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Robert's Rules of Writing #61: Pass the Scuttlebutt

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With this rule, Masello suggests that writers ought to be gossips.

I doubt he means that in a malicious way, of course, although from my own perspective gossip is generally not a good thing. What Masello suggests is that by trading a piece of juicy information for another piece of juicy information, a writer can find out the "private face of public affairs," and help create the motivations for believable characters.

That's something I can completely understand. If you want to create characters that come alive on the page, the best way to do that is to find out what makes real people tick. And sometimes, that requires getting the goods on your fellow human being.

As an example of useful gossip, let me tell you of a conversation I overheard yesterday afternoon at the Barnes & Noble in Brookline. Ironically, I was browsing the books in the writing section when a young man and a young woman in the same aisle were carrying on a private conversation. However, they didn't go away or lower their voices when I entered the aisle, so as far as I was concerned, they had no problem with a stranger listening in. (Perhaps they would have thought otherwise if they knew the stranger kept a blog, but then again, I was looking at the books on writing. That should have been a clue.) Their conversation went something like this:

Man: So she finally broke up with him, and the rest of us were very grateful, because we couldn't stand him.

Woman: Wow. That must have been good.

Man: Well, yeah. But then she got back together with him a month later, and it was really awkward.

I couldn't help but be curious about this conversation. I desperately wanted to know more. Had it not been outside the bounds of etiquette, I would have approached the man and asked him for more information. Why did his friend break up with her boyfriend? What did everyone say to her about him after the breakup? Did she share her friends' confidential low opinions with her boyfriend when they reunited? Is that why it's become so awkward? And so on.

Their conversation was the perfect dialogue for any writer to eavesdrop upon. When we write our stories, we're inviting our readers to drop in on the personal lives of our characters. We need to use whatever tricks we can to make those personal lives intriguing, and make our readers desperate to learn more. And I would challenge anyone privy to those snippets of gossip to deny their curiosity.

Hm. Perhaps we can even get a writing exercise out of this. Anyone who feels up to it, write the story of that man and his friend. As Masello would be the first to note, gossip has its uses.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


I admit I am a gossip, but I've always considered it a character flaw. It is pretty common that people will break up, the friends take sides, run down the other side, and then when they get back together...it gets awkward. What do you do when you say, "Good for you. That guy was a jerk and no good for you." And then a week later they are back together again. Pretend you like him?
Which is why I always try to be circumspect in sharing my opinions. Even if you pointed out to the friend that you were just repeating back what they themselves said, they're still going to think it's your own opinion, and not theirs.
I am waiting for the anonymous post to this entry that reads, "Hey man, what were you doing eavesdropping on my conversation yesterday!?" Of course, if such an entry is posted, it would provide you with the perfect opportunity to ask your questions...

Anyone who feels up to it, write the story of that man and his friend.

The mission was simple this time. When the quantum computer analyzed all possible time-paths, it was discovered that things first went wrong three decades ago, when Michael Burstein didn't write about gossip. All they had to do was pop back three decades and get him to write about gossip.

"But how to we do that?" Ellen said. "Of all the things in the world he could write about, how do we get him to write about gossip?"

Nathan had been going through the records. He ignored Ellen's comment and said, "Fascinating! Did you know that this Burstein fellow once wrote a story about a guy who had to travel back in time to ensure that a would-be science fiction writer would have his first story published."


"So it seems to me that a guy like that would be receptive to us just popping back and telling him that he has to write about gossip."

"Don't be ridiculous!" Ellen said.

"Do you have any better ideas?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. Burstein frequents a bookstore near his home in--"

"Book store?"

"Yeah, this is back when books were more than just data, they had physical dimension, remember?"

"Okay, go on."

"Well, suppose we find out when he's going to be in the bookstore and suppose that we jump back to that particular time--"

"Yeah, but where in the store would he go?" Nathan asked.

"He's a writer. He'll be in the section on writing."

"So what then?"

"We arrange to be in the aisle. All we have to do is come up with something that sounds juicy. These writers snap that kind of stuff up."

"What do you mean?"

Ellen thought for a moment. "Something like this. You'll say, 'So she finally broke up with him, and the rest of us were very grateful, because we couldn't stand him.' And then I'll say, 'Wow. That must have been good.' And then--now here's the capper--you'll say, 'Well, yeah. But then she got back together with him a month later, and it was really awkward.'"

Nathan stared at her. "That's it? You think that will get him to write about gossip?"

"I'm sure of it," Ellen said as they headed toward the time machine.

(Sorry, I just couldn't resist.)
I like it. :-)
to jamietr: :D

As for Masello's latest advice: it's staple playwriting fodder, and I use it in my prose stories, too.

In theater, the story is told through conversation. Tht's all you get, unless someone's breaking the fourth wall, and only a few people can get away with that, and certainly not all the time.

At any rate, that's the dramatic hook. Right there. What you overheard would be a classic first conversation in the first act of a play. What you say about eavesdropping is completely accurate.

Any story involves the eavesdropping of the reader onto the characters. In prose, you get the advantage of a narrator explaining the things you acn't necessarily get by direct observation, but it's the in-media-res--that feelign of being dropped in the middle of something you want to know more about--that's essential.

I find that in my prose, when I get bogged down and stuck in a circle, if I force myself to sit back and watch the scene, and arrive at it in the very middle of something, the whole thing comes alive again and I can move on.

There's no shame in eavesdropping, so long as it's not for...um...future destructive purposes. I eavesdrop all the time. Mabfan's evaluation of the situation--a private conversation continued at normal volume after the arrival of a stranger--is good enough criterion for me.
I was just teasing mabfan about the eavesdropping part. I can't count the number of conversations I've overheard on the train ride to or from work that have somehow worked their way into something I have written.
It's funny; I was just at a play, and thinking about how the story had to move forward almost entirely in dialogue. I like stories of that sort, for some reason.

December 2016

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