Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Tell-It Toolbox

Instead of story structure, today I felt like talking about storytelling itself. How *do* you give a scene its punch?

Pretty much everything we write comes down to three tools: narrative, dialogue, description.

Narrative: straightforward, what's happening now writing.
Dialogue: characters, you know, talking.
Description: those good old sense impressions.

For me, the goal is lean, evocative storytelling. I have a rule of thumb:

Talking beats telling.
Describing beats talking.

It's an idea cribbed from screenwriting and comics, but an effective tool nonetheless. I'm sitting in my recliner with laptop (or lately, pen and paper) in hand. I know that John and Martha are about to come together, and they ain't none too fond of each other.

I have to make a choice about how to tell it.

Narrative is one heck of a workhorse. Nothing moves characters from A to B faster than just telling the reader they moved from A to B. Careful about overusing the narrative, though. Like an all-fiber diet, nothing moves faster and is less interesting:

John looked up as Martha came into the room. John felt disgusted. Martha wanted to claw his eyes out.

A lot of writers love dialogue. I'm certainly a big fan of the stuff. It breaks up those dense paragraphs on the page, lends a bit of personality to those characters and gives Gentle Reader a sense of motion:

"Your drinking sickens me," John said.
"The nerve. I've half a mind to claw your eyes out."
"I'd like to see you try..."

Like I said, zips right along. And if you're not doing this in a blog post, great be had when your characters reveal their feelings gradually.

Description is a powerful, subtle, often underrated tool. Comics and movies use it all the time, in those wordless passages where looks are exchanged, fireplaces or crashing waves shown, etc.

The tick-tick-tick of high heels grew louder in the hall, stopped with a scrape of shoe leather on polished wood. The twin scents of vodka and cheap perfume hit his nostrils, and John's upper lip curled away from his teeth.

Martha stood in the doorway, swaying slightly on her heels. Her hands were curled into claws at her sides, and her eyes were thin green slits.

Description lets Gentle Reader fill in her own blanks, but it can also bog down if overused. And there's the possibility that, like a Mad Lib, the blank might be filled in wrong.

Which one's right or best? Depends. How important is it? Stands to reason the most important elements get the most coverage. How effective will each tool be? Some stuff really does need just one tool more than any other. And, of course, which tool feels most comfortable on the day?

And yeah, in the course of actual writing, we find ourselves jumping from one to the next all over the show. Sometimes, a powerful result comes from letting the dialogue run independent of narrative and action:

John looked up as Martha came into the room. His mouth turned down at the corners and a muscle jumped under one eye before he brought his face under control.

"It's good to see you," he said.

Martha's eyes narrowed to thin green slits.

"Just thought I'd drop by. Not interrupting, am I?"

"Get you a drink?"

He reached for the bottle and a spare glass. The movement turned his face away from her.

It was quiet in the room, and still. John heard the snap of Martha's purse, smelled gun oil and baby powder.

"She's young enough to be your daughter," Martha said. Her cheeks were bright with tears.

The bottle fell. Shattered glass flew. Brown liquid stained the floorboards.


Shauna Roberts said...

There's describing, and then there's describing. Your example has the description working together with the dialogue to create a living, breathing scene.

It seems that kind of description, knotted into the action, should have a different name from description that stands alone, in which the author describes the room or scenery or the characters' clothes or jewelry. The latter kind of description is needed because otherwise scenes feel as if they are taking place on a bare stage with naked characters. Still, it plays a much different role in the story.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm personally a big fan of description and less so of dialogue. Part of it is that my dialogue is not as strong as I'd like it to be. I've still got a lot to learn, and not as much time to learn it as I need.

cs harris said...

We hear all the time that readers like lots of dialogue, partially I suppose because it tends to be short and easy to read. Yet I often find authors who rely heavily on dialogue unreadable. It IS only part of the story. I want to know how people look, what they're doing. Good post.

Lisa said...

I love your example of description and I tend to prefer reading work where the description of what characters are doing and not saying conveys more than what dialogue alone can -- or it augments dialogue in a way that allows you to get away with writing less of it. I also think dialogue that relies on subtext -- what they're not actually saying, but clearly thinking is some of the best kind. Great post!

Sphinx Ink said...

Good post and excellent examples of each technique--you vividly illustrate the increasing impact as you move from example to example. Thanks.

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