Tag Archives: the arc of the conversation

Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

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Elements of the story: Conversation, gestures, and actions

My Writing LifeCreating memorable characters is the goal of all authors–after all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it just witty conversation?

That is surely a part of it, but think about the people you know. Picture the ones you like to spend time with. What is it about them that captured your interest in the first place? I’m not talking lovers here, so set the intangible, irresistible chemistry aside, for the moment.

Was it their gestures, their mannerisms that intrigued you before you got to know them? Something about them caught your interest, and you found a kindred spirit.

That is what we want to do for our characters.

And no, I don’t mean for you to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into your story.

I want you to think natural: People don’t only use their faces to communicate. People’s bodies and faces are in constant motion, and that is how you want your characters to seem. You can do this in small, unobtrusive ways by visualizing your conversations and the character’s who are having them.

Consider this excerpt from one of my works in progress, Billy Ninefingers. These excerpts are from my rough draft and will be tightened up, but I am using them as the examples today.  This tale takes place in the world of Waldeyn, and Huw the Bard figures prominently in it, although not in the opening chapters. This conversation happens just before the first plot point. It is the calm before the storm and reveals some of Billy’s personality and his sidekick, Alan Le Clerk. It shows them as mercenaries and as people, and also shows their environment.

Conversation 1 Billy and Alan

 

Billy and Alan are clearly friends. It’s a sunny day and they are obviously wearing armor. Their conversation tells us they’re concerned about the trail they are on. Through that, we learn that world they live in is dangerous and people must hire guards to protect them from more than just highwaymen if they choose to travel. The three paragraphs of that conversation are all the reader needs to know about the work they do and the trail they are riding. That scene ends and the next scene  takes them and the merchant they are guarding to their destination, the dark, dirty town of Somber Flats.

That is where we come to the lead-up to the inciting action. This is where we meet Bastard John, and it is one of the few times he will be in such a place that we can see who he is. The second plot point makes no sense unless the reader knows that the Bastard is an obnoxious bastard, and proud to be so-named.

Conversation 2 Billy and Bastard John

 

We know the Bastard is a bastard when he is drunk. We know he is capable of acting on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind. We also see that Billy has a sense of fair-play.

Picture your conversations as if your were there with them. People miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and  speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn, and they sometimes mumble.

And it is important to remember that every character’s mannerisms are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author visualize them this way, but it is your task to commit their personalities to paper, and that is where many authors fail.

Through physical actions and conversational interactions we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be). Their actions also help to show the environment they exist in. Within the scene of the conversation, you have the opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters.

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Claude Monet Painting in his Garden, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We use our words sparingly and with intention, painting the setting as if we were artists in the style of the  impressionists. With color and small hints a good author gives the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework for  to hang his imagination on.

When characters act and speak naturally within a clearly visualized impression of a setting, we as readers,  suspend our disbelief and become immersed in the story.

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Elements of the story: the structure of the scene

Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of :

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

The Arc of the Story

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge says, “In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change, and it ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story: The end of a narrative arc is the denouement. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.”

However, as we’ve discussed before, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

Last July, at the 2014 PNWA Conference, in his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explained how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches.

Once he explained it in that fashion, I understood it. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

Milano_Duomo_1856

Milano Duomo 1856 via Wikipedia

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said “Dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Remember, in novels, not everyone in the scene knows everything, so their thoughts won’t be that critical, and are therefore not needed. Plot points are driven by the the characters who do have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of  asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market–he has critical knowledge they don’t have, and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

The Story Arc

 

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

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Creating Conversations

Socks and Sandals MemeConversations are easy to write…badly.

Unless the author thinks about it carefully, they can be stilted, stiff, and an unnatural wall of blah-blah-blah. Good writing involves learning the craft, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a conversation.

So how does the intrepid author write this phenomenon in such a way that it sounds natural? I always think of a conversation as having an arc: It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene.

We might jabber about nothing, but in writing,  a good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said that good dialogue must have a premise and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First, when we write about conversations between our characters, we want to ensure they don’t all sound like the same person. Imagine you are at a party. If you look around you, observing the conversations going on in small clusters, you will notice that every person has different mannerisms. The same is true of your characters when you see them in your head. With that image in mind,  you want to include those differences in their gestures, and their manner of speech.

When people talk, they rarely follow grammatical rules. Any English class you’ve taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in your writing, and believe me, those rules are important. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. People speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.

Now we get to the part where my editor and I have our own little conversation—the one where I stick random bits of punctuation in at odd places and she puts them where they belong or removes them entirely:

She: “I agree with the grammar part. I take exception to the punctuation. Punctuation rules MUST be followed especially in dialogue so that the reader reads the dialogue in the same manner the writer intended it to be read.”

Me: “Yes, ma’am.” (Muttering as I find ways to insert action where I want the pauses to go.)

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Spock's_Brain_Star_Trek_1968We all take breaths at different places. Some people speak quickly and off the cuff, with short bursts. Others consider their words before they say them and speak more slowly. Every person in a given room speaks with their own unique style and pattern.

What are the roots of these patterns?  Speech habits are born in the environment the speaker grows up in, but they become identifiable mannerisms acquired throughout our lives.

Consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: first we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of meaningless conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so  the conversations you include in your narrative must be important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

SHotel California Memeome people will have the characters discuss the back-story, and this can be good if done the right way, in small snippets at critical points, and only when that information is needed. But this can be bad, especially when used as away to dump history in long, bloated paragraphs of dialogue.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. When asked how to write a good book, Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

That goes double for dialogue. When I think of the novels I’ve enjoyed the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

We don’t want our characters to be just a bunch of talking heads, sitting around, yammering on. It’s unnatural and doesn’t happen in real life except on the nightly news.

I’ve mentioned this before, but your characters should pause in their conversations, and sometimes miss a few beats. Beats are what screenwriters call the little bits of physical action that are inserted into dialogue and which in a novel can serve to indicate who said what without a dialogue tag interfering with it. Actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture, especially when an author is trying to balance the use of dialogue tags.

e3-2013-trailer-final-fantasy-x-x-2-hd-remasterRemember, actions are best placed where there’s a natural break in the dialogue. They show the mood and personality of your characters and allow the reader to experience the same pause in the dialogue as the characters do, and increase the sense of immediacy, making the scene real in the reader’s mind. It’s through the small habits we give our characters that we convey a little bit of their back-story, without having to resort to an info dump.

 

 

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Dazed and confused

my sisters grave robert dugoniI am a a bit dazed and confused right now. I have been intensely preparing to give a seminar on writing dialogue at conference next weekend, but now the convention has been cancelled. Apparently not enough people pre registered. And I was all prepped to hear an announcement from Robert Dugoni!  Now I won’t know what it is until he tweets it. And his book, My Sister’s Grave was just named one of the top five thrillers of 2014.  I love it when an Indie goes viral!

But on the positive side, I am now free to focus on editing for clients, prepping for NaNoWriMo 2014 and several other things that demand my attention. Also, I don’t have to hope and pray I can find a vegan-friendly restaurant near the hotel (which I also cancelled.)

I had planned to talk about talking–at least about how your characters might talk, if they were talking to you in real life.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so make the conversations important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript. That will be the subject of my next blogpost.

The Arc of the Conversation

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