Writer’s Log: 1400 what we remember

Update: I’m back on my first manuscript, Blue Across the Sea, rewriting it for self-publishing on Draft2Digital here soon. This story portrays a designed environment, a bucolic dis-utopian future set in the Great Basin (which is now the Bonneville Inland Sea). I had a great time writing it, but my skills were pitiful — and it shows now that I’m going back through it.

Incidentally, Shadow Shoals takes place in the same future time frame – but on the East Coast of the US. These stories are 200+ years post CME.


I sat and thought last weekend about stories and what we remember from them. What makes a story memorable? I’m struggling with trying to get the parts of a story balanced: plot, setting, conflict, events, characterization, and dialog. And I wondered if the things we remember about a story might help focus my emphasis. And here is one theory I came up with: What we remember are the people, settings and events.

In M.R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts I remember the classroom, the chemical scrub, the gnashing of teeth at the sergeant’s arm, the girl strapped to the table about to get her brain removed, the escape from the facility, the bouncing trip in the HumVee, the use of a tiny girl as a lure, the grey wall of fungus.

Do I remember any dialog? No. I remember what happened, the events and the reactions, the suffocating thought of spores entering my lungs. The realization that this was the best representation of zombies ever.

I don’t remember anything anybody said. I recall the girl was super bright, and the teacher naive (no doubt communicated through dialog). But nothing specific.

There’s this YouTube ad, a grizzled writer (for a Masters Class I think) sits and talks, “I’ll a piece of paper, and a pen would be nice, and I’ll sit down and write some dialog.”

I imagine two friends stepping out from the theater after they saw that paper and pen dialog movie, they meet a third friend:

“So, what’d you think?”
“It was good.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, it was two people talking.”
“And what happened?”
“Nothing really. The man smoked a pipe. The woman drank coffee. They were both in their sixties.”
“Nothing happened?”
“They talked.”
“Okay. About what then?”
“Oh, life, love, this and that, I don’t really remember.”
“But it was good.”
“Yeah, but, no, nothing happened. Oh, wait, the guy made a mess with the ashes as he cleaned his pipe.”

We remember events and setting and situations and rarely what anybody said.

Dialog seems to represent the feel and packaging of a character. Dialog is the critical glue that holds story parts together. The parts might be good and memorable on their own, but how we get from scene to scene is people talking us through it.

Yet, we remember the parts and not the glue.

I’m sure there are exceptions, but, again, I’m seeking broad spectrum heuristics here that I can remember as general application rules.

16 thoughts on “Writer’s Log: 1400 what we remember

  1. Dialogue and character aren’t necessarily glue, it’s who the story happens to. There are two types of story. “Narrowtive” and “Tails”. They don’t teach that, that simply, anywhere. Narrowtive. This is your kid in the backseat after a birthday party. And then and then and then and then. One person, telling the literal you, a story. From their persepctive. Here’s how I sat through three hours at Discount Tire. As full of minutae or people watching as the story teller desires. But still narrowtive. Me. What I did, saw, tripped over, stepped in. Situational is a tale of someplace that isn’t the chair you’re sitting in listening to someone tell you about aunt Betty’s farm or the Grand Canyon or Discount Tire and their observations on their reality. Tails are like the thing on a dog that unexpectedly bang into something. A vase, a table, your leg. You watch them wag, follow their movements,see where they go next that you might not expect. Think of any dude flick with Segal. He could have kicked all that ass to a soundtrack and done it without a word. Maybe facial expressions. Who cares what he has to say, he’s there to kick ass. Period. That could be Narrowtive. “The Great Gatsby”? Considered narrative, of a sort, but if the characters didn’t speak and we didn’t decide for ourselves how we felt about them, Fitzgerald could have said, “This rich guy, well, he was obsessed with this dude’s wife. And while they were getting around to it the dude with the wife the rich dude was hot for? He was doinking this mechanic’s wife. So the mechanic can’t figure who his wife is doinking, figures it’s the rich dude and shoots him. Rich people. Too much time on their hands, you know?” But he didn’t do that. He wove a tapestry of emotions and scenery that are a verbal painting of the time and let a “narrator” tell a story full of…dialogue. He didn’t tell us who these people were, he let THEM tell us. We get thenarrator’s feelings without them unfolding the story. Pages of party scenes and character building with dialogue and action tags. In the 20s. And while the language is dated, the conversation could be happening at a cocktail party. The line where Daisy offers to hook Nick up is classic in so many ways. So. Maybe we don’t remember what characters say. But if we don;t know them, we can;t care about happens to them. Oh, lovely. Did you see that car explode?

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    1. Perhaps we remember the events and situations /because/ of how the characters react and comment about the activity. Without quality, engaging and intriguing discourse between characters, what’s happening to them, the shock and awe, will be forgotten.

      I recall Shadow from American Gods and the old man, Odin (or who ended up being Odin). Much of the stuff that happened to Shadow, nothing anybody said. But, I know Shadow as a stoic, calm, slow to anger man and Odin as a callous, pompous liar. And recalling what happened to them both is enhanced, no doubt by how and what they spoke to each other.

      We know and care for them through their actions, thoughts and speech. We remember them because of what happened to them.

      I think there’s some basic human insight in there somewhere. Kind of like “I don’t recall the address — but I can tell you how to get there.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. People hear with their eyes,, or so Sandra Dee told Bobby Darin. In a film we’d never know who was the liar and who was the stoic simply by watching. We’d pick a side based on whatever and wait for the outcome. People talking make the difference in how we perceive them, and the film. The same in lit. You think too damn much.

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      2. I say that because you can think a song or a story to death. Lamont Dozier told me when they started dancing in the control room, it was ready for Motown. If you ain’t dancin’ it ain’t right. Simple.

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        1. Yes. That moment when you know it’s right is exactly that – a moment.
          But how do you get to that moment? Through that dogged slog of unknowns and guesses and (eww) trial and error? That path through swamp and flood, dancing from tussock to tuft, soaking your sneakers in the mire of ooze and black tar mud, learning now to navigate that landscape — man, that is so damn hard.

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          1. Read it out loud. If it’s stilted or awkward, fix it. The trick is to be able to take a step back and look at it as a craft, not your secret child. Is it right? Does it groove? If it’s danceable but maybe the shaker part vanished in the mix? Screw it. Dance.

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  2. Great analysis. I’m beginning to think that all stories are Love stories. Or at least about relationships. Girl w/gifts about the relationship between girl, teacher. Of course, the mythology comes in and they must travel, learn and change. Over hill, over dale…they are doing something, going somewhere. Makes it exciting. That’s what I have to do next. Make my characters DO something besides mull over their condition. LOL! Anyway, before one writes, on must ask: “why do people give a shit?” and you’ve done that nicely here.

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    1. >Make my characters DO something besides mull over their condition.


      Of course, the counter argument is, do we care to have our readers and audience recall our story, or is entertaining them — for the moment — enough? I would conjecture that a great meal will be forgotten unless the occasion, location and situation is momentous. Yes I was fed. Is that enough? Or would you want to have that meal remembered above all meals as something special? If so, it better be more than just good food.

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        1. Trying to be conscious of it – yes. The story already has considerable memorable moments. It’s missing some of the glue and nuance that would enhance the memory of it. Here’s my rewrite targets.

          Author overreach.
          Too frequent use of “ing”.
          Flipflopped action targets or emphasis targets.
          POV of anyone but Tillion. (Seka realized, Kata worried, Jorind considered, Marion doubted…)
          Uncharacteristic speech (for any character).

          More Tillion internal dialog and reflection (the boy is too flat a character).
          More characterization of the supporting characters (appearance, behavior).
          More sensory description. (smells, sounds, weather, colors).

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