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The beauty of Big Time – and a dialogue request

I was going to talk dialogue this week, only then I noticed the date. The last Friday of August, a tipping point for the year. The last golden breath of summer. The last week of vacation, before:

  • Return to school
  • Blackberry collecting
  • Apple scrumping
  • Hello again to socks
  • Hedges gather little jewels of purple and red (haws, sloes, damsons, crabapples, all of which are abundant near me)
  • Tints of yellow in the leaves
  • The long poles of cow parsley have dried out

I live rurally in the fine county of Oxford and – if you have the misfortune to live anywhere else at all – my experience of late summer and early autumn will be different from yours. So, I don’t know, if you live in Australia, you probably associate this season with even more massive spiders than usual, yellow dust storms that last a month, the croc vs kangaroo Olympics, and the chatter of wallabies high up in the eucalyptuses. (Disclosure: I have never been to Australia, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the country nailed.)

Now we’re talking about time this week, but first a little announcement:


We’ll talk about dialogue next week, and we’ll do that via your own submissions.

Give me some chunks of dialogue to examine next week. Here are the rules:

  1. Drop your offerings into the comments below this post.
  2. Max 300 words per submission, please.
  3. One submission per person.
  4. Make sure you give us a line or two of explanation first off, so we can understand the context of your scene.
  5. Don’t email me anything. If it ain’t on Townhouse, I ain’t looking at it. 
  6. If you pop anything in the comments below, I'm gonna assume you're OK me RIPPING YOUR WORK APART MERCILESSLY IN PUBLIC. If you're not, then keep your tin hat on and your head below that sandbag parapet.
  7. Specifically, your work and my comments on it may appear in an email to a lot of people, here on Townhouse and potentially one day in a book. If you don't want that happen, then please see above in relation to tin hats and parapets.

I only pick work that I basically like, though, so if I pick your work, you're doing OK.

Okiedoke ...

Now back to time:

Movies struggle with Big Time. They can do day to day stuff easily. We see a character going to bed. We see them eating a croissant and drinking coffee. The audience easily conjectures that this is the morning after. Boof.

But Big Time? For movies, that’s hard. The old Hitchcock era movies used to handle those things by pages flipping off a wall calendar, shots of the changing seasons. (Wind! The universal signal of autumn. Snow! The universal signal of winter. And so on.)

Now all that’s a bit crass, a bit heavy. These days, movie makers attempt something slicker, even if it’s just a caption at the bottom of the screen or a speeded-up, CGI of the wind-snow-crocuses model of passing time.

You, a novelist, don’t have the same problem. If you want to tell the reader it was two years later, you can just say “Two years passed.” That’s simple, clean narration. It doesn’t have that CGI, calendar flying clunkiness. No one will resent your simple captioning.

But time offers so much more. It’s not a problem to be dealt with, but a dimension to be embraced. Think of it like place, a silent character, a huge extra richness in your broth.

Here are some examples of how you can use it – but there are a million more. Think of these examples as mere appetite prompters.

Cold Time

Changes in weather is a technique so obvious, it could come close to a flipping calendar in terms of crassness. But it really doesn’t have to be like that. The novel of mine that made most use of the weather was Love Story, with Murders. There, I carefully seeded the earlier chunks of the book with hints of chill and forecasts of something much colder on the way.

Then, before the cold had actually arrived, my character was fussing around with giant red snow shovels and the like, but in a context where those things felt odd and out of place.

Then – the snow arrived. Canadian levels of snow and cold in a country that doesn’t normally get much of either. The snow wrought huge changes in the landscape, but also in Fiona’s life.

Alone in a remote cottage with inadequate provisions, she is forced to adapt her diet:

Make tea. There’s nothing herbal here, so I make do with a regular tea-bag. No milk either, so just brew a pint of hot, black tea in a huge pottery mug. Contrary to my usual habit, I add sugar, to take away the taste of the metallic mountain water, the strongly tannined tea. It tastes like sweetened bog-water, but is nevertheless somehow welcome. A comfort against the cold.

That’s not strictly about either weather or time, and yet it is both. By compelling us to register change, we notice both the cold and the time. And those changes register not just in feelings-of-being-chilly and making-of-log-fires, but also in unexpected ways – earthenware cups and sweet, tannined tea. Time and the cold become multidimensional: they disrupt habits, force giant earthenware cups into our hands, change the taste of tea.

And then, of course, time and the story proceed.

Fiona almost dies in the cold. And then the snow melts, and she encounters her normal landscape, post-snow with its dirty urban water and gritted streets.

Because the changes of weather were viscerally felt by the character herself, the timescape in the book also registered acutely. And the felt passage of time is so close to the actual experience of story, the reader ends up having a deeper experience than they otherwise would. It’s kind of magical, but it definitely happens.

Big Time

My Lieutenant’s Lover began a love story in St Petersburg in 1917 – separated the characters for a quarter of a century – then brought them together again in post-War Berlin.

Any love story needs to achieve the ache of longing, and there are probably more subtle techniques than the one I used. But dropping two world wars, one revolution, plenty of gulag, and a thousand miles of separation between the two characters certainly did the trick. A character only had to glance back over that past – a sentence, two sentences – for the reader to feel the scale of the loss and the longing.

And all those little markers of age – an attractive seventeen-year-old girl turning into a middle-aged Red Army sergeant – made that weight of time present on every page

Also, my choice of time and place meant that the physical world always reflected the passage of time. The Berlin of my love story was a place of rubble. The factory that had once belonged to my male protagonist was so completely bombed out that virtually nothing remained. A youth using its slim remaining shelter christened it the Nichtsfabrik, the Nothing Factory.

That book with its huge, tragic timescape, just felt big to a reader. It wasn’t (by my standards) massively long, but the love story took on an epic quality simply by virtue of the passing years – and the weight with which the readers felt those years.

Precise Time

One of my books, some time back, was struggling in its near-to-final draft. Everything that needed to be there was there. The story had no fundamental problems, but it didn’t yet have the iron hardness of something ready to print.

A couple of things fixed that book. One was just hard editing. Literally, an edit that looked for and deleted spare words, eliminated unwanted sentences. My character’s voice is always taut, even if my writing’s only at 95%. But that extra 5% brought that tautness to a line of constant tension. A glittering brightness.

But the other thing was: nailing the timeline. Figuring out if the gap between Event A and Event B was four days or five days and being explicit about it. The surprising thing about correcting that timeline was that I’d unconsciously been avoiding proper description, because I knew I was blurry about time. So if my character was out and about in central Cardiff, and I didn’t know what day of the week it was, I’d pull back from really describing the streets. A Wednesday quietness? Or a Saturday bustle? The hubbub of a rugby match at the Millennium Stadium? Or pensioners enjoying a discounted Thursday morning haircut?

The precision of timing didn’t just help my readers sort timings through in their heads. More important, it helped me. That last twist of the lens helped achieve that final, defining focus.

That book turned out a good ’un in the end.


That’s it from me. The blackberries are early this year, but not sweet. I think we need a day or two of sunshine. Which, oh my merry non-British friends, is something you can completely and utterly rely on in the fine county of Oxford.

Don't forget I want to see your dialogue snippets. Chuck em below. Follow them thar rules above.

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Comments (118)
    • This scene focuses on a conversation between two inpatients in a mental health hospital.

      I didn’t know what to say and blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, jokingly asking, 

      ‘Do you ever feel like you’re a deranged caterpillar forbidden to turn into a butterfly, condemned to wallow in the misery of knowing that the one thing you cherish and need from life just isn’t there?’

      Amy shook her head, noting, albeit endearingly, 

      ‘You’re weird. Cute, but weird. And yeah, I agree with your freakishly bizarre metaphor given our current existence is pretty much that of a partly dead larva. But I feel more like being in one of those cult zombie movies from the ‘60s, you know, ‘Night of the Living Dead?’ We’re terrified, sitting in an abandoned farmhouse and the zombies surrounding us are rabidly gorging on the living.’ 

      Laughing, I replied,

      ‘Your zombie anecdote is much odder than my freakishly bizarre metaphor.’

      Again, Amy shook her head, proclaiming,

      ‘No, it isn’t. And anyway, mine is an allegory, not an anecdote.’

      I answered, unabashedly,

      ‘Allegory? Nah., It was merely anecdotal.’

      She replied, not being able to suppress a smile, 

      ‘It wasn’t a fucking anecdote. It was a legitimate allegory.’ 

      I was absorbed in the conversation and spoke, sarcastically, 

      ‘Well. Ok. But where’s the allegory part? Please explain.’ 

      Amy answered,

      ‘The allegorical device uses zombies to depict normal people in the outside world, feasting on the remains of each other’s critical thinking ability. The farmhouse represents the hospital. It’s the inpatients overarching self-awareness that we aren’t zombies keeping us safe and alive. We’re the normal ones. Right? So, that’s an allegory.’

      Somewhat convinced, I resolved to keep the joke going, 

      ‘We need a dictionary. At the most, that’s another freakishly bizarre metaphor.’

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      • Adriana Hirtescu


        Joseph is an army veteran who  got out recently and is now doing a diving course in his vacation in Mexico. Andrea, the diving instructor asks a few standard questions to get to know her student.

        ‘ How is your fitness level’ asks Andrea for starters.

        ‘I think as good as can be expected. I got out of the army recently, after a 6 years contract’ replies Joseph.

        ‘Well I think that makes you more than qualified for the course, then’ says Andrea with a touch of surprise in her voice. ‘How old were you when you got into the army’ asks Andreea next.

        ‘I was only eighteen then, I’m twenty seven now’ comes Joseph’s  swift answer.

        ‘Wow, that was rather early, what made you choose the army at that age?’ continues Andrea on her line of questiong to asses her student’s mental capacity and structure of judgement.

        ‘There are good benefits like money and free education, plus the experience, training and discipline that comes with it and can build up a person’s character’ comes again Joseph’s smart answer.

        ‘Or could be the experience and the hazards that ruins a person’s life’ clearly Andreea is not very convinced army is the best choice for a young man.

        ‘Well, it can go both ways, it could go really wrong, or you could be one of the lucky few that makes it and has a great few experiences to share or a  story to tell’ Joseph is confident in his choice being the best at that time.

        ‘Why did you do only 6 years then?’ insists Andreea on the same subject.

        ‘6 years is enough, I did my fair share of army service and duty, I wanted to move on to other things’ replies Joseph calm and reassuring.



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        • Carole/ There Is No Try

           On holiday in France, mistaken for the girlfriend of a psychopathic assassin, Susie is threatened and interrogated by the stranger she had rescued from a burning car.

          His face so close to hers, she felt his breath tickle her skin as he spoke. The words so soft she had to strain to hear them.

          ‘I’m kind of hoping you won’t tell me and I can put you down like the mad bitch you are.’ He stared without blinking, trapping her with those strange eyes.

          ‘Nothing to say, Sousan? Then I’ll begin. Ten......’ he paused. ‘Why don’t you count with me? Nine.’ Taking a deep breath he exhaled slowly.

          ‘Eight.’ He rolled his head and she heard it click. The gun in his hand remained motionless as it dug into her forehead. ‘Now, where were we?’ he muttered. ‘Ah yes, seven.’ The finger moved very gently towards the trigger as if to remind her.

          ‘Six’ he closed his eyes, shuttering the amber streaks before they opened again. ‘Five.’ He lifted his left hand. Her eyes followed. ‘Four.’The forefinger moved from side to side. ‘Three. Tick tock. Time is running out. Two.......’

          She pushed the words out a frozen throat. ‘I don’t know where he is. I swear, I don’t. Please, please don’t do this.’ Hated herself for begging. Hated him even more for making her do it.

          He watched her face with a disturbing intimacy. ‘One,’ he said.

          As she saw the finger pull the trigger she wet herself. A stream of urine ran down her leg before her body disseminated the information the brain had sent it. She was alive.

          ‘Bang!’ he whispered, brushing her forehead with his lips.

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          • Jane - 'What we have in common'  A YA novel

             Lia is 13, obsessed with finding out the identity of her father. They have just had a science lesson about genetics, where they were discussing family resemblances.

            There were six of us squeezed onto the two benches of one of the playground picnic tables.  Jack, Dillon and Ryan on one side, and me, Hetty and Kate on the other.  The tables under the shelter of the overhang are the ones the year 10s get.  They get to choose. They pull seniority. We’ll get the choice next year. But I do wonder how they do it. They couldn’t physically hurt us if we sat there, because there are teachers watching over us. They just have it. The power.

                 ‘I don’t look anything like my parents, either,’ said Ryan. 

                 ‘You so do!’ Dillon shoved Ryan backwards, laughing. 

                 Ryan grabbed the table edge to save himself, ‘dickhead! – what was that for?’ He was not laughing. 

                 ‘I think you do look like your mum, you know,’ said Kate. 

                  ‘She’s just insulted your mum,’ said Jack. 

                  Ryan almost grinned.   ‘She hasn’t. I know I look like her. You two are dickheads. Don’t know where you get that from.’

                 We all laughed.

                 It’s like a firework going off, this banter. It zips about, a burst of mini-explosions, each one from somewhere different in the air. Sometimes it’s ooh, sometimes it’s aaah. I love it.

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            • Alvin- 'When You Wish Upon A Diamond'

              Nex, a struggling police cadet-in-training and Rafael, an ex-convict who'd killed Nex's best friend ten years ago meet up accidentally in a cafe and now Rafael's trying to get his former friend to trust him again.

              Nex put down the folder and looked at Rafael, jaw set. A vein appeared on his forehead.

              "Do you really expect me to buy this?"

              "I'm not joking."

              "I noticed. It all made sense till it didn't."

              An icy silence followed. Nex swirled the golden contents of his glass and gulped them at once, glaring at Rafael through it with obvious hate.

              "Why did you come back? After that day? After all those years?"

              "It was a mistake. Leo was never supposed to die like that."

              Nex's chest tightened at the mention of his best friend's name.

              "I moved on long ago." It was a lie.

              Rafael didn't continue. He saw the hurt and pain in his eyes and he didn't want it unleashed on him. The wounds he'd inflicted on Nex obviously had never healed. He slurped his decaff, sifting through the possible ways he could try to make his former friend believe him.

              "Trust me, this is big. If you followed this lead-"

              "That's not how the police work. It's probably fake anyway, just like your concern."

              "It was an accident, okay. I'm not messing around. Catalyst's the guy the police have been looking for. I've seen him and what he can do. This investigation can't wait."

              "If you think that you can trick me again then you are wrong."

              "I am not!" Rafael slammed his coffee mug into the table and their eyes met. The atmosphere in the cafe turned livid for a few seconds but Rafael no longer cared. For a moment they looked as if they were going to fight. They were mirror images for a second, each mimicking the other's body language. Then Rafael relaxed, sighed sadly and gazed at Nex.

              "I'm sorry," he finally said but it didn't matter. It was too late for that.

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