by Susan Squires
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 effects that 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. Of course you all 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. 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–great for pacing. 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 has to 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 Field who played his wife. He 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 their son’s 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 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.”
What it does: Deepens the character and makes them more engaging. Involves the reader, 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. I did that on two occasions, and it works.
Try asking yourself whether characters can be combined. Can the mentor role 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 deeper and more compelling, and it engages your reader in figuring out what’s really going on–a deeply satisfying experience.
In short, it is a key to making your book thrill agents, editors, and readers. That definitely qualifies it as a “secret of the universe” for me.
Do you use double-duty writing? Which of the five above is your favorite? Do you have questions for Susan? What else do you think makes for a faster read?
Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.