The Layover

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Sylvia toweled off in the truck shop’s washroom. She looked in the metal mirror and despaired about diesel grime that still coated her sunburn. Her cell phone sitting next to the scratched sink chirped at her, carrying the voice of her boyfriend Redmund.

“Sylvie,” he said over the speakerphone. “Watcha doing now? Real quiet in there.”

“Washing up, okay? You try slugging a rig down I-80 for six hours after a thrown fan belt tossed you off schedule. I’m a whole day behind on my miles.” The damn carrier knew, of course. They tracked her through that phone like a pelican after mackerel. GPS, yeah — Giddyup, Push and Steer.

“Okay, okay. Why so touchy, Trucker Gal?”

“Thinking of what my mom said when I stopped in Fort Collins on Monday. Had my laundry and that dog Butch to drop off. Mom said I wouldn’t look white again if I sat in a tub of bleach.”

“The grime, huh? Important to see you clean and girly.”

“You don’t know, fella. Her part of Fort Collins is so upper crust even the maids are European. Trucker Gal troubles her. Like I’m slumming on those 18 wheels. Instead of trying to pay off the old man’s gambling debts.” Banging rattled the metal door of the washroom. “Gotta go. Some rig-monkey wants his turn.”

“Whoa. I don’t like the sound of that.”

“His turn to shower, nimrod. I got this handled.” She thumbed the disconnect and stepped into gray pants and the company orange shirt with the logo and her name on it.

At the bar she perched on a vinyl black stool with a back. The barman eyed her like they all did, first at her chest and then her nametag. “So Syl, what’ll it be?”

“You’re asking me about my drink?”

“What else?”

“I think we both know what else. But I just got cleaned up, so let’s stick to the liquor. Make mine a shot of that low-rent scotch.”

He left a glass of Peat Brothers on the formica bar-top and started pulling beers. The laughter from the sports trivia game that was mounted on the corner of the bar made the back of her neck tingle. Mom wouldn’t even be thinking of her daughter’s color, or being clean, here in Cheyenne. Sylvia sipped at the scotch and shivered.

“None too smooth, huh?” This was a different voice, low and slow behind her. She turned to see a black man, something that stood out in Wyoming like an elk with bells on his antlers.

“Not smooth, no.” There wasn’t a tub of bleach that would ever turn him white, either. They had that much in common already, at least for a night of her layover on I-80.

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Notes on dialogue, Iowa-style

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One week ago today I enjoyed a long, fun day at the Summer Writing Festival. I read a short bit in an open mike session, reveled in an Elevenses lecture on metaphor. I also learned a good deal about dialogue that can improve my own novel, Viral Times.

Here’s just a few quick notes:

1. Dialogue should sound organic. Answers don’t necessarily follow questions, not directly, anyway. The answer can change the subject. The answer sometimes doesn’t reflect the question. This is one way to make dialogue surprising.

2. Dialogue doesn’t indicate emotion. It shows emotion. No “he exclaimed” or “he whimpered” to indicate. Search your imagination for dialogue whose words show exclamation or whimpering. Or use gestures that might match these feelings.

3. Dialogue should be motivated by both character and situation. Rent Pulp Fiction. Eaarly in the movie, you’ll notice how there’s very little of the explanation of the hit mens’ plans in their dialogue. Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) say:

“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”
“How many up there?”
“Three or four.”
“Counting our guy?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So there could be up to five guys in there.”
“It’s possible.”
“We should have fuckin’ shotguns.”

These fellows stand in front of a car trunk while they talk this over, loading .45s. Their plan must to be kill someone, several people. Nary a word is said about the plan directly.

In dialogue, the central thing is not named, so it can gain power during the scene.

Oh, and the shorter the dialogue per character (total number of sentences), the better. People don’t speak in long sentences (most people, anyway). Too many sentences and you have a speech. Leave that for the sequel, the narrative writing that follows the scene.