Is Your Dialogue Just Characters Talking?

The last couple of weeks I have been thinking about dialogue in fiction.  A friend of mine told me that some agents will flip to a random section of a manuscript and make a judgment based solely on the dialogue!

dialogue

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

Needing to brush up before making revisions, I turned to one of my trusty companions,“This Year You Write Your Novel” by Walter Mosley, for some tips.

Dialogue is Not Just Characters Talking

Walter says that dialogue is not just characters talking—it’s sophisticated fiction.  Every time a character speaks he or she should be:

  1. Telling us something about themselves
  2. Conveying information that may advance the plot
  3. Adding to the mood of the scene, story, or novel
  4. Giving us a scene from a different POV and/or
  5. Giving the novel a pedestrian feel.

The trick is doing 3 or 4 of these at the same time.  Here’s an example from Walter:

“Man walk up to me,” Roger said. “an’ say he know my name…I told him he better get on outta here.”

From this one little line we learn Roger is angry, confrontational, probably uneducated, and possibly scared.  In other words, it’s a good piece of dialogue!

Let’s delve deeper into a couple of the items on the list.

Use Dialogue to Give the Reader a Different POV

Unless you’re point of view is omniscient, it’s inherently limited.  Dialogue provides an opportunity to give the reader some additional information.  Use it to highlight an aspect of a character’s personality of which she might not be aware.  Or demonstrate the effect her presence has on others.

Another example:

“They all love you,” Leonard told me. “Everybody does.  Markham said that the only way they’d let me come was if I brought you along.”

Humble or insecure, the narrator may genuinely disagree with Leonard.  This dialogue would inform the reader that she’s not quite as undesirable a companion as she thinks.

Use Dialogue to Give the Novel a Pedestrian Feel

Here, Walter is talking about everyday language.  Not beautiful language, speech we actually use in real life.    The reader is looking for themselves as they read, so we need to be sure to give them something they recognize.  Dialogue is a great tool for that!

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to write a conversation between two characters that reveals some of the information discussed above.  Share with us in the comments section!

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

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  • Maria

    “You are awake,” said him, cheerful to see John. He is American, John thought
    slightly moving away from this new boy in the room.

    “Don’t be afraid,” he said almost laughing at John. That he would not accept, even
    though the American fellow could have been bigger than him, he was not going to
    get intimidated by him. After all he was just a teenager. “I am not afraid,” John spoke. “Though, I’d really like to know where I am. I have a family who would surely call the
    police if I don’t come back soon.” He tried to sound defiantly and harsh.

    “I am sure they’ll will, as most family do. Though it won’t be necessary, we
    hadn’t kidnapped you,” this newcomer said while seating on the mattress opposite to his. “The hazed men were after you, we just took you from their path. We rescued you. I
    am Adam, Adam Belt.” Adam explained extending his hand.

    “John Tuck,” he answered taking a sip from the glass, there was something that made
    him trust the big fellow with American accent. “I think you’ve slept too much,
    care to join for a tour?”

    “I think I’d rather go home. Care to indicate me the way?”

    “Just a tour John, then we’ll take you home.” Adam shoved John off out of the
    room. John followed warily towards the series of passages to come.

  • Brianna Worlds

    Baffled, Dessa’s mind broke off in a dozen directions. Why was a Channelleer here? (Not to mention invisible.) They were nothing but legends this far into Hensel, a scandal for simply existing. And then– why were they hiding from view like this? Dessa hadn’t even known it was possible to go invisible through using spiritual energy, but what did she know? A few forbidden books were all the knowledge she had.

    “What are you doing?” Dessa blurted before she could remind her mouth to keep itself strictly shut.

    Nothing.

    “Seriously?” she mumbled. Her Lights, sensing her frustration, made small sighing noises and swooped over to the body-less spirit, headbutting him gently. Dessa’s mouth grudgingly twitched upwards at their attempt to help.

    “It’s okay guys, don’t tire yourselves out,” she said, waving her hand, and then froze when there was a small, muffled laugh. “I knew someone was there!” she cried, her hand-waving turning into an accusatory finger-pointing.

    “Alright, alright,” the Invisible Person said, who was suddenly no longer invisible.

    Dessa blinked. “Uh, hi,” she said to the boy. He couldn’t be much older than her, with reddish brown hair that brushed down to his eyebrows and the nape of his neck. His blue-green eyes twinkled in amusement to Dessa’s shock, and then crinkled as his lips tilted upwards in a smile.

    “Never seen a Channelleer before?” he asked casually. He had been sitting beside Dessa and Elisia. One leg was tossed in front of him, while the other was crossed in front of him, the rock supporting his back.

    “I don’t know where you come from,” Dessa said, “but in Hensel spirits and their associates are considered to be the height of evil.”

    “Aw,” the boy said, although he was still smiling. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

    “You’d be an idiot of a Channelleer if you thought I did.”

    “Yeah, well, you do have these adorable friends of yours.” He gestured at the Lights, who squealed happily and nuzzled under his chin. He laughed, head tilting upwards.

    “Why are you here?” Dessa demanded.

    “To get myself killed by angry mobs of Henselites, of course,” he said, standing. “I’m Taye. Who are you?”

    “That didn’t answer my question.”

    “I know.”

    Dessa waited for a moment, and then said, “I’m Dessa. This is my sister Elisia,” she gestured vaguely to the girl, who was now staring up at them with large, blue eyes, “she’s deaf and mute so don’t bother trying to talk to her. She’s good at reading body language and stuff though.”

    Taye raised an eyebrow, and then stuck out a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

    Dessa didn’t offer her hand. “You might get sick, touching us slum-dwellers like that,” she said matter-of-factly. “You look like you grew up somewhere where you don’t get immune to that sort of thing.”

    Taye frowned, his hand still offered. “I’m a Channelleer. I can protect myself from a couple diseases.”

    “Okay, let me rephrase that.” Dessa abruptly took a step back. “You are a veritable legend in my life that’s trying to shake my hand and I don’t trust you.”

    “Oh.” Taye thought about that for a moment, then let his hand fall. He waved towards Elisia. “How old is she? Is she as friendly with spirits as you?”

    “She’s eight years old and has no spiritual connection further than that between her spirit and mind,” Dessa said, and then frowned. “Why?”

    “How about you? How old are you?”

    “Your habit of ignoring questions is really annoying,” Dessa grumbled.

    Taye cocked his head and looked pleading. “I’ll tell you after my questions. It’s important. Please?”

    “Fourteen. I’m a level five sensory input and my mom is a level three. I can see, smell, hear, sense and touch. I have no training because I live in Hensel and who the hell has Channelleer training in Hensel. Is that what you needed to know?” He just looked so damn innocent and earnest that it just spouted from her mouth.

    Taye looked thoughtful for a second, and then grabbed her wrist.

    “Hey!” she yelled, automatically bringing her other arm down in a forceful chopping motion..

    “Ow!” he yelped, not letting go. “Jeez, I’m just trying to gauge your energy pathways.”

    “Through my arms?” she demanded, hesitating. She wished she knew more about Channelleering.

    “Yes,” he said shortly. “Will you please not hurt me while I’m trying to do my job?”

    “I do not know what your job entails so how can I know whether I’m hurting you when you’re doing your job or if I’m hurting you while you’re assaulting me.”

    Taye appeared to take this into consideration, but didn’t answer as he let go of her wrist and placed his palm flat against her stomach, in the pressure point between her ribcage. She froze. “Is this really necessary?” she asked tightly. Elissia, who was still on the ground, looked amused. She didn’t seem particularly concerned about this at all. In fact, when she saw Dessa looking at her, she grinned cheekily and tucked a strand of sandy hair behind her ear.

    “You should know the answer to that already based on past experience,” Taye said, and Dessa scowled and stepped back.

    “Fine,” he said, putting his hands up. “I was done anyway. What’s up with your sister? Why can’t she talk or hear?”

    “Is this for your job too?” Dessa asked doubtfully, and Taye pursed his lips and shook his head, sitting down again.

    “Nah, I’m just curious.”

    Surprised, Dessa said, “I don’t know, she’s just always been like that. Never cried as a baby. Mom got sick when she was pregnant with her and hasn’t really ever gotten better. The more time that passes the sicker she gets.”

    “Huh,” Taye said.

    “You promised you’d tell me why you’re here,” Dessa reminded him.

    Taye frowned. “Yeah, I guess I can tell you,” he said, picking up some sand and then blowing it in front of him. “I’m a recruiter from the Academy.”

    Dessa snorted. “Yeah, okay,” she muttered sarcastically.

    “What?” Taye said, offended. “Think I’m kidding? Where else could a kid Channelleer like me come from?”

    Dessa considered this. “I think you can see why I don’t believe you.”

    “Seriously, are you that secluded out here?” Taye complained. “Okay, I came to Hensel to look for recruits because no one else ever does because it mobs anyone who has anything to do with spirits and I thought I might hit a gold mine.”

    “You are so bad at convincing people of stuff,” Dessa informed him.

    “Whatever,” Taye said with a sigh, standing. “I’m off, anyway. See you later.”

    And then he was gone. “Hey what the hell is that supposed to mean?” she yelled at the air, scowling. Severely peeved, she grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled her to her feet. Elisia laughed– as well as any mute can laugh– and gripped Dessa’s hand in return, skipping slightly. She seemed happy enough. Her round cheeks were coloured and healthy looking. She was stronger than normal, but mama was weaker.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      I’m hooked. This dialogue pulled me right into the conversation.

      • Brianna Worlds

        Oh great!! Thank you! I think I’m nearly satisfied with it. Thank you to my characters for being quite present in my mind while writing this.

    • Oksana Carlier

      This was lovely. Breakfast was very much forgotten for a moment there…

      • Brianna Worlds

        Really? :D Thanks! Glad to know I can do something right

    • Sandra D

      Awesome. Very interesting dialogue and story.

  • Marcy Mason McKay

    Dialogue is what I always hear first in my novels. In fact a friend once teased me that in the beginning, my characters are always naked and talking in a void. I don’t know what they look like, or even where they are sometimes, but by Gawd, I HEAR them yabbing away. Great post, Joe.

    • Sandra D

      lol. I have done that before, just had talking and nothing else and they do feel naked to me.

  • Shirley

    My dialogue works a little differently than that of the novel. I tried a little here just now to see how it might work. It’s awkward. What an awkward word is “awkward”! The reason for it being so, is that I write for theater. It can be done,I’m positive, turning dialogue from a play into dialogue which works for a novel, or short stories. Dialogue is dialogue, right?

    What a gift to get this practice today! This has been on my mind, and it keeps popping up
    in the most unexpected places and ways. Dialogue isn’t just characters talking. How much further would you want to read if you read: “And, she went like, and then she went, and I wonder if that’s what happened. If you find out, let me know.” The slam of the book faster than a New York minute would resonate through the neighborhood. Even the firecrackers couldn’t compete.”

    Conversation doesn’t have to be, but often is banal. This isn’t so bad if you’re talking to your sister. Even so, you’d rather have sparkle in conversation. After you get past your niece writing her first college paper for Psych 101, you want more out of your conversation. If you’re writing a novel, it’s indispensable.

    Dialogue is vital in a novel — what’s said, what’s witheld is perhaps the most important element in a novel, or any piece of writing. It’s what drives it. I may get static on this one. For some writers, plot is what drives the action.

    Dialogue very quickly gives information about the characters, what their motives are, what makes them tick. So, you want dialogue to come out crisp, so the characters aren’t limp and soggy. Unless, of course, you want limp and soggy. Probably not.

    Listening to conversation is a very good plan. Carry your notebooks. I encourage you to use paper and keep a pen in your purse or pocket. It’s much handier than pulling out an electronic device, at least I’ve found it so. Conversation overheard can be transformed into dialogue for your novel, or play, just the way Rumplestiltskin spun hay into gold.

  • Marilyn Ostermiller

    This is from my middle grade novel set in northern Minnesota on the brink of the Great Depression. This conversation takes place in a one-room schoolhouse.

    Early the next morning at breakfast, Miss Lindeman, the teacher who boarded with the Johnson family, asked Hannah to be friendly to the two new girls in school.

    “Dorsey is your age, Hannah,” she said. “When we go outside for lunch break, will you please ask them to jump rope with you and the other girls?”

    “I don’t know if we’re going to jump rope today,” Hannah said, hoping to preempt the conversation.

    “Well, kick ball or tag or whatever you play, would you please ask them to join you?” Miss Lindeman responded, trying to squelch the annoyance rising inside her.

    Hannah didn’t want to befriend the new girls, but Mama and Papa were sitting at the table and she couldn’t be rude in front of them. “I’ll do what I can,” she said, smiling sweetly.

    At lunchtime, the children ate quickly so they would have more time to play. Hannah pulled Dorsey aside as the other students scooted outside. “Miss Lindeman told me to play with you, but I’m not going to. We don’t need any new friends. No one asked you to move here.

    “You better not tell her what I am saying either,” Hannah said, tightening her grip on Dorsey’s upper arm. “If you do, I will say it’s a lie and you will get in trouble.”

    Dorsey did not know what to say. No one had ever talked to her like that. Her mouth flopped open and her face burned crimson. She shook slightly, partly from anger and partly from fright. She desperately wanted to respond, but couldn’t force out a single word. She grabbed Lilly’s hand and they sat in the exact same spot on the bench as they had yesterday. They watched the other girls, who were pretending to watch the boys play baseball, but were actually whispering with Hannah.

    • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

      Thanks for sharing! I think you’re developing Dorsey’s character well. It made me feel sorry for the new girls.

      • Marilyn Ostermiller

        You made my day! That’s what I was going for, hoping that a reader would relate to Dorsey

    • Sandra D

      nice scene. The dialogue sounds real and unique.

      • Marilyn Ostermiller

        Thanks

  • Shirley

    This is a postscript of sorts. If you’re a writer, read. Read and read some more. Look at how dialogue works especially for writers whose works you are drawn to.

  • Shirley

    I enjoyed Marilyn’s dialogue. Maybe I liked it the more because grade school years were spent in a little white schoolhouse atop a hill in Holler, Minnesota, a division off International Falls, for years (before Alaska gained statehood), recording the coldest temperatures in the country. We had the luxury of six small rooms. First and second grade occupied first floor, along with the basement, where Mr. Patineau kept all the buckets and mops and saws. This is where we cut out the piggy bread boards for our mothers’ Christmas presents. Mrs. Patineau and Mrs. Hardy, Marlene Bishop’s grandmother, were our cafeteria cooks. We got spaghetti with meat sauce on Thursdays. Ardell Hall would pick out strands of spagetti, hold them up and yell: “Snakes!”

    • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

      Have you written a memoir? This sounds great. :)

    • Victoria I. Sanchez

      This is lovely. Perhaps the lack of dialogue was intentional, but it’s a great example of how just one word can say a lot.

  • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

    Thank you for this post, Monica! Writing dialogue is definitely something that I want to keep practicing a lot. I find it fascinating. :)

    Here is a dialogue excerpt from my WIP:

    “I love how it feels before a storm,” Ezra said.

    “Me too.” I replied, glancing up at the darkening clouds. The wind tussled my hair. I shivered slightly. The temperature was already dropping.

    Ezra started to hum softly.

    “What song is that?” I asked.

    “A song I wrote a few years back,” he explained and resumed humming.

    “Does it have words?”

    He smiled down at me, “Yes, actually. It does.”

    ‘Will you sing them?”

    “I don’t like to sing in front of others.”

    “Why not?”

    Ezra shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject, “Do you sing?”

    “A little when no ones listening.” I answered and chuckled.

    “So you understand.”

    “I’d still like to hear you sing.”

    Ezra was silent.

    I felt the first drop of rain.

    • Kip Larcen

      This was easy to read. It definitely gives the scene a pedestrian, comfortable feel. It also has a playful feel as the two characters banter. May I suggest replacing “he changed the subject” with “he turned the tables?” Thanks for the post.

      • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

        Thank you. I like your suggestion too.

    • Victoria I. Sanchez

      I like this a lot! I wonder though: if Ezra really wasn’t keen on singing in front of others, he might’ve stopped humming once the other character asked about his little tune. Just a thought.

      • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

        Hmmm.. Good thought. I love hearing everyone’s suggestions. :)

  • Shirley

    Oops! Names, not name’s!

  • Shirley

    Thanks, Joy, I enjoyed reading your dialogue. It moves along. I like the name’s you chose. And, I like the movement, the sub rosa action, the wind. No, I haven’t written memoir. I intended to give it a try at one time, but the person who was so excellent at teaching it, who had published her own, suddenly died. I just didn’t pick up that thread again.

    For years, I have kept a journal. Make that journals — piles of journals filled with thoughts, ideas, words (some have drawings). There is a difference, I know, although they have a similar feel to me. Memoir is more like dipping into the past, while journaling is getting down, as fast as you can, events which have just occurred. Or, dreams… All of this, rich stuff, fertilizer for writers.

    • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

      Thank you. That is wonderful that you keep diaries. I think that keeping a diary can bring great inspiration to us writers. :)

  • Shirley

    Marilyn, the only tiny bit of nit-picking I have about your post is your choice of the name Dorsey. I like the name, but I’m not certain it was typical of the time. Always there are exceptions, even to name trends. If I were writing a novel which took place during the depression, I’d use a name more common for those used from about 1929-1937. Just a thought.

    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Interesting observation. Dorsey started with the name Doris, which was common for the year she was born. Then I thought it was a bit formal, so I nicknamed her Dorsey. I will think some more about your suggestion.

  • Kip Larcen

    Hope it is ok that my submission is more monologue than dialogue; it is from a WIP:

    “Sit beside me, My precious girl,” she said to
    the older one, “and my Angel,” to the other. Holding their hands, she continued, “you may want to do great things,
    and I’m sure you will some day. But when
    it seems you must choose between your own
    needs and the needs of others, remember
    this: there are times when the correct choilce is to simply do what is best for
    you. Then, because you are a good
    person, you will be doing what is right.
    “ With these words Fiona closed her eyes
    and fell into a peaceful sleep for the last time.

    • Sandra D

      I pictured a Southern accent here and a mother who is guiding her children from past experience, maybe past mistakes. Also it is advancing the plot because it is telling about what the girls are having to learn to do better. So I thought this was successful dialogue. That and I thought it was endearing.

      • Kip Larcen

        I like your accent idea. (had not thought of it). Thanks for comment.

  • Sandra D

    “Shirl What did you with my shirt honey?”
    “It’s in the dresser, second shelf.”
    “I looked there already.”
    “Alright I’m coming.” She jogs up the stairs, and shuffles through the drawer, “See right there.”
    “Thanks, I could’ve sworn I looked all through there.”
    “You know I was wondering, maybe when you come back you could watch the kids for a little bit while I go out.”
    “You go out, where would you go?”
    “Maybe Jeans, I don’t know.”
    “You could take the kids with you.”
    “Yeah but if we decide to go somewhere then a lot of times we can’t.”
    “Like where?”
    “Uh maybe for Tacos, or we might go for a drink at the bar or watch a movie.”
    “The bar?”
    “Yes silly, I can go there without you, ya know.”
    “But what if some younger man comes and tries to snatch you up.”
    “That’s not going to happen.”
    “Well okay. But you know the kids like you more then they like me.”
    “They love you. You see their excitement when you come home from work.”
    “Are you sure they’re not just like that all the time?”
    “Please dear?”
    “Alright.”
    “Thank you.” She grips his arm and gives it a tight squeeze and smiles. Her eyes wrinkling at the corners. “I’ll make it up to you later.”
    “You better.” He says with a mock serious voice, shaking his finger at her. Then he bends down and kisses her and wrapping his arms around her slim shoulders.
    He ties his tie, grabs his laptop case and heads out the door.
    But he came home three hours late that night.
    “I’m sorry honey, but the meeting went late.”
    “I understand.”
    “Next time, I promise.”

  • Victoria I. Sanchez

    In the darkness I saw her eyes open. They glittered, searching.

    “Acerbus?”

    “Yes?” I said.

    She paused. I could sense her relief.

    “I dreamt I was in a desert. . . I was dying.”

    “You are in a desert,” I said. “The sea is a vast desert, only it’s worse because you’re surrounded by water you can’t drink.” I gave her a slow, measured blink. “And you know you’ll die one day, so you should start getting used to the idea.”

    She groaned into her pillow. “I’m not in the mood for a lesson.”

    “Then you’re speaking to the wrong person.”

    Lune perched in a moment of pensive silence. The light was dim, but I could just see the wheels spinning behind her eyes. There was a puzzle forming in her head. A lock. And she was looking for the key.

    “Tell me,” she said slowly, “what are you afraid of?”

    “I’m not afraid of anything.”

    “I don’t believe you,” she said.

    I stretched. It was a luxurious feeling, stretching. The body of a cat is perfect—like a well-tuned instrument. Nothing satisfies like having a good stretch in the form of a cat. Aside from a good kill, of course.

    I sighed. “I’m afraid of incessant questioning and petulant children.”

    My words hung flatly in the air.

    Lune reached over, picked up the silver-plated brush lying on the bed-side table, and hurled it at me. I ducked. It was a narrow miss. I bared my teeth and hissed.

    “Don’t be stupid!” she scowled.

    “Then don’t ask pointless questions.”

    She flopped back into her pillows and breathed out a chuckle. “You’re insufferable.”

    • http://www.blogofjoy.com Joy

      I really like this. Well done. It tells a lot about the characters in such a short amount of time and dialogue.

      • Victoria I. Sanchez

        Thank you, Joy!

    • 709writer

      Acerbus and Lune are great. The dynamic duo. : )

      It might benefit to identify Lune immediately at the beginning of the scene, “In the darkness I saw Lune’s eyes open.” That way we know from the start who Lune is.

      It was an entertaining piece and I hope to hear more of it! : )

      • Victoria I. Sanchez

        Thanks. :) Useful bit of advice.

  • 709writer

    Here’s my practice:

    Shadow leaned over the sheet of paper on the island counter in the kitchen. He’d memorized every word, burning them into his brain. And still the entire case didn’t add up.
    “I talked to Commander Tower,” Rouge said as she walked in, holding her mocha.
    Shadow stiffened. “And?”
    His friend’s full lips pursed. “He said we need to extract all the information we can from Julia.”
    He tightened his jaw. Julia was only fourteen. Commander Tower couldn’t expect a girl her age to just tell all after what she’d been through.
    “My patience with him is thinning.” For the briefest second, Shadow wished he could pound the sense into Tower’s head.
    Rouge locked eyes with him. “Maybe if we talk to him together, he’ll understand.”
    “Let’s go, then.” Shadow stood and followed her out.

    I would love some critique on this! Thanks!

    • Victoria I. Sanchez

      It’s evident that the two characters here are in sync with each other and you get the feeling they’ve been working together for a long time. Or perhaps they’ve just connected and are so like-minded, they know how to read one another well.

      My only suggestion is to rethink “He’d memorized every word, burning them into his brain.” You’re essentially saying the same thing twice. Pick one and go with it. And instead of “burned,” maybe use brand, inscribe, etch, clone, etc. I’ve seen the phrase before and it might give the sentence a fresh twist to employ a lesser used word. :) Great work.

      • 709writer

        Thank you!

  • Gee

    Nice post! Dialog is something I know I need to do more work on, so examples are good. I also like to delve into my favourite authors books and see how they make dialog work. Picked up a few tips that way too :)

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  • Drew

    “Hey… Dane?” said little Jess.

    “What’s up?”

    “I think that cloud up there is lonely.”

    Dane cracked his eyes open and peered up at the sky through
    his sunglasses. “Okay then.”

    “No, really! It’s the only one for a million miles.”

    “Hey Jess?”

    “What?”

    “Please be quiet.”

    Jess was quiet for three seconds.

    “Dane, look at the sky! The cloud is breaking apart!”

    Dane pretended to snore.

    “Hey, wake up,” her squeaky voice said. “There’s a big cloud
    and it’s breaking apart!”

    Silence.

    “Mom, there’s a humungous cloud! Come look!” Jess’s tiny
    feet pattered across the lawn towards the house.

    Finally. Finally.

    Dane took his phone out of his pocket and opened up his
    eyes. Then he froze. At first he thought someone had placed a Frisbee on his
    face while he was napping. But then he realized that, no, it was not a Frisbee
    and, no, it was not a cloud.

    But it was a disk.
    And it was hovering – thousands of
    feet above him in the sky.