Describing an Event

How do you like to describe events in your novel? By event I mean something that happens to further the plot. Let’s take an example.

Your outline (you do have an outline, don’t you?) says that Jack, Mary, and Jane meet each other at the Post Office. Jane is excited about her new movie role. Mary is upset because she didn’t get the role. Jack is courting Mary, so wants to advocate for her. The scene begins stiffly as Mary offers her grudging congratulations to Jane. Jack tells Mary she should’ve had the role. Mary starts to cry. Jane, embarrassed, tries to leave but Jack starts explaining why Mary should’ve won.

Okay, how can you describe this? I can think of three ways. You may think of several more (if so, please comment and describe them). First, you can play the scene live. You set the scene and record each line of dialog just as it was spoken. Second, you can summarize the scene with exposition. Third, you can have a character describe what he or she remembers; in fact, this could be interesting. Each character can remember it differently.

We’re usually tempted with option 1. Spell it out. Lay on the dialog. Create the dramatic tension. Make Mary angry. Jane looks for an exit. Jack is assertive.

Jane jumped when she saw Jack and Mary in line behind her. The noisy Post Office lobby was crowded with the lunchtime crowd.

“Well, I guess I should offer congratulations,” murmured Mary.

Jane knew how badly Mary wanted the role. And she needed the money, too.

“I’m sure you could’ve done as well,” said Jane, looking at her feet. “In fact, I’m surprised they didn’t pick you.”

“You’re right about that!” snapped Jack. Mary swiveled to face him. “Mary was made for the role. If you were any kind of friend, you’d go back and tell them Mary should have it.”

That’s certainly okay. And your readers expect crisp dialog (remember, every line of dialog should push the story along). But what if the things needing said make for an endless scene? The dialog above could stretch on for pages.

So you can try option 2.

Mary and Jack climbed the steps slowly as Jack reassured her that her audition was great and that the casting director was a biased, red-necked jerk. Without taking in their surroundings, they joined the long queue to see the lone clerk. But fate was not in their favor that day, as they found themselves in line behind Jane. The temperature dropped a good ten degrees. Mary blushed as she offered her reluctant congratulations, but Jack was intent on a scene. And a scene he got! Within 15 minutes, three burly policemen hustled a handcuffed, struggling Jack into a patrol car as both Jane and Mary stood crying.

Ok, so maybe you want a little bit of dialog, but the point is you can summarize when you need to.

Now here’s a third. I use this in About Dan (see here). I thought through the scene several ways and decided it would take too long to include all the dialog. And anyway I wanted to show Dan’s reaction. So we see the scene through Dan’s retelling to a rather skeptical friend.

“Well,” he began, “I decided I’d take Tania up on her offer.”

Peter groaned. “I was hoping you were joking!”

“I couldn’t think of a way out of it! I forgot all about it until after school today. Tania reminded me. She was talking so fast I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Then she ran off. I mean, she literally didn’t give me a chance to say no. She gave me a map with directions to her house and everything. She swore her brother and her folks would be there.”

Peter rolled his eyes. Jesse and Marilyn merely bent forward.

“She lives up in North Boulder, about a mile from my dad’s condo. It’s a nice neighborhood, you know, big houses and all. Her folks must be rich. The house has a circular drive. The grass is really neatly trimmed and there are flowers out already. They must have a gardener because everything looks so pretty–.”

“Moving right along,” said Peter.

“Yeah. Anyway, my first clue should have been there were no cars in the driveway. So I park right in front, on the circular drive. It’s just barely starting to snow. I ring the bell, but at first it seemed like no one is home…”

“So you left? Tell me you left right then!” interjected Peter.

“Shush, Peter!” said Marilyn. “He’s telling his story.”

“I think…” started Peter.


“So, anyway, finally Tania comes to the door. She’s wearing a long gown of some sort, like a house dress. It covers her from her neck all the way down to her feet, with long arms. Maybe it was pajamas, I don’t know. It’s not what I expected. She invites me in.”

Peter closed his eyes in disbelief. “You went in,” he said quietly. Marilyn pushed Peter’s shoulder hard, knocking him over.

“Yes, I went in. The house is full of the smell of Mexican food. I was hungry, you know. Come to think of it, I’m still hungry. You’ll see why.”

That’s just an excerpt, but you get the idea. The bottom line is you have options. Mix them around to best effect.

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