As I was preparing a workshop for the California Dreamin’ Conference, I began to think about the concept of making one element of your work, whether scene, sentence or character, do double duty. I’ve decided that this concept may be one of the “secrets of the writing universe.”
First I’ll show you five ways that Double Duty can be introduced into your books. You can probably think of others. Then we’ll talk about the effect it can have on your finished product.
1. The simplest form of double-duty is probably the kind you use for attributions of dialogue.
Instead of saying, “he said,” or “she expostulated” after a line of dialogue, you leave off the attribution and start a new sentence that implies who is speaking, such as: “‘I can’t believe you said that.” Her voice broke and she turned away.”
If this is a scene between a man and a woman, we know the woman was the one who spoke even though we are not technically given an attribution but an action description. The reader makes an assumption based on proximity. Of course you do this already. It’s great for varying the sentence patterns in your dialogue scenes.
WHAT IT DOES: Great for pacing. Speeds up your book and makes it a page-turner.
2. That pair of sentences I just made up does double duty in another way too. The description of the action tells the character’s emotion as well as describes the action, as well as tells you who was speaking. Without it, the character could be only angry rather than also deeply hurt.
WHAT IT DOES: Shorthand description is great for pacing. It also deepens the reader’s perception of the character.
3. Scenes can do double duty as well. As a matter of fact, they nearly always should.
Examples are “introducing the villain and showing the protagonist’s internal dilemma in the same scene.” Or, an action scene that advances the plot and shows the heroine that she must take responsibility for her mistakes. You get the idea.
WHAT IT DOES: Keeps the book from dragging. Excellent for tight middles. (And who doesn’t want one of those?)
4. One of the skills that make an actor great is being able to show more than one emotion at once.
To take a recent example, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln had a great scene with Sally Filed who played his wife. She showed clearly that he was exasperated with her for not getting over their son’s death, that he loved her anyway, and that he was guilty over his role in the death AND his ability to push it to the side to focus on the national interest. Wow. Oscar time.
Your characters need to have more than one emotion simultaneously too. You can do that in the description of their complicated feelings. Or you can do that by showing what they feel while they are talking, which can be very different than what they’re saying. This doesn’t mean you need to show EVERY emotion in great detail. Just hint that two things are going on at once. Readers love to be “in the know.”
Rather than comb through books for examples of characters meaning two things at once, let me just make one up. You’ll be able to think of your own, better examples too.
“You know we need to talk.” Her tone was flat, but he wasn’t fooled.
What did she want from him? “Damn it, Sally. It’s not my fault your little brother can’t hold his drink.” True, as far as it went. That didn’t mean he wasn’t culpable in other ways and he knew it.
“No.” She just stared at him. Way too calm. He liked the yelling last night better. “That’s not your fault.”
“If you think I care what you think of me, well, think again.” He ran his hands over his three-day stubble.
“You’ve made it very clear that you don’t care what people think about you.”
“Then you know what to expect from me now.” He picked up his jacket and pushed out through the screen door, letting it bang behind him.
Christ Almighty. Now he was going to have to go bail out Junior, or risk losing the good opinion of the one person in the world he cared about.
Pretty pathetic as an example, but I hope you see what I mean. As you revise your work, you can layer in even more complexity.
WHAT IT DOES: Deepns the character and makes them more engaging. Involved the readers because they “figure out” what’s really going on.
5. Characters can be made to serve two purposes.
Some books need lots of characters, like family sagas or sweeping historical fiction. That’s their nature. But if you have two characters in your book that serve similar purposes, the book is often improved by combining them.
Donald Maas takes it one step further in his advice in Writing the Breakout Novel.. He thinks you can combine characters who have very different purposes into one character, often making them more complex and interesting in the process. I did that on two occasions and it works. Can the mentor also be the betrayer? Can the hero be the one that precipitates the twist instead of the best friend’s mother? You see what I mean.
WHAT IT DOES: Makes characters more complex and thus engaging to the reader. Speeds up the book because you don’t have to introduce and pay attention to another secondary character.
So, you probably sense a theme here. Making various elements in your book do double duty speeds up your book and creates a page-turner, which is just what we all want as authors. It makes your characters more compelling and it engages your reader if figuring out what’s going on–a deeply satisfying experience.
In short, it’s a key to making your book thrill agents, editors and readers. That definitely qualifies it as a secret of the universe to me.