Monday, January 22, 2007

Conflict & Lying Pipe

status: 11,600 and climbing

In the last post I mentioned in passing that every scene I write has conflict at its heart. I didn't invent this guideline, just found it somewhere and like any good magpie, added it to my box of tricks.

"Laying pipe" is a TV writer term for putting unrealistic dialogue in a character's mouth to get the exposition out there. You know: "Wow, I can't believe we're going to be selling lemonade at the State Fair." Like the guy standing at the booth didn't know how he got there.

It's not that Fred and Daphne need Velma to tell them where they're going (Fred's doing the driving, after all); it's that Velma needs to tell us.

TV can maybe be forgiven for laying pipe. They've got 22 or 48 minutes to tell a story, and the less time wasted getting the setting down the better. Pipe-laying is an artificial mannerism that TV audiences have learned to overlook. In its way, a half hour or hour of TV is as strictly mannered a performance as Kabuki or opera.

Or professional wrestling or Springer.

(Do they still do Springer in the US? It's been so long since I've lived there that Clinton was president at the time!)

Anyway, TV writers, pipe away. Have at it. We novelists aren't so lucky. Or so cursed.

A novel is free of those weird time constraints. We can let a story develop more organically. That's a strength that can also be a weakness.

One pitfall I have to watch out for in my work is the rambling. I write by the seat of my pants and explore the characters as I go. It's tempting to do pages and pages of two guys in a car talking about stuff, that sort of thing. It goes quick and easy, and I can point to a big old word count and pretend I'm doing great.

Thing is, it's not progress. These guys have talked in the car for six pages and the story's gone NOWHERE.

Cut, cut, cut.

Here's the other big pitfall for me: Put those same two guys back in the car, still shooting the shit, but now they're also dropping little bits of information, telling the reader what's what. The dialogue flows along, and the story's moving, right? I mean, there they are, telling us all this useful stuff.

Problem is, it creaks. These days we call it ASYKB (short for As-you-know-Bob), and the device is so old it needed oiling back in Grandpa's day (and one of my Grandfathers was born in the 1880's, about the last time this was acceptable). Back when he was a baby it was still the norm for two servants to appear at the start of the story and lay pipe all over the place as part of a 'conversation'.

I won't say I never do it, but every time I do, it's a failure. The key to success?


Every scene where a character appears - major or minor - that character wants something they're not immediately able to get. It can be big or small, but it needs a goal and an obstacle, preferably another character with a cross-purpose.

For instance, last night Sarah, my hero, needed to find out that the villain had robbed an armored car (There are fuck-all firearms here in New Zealand, except in the hands of farmers and criminals. The dramatic possibilities abound).

I could have had Sarah show up and look siliently at the scene, a little internal monologue dropping the facts on us, and out. Dead boring. even if she stands in some rain or fog or something.

I could have had her ask a uniform on the scene. He could give her the facts, ma'am.


What I did was have another detective (Mark) catch the call for the armored car and bring Sarah in when the connection was made to her case. This other detective is a muscly ex-jock with a bit of a Short Man Complex. He acts cocky to get the world to overlook his height.

Sarah's five inches taller with a higher close-rate. Mark's desire to be the big man has an obstacle in its way, and will have every time these two meet. He can't just give up and be humble around Sarah, so he's always looking for ways to one-up her.

Sarah's a woman in a man's world, and a misfit anywhere. If she gives these boys an inch, they'll walk all over her. She demands, and gets, respect. No way Sarah's going to let Mark act like something he's not.

These two like each other, but that tension is there in every encounter. And their gamesmanship makes it easy to drop in a few facts abot an armored car robbery without anyone yawning.

At least, it will when it's gone through a couple of edits. At this stage in the game, I'm just spewing the scenes out as fast as I can type them. Later, I'll go back and look at what I've done, pick out themes and symbols, decide what to amplify and what to drop. Right now, I need to turn off all of my inner critics and just GO!!!

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes, get it down. Then the fixing can commence