The Angel Tree (2020)

IMDB Rating: 7.1

Rebecca is a hot-shot writer who’s up for a huge promotion, but only if she can ruin her hometown’s treasured secret. Her editor wants her to traipse back to Pine River and find out the identity of the do-gooder behind the town’s beloved tradition, the Angel Tree.

For decades, some kind soul has granted Christmas wishes for townsfolk. And this angel has been doing it all anonymously. Of course, Rebecca jumps at the chance for personal gain and heads back to her tiny village for the first time in twenty years, hellbent on outing Angel despite the pain and heartache she will bring to the people she used to consider friends.

Turns out Rebecca has an axe to grind with the Angel Tree. When she was a child, she had to move away from this little slice of heaven because her father got a new job on the other side of the country. She put a wish on the Angel Tree for her family to stay, but Angel ignored it. Resentment has festered inside Rebecca for two decades, churning away at her soul like undiagnosed chronic gastritis, leaving a raging inferno in her gut and a huge hole in her stomach lining.

Matthew runs the local diner and brews up coffee blends out back. He’s also been carrying a torch for Rebecca since she left, surreptitiously following her career and rejoicing when he read about her husband’s untimely demise. And it just so happens he is one of the few people who know the secret behind the Angel Tree.

Having Rebecca back reminds him of those repressed feelings, but he chooses honor over desire and refuses to give up the secret. She keeps digging and is stonewalled by all the townspeople.

Unhindered by any sense of human decency and completely oblivious to the fact that they don’t want their secret to become tabloid fodder, Rebecca plows ahead and blogs about her investigation. People from surrounding towns and villages know a good thing when they read about one and head over to place their own wishes on the tree, hoping to scoop up some free goodies from Angel because, well, getting free stuff is what the season’s all about.

All this unwanted publicity strains Angel’s finances. Word gets out she won’t be able to meet demand. Townsfolk pick up the slack, taking it upon themselves to fill the wishes for those greedy jerks from out of town.

Rebecca’s heartless boss demands she spill the beans about Angel, but she decides no job is worth selling out her town for. Matthew kisses her, and she decides to make her little visit permanent.

Relationship update: Sick of listening to Rebecca whining about the lack of writing opportunities in her little town, Matthew sells one of his coffee blends for a million bucks and bolts for the big city.

What you say matters

Many writers struggle with creating believable dialogue. They write beautiful, flowing, complete sentences that are like poetry. But no one talks like that.

Or they take on the persona of a Harvard professor explaining his actions to a group of wide-eyed freshmen. That works in college, but not in fiction.

Here are a few tips beyond the standard ones (read it aloud to see what it sounds like, etc.) that you’ll find on a lot of writing sites.

Match your character’s mood.

If your character is in a bad mood, have them speak in short, terse sentences. When a teenager’s mom reminds him for the eighth time to take out the trash two hours after his girlfriend dumped him, his response would not be: “Okay, mom. I’ll take the trash out now. Would you please quit bugging me? I’ve had a really bad day.”

His response would be: “Okay, mom! Get off my back.” Then he would stomp downstairs and slam the door on the way outside, muttering under his breath the entire time.

If your character’s a single woman in her thirties who just got asked out by the new office hunk, she might experience a case of diarrhea of the mouth. Feel free to have her speak in a run-on sentence that goes on like a Pink Floyd album cut.

Drop the names

How many times do you refer to someone by their name when you’re having a conversation with them, especially your spouse or significant other or a close friend? Rarely, if ever. Think of it. When is the last time you actually called your spouse or significant other by his/her name? I go days and weeks sometimes without calling my wife by name.

Whenever she calls me by name, it stands out so much I immediately assume I’ve done something wrong. (“Are you ever going to take the trash out again, Todd?”)

Yet many writers feel compelled to remind us–often–who their character is speaking with, as in the below example.

Darrell sat across from Hannah and bit into his cheeseburger. “Hannah, I’ve got a great idea.”

“What’s that, Darrell?”

“I was thinking maybe we could go to a movie tomorrow night. The new Star Wars is at the multi-plex. I’m sure you’d love it, Hannah.”

Hannah finished her large Coke. “I’d love to go, Darrell. That sounds like a great idea.”

Drop the names and just let the dialogue flow.

Let’s look at the scene above, without the names.

Darrell sat across from Hannah and bit into his cheeseburger. “I’ve got a great idea.”

Hannah arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Let’s go to a movie tomorrow night. The new Star Wars film is at the multi-plex. You’d love it.”

“That sounds great.”

Ditch the pronouns

When writing in first person, you’ll have a lot of sentences that start with I. See if you can ditch a lot of them in dialogue.

Michael took a deep breath as Fred approached his van. “I sure hope he doesn’t expect an apology.”

Michael took a deep breath as Fred approached his van. “Sure hope he doesn’t expect an apology.”

I think the second option is more realistic and reads better, to boot.

It’s imperative you speak in fragments.

Two other keys to realistic dialogue are using fragments and imperative sentences. See the examples below.

Sentence fragment: Hannah grabbed a menu and two glasses of water and rushed over.

Anise ignored the menus. “Grilled cheese and fries for Maddy and a chicken salad for me.”

Complete sentence: Hannah grabbed a menu and two glasses of water and rushed over.

Anise ignored the menus. “Maddy will have a grilled cheese and fries, and I’ll take a chicken salad.”

Which of those two options sounds more realistic? The first, by far.

Imperative sentences also read better.

Imperative sentence: Michael slid out from underneath the sink and looked at Alice. “Call a plumber. I can’t fix this one.”

Complete sentence: Michael slid out from underneath the sink and looked at Alice. “You’ll have to call a plumber. I can’t fix this one.”

Which sounds better? Personally, I like the first option. I believe it is more representative of how people speak to one another.

Consider the relationship between the characters

You also have to account for the relationship between the two characters. If they are partners, friends or family, they would be more comfortable using informal language.

If the exchange is between two strangers or a boss and an employee, the second option might be better. In those circumstances, they would be more likely to use grammatically correct language. So you have to remember to tailor the language with the relationship as well.

Now cut that out!

ibe every movement a character makes, no matter how small or irrelevant, in the belief they are painting a picture for the reader.