Anonymous asked: Have a question, quite big one actually. Any tips on “breaking news” to someone? I can’t count how many times I have read the [“Can I tell you something?” “Yeah, what is it?” “I love you.”] dialogue and it really doesn’t do anything for me. How can a character tell someone that they are in love, or have a terminal illness, or something really big has happened without it sounding rushed and fake?
There are many different ways for characters to give emotional news to each other. But first, let’s take a look at the word dialogue, as character dialogue will be a large part of today’s answer.
Dialogue (n): Conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.
For our purposes, dialogue, as explained above, is when two or more characters in a piece of creative writing speak to each other. What the definition fails to mention is that dialogue has purpose. It means something when characters speak to each other. Don’t throw your dialogue away, and try to immerse your readers in the story with dialogue instead of pulling them out of it.
Let’s get back to the question. Here’s some general advice on one character conveying shocking information to another, otherwise known as “breaking the news”:
- Write it just like it would happen in real life. Write, as Devon explains in her article, Strictly Speaking: Character Dialogue, “like real people in the real world, characters who live together within the pages of a fictional world to speak to one another”. Just because it’s a fictional world does not mean the characters act any differently than they would if they existed outside the pages. They may duel dragons or pilot spaceships, but they think and feel as all humans do.
- Breaking news isn’t convenient. We may wait expectantly for news to arrive or else dread it for days, but when this type of news happens, it’s always a surprise for someone. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be called “breaking the news”. Be sure that your news comes at the appropriate time in your story for your narrative to be successful, but retain the shock value of the news. Maybe it comes while a character is in the middle of something completely unrelated. Maybe the character has managed to forget that the news may be coming altogether. Maybe the character doesn’t realize that the sort of thing to which the news pertains is even possible. Convince the reader that the characters are believably floored by the news while working it seamlessly into your narrative and you’ve achieved true success.
- Use what you know. Take reference from personal experiences, other novels, movies, other people’s experiences, etc. to show you how someone would break the news. Think of the feelings, words, even actions involved in doing so.
- Do not forget who your character is. Always keep in mind who your character is. How would your character do it if both he/she and the situation were real? The personality of your character will be vital in his/her taking and/or receiving of big news. This ties into the first bullet, as illustrated through Melissa Donovan’s words:
At the same time, characters should sound like people talking, not writers writing. The author must then create an illusion. The dialogue looks, sounds, and feels like something people would actually say even though it’s not. (x)
- What are the circumstances? Remember the circumstances that brought the situation about. Is it good news or bad news? Should they be crying or cheering? And even more importantly…
- Write to the result. Build your suspense before a character breaks the news in such a way that it adequately sets the tone for how the news will be received. Alternatively, to surprise or jar the reader, build the suspense in the opposite way that the news will be received. Remember, you’re the writer, so you (hopefully) know what’s going to happen. Building up your audience’s expectations will either have them celebrating with your characters or experiencing the shock of dashed expectations.
- Actions, expressions, thoughts, and feelings building up to the big reveal are all vital. It is important to note actions and expressions as often as possible. If you’re writing from a point of view where it is possible, reveal the inner monologue of one or both characters. What does the one giving the news feel prior to “breaking the news”? What does the character getting the news feel about the strange behavior or sudden appearance of the character opposite them?
We’ve covered a lot so far. Let’s take a break for a minute and look how we used all these points in the following example:
Maria shivered as her tears rendered her temporarily speechless. She was only sixteen! How could this be happening to her?
A part of her still couldn’t believe it. And she couldn’t believe she was about to tell someone about it, let alone him.
“Chris…” she said, and Chris looked up from his book with eyes that told her he was still caught up in his imagination.
She almost screamed it just to get the words out of her tightening throat; they were strangling her, fighting both to be heard and to retreat forever into the pit of her churning stomach. Chris gazed at her with growing concern.
“Maria, what is it?” He touched her cheek and, as if on cue, two fat tears spilled from her wide eyes.
“Chris I… I’m pregnant!” There was no time for silence; she collapsed, sobbing incoherently in his arms. His book fell to the floor, its pages splayed against the carpet, the golden words of its title catching the light of the sunset through the windowr: The Age of Innocence.
In the above passage, most of the above bullets points are touched upon. though it’s important to note that not every bullet point much be present in ever instance of “breaking the news”. There are pauses and reluctance illustrated with the ellipses and the repetition, and character development occurs here just as it would throughout the rest of the story.
Here is another example showcasing the expression of good news and the reaction to it:
Jenna ripped open the envelope and flipped open its contents with shaking fingers. She ignored the letterhead and went straight for the words that would either spell her doom or delight. She found it in the first line of the first paragraph: “Congratulations”.
“Mom!” she said, almost to herself at first, but then the pitch and volume of her voice seemed to elevate of their own accord. “Mom? Mom!”
Her mother came running into the room brandishing a sudsy frying pan in her hand. “What is it?” What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jenna said. She laughed and stood up, still clutching her letter. “I got in! I got into Yale!”
“Oh, honey!” her mother said, flinging her arms wide and wielding the frying pan with frightening, jubilant abandon. “Oh, congratulations! I’m so proud of you!” Jenna let her mother enfold her in a bone-crushing hug, and they hopped up and down together in the middle of the living room.
Again, most of the bullets were addressed in this example. Notice the news that Jenna got into Yale didn’t come at a time when Jenna’s mother was ready for it. Rather, when she was busy washing the dishes. Also take note of the double “breaking news” aspect of this example: Jenna received news from a letter, then told that news to her mother. In the latter instance, Jenna knew the news to be good, but there was no way for Jenna’s mother to know that. Make sure you identify each time that news is broken to a character and treat each individually.
Let’s look at one last general example:
Bridget rested her head against Jerry’s chest, relishing in the rhythmic thump-thump, thump-thump of his heartbeat. She sighed, thinking of all the time they’d spent together, all the precious moments they’d shared, and all she felt during those times.
“Jerry,” she said softly, “I think I love you.”
There was a slight pause as she heard the tempo of his heartbeat change. Finally, he said, “Oi think Oi love ya, too.”
She grinned and relaxed into him again, trying to ingrain every detail of that moment into her memory: the feeling of his voice vibrating through his chest when he spoke, the warmth of him, his fingers playing lightly through her hair.
The two lay together in perfect silence for the rest of the night. There was nothing more to be said.
This is an instance of big news broken comfortably and with a certain measure of confidence. Bridget is not concerned that Jeremy will reject her declaration of love. Because Bridget’s demeanor is pretty relaxed, we readers will likely be pretty relaxed as well.
There is one more thing to discuss in “breaking the news” in writing: the difference between big news and little news. The deliveries and responses to each of these are very different and must be written accordingly. Let’s look at little news first:
Jared grinned to himself at his excitement as he went to find his mom. “Mom!” he said, walking up to the counter where she was cutting up vegetables. “Mom, Mom!”
“What is it, dear?” his mother asked, glancing down at him, kitchen knife poised over a row of carrots.
“Mom, I have a few friends coming to dinner tonight!”
“How many?” she asked suspiciously.
“Ten!” he announced, splaying his ten fingers in the air over his head. His mother set down her knife and turned to glare at him through the space between his hands.
“Ten? I am making dinner for five!”
Jared frowned. “Well, I…” he trailed off, and his arms drooped back to his sides.
“Jared, you expect me to make dinner for ten more people? Without even bothering to ask me first?” His mother stared down at his dejected little face and sighed. “Alright,” she said, “alright. But don’t you ever do anything like this again!”
Jared’s mother’s response wasn’t very extreme because this was a little surprise. She did little more than let her son know that he’d done something wrong.
Now let’s look at an example of big news:
Peels of laughter echoed through the clock tower as the Joker ducked another crushing blow and danced out of reach. “You’ll never guess the surprise I have for you!” he crowed, but Batman just gritted his teeth, refusing to be distracted.
Another flurry of punches and kicks and the dramatic swish of a cape later, the Joker giggles had become wheezy gasps. He held up a finger, his hand on his knee.
Batman smiled. “I could do this all night,” he said, and the Joker’s expression hardened into something much more sinister.
The Joker stood upright and took a deep breath. “Well,” he said, “before we get goin’ here again, I think you oughta know that your little birdie is dead!”
Batman froze. “What?”
“Dead. Your plucky sidekick. You know” —the Joker flapped his arms like wings then clapped his hands together— “kursplat!”
His mind refused to let him believe it. No. Robin could not be dead. It didn’t matter what the Joker said. He was lying. It was a lie.
The Joker seemed to sense Batman’s doubts. “See for yourself!” He pointed at the glass interior of the clock face. “Look all the way down.”
The fight and his nemesis forgotten, Batman started forward to the clock face slowly, as if wading through quicksand. Not Robin. Not Robin.
Even as he approached the glass, his sensors picked up the sound of shouts and sirens far below.
In this example of big news, note the feeling of disbelief, the character’s disregard of prior actions, the numbness exhibited by shortened sentences and more tactile description. Sad or otherwise negative big news, when delivered abruptly, will shake the characters. Be sure to give the characters time to shoulder the weight of that kind of news.
Other examples of breaking the news:
- An officer calling on a young wife to tell her that her husband has been killed in combat.
- A doctor telling his patient that she has terminal cancer. Alternatively, a doctor telling his patient that she is now cancer-free.
- A guy telling his roommate that he’s accidentally broken his television.
- A young couple telling their parents over dinner that they have eloped.
- A woman telling her friends how she really got that black eye (her boyfriend).
- A teenager coming out to his or her parents.
- A man telling his wife that he’s been cheating on her.
- A woman unexpectedly telling her husband that she wants a divorce.
- A landlord telling a tenant that his apartment has burning down while he was at work.
- A daughter telling her mother that she has just gotten engaged.
- A boss notifying an employee of a promotion.
- A father telling his daughter that the family pet has been run over by a car.
Remember, regardless of the degree to which the news is good or bad, and regardless of how big or little the news may be, breaking the news can be difficult to pull off. However, when you’ve been mindful of the advice listed above and (more importantly) been true to your plot, characters, and personal style, the scene will probably be one of the more memorable parts of your story.
Thank you so much for your question! If anyone has any questions or concerns about this article, feel free to hit up our ask box!
~Laitie and C