In collaboration with Trish Nicholson, the New Zealander author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, we are publishing a three-part coaching series on “the use of voice in storytelling” – which is intended to help writers of fiction navigate and master how voice and dialogue are used to capture the attention of readers. As a prelude to this coaching series we had published a flash story, Runnin’ the River referenced in this series. We advice our readers to click on the flash story link to read the story or visit our fiction page to access it while studying the series. You can read the first two parts here and here.
Part III – Dialogue and Voice
Red Like My Shoes
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess.”
“And she had long, golden hair, didn’t she, Daddy?”
“Yes, Suzy, she did.” They know every detail, Suzy and Amy; it’s their favourite bedtime story. Mine too.
“Like my hair. It’s not very long yet, but it’s growing.”
“More story, Daddy.” Amy, the three-and-a-half-year-old, doesn’t like interruptions to the telling, unlike Suzy who loves to put in the finer points, new ones each time. She’s just started school and become very wise; Amy sometimes feels a little oppressed by her own lack of status – only at play group.
“Every day, the princess put on a lovely satin dress of the brightest …”
“Blue,” says Suzy. It was “Red-like-my-shoes,” last night.
“All right, the brightest blue, and went into her garden to feed the two white doves that were her special friends. She would spend all day with her doves among the flowers, and the honey-bees, and the tiny fluttery birds that sang and danced around them. Then one day, the princess plucked a rose from her favourite bush …”
“A pink rose, Daddy.”
Colours fascinate Suzy, just like her mother, perhaps one day she will be an artist, too. She draws well. The kitchen walls are covered in her daily offerings, we’ll need to expand into the living room soon. Amy is more into music and dancing. They use music a lot in her pre-school group. Sometimes they ask me to play the guitar there. I give them short classical pieces and I’m astonished by their wide-eyed enchantment.
“Go non, Daddy.” Amy is drowsy already.
“But the stem of the rose had a sharp thorn that pricked her finger, and she fell into a deep swoon. Nobody could wake her: not the honey-bees, not the birds, not the little white doves, not even the gardener who looked after all the flowers.”
“And the magician comes,” Suzy whispers. Sometimes it’s a wizard. Once it was a gnome – I think that was inspired by a project she did at school that day.
“Yes, and the magician said, ‘There is only one thing to do. I must take her to the grand palace beyond the sun.’ So they laid the princess on a palanquin studded with jewels, and mounted it on a magnificent white horse with gleaming silver harness, and they rode away beyond the clouds, beyond the sky, beyond the sun.”
Amy is asleep. Suzy is struggling to keep her eyes half open.
“The sunbeams …”
“Of course. Well, the princess was so sad to leave her special friends, she sent sunbeams down for the two little doves because she loved them very much” – and the gardener, too. “Time to sleep now, Poppet.”
“Night-night, darling.” I kiss them and leave the door ajar; they like some light from the landing.
Fairy tales. But how else could we bear to share our grief?
Structured around a single scene, the story of how this little family faces its terrible loss is played out through the telling of a fairy tale, and is told almost entirely in spoken dialogue with only brief internal thoughts from the narrator. The tale he tells contains the plot information we need in order to understand, at the end, what lies behind a seemingly routine bedtime story.
A writing friend told me she had to work quite hard to grasp the meaning of that last line, but that gave the message – the healing power of story – greater force for her. As a reader, I like to be involved in doing some of the working out for myself; as a writer, achieving balance between opacity and transparency is difficult. How hard or easy you found the story depends, I think, on the chemistry between your voice and mine.
The intention in telling the story through dialogue was to differentiate the three characters while revealing inner voices that would suggest how they each cope with their tragic situation. I will explain what I was attempting to show with each one.
Suzy, old enough to speak in full sentences but with the phrasing of a five-year old, identifies herself with the Princess – her desire for long hair, her red shoes – making the story her own by interrupting Daddy to put in her choice of colours. She is aware that the story has special significance. In some deeper level of her mind she recognizes the Princess as her mother, and in the same way, she understands who the two little doves are. The repetition of the fairy tale with its loving symbolism of sunbeams, reassures her with its continuity – she prompts Daddy, fighting sleep to ensure he misses nothing out.
Amy is only three-and-a-half-years old; she speaks seldom and in fragments. She, too, feels the story has special significance and prefers it without interruptions, urging Daddy to continue. She finds reassurance in the fairy tale’s frequent retelling, although she is too young to grasp the deeper meaning; lulled by familiar words, she falls asleep before the end.
Daddy expresses three voices, which we can envisage as part of his inner chorus. Unspoken dialogue – his thoughts – show the responsible adult carrying a new burden of single parenthood, considering the differing natures and needs of his two daughters, and playing a wider role in their lives by his participation in the pre-school. Through the simple, repetitive language of his storyteller voice, he seeks to explain to the children what has happened to their mother, and to comfort them with the assurance of her continuing love. In a third, brief and deeper inner voice – “and the gardener, too” – he identifies himself with the fairy tale, recognizing it sustains him, also.
And the ‘writer’s voice’? The hardest part to explain because we are not privy to our whole mind, but as far as I am aware, there is nothing in the story that relates directly to my own experience. It must have emerged from a deep place – “when no one is listening” – because it came to me, almost complete, while I was driving. That occurs rarely and I can’t recall what was happening in my life at the time – nothing particularly dramatic or I would have remembered – but the underlying theme and tone reflect my own values. Although the story was not planned and structured in any deliberate way, it was edited and tweaked, especially the language; analysis came later.
[Red Like My Shoes was twice shortlisted in Flash500 competitions.]
Spinning on Two Wheels
Mashed up pumpkin was down my Tee-shirt, on the carpet, even on the wall. “I’ll leave you two to sort it out, Jason.” Mum laughed as she went off to work. I guess she remembers how it used to be.
I’d only been back from the spinal unit a few days – lots of new stuff to handle and I couldn’t cut it. When you’re dead from the waist down your guts don’t work properly; you plan ‘bowel days’ and dose up the day before. It had worked. I was expected to be pleased. “I couldn’t do anything right before, now I get six bloody gold stars for shitting on time.” I was yelling like a rousie, enjoying the power of my voice bouncing off the ceiling. She winced and bit her lip. I wanted to hurt her. I hated myself for that. She was my mum for Christ’s sake. She got up nights to turn me so I wouldn’t get pressure sores – like some decrepit old geezer – and then did everything else for me during the day. Why didn’t she shout back? She used to give a good enough tongue-lashing before the accident.
I don’t think Mum knew quite what to do with me. No problem with the practical side; she’d given up her part-time job at the old people’s home to be my carer, but where was the tough hug “get-that-mess-out-of-here” Mum? She would’ve shifted a mountain if it got in your way but she didn’t take any lip and you wouldn’t want a passing clip from those powerful hands. Now, it was like putting my foot on the brake and finding no resistance: I hit the wall too often. I hated her for being like that, doing what she had to do. I hated myself. I had plenty of hate to go round, and to spare.
I broke off with my girlfriend – well, fiancé – we were supposed to get hitched in October. I knew Trace still came round to see Mum. I heard their low voices nattering in the kitchen. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to see her. What was the point?
Dad was the only one who didn’t get my shit. He’s a builder, runs a few steers on the property, too. In the house he’s a calm presence; big – fills the doorway but all muscle – and quiet. He never wastes words. Does what’s needed – lifting, pushing, fixing, with no more than, “OK, son?” He’s like a roof truss, Dad. Stops the whole shambles falling in. I know a bit about roof trusses – I’d just got my chippy’s certificate before hell came knocking.
I wonder no one ever said: “It’s your own bloody fault, Jason.” because in a way it was, but knowing that didn’t help. The irony is it was going to be my last stint on the speedway. Mum hated me driving at meets and usually had a go at me beforehand. Trace never said much but didn’t go with me. Anyway, I’d decided to give it away. It’s not cheap, and we were saving for a deposit. Trace was working harder at it than I was and that didn’t seem right. But I was determined to have a final race to remember and I’d got my eager mitts on a super production – a WRX Subaru – the sideways, on-boost cornering of that car is really something else. The track was dry, hard, and fast and I still don’t know how we got into a three car pile-up. Talk about carnage. The other two lucky buggers walked away. They said it was a freak accident. Yeah, freak is what I felt like.
They let me leave the spinal unit earlier than usual because I wasn’t responding, co-operating or whatever. There were people there worse off, it’s not that I thought I was the only one with a problem – I’m not that much of a dick-head. They tried to give me counselling but pain shared is pain doubled as far as I can see. I was glad to be home, but I was a real mess for a while, despite all the drugs – post trauma something or other they said. Dad had already made alterations in the house – widened doorways, put in ramps, grip bars – a wheelchair changes your whole environment.
But things improved once I started rehab. The trainer was Bennie – a real hard case. He’d been a rugby coach and took no shit from anyone. His favourite saying was: “Get to know your body, if anything moves, use it, be it only two fingers.”
According to the doc it could have been worse. “You’ve sustained a C7 injury, a crushed vertebra,” he said, “It’s causing compression on the spinal cord but it’s not severed –that’s something.” In plain language, I couldn’t move my legs: no one was sticking their necks out to say whether I ever would. Bennie worked on strengthening my upper body and trying to get back some confidence. It was proving a hard slog, but as the weeks went by I felt my body, at least, was beginning to get somewhere.
Then one day Trace walked into the living room. I knew it was her because I’d seen her car turning into the drive. I was sitting in my wheelchair watching a video and didn’t turn around.
“What do you want, Trace?” I hadn’t yet made much progress as a reasonable human being – still rejecting everything to do with my old life though I hadn’t found a new one. Being Trace, she rode out my welcome and I can’t remember what was said at first – not a lot. I’d destroyed what we had; made us almost strangers. We’d been going out since high school; went everywhere together and shared a wacky sense of humour. We even looked alike: tall and big-boned, the same dark, curly hair out of control most of the time. There’d never been anyone else. She was the best. But I felt like dead meat then; it changed everything. Then she started on about the wedding. The RSA hall had been booked a while back – you had to do that, it was a popular venue.
I still didn’t look up from the screen, “Well, you can bloody cancel it.”
“I can cancel the wedding, Jason, no problem, but I’m not cancelling the baby.”
I spun the chair round and looked at her. Jesus Christ. I couldn’t even stand and she was throwing a kid at me. I hadn’t seen her for months; I hadn’t known and I couldn’t take it.
“Mine, is it?”
Without a word, Trace lunged forward and slapped my face. I must have just stared at her, because after a while she said, “I’ll leave you to think it through, Jason.” and let herself out through the range slider. I watched her get into her old Colt and drive off. She must have come straight from work; she was still wearing her blue jacket from the pharmacy.
Bloody terrible thing to say. I could have cut out my tongue. I hadn’t meant it. I was just kicking out – yeah, right.
Truth is, that would have been the best news going before I became such a useless pillock.
I was so pathetic during rehab that afternoon Bennie knew something was up.
“What’s the matter with you, Jason, you’ve not got both oars in the water, mate?” I spilled out the whole story. He looked at me hard for a while, nodded and said, “Right, grab the bar, Jason, lift your arse out of that chair, you’ve got a big game coming up.”
The following day I saw Trace parking in the yard – Mum went out to feed the chooks. Before she was hardly through the door, I was spinning my wheels towards her, “Jeez, Trace, look I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”
“I know that J, that’s why I slapped you – to wake up the real Jason, and I’m not sorry.” She laughed; so did I. I’d almost forgotten how. I asked her about the baby. I was still getting my head around that – our own kid. “Two more months…we’ll work it out together, Jason.”
It was a bit scary, wondering how we’d manage everything, but I felt like I’d won the first division prize. Those two months I didn’t see much of Trace – working in the gym like my life depended on it. I was aiming to start a furniture-making course at the rehab centre.
That feels like yonks ago, and now I’ve got young Tobi on my knees, trying to shovel mushy food into his mouth. He spits it out and throws it around – thinks it’s all a game. He’s a lively little sprog – my son.
I’ve got a job, but I still train with Bennie: nobody’s promising I can chuck the chair one day, but as Bennie says, “Cut out the dags first, mate.”
We haven’t done the wedding thing yet. I want to stand beside Trace for that.
The whole story is told through the inner recollections of one character acting as ‘first person’ narrator, including his memory of brief dialogue spoken by four other characters. Each piece of dialogue plays a specific role.
The mother’s words at the beginning provide the narrator’s name and gender, and indicate the presence of another, unidentified person. The doctor’s diagnosis of Jason’s injury establishes a key plot element. Bennie reveals more about the challenges involved in Jason’s rehabilitation and marks turning points in his progress, and Trace’s lines move the plot to a new level and direction: the announcement of her pregnancy; her understanding of Jason and intention to stand by him, and the fact that the baby is due in two months – urgency that spurs Jason’s efforts.
Jason’s ‘character voice’ during the early part of the story is that of a young man traumatized into a state of self pity and hatred of everyone, including himself. He has occasional insights: correcting himself saying “girlfriend” when she is his “fiancée” – no longer denying the more serious loss of an imminent bride – and when acknowledging that his body, but not his attitude, had made some improvement.
His inability to cope comes to a climax in his response to news of the baby: “Mine, is it?” Up to that point, no one had challenged his behaviour, acting as if he was not responsible and could not be expected to alter it. Trace’s slap treats him as the old, pre-injury Jason, making him rethink his situation. He reconnects with a deeper self that wants to create a future with Trace.
After this crisis, the tone of inner dialogue changes to optimism as Jason prepares for fatherhood by undertaking training and finding a job so he can support his new family. Delighting in his son, he seems to have come to terms with his condition, but the ending is ambiguous: he has yet to face the fact that he may never be able to stand beside Trace.
Language, especially the choice of metaphors and phrasing, provided the key not only to characterization, but to tracing the arc of the story as Jason’s physical and mental ability to cope increased and his ‘voice’ changed.
At the time I wrote this story, I was giving rehabilitation massage to a client who had sustained more severe spinal injuries than Jason – a much older man at a different stage of life – but that situation provided more than a story idea and technical knowledge about dealing with disability on a day to day basis. I was aware of my own inner conflict between sympathy (which can diminish its recipient) and the role of a therapist expected to offer a degree of challenge to a patient, albeit with compassion. Empathy was more value than sympathy – to both of us.
The process of working through this – almost like absorbing a new culture, developing an additional voice– generated the story and the need to write it. The voice of young Jason was shaped from observation and reading, especially on speedways, but also from inner doubts of my own capacity to cope with severe disability.
[Spinning on Two Wheels is set in New Zealand, accounting for the words ‘rousie’, ‘RSA’, ‘dags’ and other local details. A longer version, with some cultural reference edited, was selected for a shortlist of twelve by the 2010 H. E. Bates Short Story Competition and published in their anthology].
To ask questions or comment on any of the points raised in this write-up drop a comment below.
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist and writer. She is the author of A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. Her essay, Powerful Women: From Fiction to Fact was published in The Village Square Journal in February 2018. Visit her website at http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com/ and follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson
©Featured image courtesy of Trish Nicholson.