There’s this little thing referred to in Hollywood script talk as “business.” It also gets a mention in Phil Athans’ excellent The Guide To Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy from Adams Media. “Business” in this instance is those little actions characters do underneath dialogue in scenes. You know, they’re having an argument and one washes dishes while the other shuffles paperwork on a desk, or they’re on the phone and each is doing something else while talking. What they’re doing in both examples is “business.” Using “business” in your fiction is a great technique to make your writing more vivid and realistic and reveal character at the same time, as well as move your plot forward.
For example, say you have a couple who are detectives but also date. At some point, you have them investigating a crime scene but while they’re doing it, they’re having a couple fight about some issue between them. That’s “business,” and, in this case, it moves two storylines along simultaneously if you do it right. Also, the mannerisms and actions of the characters can reveal things about them: their emotional state, their attitudes toward each other, their focus or lack there of, etc. Because “business” is something we all do in real life–sometimes hiding from it with the label multi-tasking–having characters do it adds depth to your story by bringing realistic life to scenes. So “business is a writing technique you want to learn about and practice whenever you can.
Let’s look at examples. One from a script, one from a novel.
First, because it’s popular and a lot of people have seen it, here’s a scene from the pilot of The Walking Dead TV series:
INT. A PARKED POLICE CRUISER - DAY
... revealing a SHOTGUN in its floor mount. CONTINUE DRIFTING past a dangling DAY-GLO NET BAG containing a few spare 9MM AMMO CLIPS and .357 5PEEDLOADER5 ...
SHANE (Offscreen) In my experience? Never met a woman who knew how to turn off a light. It's genetic. They're born thinking the switch only goes one way -- on.
WE DRIFT past rubber-banded notebooks. A stapler. A dashmounted cup of mismatched pens and pencils. All the little telling details that show a cop car is a working office ...
SHANE (O.S.) It's like they're struck blind when they leave a room. Every woman I ever let have a key, swear to God, I come home and my house is lit up like a mall at Christmas.
We come to a GREASY TRAY-BOX OF FRIES on the dash. We hear rustling fast-food wrappers, slurps of soda ...
SHANE (O.S.) So then my job, apparently because my chromosomes are different, is to go through the house and turn off every light the chick left on.
A HAND reaches in, grabs fries, dips ketchup ...
SHANE (O.S.) This, then, is the core basis of the male-female dynamic. The yin and the yang. RICK (O. S.) That right?
FOLLOW THE FRIES TO: OFFICER SHANE WALSH, County Police, in the passenger seat outside a fast-food restaurant.
SHANE Yeah, baby, Reverend Shane is a'preachin to ya now ...
He shoves the fries in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully.
SHANE The same chick, mind you, will bitch about global warming. That goes double if you want to drive something with a decent V6 under the hood, in which case you're a selfish prick killing baby polar bears.
He grabs the box of fries off the dash, passes them ... REVEAL: Rick Grimes at the wheel, looking way more spitand- polish than in the teaser, half-heartedly picking at his burger. Rick's a quiet, Gary Cooper-type, has long experience when it comes to listening to Shane.
SHANE So Reverend Shane quotes from the Guy Gospel: Well, darlin', maybe if you and every other pair of boobs on this planet figured out the light switch goes the other way too, we might not have so much global warming.
RICK You say that?
SHANE The polite version. still. Earns me a look of loathing you wouldn't believe. Out comes this Exorcist voice, out of nowhere: "You're just like my goddamn father! Always yelling about the power bill and I should turn the goddamn lights off!" (looks to Rick) See, to us it's just lights. To them it's a traumatic flashback that dredges up all their father issues. RICK What do you say to that?
SHANE I know what I want to say. I want to say: Bitch, you mean to say you been hearing this shit all your life and you're still too goddamn stupid to learn how to turn off a switch?
Pause. Shane looks over.
SHANE I don't actually say that, though.
RICK That would be bad.
SHANE I do the polite version there too.
RICK Very wise.
What can we read from this business? We have two cops eating lunch in a cop car. They seem friendly and comfortable with each other. Neither is watching their manners in how they eat or how they talk, so we can infer that they are likely, in this case, partners, and used to sharing private details about themselves with each other, maybe even seeking advice. Also, they have to be ready at a moment’s notice to answer emergency calls so they eat on the run which means in the car and fast meals they can consume with limited time and hassle, hence the fast food. Can you see how much we’re learning about them already through this “business?”
Okay, now let’s look at how the same thing plays out in a novel. Here’s a scene from my debut novel The Worker Prince:
She stood in the shadows as he began looking them over. Two mech-bots entered through another tunnel and began working on some of the Skitters behind him. As she stepped out of the shadows into the cave, Davi looked up at her.
“Hey,” she said, with a slight wave and a smile.
“Hey,” he said, going back to examining the Skitters.
“How’d the rest of the session go?”
He shrugged. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Not even eye contact. So maybe he was upset with her. “Sorry I left. I needed some air.”
“I was disappointed you didn’t stay for your turn,” Davi said as he examined another Skitter. “Seeing someone actually succeed on the simulators would have been encouraging. I sure could’ve used it.” His voice sounded tired.
“Was it really so bad?”
“You tell me. You saw how some of the students did,” Davi slid into the seat of a Skitter, fiddling with the controls.
“Some of them are a long way from being flight-worthy,” Tela said, watching the mech-bots working behind him.
“Some make me wonder if they ever will be.”
It saddened her to see him so discouraged. He had always been so positive and supportive of the students. She wanted to do something to cheer him up. She took a seat on another Skitter and turned it on, hearing the steady hum of the engine and feeling it rise up off the floor to float on the air as she adjusted the controls.
“Come with me.”
“For a joy ride?”
Tela smiled. “Sure. There’s something I want to show you.” She waved toward the Skitter he’d been examining.
He shrugged, climbing onto the Skitter. The engine hummed as it rose into the air. “Okay. Lead the way.”
In the larger picture of the narrative arc, Davi has been crushing on her and she’s blown him off, but here she’s starting to at least warm up to him as a friendly person who’s going through some difficulty because of other people he doesn’t deserve. Students have been harrassing him in class because he’s the former leader of their rival group and Davi’s just trying to teach them well and frustrated with their attitude getting in the way. Here, Tela is concerned about Davi but there’s an awkwardness. He is hardly paying her any attention while she is completely focused and trying to engage with him. We are in her Point Of View, so snippets of her internal dialogue tell us how she’s feeling but it’s the “business” which tells us what might be going on emotionally and mentally with Davi. In the end, because he’s so focused on the Skitter’s (flying motorcycles essentially), Tela decides to shift tactics and use that to engage and takes him on a ride. But the tone of her interest and his disinterest initially says a lot about the status of their relationship. Notice, in this case, that the “business” also has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Again, multi-tasking is so common for us today, it’s a great way to add realism to a scene.
There are many ways to use the concept of “business” in writing. What are some that you can think of? How can you use this to enhance your own prose? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
For what it’s worth…