Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dialogue - Description Excersise

This is an excerpt from my post on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com on Tuesday Feb 3, 2009:

Expletive-Deleted & Tender Romance

"But First! -- Linnea stole my thunder by quoting me and the point I'm making in this post in her post that comes right before this one.
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/02/you-dont-understand-she-shouted-angrily.html
Linnea said: Real people ramble on with loads of 'umms' and 'yunnos' and 'dudes' and 'uhs.' Characters should keep those kinds of things to a bare minimum. Good dialogue goes for the vital organs, which in this case should be the reader's heart and brain. In that way, it's not unlike poetry or song writing. Good dialogue has impact ...

Linnea goes on to point out how handy a good argument is for sprinkling in crushed-expository-lumps so the reader doesn't notice them.

Anger is a good special case of the general key to great DIALOGUE.

ALL DIALOGUE IS CONFLICT.

That's a principle. Dialogue is generated by PLOT, and the basis is conflict. Every scene must have "rising action" (the tension, anticipation of plot-movement, and the movement of the plot must graph from a low to end on a HIGH NOTE). That's a stageplay writing principle that works on TV and in books.

Even sex scene dialogue is generated by conflict that is resolved at the climax.

If the scene does not encapsulate this principle -- conflict/ resolution -- then cut it. All dialogue must carry the conflict. Anything characters say to each other that isn't CONFLICT gets cut, summarized, happens off stage, is overheard in fragments, or referred to in another confrontation.

One thing people revert to when inarticulate with rage (angry enough to let you insert backstory) is invective, and other words that don't say anything but take up precious space in your story.

So today I want to discuss the interjection and expletive in dialogue, whereas in my post -- http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2009/01/verisimilitude-vs-reality.html
-- I was addressing the general problem of creating the illusion of reality, using dialogue as an example because I assumed everyone reading this blog had mastered dialogue.

The principles I discussed in "Versimilitude vs Reality" actually apply neatly to Kimber An's comment (on Linnea's post on dialogue) that Kimber An sees IMAGES and can't do the description well, but has no trouble with dialogue. And I answered in the comments section that when you can't write the description, the problem is in the dialogue. When the dialogue FAILS, the description can't materialize.

That's extremely hard for anyone to grasp who hasn't taught writing, hands-on, with beginner's manuscripts. Most editors can't do this either. But when a story falls off the conflict line at the half-way point, the problem is not at the half-way point, but probably on PAGE ONE -- or possibly PAGE 5. When an ENDING fails to meld properly with the final climax, the problem is very likely at the 1/4 point, or possibly the 1/2 point.

It's kind of like chiropractic medicine. The patient comes in and says "My knee hurts." -- and the doctor pokes and says, "Ah, your neck is out."

A body is an organic whole, a thing of a single piece. The location of the cause and the symptom may not coincide.

Likewise a story is also a work of art (humans are G-d's artwork), and an organic WHOLE, much greater than the sum of the parts we've been discussing. Thus if a problem surfaces at one point, the cause is likely at some other point -- or in some other technique that's not in the writer's tool box.

EXERCISE: Write a radio script -- or a vignette to play out on a limbo set (against total blackness). Or two prisoners in adjacent dungeon cells. Absolutely not one word of anything but dialogue. If you want my analysis of this exercise, post it to http://editingcircle.blogspot.com/ Readers should read this dialogue and post on editingcircle.blogspot.com what the dialogue MADE THEM VISUALIZE.

Click comments below this post and post your exercise. (HINT: write it in a text editor like notepad, turn off wordwrap, then copy and paste it into the comment box.)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

20 comments:

Kimber An said...

Gee, I didn't know you had your own blog! I'll go link it to my Star Captains' Daughter blog, since that's where I post writerly stuff.

Still haven't figured out my psycho-disconnect between the story I 'see' in my head and what I write down. Maybe it's one of those personal weaknesses I'll have to work extra hard on for the rest of my life.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Kimber An

Oh, I doubt it's that hard a problem. Why not just try the exercise suggested here and post it here. That could solve the problem for you in one step, which is why I posted this bit here.

This blog is a spot where I can tuck away little bits of personal instruction that won't interest a general readership.

But I'd be glad to have you list it. One day, I'll get around putting it on the AR blog.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.slantedconcept.com

Tia Nevitt said...

Prisoner A: You know what I miss?
Prisoner B: What?
A: Color.
B: What do you mean, color? How can you miss color?
A: There's no color here, man. Just black and white and institutional gray.
B: What about the sky?
A: Okay, so we get to see a patch of sky for an hour a day. I still miss color. When's the last time you saw red?
B: When Ed Farnes broke my nose.
A: See what I mean? The last time you remember seeing red was when you got in a fistfight. What about orange?
B: I don't know . . . carrots?
A: You've got to be kidding me. You call the carrots here orange? I call them light brown.
B: You have a point, there.
A: What about purple?
B: Purple . . . ? Damn, I don't know when was the last time I saw purple, unless it was part of a bruise.
A: I'm talking about the purple of a violet. Or of a vivid sunset. They don't even let us see the sun set here. What about--
Guard: Up and at 'em! Time for your afternoon walk.
A: Aah. Time for the sweet sight of sky blue.
Guard: Not likely. It's raining.
A: Well, I can always hope for a rainbow, can't I?

*

There probably should have been some cursing, but I tried to keep it clean. It was hard to write it in such a way that I couldn't use dialog tags. Great exercise! I wandered over here via Kimber An's blog. I'll be back!

This is pretty typical of my dialog, except it's formatted as a play. I guess I don't use a lot of "umms" and "uhs" in my dialog, but I do make use of ellipsis marks.

Kimber An said...

Olivia: "Junior? Baby, are you there?"
Junior: "I'm cold."
Olivia: "I'm cold too. Is there anyone with you?"
Junior: "Rehama. She can't wake up."
Olivia: "Snuggle up to her and you'll both warm up."
Junior: "Okay."
Olivia: "Do you have a window?"
Junior: "Yes."
Olivia: "Can you reach it?"
Junior: "I don't know. I'm cold."
Olivia: "I don't have a window and Rehama can't wake up. If we're going to get out of here, it's up to you. Do you understand?"
Junior: "I'm cold."
Olivia: "Just pretend you're in Time-Out. It's hell keeping you in Time-Out. Remember when you put a whoopie cushion in the command chair just before Sachi went on duty?"
Junior: "It was so worth it!"
Olivia: "Well, this is one Time-Out that won't end with you scrubbing the magnaconverters with a toothbrush. Now, stand up and see if you can reach that window."
Junior: "Okay!"
Olivia: "Baby, what was that? What happened? Junior? Junior!"
Junior: "Hi, Mom! Let's blow this tossberry stand!"
Olivia: "Baby, baby, you're all right! Not even a scratch. Come on, let's get Rehama and go home."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Tia and Kimber An:

I'm going to do something here that's flat out against all the rules of TEACHING -- comparing two students work in public.

But this is the technique that works when it's writing craft that's being disseminated. It's called workshopping. But I'll take it one step farther and break even more rules.

Tia: Excellent choice of subject, but the color subject goes on too long and seems pointless. Use one or two lines of "missing colors" then MOVE the dialogue on (possibly the guard comes and they walk along discussing colors maybe following a flashlight that shows only floor and then they do something to the guard -- or they talk of something else on which they disagree passionately).

Oh, and yes, you don't need expletives to create a dimension of reality here.

That is, as written, the colors discussion wouldn't move a plot.

Check what Kimber An did with this exercise. She fabricated an escape from a dark place, and at the end of the dialogue, the three escape by their own efforts.

In yours, the Guard comes and hustles them out and they are too depressed to care. No conflict, no story progress -- therefore it's not "dialogue" at all.

The guy who's trying to answer the question of when he last saw color is being DEFENSIVE, the asker is not really aggressive but more aggrieved. No conflict. There's nothing the reader anticipates them needing the memory of color for.

Kimber An is using the kid being a kid to generate conflict (and suspense) -- the older one trying to get the kid to behave in a life or death situation.

Kimber An's dialogue talks about what is here-and-now -- yours is about an abstract that is "offstage" and doesn't really matter (unless it later motivates them to escape; or shows a way out.)

OK, now to a technique that is usually banned in workshops.

Tia, take Kimber An's entry and add the description, narrative, and exposition. You can add a lightsource.

Kimber An, take Tia's entry and add conflict and action, but no description at all. Even if they see things, you don't describe what they see, feel, taste, etc.

Both of you try to avoid adverbs and adjectives.

Let's see what you can come up with. Oh, and it's OK to cast both these exercises into the same universe.

This is just a skills exercise. The idea is to do it without thinking or planning -- just sketch FREEHAND and see what happens.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Tia Nevitt said...

It looks like I missed the point of the exercise. I thought it was meant to convey descriptions through dialog only. Hence the brown carrots (yuck!).

No matter--I'll take Kimber's entry and do my best!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Tia:

No, you didn't miss the point. It was to convey description through dialogue. But that doesn't mean to have the characters talk about what they see (or don't see, which I thought was very clever of you, and very artistic!).

And thank you for participating. I am eager to read what you find to describe in Kimber An's piece.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Kimber An said...

Is it okay to change her dialogue?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Kimber An:

Yes, it would be OK to edit the dialogue, but it would be more instructive to post a version with edited dialogue, and one without touching what she wrote.

This will be educational not just for the two of you, but for anyone who might browse through here, too shy to post an exercise.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Tia Nevitt said...

"Junior?" Olivia asked, "Baby, are you there?"

"I'm cold." It shivered Olivia to hear Junior's voice, with her words stuttered by chattering teeth.

"I'm cold too. Is there anyone with you?"

"Rehama. She can't wake up."

"Snuggle up to her and you'll both warm up."

"Okay." She could hear Junior moving around. She waited until she could no longer hear Junior's teeth chatter before she spoke again.

"Do you have a window?" Olivia asked.

"Yes."

"Can you reach it?"

"I don't know. I'm cold."

"I don't have a window and Rehama can't wake up," Olivia said. "If we're going to get out of here, it's up to you. Do you understand?"

"I'm cold."

Olivia closed her eyes against a stab of worry. Junior never complained of cold. Usually, she was just the opposite--so frantic with energy that the cold never had a chance.

Then, she had an idea that almost made her smile. "Just pretend you're in Time-Out," she said. "It's hell keeping you in Time-Out. Remember when you put a whoopie cushion in the command chair just before Sachi went on duty?"

"It was so worth it!" The lilt that had entered Junior's voice at the notion of troublemaking did make Olivia smile--in fact, it made her laugh.

"Well, this is one Time-Out that won't end with you scrubbing the magnaconverters with a toothbrush," she said, letting a bit of her Navy Officer persona enter her voice. "Now, stand up and see if you can reach that window."

"Okay!"

She heard decided movement. A grunt or two. Then, a thump.

"Baby, what was that?" A soft hiss from came the darkness, and Olivia clapped her hand over her mouth. After a few moments, she whispered, "What happened?" No response. "Junior? Junior!"

Then, her door flung itself open, and there stood her baby, with her everpresent grin. "Hi, Mom! Let's blow this tossberry stand!"

"Baby, baby, you're all right!" Olivia felt such relief that her knees went weak. "Not even a scratch. Come on, let's get Rehama and go home."

*

That was kind of fun! I dug getting into Olivia's character.

Kimber An said...

Wow, Tia! You totally nailed it.

I, on the other hand, am having a hard time. I'm not a collaborative writer. I can't seem to come up with anything unless I almost completely re-write yours.

Should I refrain from that or should I post the best I can come up with?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Tia and Kimber An:

I was waiting for Kimber An to weigh in on this exercise before commenting.

Here's my analysis of what happened.

Kimber An wrote a dialogue swatch that had CONFLICT and RESOLUTION, that progressed utterance to utterance from problem to resolution. And so Tia was able to "get into" the characters.

Tia's swatch is STATIC - a snapshot of a moment instead of a YouTube Video. It's a good snapshot, but it doesn't "go" anywhere, so Kimber An is having a hard time adding anything because there's no direction.

Tia however did misunderstand the directions for the exercise. I wanted her to add DESCRIPTION to Kimber An's dialogue. Instead Tia added only NARRATIVE and a bit of EXPOSITION, which is fine, but isn't DESCRIPTION.

There is no touch-color-sound-taste-smell and thus no IMAGE in our minds of the place where Kimber An's characters are trapped. Though we now have a better idea of who they are.

Kimber An has had an invaluable learning experience watching someone else's hands manipulate her words. It isn't "collaborating" at all. It is more like seeing through your reader's eyes.

Kimber An, I want you to pay your bills here and give Tia the same experience. Change the Colors DIALOGUE to DESCRIPTION -- add something to give it conflict and resolution as you did with your piece. Yes, you can rewrite however you see it needs to be to make the point you THINK Tia was making.

Tia, you need to inject some description into your rewrite of Kimber An's piece.

Let's see what happens next.

This is a busman's holiday, fun with wordsmithing, jamming on a streetcorner with other musicians met by chance. Just have FUN.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Kimber An said...

Okay, here it is, finally-
***

“You know what I miss?”

Brett rolled eyes up at his stupid kid brother, Amos. Here they were, locked up in some alien prison, and he’s babbling on about what he misses instead of brainstorming how to get out. “What?”

“Color.”

“What do you mean, color? How can you miss color?” Brett growled and forced his thoughts back to breaking out. Even in the dark, he could hear the guard’s armor creak and clang. Once, he’d seen the moonlight reflect on it from their tiny window. But, the face had been bare.

“There's no color here, man. Just black.”

Brett almost said ‘Who the hell cares, you overgrown snot,’ but the guard’s creaking armor stopped him. “Listen to me,” he hissed. “The guard’s coming. Just keep your mouth shut and follow me.”

“Huh?”

Brett relaxed against the moldy wall, the stench filling his nostrils. Odds were this guard was Creosian – an empathic species – and would sense his intensions, if he let on.

The metal door scraped the stones swinging up and the agony-stick pointed out them. “Up and at 'em! Time for your walk.”

Keeping his mind quiet, Brett struggled to his feet and thanked whatever god was watching that his idiot brother stayed down. “I’m a little stiff from the cold and sitting so long.”

“No talking!” The agony stick jabbed for his shoulder.

Launching forward, Brett seized the stick, twisted it out of the guard’s hands and crammed it up into his throat. A kick to the groin and another to the head and Brett spat on the corpse. “All right, Fat-Face, keep your mouth shut, your head down and follow me.”

“Wart-Head.”

Brett latched onto his brother’s arm and dragged him out. “One of these days you’re not gonna have someone around to wipe your butt for you.” If only he hadn’t promised their mother, this would have been that day.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Kimber An:

Thank you. Let's see what Tia says about what you wrote.

You both still need to add visuals, smell, and a sense of the lay of the land to each others' pieces.

This is developing very well.

I think you're going to see the point of it very soon now.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Tia Nevitt said...

Sorry I've taken so long. It's been a busy week. I'll work on this today.

My excerpt was hard to work with, and I felt sorry for Kimber when you wanted her to work on it. It was originally a thought-piece. I admire her for trying.

My next version will follow this post.

Tia Nevitt said...

Ok; my rewrite. I do apologize for taking so long.

"Junior?" Olivia asked, "Baby, are you there?" She gripped the cold bars of her cell as she tried to stare across at the cell beyond hers. The only light burned way down the hall, throwing everything into shadows upon shadows.

"I'm cold." It shivered Olivia to hear Junior's voice, with her words stuttered by chattering teeth.

"I'm cold too. Is there anyone with you?"

"Rehama. She can't wake up."

"Snuggle up to her and you'll both warm up."

"Okay." She thought she saw a shadow moving as Junior climbed onto Rehama's bunk. She waited until she could no longer hear Junior's teeth chatter before she spoke again.

"Do you have a window?" Olivia asked.

"Yes."

"Can you reach it?"

"I don't know. I'm cold."

"I don't have a window and Rehama can't wake up," Olivia said. "If we're going to get out of here, it's up to you. Do you understand?"

"I'm cold."

Olivia closed her eyes against a stab of worry. Junior never complained of cold. Usually, she was just the opposite--so frantic with energy that the cold never had a chance.

Then, she had an idea that almost made her smile. "Just pretend you're in Time-Out," she said. "It's hell keeping you in Time-Out. Remember when you put a whoopie cushion in the command chair just before Sachi went on duty?"

"It was so worth it!" The lilt that had entered Junior's voice at the notion of troublemaking did make Olivia smile--in fact, it made her laugh.

"Well, this is one Time-Out that won't end with you scrubbing the magnaconverters with a toothbrush," she said, letting a bit of her Navy Officer persona enter her voice. "Now, stand up and see if you can reach that window."

"Okay!"

The shadow leaped off the bunk and headed toward the far wall, where it merged with the darkness. Olivia listened so hard she could hear the blood rushing through her head. She heard a grunt or two. Then, a thump.

"Baby, what was that?" A soft hiss from came the darkness, and Olivia clapped her hand over her mouth. After a few moments, she whispered, "What happened?" No response. "Junior? Junior!"

Then, Junior's face jumped out at her beyond the bars. There stood her baby, with her wild red hair askew, her uniform torn and dirty, and her everpresent grin. She waved a glowing cardpass. "Hi, Mom! Let's blow this tossberry stand!"

"Baby, baby, you're all right!" Olivia felt such relief that her knees went weak. "Not even a scratch. Come on, let's get Rehama and go home."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Tia wrote:

"Okay." She thought she saw a shadow moving as Junior climbed onto Rehama's bunk. She waited until she could no longer hear Junior's teeth chatter before she spoke again.

It should be:

"Okay."

She thought she saw a shadow moving as Junior climbed onto Rehama's bunk. She waited until she could no longer hear Junior's teeth chatter before she spoke again.

The protocol is that each character gets a paragraph. If a character says something, then another character does something, you need to change paragraphs, OR use a proper name, not "she."

Another point I had a hard time following -- "Junior" is a "she." OK, but it was confusing.

Now to the exercise.

Tia did an excellent job of bringing visuals to life without using actual description! This is excellent writing, and great technique. Of course, I was hoping for actual "description" -- such as "the floor was beaten dirt, the walls living rock, the stench horrible" or whatever.

On the other hand, now each of you can see how a snatch of bare dialogue can suggest the visuals without actually using text that would qualify as dialogue.

I'm hoping Kimber An can see how Tia created her own visuals out of Kimber An's dialogue, and that Tia's created visuals bare very little resemblance to what Kimber An had in mind.

And vice-versa -- that Tia can see Kimber An embroidering visuals onto Tia's dialogue.

A bonus is that Tia got to see Kimber An imagining a whole set of conflicts that Tia didn't have in mind.

The exercise should bring home how a reader READS.

If you can grasp this point, you will realize the truth in what Marion Zimmer Bradley taught me that had been taught to her via an old adage:

"The book the reader reads is NOT the book the writer wrote."

So the LESS description you put in, beyond what's necessary to make the action logical, the conflict plausible, etc -- beyond the absolute bare bones - the better.

The more description, back story, exposition about things not actually in the scene at the moment, that you put in, the more you SHUT THE READER OUT.

When we were interviewing for STAR TREK LIVES! Leonard Nimoy taught us that, in acting class, this is called OPEN TEXTURE -- it's depth and dimension that the creator of the illusion leaves OPEN so that the consumer of the illusion can enter into the illusion.

So, Kimber An, you aren't bad at description at all.

Tia needs perhaps some work on conflict, and Kimber An might be the right one to show her the trick of it.

The two of you are better than you think you are at the hardest part of writing to learn.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Kimber An said...

"So, Kimber An, you aren't bad at description at all."

Well, maybe, but I might re-write a scene a dozen times and still leave out what the main character is wearing. It's obvious little things like that which do not cross the threshold from my subconscious to my conscious mind and I don't know why.

"Tia needs perhaps some work on conflict, and Kimber An might be the right one to show her the trick of it."

I think the root of conflict is the primal nature of the character(s), which solidified in my head after reading SAVE THE CAT! A woman sitting in a dungeon isn't going to waste brain cells on the decor if her child is locked up somewhere she can't protect her. Unless she has a lot of self-control, she's going to go emotionally ballistic! That's primal.

P.S. Thanks so much for doing this, Jacqueline!

Jacqueline Lichtenberg said...

Kimber An

If you don't put in what the main character is wearing, it's because you shouldn't put it in. The reader will supply the details.

Put in what she's wearing only when it figures in and moves the PLOT. Specify clothing only when it serves a purpose to specify -- such as when it foreshadows dire things to come.

"Her gown was pure white, and too tight to run in."

What do you think that means IS GOING TO HAPPEN, but not next?

Go back and drop in clothing and decore as you build the plot events, and use each of those details to inspire the reader to follow your line of plot development. INSPIRE not compel.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
http://www.simegen.com/jl/

Tia said...

Thanks, Jacqueline! Can't wait to see what you have in store next for us. Thanks so much for your kind words.