This is how Laurie Halse Anderson handles multiple speakers on in scene. The word dialogue comes from the Greek dialogos, with the prefix dia- meaning through or across, with the same root as di-, the word for two. It’s usually easier to keep fictional conversations between two characters, rather than trying to allow three, four or five characters to carry the conversation. Sometimes, though, you want side characters to get involved. One way to do that is to create a primary conversation and one or two side conversations, which is what Anderson does in “Impossible Knife.”
This is one of my favorite scenes from the novel. In it, the main character, Hayley, is in the school cafeteria with her sole friend, Gracie.
Across the table sat Gracie Rappaport, the casserole-and-muffin-girl. Draped over her was her boyfriend, Topher, Christopher Barnes. (You might have heard of him. When he dumped some girl named Zoe on Labor Day weekend she blasted a disrespectful description of his man-parts all over the Internet. Topher responded with photographic evidence that Zoe was lying. When I asked Gracie about it, all she did was giggle, which was way more information than I wanted.)
With this short intro, Anderson does three things at once.
- We meet both Gracie and Topher, the novels two teen secondary characters, as they enter the scene. This adds implied action to their movements and by coupling them, Anderson establishes the, as a couple, which is useful later.
- We learn that Topher is a player and both proud of and not shy about his equipment. We also learn that Gracie knows about it and implies approval.
- We also see Anderson break the fourth wall so that Hayley addresses the reader directly. It’s always dangerous to break the wall in YA. If the reader is drawn out of the story by the direct address, they may not return. In this book, which is part confessional, Anderson handles the breaking adroitly, burying the “you” behind the parenthesis.
When we return to the dialogue, it’s Topher who speaks first, which establishes him as the more dominate partner:
“What is ‘denotation’?” Topher asked.
“Denotation is when a plot blows up,” I said. “And yes, a pesadilla is a quesadilla stuffed with fish. You are a genius, Gracie.
We get instant characterization from Hayley’s reply. She twists the meaning of the word, showing that she is intelligent, quick witted, and a smartass. Then she bounces easily to respond to Gracie, again showing her wit. We also see Topher’s desire line for the scene: he’s trying to get his vocab homework done the lazy way by asking the smart. Notice that Anderson doesn’t say this: she allows the reader to connect the dots. This important because there isn’t enough room with multiple characters speaking to explain motivations—and why would you if you can show them? Then the fourth character, Finn, appears on stage. If he had been in the scene from the beginning, the number of characters would be confusing. Anderson would also lose the chance to describe him so clearly:
“Don’t write that down.” A shaggy-haired guy with expensive teeth and dark-framed glasses sat down next to me. “She’s messing with you.”
Topher looked at the newcomer. “Where you been?”
Even before we meet Finn, we know that his is a smart as Hayley and that he had Topher are friends. He is self-assured and has money, as indicated by the “expensive teeth.” Notice that even though he knows Hayley is messing around, he doesn’t interrupt her.
“Why don’t I get paid for doing your homework?” I asked.
Topher handed me a quarter. “Denotation. For real.”
“Denotation: a noun that describes the action of a student refusing to take notes during class,” I said.
“Denotation,” said the new guy. “The precise meaning of a word, without any pesky implications attached to it.”
Topher took the quarter back and tossed it to his friend. “Butter, not cream cheese.”
“That’s it,” I said, laying my head back down. “I’m done.”
Gracie lobbed a crumpled napkin at my nose. “Just my Spanish, Hayley, puleeeeeze.”
“Why, exactly, should I do that?”
She pushed her books across the table to me. “Because you’re awesome.”
Notice the quarter and the napkin? Anderson uses these objects to transfer the conversation from one character to another. Our eyes subconcously follow the quarter from Topher to Hayley, then from Topher again to Finn. Gracie lobs the napkin, opening the line of sight from one girl to another, screening them from the boys, and setting up the crossfire that will follow later. In this section, all four characters are speaking. They are not, though, speaking to each other. Topher is actually the linchpin, because he talks to both Hayley and Finn. He transfers the conversation back and forth until Gracie takes it and then adds the sliding of the books to lock the narrative camera on Hayley.
Once we are on Hayley, Anderson takes us into her thoughts, using a mix of monologue and memory to add backstory and deepen the connection between Hayley and Gracie:
Along with tuna noodle casserole and the muffin basket, Gracie had been carrying a photo album that day she came to our door with muffins. In it were pictures of her kindergarten class—our kindergarten class, because I had been in it, too. Looking at mini-me in a hand-knit sweater and braids gave me goose bumps, but I couldn’t pin down exactly why. The only memory I had of kindergarten was peeing my pants during nap time, but Gracie said that never happened. Then she’d asked if I still liked peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Backstory is a necessary part of storytelling. It gives context for a character’s behavior and deeps the significance of that behavior. Like salt, it’s better when sprinkled in small amounts, just enough to add flavor to the narrative and just when it’s needed. Anderson handles this perfectly, so that with the second next sentence, the conversation is passed back to the group:
I did her vocab and handed it back to her as Topher’s friend returned to the table carrying a tray loaded down with bagels and cups of coffee.
The rest of the conversation is the mark of Anderson’s expert craft, as Finn quickly establishes his own desire line, which forces Hayley to respond, creating a dramatic question for the scene. Anderson alternates all of these techniques throughout the rest of the chapter, allowing for three different desire lines and creating the meet-cute between Hayley and Finn, all while not getting tripped up in the various narrative strands.
Take a look at Impossible Knife and see the crossfire for yourself.