A Session with Cara Sue Achterberg
Fred and George are friends. Really? What kind of friends? The kind that finish each other’s sentences? The kind that just met at work? The kind that loan each other the lawn mower or help shovel the driveway? Maybe they like to crack a few beers and catch the game together? Or maybe Fred is the kind of guy George would call if his marriage was breaking up.
When writing friends – good friends – in a story, they come with history and baggage. They know too much about each other and much of their communication is implied. How do you let the reader in on their secrets without shoving a lot of backstory at them?
It’s in the way they talk to each other. Think about your own conversations with friends. You talk very differently with friends you trust and consider your people than you do with friends who may be your friend on Facebook but are more accurately labeled acquaintances.
How can you show this in your writing?
Use nicknames. Many friends who have been friends a long time, give each other affectionate nicknames. While it’s wise to use names sparingly when writing dialogue, friends do use each other’s nicknames in greeting, on the phone, maybe even when teasing each other. Find ways to work them in.
Or use full name. A good friend knows your full name and, in a mother-like tone, might use it, again in a teasing manner.
And speaking of teasing, Friends tease each other. When you are in grade school and someone teases you, your mom says, “That’s because he likes you.” It’s generally true. We tease our friends – in a good natured way.
Reference a history. These characters have a shared history that colors their relationships. Use it.
Give them a good rapport in their dialogue. It’s probably easiest to show chemistry through dialogue. Just like in real life, there are some people who you can easily spar with verbally. You’re comfortable enough to say anything without too much risk.
Make the affection obvious. When you feel close to people, you treat them differently. It’s palpable. You eat off their plate, borrow their hairbrush, adjust their collar – all without asking. There is more touching because personal space isn’t as large when it comes to real friends.
And real friends talk about personal stuff. That’s the advantage of writing close friends: your characters can hash out the dilemma your hero is facing or delve deeper into a theme of your novel.
My novel Girls’ Weekend is the story of three best friends who go away for a weekend together and decide they can’t return home to lives that don’t seem to fit anymore. Many of the conversations are the kind that can only happen between true friends. In fact, the story depends on the chemistry between these three women.
In the following scene, the characters have just come from a night out dancing. They’ve just stopped for coffee and ice cream and are sitting in a car together.
“So, Charlotte, what’s with the Irishman?” asked Dani.
“He was some kind of hot, wasn’t he?” said Charlotte, lighting a cigarette.
“Put that nasty thing out,” said Meg, grabbing it and flinging it out of the car.
“Excuse me? I think someone’s had a little too much to drink!” Charlotte pulled out another cigarette.
Meg started giggling. “What?” asked Charlotte, but Meg was laughing hard now, smacking the dashboard and snorting. Her hysteria was contagious and soon they were all in tears from laughing so hard.
When she could finally get her breath, Meg said, “This is the first time I’ve been out, had too much to drink, danced like a fool, and didn’t have to have sex afterwards.” She started giggling again.
“Meghan Elizabeth, you surely are drunk,” said Charlotte. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say the word sex so many times in a weekend.”
“What?” Meg laughed, leaning into Charlotte, “Sex, sex, sex!”
Charlotte shoved her away.
“Peter’s usually embarrassed when I get drunk or dance too much. So I always feel like I owe him something by the time we get home. Sex is the easiest way to make him happy.”
“Definitely too much information,” said Dani.
“Oh come on, doesn’t drinking and dancing make you want to go home and have sex anyway?” asked Charlotte.
“Drinking and doing almost anything makes me want to have sex,” laughed Dani.
“Actually, whenever I go out drinking and dancing, it’s at some hoity-toity function for Peter’s work. He makes me stay sober so I won’t start dancing and carrying on and embarrass him.”
“You have got to be kidding!” said Charlotte.
“No, that’s why I never get to dance anymore.”
“You should dance every day Meggy,” said Dani, reaching over the seat to take Meg’s hand.
“I know,” said Meg.
“God, it’s so good to be here!” exclaimed Charlotte suddenly, honking the horn. “I so needed this. I feel like a different person.”
“Why haven’t we done this before?” asked Dani.
“A million reasons,” said Meg. “But at least we’re here now.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go back,” said Charlotte.
“Me, too,” said Dani.
Chemistry is one of those elements that is hard to explain. Like Louis Armstrong said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” Believe me, when your characters have chemistry, your readers will know it.
Exercise 1 Think of something that happened recently in your life. Now, write about it as if you’re telling your best friend. When you’re finished, write about it as if you’re telling a coworker or your boss. The chemistry’s different with each, is it not?
Exercise 2 Think about the people you know. With whom do you share “chemistry?” Maybe they irritate you easily or maybe they flirt with you jokingly. Chemistry can be positive and negative. Mine that relationship and write out a piece of dialogue between two characters with positive chemistry. Now write it again between two characters with negative chemistry.
About the Author…
Cara Sue Achterberg is a writer and blogger who lives in New Freedom, PA with her family and an embarrassing number of animals. Her first novel, I’m Not Her, was a national bestseller. Cara’s nonfiction book, Live Intentionally, is a guide to the organic life filled with ideas, recipes, and inspiration for living a more intentional life. Cara is a prolific blogger, occasional cowgirl, and busy mom whose essays and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, magazines, and websites. Links to her blogs, news about upcoming publications, and pictures of her foster dogs can be found at CaraWrites.com.