Dialogue should always, always move the story forward. From conversation to internal monologues, the words characters speak should tell you about them, foreshadow pertinent information regarding their thought processes or tell you how they react with others.
Submitted for your consideration is the first appearance of Lazarus Cotton in CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. Lazarus is a devout man on a mission. He wants to save souls.
What follows was my attempt, mostly through dialogue, to show a bit about the man, his history and his desires.
You decide if I did my job properly, but for me, this is a good example of dialogue in a non-combat scene.
The Mount Zion Church of Faith was lit with electric lights, but by the reverend’s orders they were subdued, to look as much like candles and lanterns as possible. The building was old and the air was simply too hot to allow that many real open flames in the structure.
The pews were full, the faithful were in abundance. That was not always the case, of course. Some nights they had only a few of the faithful with them, because the rest had to go forth and find the lost and wayward and lead them home.
“Got a full house tonight, ‘Rus.” Fry’s voice was mellow and laid back. He was very good at seeming to be as serene as his voice.
Lazarus Cotton preferred to be called Reverend or Reverend Cotton or even Lazarus, but for Fry he made exceptions. Truly the man was his right hand, and Lazarus knew he meant no disrespect.
“The numbers don’t matter, Fry.” The Reverend’s voice was soft, but deep and melodious. His voice was an instrument of the Lord, and as such he had been blessed. Truly, he had been blessed. Hallelujah.
He stood from the chair where he prepared himself and contemplated his words. The chair groaned a bit. He was not a small man, but he carried himself with ease. His dark pants were creased just so, and his suspenders were in the right place. His tie was perfect. His shoes were polished. He was presentable, and that was an important thing. He spoke often to his flock about the need to be presentable. The Lord did not ask that his children be dressed in spectacular fashion, or that they paint their faces like harlots. No, his children were to be humble, and that meant they should dress the part as well.
“What did you want to do about that Wade Griffin fellow, ‘Rus?”
He looked toward Fry with a small frown. “This close to my sermon you should address me properly, please, Fry.”
The man’s smile was quick and thin. He knew that Fry was not quite a true believer. He wanted to be, but Faith, true Faith, did not always come easily and Fry had been through so very much in his lifetime. “Of course, Reverend Cotton.”
“Much obliged, son.” The Reverend nodded his thanks and headed for the door to the stage at the front of the congregation. It was a simple affair. There was no need for preposterous pomp. There was no need for elaborate draperies. Jesus did not find a need to robe himself in wealth or in finery and if it was good enough for the Christ, it was certainly good enough for his followers.
The pews were indeed filled with the faithful, and with the lost souls they’d brought with them to be saved.
Lazarus Cotton smiled as he looked to the faces staring in his direction. A few were looking elsewhere, but mostly they turned and faced him as he strode across the hardwood on his way to the pulpit.
He raised his hands and waved and the faithful turned toward him and grew silent, waiting for the words he would speak.
“Welcome! All are welcome here. Welcome to old, familiar faces and to the new faces I have never seen before.” He walked as he spoke, for Lazarus Cotton was filled with the Lord’s glory. He felt as strong as a dozen men and as mighty as any man could be when blessed by the Lord and that, friends and neighbors, was mighty indeed. Can I get an amen?
“I’m looking at you, too, you know. Oh, I know you’re looking at me, and I know what a few of you are probably thinking. You’re asking yourselves what you’ve gotten yourselves into.” He looked around and got a comically worried expression on his face. After holding it for a second, he let the expression change to one of mild disgust. “’Lookit that man! He dresses like Colonel Sanders’ country cousin.’” There were a few snickers out in the audience when he hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and popped them against his beefy chest. “Or maybe you’re thinking about my age.” He waved a hand dismissively, a sly smile blooming on his broad, friendly face. “Oh, I know I’m a bit older than most of you. In fact I’m older than I look, but we’ll get to that part. What you’re wondering about is why you should be spending an evening listening to another fat old minister talk to you about Jesus and the Lord Almighty. Don’t look so surprised…I’ve been on your side of the pulpit too, you know. I went through a lot of my life as a sinner.”
Lazarus Cotton’s face grew serious and he looked from person to person earnestly. “I’ve done my share of blaspheming, and I was known to indulge a bit too much in wine and women and song.” Once again that expression of mild shock moved across his broad features and transformed into a comical look of disgust as if he realized he’s just swallowed a fly why yawning. “’Why would anyone ever? Lookit him! He’s old and fat.’” He stood taller and patted his round belly. While he was never going to be a model for Calvin Klein most of the audience could see his hand hit solid flesh and realized that it wasn’t really a matter of being flabby so much as it was being barrel-chested. He was solid. “Just you remember, Marilyn Monroe wore a size eighteen dress, and when I was growing up a certain amount of belly was a sign of success. It meant you could afford to eat regular meals.”
That one earned him a few more laughs and he could see the newer faces laughing a bit more, relaxing as they got to know him.
“That one hits home with a few of you, doesn’t it? The need to eat? The need to know where your next meal is coming from. It’s a big thing when you’re flat broke and living in an alleyway. And that’s an even bigger thing when you have heat like what we’re handling right now. Well, I’m not so worried about the heat. I can assure you there are places that are a lot hotter.”
A few eyes rolled. Yes, of course he was talking about Hell. They were in a church after all.
“Know what’s funny to me?” He looked at them and planted his big fists on his broad hips. “What’s funny is how many of you just rolled your eyes. Bet you think I’m gonna talk about sin, and hellfire and brimstone.” He shook his head and frowned with a deep enough expression to make sure that even the people in the back of the congregational hall could see the expression. “Well, you’re wrong about that. You look at the Good Books in front of you, on the back of the seats before yours, and you look good and hard. And you find a spot in there where it says you’re going to burn in Hell for all eternity.” He held up a finger. “I don’t mean a reference in the Old Testament that talks of a burning lake without mentioning Hell by name. I mean you find a spot in the New Testament where it says that anyone alive is going to burn in Hell for all eternity.” He crossed his arms and tapped a foot on the floor beneath him. “I can wait if you want to try to find the spot. But I have to tell you, back in the days when I was a bit more of a sinner I would have charged you hard cash for the Bibles I’ll let you have for free now. Back then I was a Bible salesman and I could have convinced your daddy to give me a month’s pay for a cheap Bible and I could have had him writing me the check while you momma was pouring me a whiskey and sitting in my lap.”
He paused while they considered that and the mischievous grin crept back to his mobile face. “Told you I was a sinner, didn’t I? Back in the day? Believe me, I got around and I met more than one lonely wife back in my heyday. We none of us start off as sinners and we none of us start out as saints. One way or another we have to work our way down the proper path to get where we’re going.”
He walked again, treading heavily on the small stage and waving his hands about with every word he said. “The Lord doesn’t promise us eternal damnation. What He promises, what his only begotten son Jesus Christ promises, is the chance for eternal life. If we just do the right things, if we treat people the right way and we can manage to stay properly humble, the meek shall inherit the earth.”
And now he stopped and he looked out at the crowd with wide eyes. “Eternal life. Think about that. The chance to live forever, to never grow old and die, to never suffer disease, to never again suffer the pain of illness, or to know the endless misery of losing our loved ones. Think about how amazing that promise is.”
Oh, there might have been a few who were doubting him, but Lazarus knew when he had a crowd that was listening, and nearly to the last they were paying close attention.
“Jesus Christ died for our sins. He died and He promised us that if we would but love Him and ask His forgiveness for our sins…” He paused and held up one finger again. “And mean it, that part is important, well, then, we could live forever in the glory of the Lord’s blessings.”
Several of the devout called out from the audience with a smattering of Hallelujahs and amens.
And Lazarus Cotton smiled lovingly to his children as they responded. “Would you like to know what makes me different from other ministers and reverends and pastors?” Oh, the grin he offered was a sly one, positively conspiratorial. “Would you like to know what separates me and all of my followers from the rest of the glad-handers who are offering Salvation?”
Several people whispered and looked around and finally one of the young lads in the audience looked toward him and asked, “What?”
Lazarus Cotton’s smile grew into a thing of strange and wondrous beauty.
“Well, now, the difference is that I don’t just tell you what you can have. I can show you the Glory of the blessings of the Lord Almighty.” He stood tall and spread his arms wide. “I don’t offer false promises, my children. I offer proof.”
And then did the children, the wayward and the lost, lean in closer. And then did they listen with rapt attention to the words of Lazarus Cotton.
Can you say Amen?