Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Drivebys

Driveby moments in a story -- when two characters come together for a very short time -- usually last no more than a manuscript page. These mini-scenes are where I see housekeeping dialogue used most often, i.e.:


"Hi," Nick said to the innkeeper. "How are you?"

"Very well, thank you," he replied. "How may I help you, mademoiselle?"

"Is your wife here?" Nick asked. "I'd like to speak to her."

He gestured toward the kitchen. "She is cooking dinner."



That's a standard driveby -- it's very quick, exchanges the necessary information, and thanks to the housekeeping dialogue, reads totally flat and boring. You could delete the entire conversation and replace it with a single line:

The innkeeper told Nick that his wife was in the kitchen.

It's tempting to skip drivebys, as it can be a real challenge to make them useful and interesting to the reader. I like them, though, because you can turn them into quick sketches to better illustrate your characters:

Excerpt from Night Lost by Lynn Viehl

When Nick approached the innkeeper, she saw that he was sorting through receipts and adding up figures.

She stooped to pick up a receipt out of the small trash can next to the desk. "You dropped this one, M. Laguerre."

"What?" He took it from her and examined it. "Mon Dieu, the laundry invoice. How did I . . . " His dark gaze went from the trash bin to her face. "Thank you, mademoiselle."

Nick was grateful he spoke flawless English. She usually embarrassed herself trying to speak French to the natives. "May I ask you something?"

"Of course." He scanned a yellow delivery slip while his fingers tapped the keys of an old adding machine.

"Is your wife here?" Nick kept her tone casual. "I'd like to ask her about one of the old houses around town."

"Adelie is in the kitchen." He nodded toward the back of the inn. "If you go in there, she will ask you to sample her fish stock. It tastes like dish water and smells worse."

"Whoa."

He leveled a stern eye on her. "If you sample it, you will tell her it is ambrosia, or she will fret and burn my dinner for the next two weeks."

Nick cleared her throat, mostly to stop a rising chuckle. "I'm allergic to fish."

"I wish that I were." He flipped over the receipt and began adding in figures from another.



The driveby performed its main function -- Nick finding out where the innkeeper's wife was -- but among other things it fleshed out the characters of Jean and Adelie without a lot of exposition or fuss. It also delivered a little humor, something I try to do in unexpected places in the story.

How do you take advantage of drivebys in your stories?

Related Link:

No one else calls them drivebys, I guess, but I found a good article I think might prove helpful to those who want to ditch the housekeeping dialogue -- Glenn Patterson's Writing Believable Dialogue.

12 comments:

  1. I love writing them. My characters are forced to interact with strangers, which gives me all kinds of material to play with. Are they going to walk away thinking the character is suave and smart (hardly), or a complete prat. Can I work in a thinly veiled insult, a misunderstanding, a vital piece of info which the protag misses completely? All good stuff, and I wouldn't give them up for the world.

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  2. Beautiful example. You've done what I've always preached: give even your most minor characters an attitude and a goal. Like the grocery story clerk who just wants to go home and get off her aching feet.

    Once you do that, the drivebys almost write themselves.

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  3. I like to use the "gang" driveby, especially with multiple characters. I introduce a new character. He's along for the ride, observing through his viewpoint lense, the interaction of the main protagonist and the innkeeper. The main character has arrived to "collect" his rogue brother. This brief interaction between protag and innkeeper, colored by the introduced character's perspective, gives a deeper glimpse into four different characters. Sort of like 4 for the price of 1, or 2.

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  4. Actually, I dfon't think I have. LOL I tend to do the one line thing. However, I really liked your example, and I want to make my writing more...well, more everything, so this was intersting. Something for me to look at. Thanks

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  5. But be careful with Drivebys, they can be dangerous. Innocent bystanders can get shot in the ass, and suddenly insignificant characters could even be a temptation to keep in a story... Oh hell, love them all!

    The other Paperback Writer blog

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  6. Brevity is the sole/soul of wit...I thought. Thanks for the new ideas for expanding flat characters.

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  7. Unless I can really think of a way to make it interesting I usually just do the quick pass over without a word of dialogue. But the extract is a great example of what can be done if you really try. Before now I never really thought about this before but it is interesting to examine the habits you probably didn't even know you had.

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  8. hummmm.... i've never really thought about it, but now i think i could stand to use this approach to flesh things out more.

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  9. that's a great post! Excellent advice!

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  10. Wow. This is really helpful. One of my stories has a lot of what one critiquer called "banalities" but they are basically drive-bys between major and minor characters. This is great in helping me fix these areas.

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  11. Thank you. I appreciate this advice. I actually think that I generally do this with every chance-met character I have in a story. Perhaps I do it too much? I tend to picture my story as it's unfolding, and if I were writing the scene you described it would be natural to "see" the man working away at his desk, and then putting in those little details as the conversation goes along. I liked it.

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