The other day I wanted to recycle a piece of writing from an earlier draft. In that version my hero was lying in bed thinking something like this:
Once, as a boy, Roscoe had been taken to Vauxhall Gardens by his uncle Lord Gardston, the real Rose’s father. They had sat and watched a puppet show. He remembered how Rose had clasped her brother Nate’s hand when the villain of the piece—a forest sprite, done up in a hard casing of seeds and twigs—appeared to the fanfare of lights and whistles. Roscoe, only five years old but heir to a duchy nonetheless, had clasped his own hand beneath his cloak.
Then the miraculous, the impossible, had happened. The sprite, as do all seeds eventually, cracked open to reveal its most vulnerable, tender centre: a swathe of red silk that seemed so frail against its crusty exterior, but so bright, so beautiful that surely nothing would ever destroy it.
Last night had eclipsed that childhood wonder. Beatrice—wild, hard, impossible to breach—had seen him in all his sick, wasted glory and she watched him steadily yet, her amber eyes lit. She was at bay, but she was intrigued.
She had come close.
He had felt only the faintest lick of the warmth within her, hoarded so severely away from the public eye.
I liked the image (which comes, half-remembered, from a puppet show of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie I saw as a child), and I liked the idea of potential – that my hero has only seen the tiniest bit of my heroine’s true self. I transposed it onto a scene where they’re lying in bed together after getting drunk. And I can’t remember why exactly, but I thought it might be a good idea to have him say those things directly to her. Which made a scene like this:
Roscoe curled in towards her, and sighed with contentment.
His eyes were closed, and she thought after a couple of minutes that he’d fallen asleep, but he began to talk, low and rumpled, without opening his eyes.
“When I was a boy—maybe five years old—my uncle took me to Vauxhall Gardens. Lord Gardston, Rose’s father. We watched a puppet show. How strange that he would think to take us to see a puppet show. The villain was a forest sprite, done up in a hard casing of seeds and twigs.” His face scrunched up, and he nestled further into the covers. “I think there must have been some sort of fanfare—lights and whistles, that sort of thing—when he appeared, because when I try and remember it now I still feel,” a sleepy roll of his shoulder, “awe. Fear. Rose and Nate grabbed each other, but I couldn’t because I would be a duke some day.”
Bea didn’t dare move for fear that he would stop.
“Then,” he said, and paused. An expression lit his face that was like hurt, but good in a way she couldn’t articulate. “The miraculous, the impossible, happened,” he said. “The sprite cracked open—as seeds do, but we’d forgotten that seeds do or were too young to know it—and revealed its most vulnerable, tender centre: a swathe of red silk that seemed so frail against its crusty exterior, but so bright, so beautiful that I knew nothing would ever destroy it.”
His eyes opened, and they were not sleepy, and she had no time for defence. “Last night eclipsed that childhood wonder,” he said. “You are wild, and hard, and impossible to breach—and I have felt only the faintest lick of the warmth in you.”
He didn’t make a single move towards her, but she was breathing like she’d been running, like she’d been drowning, and her heartbeat rushed past her ears like thousands of needles dropped on marble.
“I want to crack you open,” he said.
I did not expect how intense it is for him to say that stuff to her. Dialogue is mostly made up of people not quite saying what they mean, or not responding directly to conversational prompts, so to have someone be so direct packs a punch. There are also certain intense thoughts we have that we learn over time not to say aloud – it’s too much. It is perfect, for my hero, that he would say them anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this technique since I (re)wrote this scene, and have been playing around with it. I think there’s something to it. If you want intense, intimate (probably too-intimate, keep that in mind) dialogue, take a character’s innermost and honest thoughts, and have them say those thoughts directly to the person they’re about.
See what happens.