Monthly Archives: June 2019

As close as writing can get

FICTION IS BUT BLACK AND WHITE DOTS

We are getting spoiled by high resolution. Actors now have to worry that every pore is visible to the folks at home. Photos take a lot of storage space – megabytes – because we can, and because we have Terabyte hard drives.

Most of us will never have occasion to use that detail, and we don’t want to write books that are that high resolution, either. Among other problems, they would take forever to read!


From November 12, 2012:

Digitizing reality: the fictive approximation

Even in the most connected and most fluid writing, choices have to be made. Which sentence follows which, which word is best. The basic principle of fiction is that reality cannot be duplicated, merely suggested.

When a painter uses a few strokes of red to suggest a roof, she must trust that the viewer will infer internal beams, two-by-fours, and nails to support that roof from the fact that the roof does not fall. Worse, even ‘fall’ is a suggestion: the painter does not ‘do’ gravity: the unsupported roof will not slide off the bottom of the page when the canvas is hung.

Reality is fine-grained

Reality consists of unimaginable numbers of tiny events, linked together by time, infinitely stretching in all directions. Fiction picks the stars in the skies as points, leaves us to connect the stars with planets, deep-space debris, and light.

So it doesn’t really matter which points are chosen, in some sense, because the same writer, on the same day, could select an entirely different set, and still tell the same story.

Beginners to digitization are astounded at how few black and white pixels it takes to express the iconic Abraham Lincoln. But even those few points are a random choice, because starting at each of a million different points, there are a million similar-but-not-identical digital Lincolns.

But what level of detail is REQUIRED for fiction?

It is only necessary to cover enough of the central story, at the chosen level of detail. “Wedding dress for sale. Never worn.” is in some sense exactly the same as “Great Expectations.”

What a writer strikes for is balance. For each type of story there are conventions, rough guidelines. An action thriller which spends half of its 300,000 words in interior monologue of its twisted dark protagonist is a deliberate contravention of the genre’s best-selling exemplars. It CAN be done, but must be written exceedingly well, and even then the audience for it will not be all thriller readers – because most of them want taut action-packed, skimpy-on-details, fast-paced writing with its interior monologue limited to “They killed my wife and child and now they will pay.”

Possibly, if done well, the audience will broaden to include readers who like longer stories, who appreciate the extra background, the crossover effect. A gamble. Done deliberately and competently and in a controlled manner, it may pay off. May.

How do you sketch a good-enough approximation?

I come by these thoughts today free of charge as a short scene–which had completely halted progress for over a month–suddenly resolved and melted into ink on page. I stopped trying to find better words to do what I was doing. I realized the words already there were a good digitization of the reality I was trying to portray–and that there is not a single perfect version of this scene which I have to locate somewhere out in the ether.

Life, complicated, millions-of-tiny-pieces life, had been getting in the way. I’m amazed at how few words needed changing, how few words I needed to add to what I already had. It is a good-enough version of the story reality. It isn’t missing any key pieces.

Time limits how much a character can do, say, or think

Finally, I could experience it from the inside of the head of the character whose point of view it was. In a few places, I added what she thought and felt to what she experienced–just a few touches restored that sense of balance.

I changed the places where I showed through: where her words would be different from mine, I chose hers. Mine were better–hers were hers. She comes from a part of me I disallow sometimes, with my over-educated, over-read self-image. She WANTED–in a way I rarely allow myself any more. I let her speak instead of censoring her–and the scene finished itself.


I love writing, because I get to choose the level of detail needed to tell the story my way.

My happiest readers will be those who like my granularity, somewhere between Hemingway and Rosamund Pilcher (or worse, Proust), whose brain needs the same distance from the subject. And it doesn’t hurt if they like my stories.

How much detail do you need?

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Lessons from writing a play still hold

TO TEACH A NOVELIST DIALOGUE

One of the better oldies, condensing several years of learning into a single post – and a much better sense of how to do dialogue.


From November 16, 2012:

For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical

(not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously.

So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

—–
* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.


When a scene isn’t going well, sometimes I just tell it in dueling dialogue – and then go back and see more of the setting and work on the pace.

Another real advantage is that, with pure dialogue, you can actually change the point of view character, and then fill the scene in from that character’s perspective. Nifty if you’re not sure whose scene it needs to be (I’ve changed perspectives in many scenes).

Have you written a play?

Stories promise more than they deliver

Reflect reality

I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE TELLING PRETTY STORIES

There is no direct correlation between the most detailed, elaborate story you can tell – and the ‘real life’ it may be based on.

We know that – and ignore it – every time we read, and not just read fiction.

Choices are made. Real life is edited – to make more sense. To make any sense at all.

Even the language we use for stories has too many choices.

But the core? Is the core something worth while?

Most writers don’t even ask themselves this question; they just start writing.

But I had a period when I wondered if it was somehow wrong to tell tales that couldn’t be true, could never happen.

Duplicate oldies!

I was surprised to find I had boosted the same old post twice in less than a month. Clearly, I need to remember what I’ve done – and keep track better!

I’ll do another Oldie but Goodie soon – and put the actual date instead of an approximate one in the heading.

Let me get some sleep, some bloodwork, and some writing done first tomorrow. Sigh.