell of the face of the Earth for a while.

 

But our culinary expertise increased exponentially. Michele was already a good cook; now she was a great one.

 

While I used to lament that she almost poisoned me with coconut shrimp once when we were dating, now she could serve up lavish, restaurant quality dinners. One favorite was called churrasco steak.

 

Everybody has their own favorite steak. Mine was probably a rib eye. Growing up, my brother liked a New York strip. Michele like filet mignon. But somewhere along the line, we found out about churrasco. It’s skirt steak; what they call “peasant food.” Tasty stuff. I think we ate at a Spanish restaurant somewhere, and while eating a really awesome dinner, Michele kept saying, you know this isn’t that difficult of a steak to make. I bet we could make this at home…

 

Now, there is another advantage to eating at home. You save a lot of money. That’s only a good thing if you have a good cook in the house, because otherwise everybody’s gonna be miserable. But if you have a chef in the kitchen whipping up delicious meals, you can save money and eat better, too. And if you have a college fund that you’re now putting money away into every month, it can grow a little faster. I’m driving an older can and eating at home more often, but my kid can go to a better school. I’m fine with that. Because there is more pizza and steaks, too.

 

The thing about churrasco is, like all steaks, it tends to be a heavy meal. That means it’s darned tasty stuff, but you can easily overdo it, and eat too much. Like, every time we have it. That’s the risk. I have been known to lose control when churrasco steak is on the menu.

 

It starts simple enough: some chips and salsa (I can make a mean salsa now, too), followed by a beer or two, followed by a churrasco steak and maybe some grilled onions and peppers. Kind of like fajitas, you know? Like you’d get at Chili’s? In fact, if you served churrasco all sliced up in strips with tortillas, it would probably be fajitas.

 

Now, it’s not the steak’s fault, but it’s the gateway drug. Having churrasco allows me to eat spicy chips and salsa, beer, onions… and a lot of steak. Then I sit there, stuffed, and unable to move. Michele goes and plays with Savvy while I put the dishes in the sink, and we all settle down to watch TV or play Candy Land.

 

Later in the night, if I am lucky, I will not have indigestion. Someday I will figure out which part of the equation actually causes my stomach to revolt, the chips or the salsa or whatever, but as for now it is a happy game of Russian Roulette I play, wherein I stuff myself with churrasco and accoutrements, and then about one time out of six, I wake up with my throat and belly on fire.

 

Understand, that means five out of six steak dinners go down without a fight. And we don’t eat churrasco every week or anything. It’s a treat. But it must be respected.

 

Tonight, I did not show the churrasco the proper respect. I’d had a roller coaster ride of emotions with Father Frank, followed by some near nightmare style daydreams – if you can call them that. The floodgates were open, and Father Frank had opened them.

 

There were only one or two problems.

 

First, he didn’t really answer my question. Maybe I didn’t ask it right, but I wanted to know what we should be doing about all the things that were going on. I got caught up in Father Frank’s conversation that allowed for the fact that I wasn’t going crazy, and that was good, but we didn’t take the next step. What was I supposed to do about what was happening?

 

Second, what do I tell my wife?

 

Strangely, she didn’t ask. I think she knew that I’d get around to telling her eventually, but she may have also been happy not to hear if it was bad news. Or she may have just not wanted her nice day spoiled. Either way, she didn’t bring it up. And since we were having a good time with Savvy, who was always within ear shot, that was probably best.

 

Maybe the plan was to let our daughter fall asleep first, and then talk after we put her to bed. Good plan.

 

The only flaw in it was, since we were both full of churrasco, we all fell asleep on the couch after dinner.

 

Somewhere around midnight, Michele woke up and carried Savvy off to bed, and covered me with a blanket as I slept on the couch.

 

Then around 3am, I woke up with my throat and belly on fire, and my forehead full of sweat.

 

I’d like to blame the churrasco steak, or the howling gusts of wind from the start of the tropical storm…

 

But the nightmare about being chased by lions is what did it.


ANALYSIS

I bet you nailed it. The stuff I took out, while entertaining in its own right, and maybe would make an amusing blog post, was not really related to our main plot.  It was sideshow stuff, and humorous, but it took over 1000 words to say what 500 could.

I went through and highlighted in yellow all the things I thought I could lose, and then highlighted in blue the stuff I was certain I could lose. I liked it all, but if I had to trim to the bone, what could go? All the highlighted stuff, that’s what. I softened the transitions and added a line here and there, but the fluff went away.

Now I have a 500 word chapter (that even has a little cliffhanger at the end). I’ll can stick it onto the start of the next chapter or maybe just leave it as is.You can have 500 word chapters. There’s no law against it.

Now:

head shot

your humble host

Let me have your comments. The next chapters will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flashbacks Revisited

cover

Using my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, I am showing you my techniques for reworking a story into a more readable, more enjoyable piece. It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days. (To start at Chapter 1, click HERE.)

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

 

FLASHBACKS

Hey, wasn’t Flashback a movie in the 80s?

Okay, to understand this post/chapter as a flashback, you have to have read some of the previous ones, but not all of them. We won’t hold it against you if you didn’t follow all the way from chapter one. probably. But you’ll need to go back and read a few chapters to really get this.

I’ll see you at the bottom.


Chapter 14 “FINAL”

“What?” The cars were whizzing by my green Schwinn as Jimmy and I rode our bikes to Woolco. I couldn’t hear his question over the noise. There were too many cars, driving way too close to us.

As adults we tend to forget these things, but being a 10-year-old kid on a bike, riding down a busy road with cars going by just two feet away—it can feel pretty ominous.

Construction in several places along Washburn Boulevard, our chosen route to Woolco to procure more model boats, created the hazard that forced us into the street. Apartments were being built, so whole sections along the busy road didn’t have sidewalks. That wasn’t a big deal on our own street—the only cars that drove down Reigert Drive belonged to people who lived there. But going out to the bigger, busier roads was a different story.

A scrawny little kid on a bike feels it when a car goes past at 40 miles an hour. You wouldn’t think 40 mph was very fast riding in a car as a passenger, but a car that goes by you at that speed when you’re on a kid on a bike, it’s a whole different ball game. Squeezed onto the side of a bustling main road with car after car whizzing by, it’s amazingly fast. And loud. The hum of the tires make a lot of noise, especially if the cars already have snow tires on them. Trucks make the most noise. When one of the big concrete trucks rolled by, it was like a jet liner was getting ready to land on your head. The freaking ground shook. But the biggest part was the wind.

Even the smallest sedan that goes by you on your bike, the wind in its wake tugs at you and pulls you toward the road. It would grab at you and knock you off balance. A big car going by felt like it could throw you to the ground. Asphalt roads do horrible things to hands when you fall off your bike. Not only did it sting like hell, you had to sit there and pick the little rocks out of your wounded knees and palms. Then you had to climb back on your bike, bleeding, and keep riding. It didn’t matter whether you gave up and went home, or whether you toughed it out and rode on to the store, a bike was usually a kid’s fastest way to get to someplace. And riding with a skinned knee or buckshot hands was the worst.

Usually, we encouraged each other to keep going and get to the store. The thinking was, as long as you already went through all that trouble, you might as well get your model boat. I bet Woolco saw more than one bleeding kid pull up on his bike on any given summer day.

So our little excursion to acquire additional warships to destroy down in the creek was made a little more adventurous—and a lot longer—by the lack of sidewalks. At least it seemed longer to us.

Amidst this chaos, Jimmy had said something to me, but I missed it. He shouted it again.

“Would you kill Hitler?”

“What, here? Now?”

Another car roared by, its driver voicing disapproval by laying on the horn as it passed.

“You wanna play now?”

He was crazy. This road was too busy to talk back and forth to another kid on a bike behind me. I hated this part of the ride. We needed to get to the section of the road up ahead that had the sidewalk, where we could ride safely. That’s what was on my mind.

Not Jimmy. “C’mon! Would you kill Hitler?”

“Get off the road!” A motorist shouted as they sped by. We had to go on and off the street when there wasn’t a sidewalk, but we obviously weren’t doing it very well. This particular spot was a short section that was lasting forever.

“Come on!” Jimmy shouted. “Let’s play!”

It was a stupid name for a stupid game. Irreverent, really. I’m not sure we even called it by that name. Killing Hitler. I’m not sure I remember what the actual name of that game was.

Oh, I knew alright. I remember playing that game like we had just played it yesterday.

It was just a dumb game that we played as young pre-teenagers. We didn’t have wives or children or girlfriends back then, to civilize us, so we played dumb games to trick each other into saying something stupid. It was just a harmless game to pass the time for a couple of kids who weren’t old enough to pass it in other ways.

“Would you ever steal a corvette?”

“What? Heck, no!” I gripped the handle bars and winced as my bike shuddered with each vehicle that passed.

“What if bank robbers put a gun to your mom’s head, and you had to steal the car or they would kill her. You have to steal the car to help them escape, or they will kill you mom.”

“Then, yes, I’d steal the car. Now shut up, you’re going to get us killed.”

Jimmy howled in laughter at my distress.

Our game was as complicated as Tic Tac Toe, and almost as pointless. Back when we were young enough to walk into the trap of questions set by the other, the opposing player wasn’t usually strategic enough to ask methodical questions. We’d just try to win in three moves. We had no plan. When we grew old enough to be patient, we couldn’t lure the other one in. Tic Tac Toe.

The game was premised on knowing what the other person considered important, or knowing what they valued. But it also depended on them having similar judgment as you.

What if you stole a car and didn’t get caught? That changes things. When people don’t get punished the first time they try something bad, they may become emboldened to try it again. Maybe shoplifting had lost its thrill so you try jacking a car—anything to see where the limits were. We knew kids who had done it. Older kids we’d see at the park. They smoked pot or went joyriding, things like that. They were tough kids who got in fights at school but didn’t get beat up.

In the real world, would I ever steal a car? No, never. Hoo, boy, would I get in trouble for that! Because of course, I’d for sure get caught. My dad would kill me. I’d be grounded forever.

The other kids, the tough kids, they were learning that rules were for suckers. When you don’t get caught, the rules don’t apply.

Now I was starting to understand. I didn’t get it back then. And if the tough kids had any clue, they ignored it. At their school, they didn’t have nuns lecturing them about being good, and parents lecturing them about how they represented the family in the community.

So we never tried anything. We played our game.

“So you wouldn’t steal a car?” After we’d safely made it to the sidewalk, I could hear Jimmy better. “Okay, your mom has to go to the grocery store. She wants you to go with her, so you go.” Then he thought for a moment. “You want to stay home and play. You want to ride your bike.”

“Okay.”

Patches of shade from Elm trees passed over us as we glided down the far side of the boulevard. It was a little too fast to ride with no hands, but I knew Jimmy was back there trying it.

“She wants you to help her buy things. You wanna play with your friends. It’s summertime, but you go you have to go. She needs your help.”

He seemed to be attempting a stealthy angle this time. Rolling along the sidewalk, we dodged the occasional low hanging tree branch.

I listened as he went on.

“After the store she wants to stop by the bank.”

I rolled my eyes. “Come on, where is this going?”

“Hang on. You read your new comic book and you’re just miserable. You should be home. You should be down at the park, jumping ramps on the bike trails with your friends.”

Jimmy liked the jerry-rigged bike ramps we made at the park. We would push our bikes to the top of one of the big hills, the same ones we would ride our sleds down in winter when they were covered with snow. At the bottom of the hill, we rigged up some plywood and old boards that we fished out of the creek. The idea was to be like Evel Knievel, racing down the hill on your bike and hitting the ramp at top speed, and then seeing how far you could fly.

The problem was, it was pretty scary coming down the hill. You picked up a lot of speed. If you hit the brakes, you might go over the handle bars and land face first in the dirt. Or your tire might skid and send you into the trees. If you made it to the bottom, you would almost certainly miss the ramp—an eight inch wide board at best—and if managed to hit it, you’d probably wreck after you got airborne. Landings were such a small part of the equation, we never planned on them. We had no place to slow down, no safety gear, and no way of getting medical attention if you got hurt.

We were typical ten year old boys.

Jimmy was still laying out his elaborate scenario while I had drifted off.

“She parks the car and goes into the bank…”

I shook my head. “I guess I do this before the grocery store, or the ice cream is gonna melt and the milk will spoil.”

“You are in the bank, standing there,” he continued, ignoring me. “All of a sudden, there’s a bank robbery. They take your mom hostage. You’re sitting there, so they give you the car keys and tell you that they need you to steal that car out front or they will shoot your mom. The robbers need this to make their escape.”

The scene set, he asked the capper: “Would you steal it?”

“Of course,” I said. “No hesitation.”

“You’d get caught.”

“So?”

“So you’d go to jail.”

“I don’t think they’d send a kid to jail in a situation like that.”

“But what if they did?”

This round of the game seemed a little tortured. What was he getting at? Either he had forgotten that he had asked me nearly the same question before, or he was looking for a different answer.

I considered it, too, as I pedaled along Rummings Road. This one had a sidewalk, so we were safe.

But I was tired of the game, and frustrated from all the speeding cars conspiring to scare us. I jumped to where I thought his questions were headed. “We would all kill Hitler if we could kill Hitler, okay? But it isn’t that easy.”

I glanced over my shoulder, seeing a shocked expression on his face. “Even if you could really kill him, not just theoretically?”

“Of course. No hesitation,” I said, still theorizing. “To sacrifice your life for the lives of millions would buy you a seat in heaven. It’s an easy choice.”

“What would make it harder choice?”

I rode in silence for a moment. It was a good question.

My family had been to my uncle’s house for a birthday party for their two year old son. They fawned over that cute little kid, walking around in his overalls and t-shirt. He was their world, and it showed. To trade him away? Inconceivable. Probably for any parents, with a kid of any age, but a little kid? A helpless child? No way.

“Say you have the parents of a little kid,” I started. “Their only child, on the kid’s second birthday.” I paused for effect, like I was making it up. “In front of all their friends and family, everybody at the kid’s birthday party, you ask if they would trade their child’s life to kill Hitler—before he came to power, but you explain what he’s going to become, and they understand it like you showed them a page of a certain future. They could even get away with it, Scott free. Now it’s a whole different proposition.”

I was proud of myself. I had created a scene where there would be a real challenge to do the right thing. Young parents are hard wired not to put their child at risk. Even as a kid, I knew that. Certainly none would volunteer to lose their child for a stranger who had done nothing wrong yet, even with the promise that he would eventually come to power and be responsible for the deaths of millions of people—including millions of children. It was a beautiful dilemma.

Would you kill Hitler? Yes. What if it would cost you the life of your child in exchange? Then, no.

It changes that quickly.

No mother could ever make that choice. And she wouldn’t let her husband choose it, either.

I could see the smiling look of satisfaction on Jimmy’s face. In fact, I think that was his point, to get me to come up with some really challenging situations. I wondered why.

As a game, two stupid pre-teens might very well banter about this. You can still say yes. It’s just math at that point. Lose this one, keep millions of others. Easy. As a math problem, it’s just a figurative child you don’t know. A kid on paper.

But in reality, it’s crazy. Nobody would do it. So it’s not an automatic choice. The math still works, but somehow you can’t do it.

I figured that was Jimmy’s point. To get me to open myself to that.

Why?

I looked back at him again. He was still smiling. “Those poor parents.”

He didn’t mean it. He was mocking me, letting his sympathetic brain disengage from his theoretical one.

Whatever. It’s just a game. Why not? It doesn’t matter.

We had reached Woolco. I rolled my green Schwinn into the bike rack. “You have a dark streak, man,” I said, shaking my head.

Jimmy brushed past me. “Hey, you came up with all that baby killing stuff, not me.”

I was about to say something back to him when I stopped. He was right.

I was even a little embarrassed for having done so, thinking about the look on my uncle’s face when I told him we traded his child to kill a really bad guy. Mom always said I had a vivid imagination, but to be honest, it made me a little sick to my stomach to know that I could think stuff like that up.

I locked up my bike and went into the store, and forced those thoughts out of my head.


Original Chapter 14, An Angel On Her Shoulder

 “What?” I asked frantically. The cars were whizzing by us as we rode our bikes to Woolco. I couldn’t hear the question over the noise. There were too many cars, driving way too close to us.

As adults we tend to forget these things, but being a 10-year-old kid on a bike, riding down a busy road with cars going by just two feet away from you – it can be a little hazardous.

There were several areas under construction on Washington Boulevard, our chosen route to Woolco to buy more model boats. Apartments were being built, so whole sections along the busy road didn’t have sidewalks. It forced us to ride our bikes in the street. That wasn’t a big deal on our own street; the only cars who drove down our street were people who lived there. But going out to the bigger streets was a different story.

When you’re a scrawny little kid on a bike, and a car goes by at 40 miles an hour, right next to you, you feel it. You wouldn’t think 40 mph was very fast riding in a car as a passenger, but a car that goes by you at that speed when you’re on your bike, it’s a whole different ball game. Squeezed onto the side of a busy main road, at 10 years old, on a bike, with car after car whizzing by, it’s amazingly fast. And loud. The tires make a lot of noise, especially if the cars already have snow tires on them. Trucks make the most noise. When one of the big concrete trucks rolled by, it was like a jet liner was getting ready to land on your head. The freaking ground shook. But the biggest part was the wind.

Even the smallest sedan that goes by you on your bike, the wind in its wake tugs at you and pulls you out toward the road. It would grab at you and knock you off balance. A big car going by felt like it could throw you to the ground. Asphalt roads do horrible things to hands when you fall off your bike. Not only did it sting like hell, you had to sit there and pick the little rocks out of your wounds. Then you had to climb back on your bike, bleeding, and keep riding. It didn’t matter whether you gave up and went home, or whether you toughed it out and rode on to the store; the bike was the fastest way to get to either place. And riding with a skinned knee or buckshot hands was the worst.

Usually, we encouraged each other to keep going and get to the store. The thinking was, as long as you already went through all that trouble, you might as well get your model boat. I bet Woolco saw more than one bleeding kid pulled up on his bike on any given summer day.

So our little excursion to acquire additional warships to destroy down in the creek was made a little more adventurous – and a lot longer – by the lack of sidewalks. At least it seemed longer to us.

Amidst this chaos, Jimmy had said something to me, but I missed it. He shouted it again.

“Would you kill Hitler?”

“What, here? Now?”

Another car roared by, voicing its disapproval by laying on the horn as it passed.

“You wanna play now?”

He was crazy. This road was too busy to talk back and forth to another kid on a bike behind me. I hated this part of the ride. We needed to get to the section of the road up ahead that had the sidewalk, where we could ride safely. That’s what was on my mind.

Not Jimmy. “C’mon! Would you kill Hitler?”

“Get off the road!” a motorist shouted as they sped by. We had to go on and off the street when there wasn’t a sidewalk, but we obviously weren’t doing it very well. This particular spot was a short section that was lasting forever.

“Come on! Let’s play!” Jimmy shouted.

It was a stupid name for a stupid game. Irreverent, really. I’m not sure we even called it by that name. Killing Hitler. I’m not sure I remember what the actual name of that game was.

Oh, I knew alright. I remember playing that game like we had just played it yesterday.

 

It was just a dumb game that we played as young pre-teenagers. We didn’t have wives or children or girlfriends back then, to civilize us. So we played dumb games to trick each other into saying something stupid. It was just a harmless game to pass the time for a couple of kids who weren’t old enough to pass it in other ways.

“Would you ever steal a corvette?” might be the opening question.

“What? Heck, no!” would be a typical opening reply.

Then: “What if bank robbers put a gun to your mom’s head, and you had to steal the car or they would kill her. You have to steal the car to help them escape, or they will kill you mom.”

“Then, yes, I’d steal the car.”

And so on. Silly.

It was as complicated as Tic Tac Toe, and almost as pointless. The goal was to get the other person to start out at a position that was completely reasonable, and get them to move to a position that was completely the opposite. The trick of the game was to do it in slow enough steps that they can’t see where you are heading with your questions, baiting them into the trap.

It rarely worked. When we were young enough to walk into the trap, we weren’t smart enough to ask methodical questions. We’d just try to win in three moves. We had no strategy, no plan. When we grew old enough to be patient, we couldn’t lure the other one in. Tic Tac Toe.

The game was premised on knowing what the other person considered important, or knowing what they valued. But it also depended on them having similar judgment as you.

What if you stole a car and didn’t get caught? That changes things. When you don’t get punished the first time you try something bad, you might be emboldened to try again. Maybe you’d steal another car, or try shoplifting, anything to see where the limits were. We knew kids who had done it. Older kids that we’d see at the park. They smoked pot, or went joyriding; things like that. They were tough kids who got in fights at school but didn’t get beat up.

In the real world, would I ever steal a car? No, never. Hoo, boy, would I get in trouble for that! Because of course, I’d for sure get caught. My dad would kill me. I’d be grounded forever.

The other kids, the “tough kids” as we called them, they were learning that when you don’t get caught, you start to think that the rules are for suckers, that the rules don’t apply…

Now I was starting to understand. I didn’t get it back then. And if the tough kids had any clue, they ignored it. At their school, they didn’t have nuns lecturing them all day about being good.

Your family’s interest steers you back into the clear; your upbringing. Peer pressure. Social standing. Among other things.

That’s not to say only poor kids steal cars, or that rich people have better morals than poor people. Rich people maybe just have different opportunities.

We played the killing Hitler game when we were kids because when you’re 15 and 16 and start have girlfriends, you don’t play games like that anymore. But at the time, we were ten. We didn’t have girlfriends, and wouldn’t have any for some time. So we played our game.

Would you steal a car? No, of course not. No hesitation. My dad would kill me. I’d get caught, of course. I’d get caught if I lived in a big town like New York City, but in our small town where everybody knew everybody, they all sure seemed to know me. When I turned sixteen, everybody knew what my car looked like. At ten, they knew which bike was mine. I would get completely caught if I ever tried anything.

So we never tried anything. We played our game.

“So you wouldn’t steal a car?” Jimmy asked after we’d safely made it to the sidewalk and I could hear him better.

“Okay, your mom has to go to the grocery store” Jimmy said. “She wants you to go with her, so you go.” Then he thought for a moment. “You want to stay home and play; you want to ride your bike.”
Of course. I want to ride bikes with you, right Jim?

 

“She wants you to help her buy things. You wanna play with your friends. It’s summertime, but you go you have to go. She needs your help.”

Jimmy was attempting to be stealthy this time out. Rolling along the sidewalk, we picked up some speed as the road turned down hill. Dodging the occasional tree branch, I listened as he went on.

“After the store she wants to stop by the bank.” I rolled my eyes and he must have known it. “You read your new comic book and you’re just miserable about this. You should be home. You should be down at the park, jumping ramps on the bike trails with your friends.”

Jimmy liked the jerry-rigged bike ramps we made at the park. We would push our bikes to the top of one of the big hills, the same ones we would ride our sleds down in winter when they were covered with snow. At the bottom of the hill, we rigged up some plywood and old boards that we fished out of the creek. The idea was to be like Evel Knievel, racing down the hill on your bike and hitting the ramp at top speed, and then seeing how far you could fly.

The problem was, it was pretty scary coming down the hill. You picked up a lot of speed. But if you hit the brakes, you might, go over the handle bars and land face first in the dirt. Or your tire might skid and send you into the trees. If you made it to the bottom, you would almost certainly miss the ramp – an 8” wide board, usually – and if you did manage to hit it, you’d probably wreck after you got airborne. Landings were such a small part of the equation, we never planned on them. We had no place to slow down, no safety gear, and no way of getting medical attention if you got hurt.

Typical ten year old boys.

Jimmy was still laying out his elaborate scenario while I had drifted off.

“She parks the car and goes into the bank…”

I chimed in. “I guess I do this before the grocery store, or the ice cream is gonna melt and the milk will spoil.”

“You are in the bank, standing there,” he continued, ignoring me. “All of a sudden, there’s a bank robbery. They take your mom hostage. You’re sitting there, so they give you the car keys and tell you that they need you to steal that car out front or they will shoot your mom. The robbers need this to make their escape.”

The scene set, he asked the capper: “Would you steal it?”

“Of course,” I said. “No hesitation.”

“You’d get caught.”

“So?”

“So you’d go to jail!”

“I don’t think they’d send a kid to jail in a situation like that.”

“But what if they did?” he asked. This round of the game seemed a little tortured. What was he getting at? Either he had forgotten that he had asked me nearly the same question before, or he was looking for a different answer.

I considered it, too, as I pedaled along the busier road. This one had a sidewalk, so we were safe.

From there, you boil it down. Would you steal a car? Would you still try to save your mom or your brother or your dog from a burning building? What if they threatened to shoot your mom over a loaf of bread?

Jimmy wasn’t asking good questions anymore. Would you steal a loaf of bread? No. If you family would starve if you didn’t? Yes. Does that make it right?

It’s ridiculous because they would never have you shoot your mom over a loaf of bread. But the idea is, what starts out as absolutely “No” can usually be twisted, in this game, to something where you would say absolutely “Yes.”

I cut him off. “We would all kill Hitler if we could kill Hitler. But it isn’t that easy.”

I don’t think Jimmy understood that aspect of the game questions. “You’d have to kill Hitler before he came to power,” I explained, “before he caused the war and murdered everybody. We would do it in a second if we could know all that, if we could see all the bad things he was going to do. Of course, no hesitation. Shoot him in the head and leave him in a ditch, no problem. Theoretically, it’s easy.”

“Even if you could really kill him, not just theoretically?”

“Of course. No hesitation,” I said, still theorizing. “To sacrifice your life for the lives of millions, it’s worthwhile. That would buy you a seat in heaven, if you believe in that sort of thing.” Killing someone in a game is easy, just like GI Joes in the creek. Murder is an easy thing to discuss when it isn’t a real possibility.

 

“But even if you’d be killed in the process?” Jimmy asked. I couldn’t tell if he was sincere or if he was pulling me in. But I went on.

“Yes,” I replied. “No question. No hesitation.”

“That’s not the problem,” I continued. “It’s still easy to say ‘yes’ if you were sitting here as a grown man that already did all the things he wanted to do in life, or if you were talking to a man who was old enough to feel like he lived his life, that’s an easy choice.”

“What would make it harder choice?”

Good question.

I had recently been to my uncle’s house for a birthday party for their two year old son. They fawned over that kid. He was their world, and it showed. To trade him away? Inconceivable. Probably for any parents, with a kid of any age, but a little kid? A helpless child? No way.

“To talk to a parent of a little kid,” I started. “Their only child, on the kid’s birthday. Let’s say two; the kid is turning two years old.” I thought for a moment, working up some real drama for the scene. “In front of all their friends and family, everybody at the kid’s birthday party, you ask if they would trade their child’s life to kill Hitler. Before he came to power, and even if you could get away with it. Now it’s a different proposition.”

I was proud of myself. I had created a scene where there would be a real challenge to do the right thing. It was mystifying. Young parents are hard wired not to put their child at risk. Even as a kid, I knew that. Certainly none would volunteer to lose their child for a stranger who had done nothing wrong yet, even with the promise that he would eventually come to power and be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. Millions of children. It was a beautiful dilemma.

Would you kill Hitler? Yes. What if it would cost you the life of your child in exchange? Then, no. It changes that quickly.

No mother could ever make that choice. And she wouldn’t let her husband choose it, either.

Jimmy was satisfied at my question. I could see it in his face. In fact, I think that was the point. To get me to come up with some really challenging situations. I wonder why.

As a game, two stupid pre-teens might very well banter about this. You can still say yes. It’s just math at that point. Lose this one, keep millions of others. Easy. As a math problem, it’s just a figurative child you don’t know. A kid on paper.

But in reality, if somebody ever came up to you and said, “We’re taking your child, and in return for your child this person who will eventually do some bad things will be killed, and all the bad things won’t happen.” It’s crazy. Nobody would do it. So it’s not an automatic choice. It’s still the right thing to do, the math still works, but somehow you can’t do it.”

That was Jimmy’s point. To get me to open myself to that. Why?

I looked back at him. He was smiling.

“Those poor parents,” he said. He didn’t mean it. He was mocking me, letting his sympathetic brain disengage from his theoretical one. It’s just a game. Why not? It doesn’t matter.

We had reached Woolco. I rolled my green Schwinn into the bike rack.

“You have a dark streak, man,” I said, shaking my head.

“Hey, you came up with all that, not me!”

I was about to say something back to him when I stopped. He was right. I came up with it.

I was even a little embarrassed for having done so, thinking about the look on my uncle’s face when I told him we traded his child to kill a really bad guy. Mom always said I had a vivid imagination, but to be honest, it made me a little sick to my stomach to know that I could think stuff like that up.

I locked up my bike and went into the store, and forced those thoughts out of my head.


ANALYSIS

Yes, Virginia, you can use a flashback just like you can use an occasional adverb. Even the -ly kind. Just, you know, don’t overdo it.

So this chapter got trimmed a little and really sounded a lot like the first time Jimmy and Doug play the Killing Hitler game, but that’s intentional. It was a loooooong time ago when you read that, even if you were reading it in a book, and sometimes a passage is supposed to have that deja vu feel, so replaying sections can give you that.

But be careful, a little goes a long way. I may have overdone it, and I’ve trimmed this chapter twice. Trust your instincts, but listen to your critique partners and  beta readers.

Now:

head shot

your humble host

Let me have your comments. The next chapter will post tomorrow but they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle!

You are readers, too. Your input will shape the final product. Be honest.

Share and reblog these! Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!