Monday, July 28, 2008

A Closer Look at Scenes

There are some standard rules that apply to writing: make every scene count, use characterization to progress plot, intersperse narrative with dialog. You need this in writing.

But not always.

I've recently joined the Online Writing Workshop and submitted the first chapter of The Amnesia Door for critiquing. My critique groups are busy with my other manuscript, but I didn't want this new one to stagnate. One of the critiques I got on TAD was that during a conversation between two of the main characters with two of the very minor characters, the reader has no concept of what the minor characters look like.

I had kept these two characters vague because, well, after chapter 2, they're not really in the book any more. I was doing that cut-everything-that's-not-essential bit in my revisions, and I never thought that describing these two soon-to-be-gone characters was something really needed; certainly not "essential."

However, if it makes a reader pause, then it's something I need to consider. Fortunately for me, Tabitha had a great post on her blog about "talking heads," or when characters just talk without showing any body language or action. While my characters do things--one reads a book, the other seems excited about asking questions--I could just as easily add in some more details about who these two minor characters are in between the dialog. Something as simple as having the girl ask a question and then flip her hair would give more sense of who the character is without spending paragraphs or pages describing someone non-essential to the plot.

Here's an example:

"What's everyone's schedule?" Veronica asked.

This is about the second or third thing Veronica says. As of this point--and really, as of the whole manuscript--the only thing you find out about Veronica is that she shares one class (Spanish) with the main character and at lunch, she sits with the main character, her friend, and another girl. That's it. There is no other detail about her. But, what if I add to her dialog?

  1. "What's everyone's schedule?" Veronica asked. She reached into her bookbag--which was really an overlarge designer handbag her father had purchased her during the annual family European excursion--and pulled out her own schedule to compare with the other's.
  2. Veronica re-adjusted her headband. Belle wondered if the headband was supposed to look vintage or if it really had come from the '80s; either way, it made Veronica look as hopelessly out of date as ever. "What's everyone's schedule?" Veronica asked nervously when she noticed Belle staring at her.
  3. "What's everyone's schedule?" Veronica asked. She leaned forward, giving the impression of polite curiosity in the others' schedules, but Belle knew that it was all fake and Veronica was only pretending to be nice to them.
The same basic information is present in each of these examples--Veronica asks to see everyone's schedule. But each detail attached to the question--a designer handbag, a dated headband, a falsely curious lean forward--give a very different impression of who Veronica really is. A snob, a hopelessly out-of-date shy girl, and a pretentious fake are all very different from one another. More importantly: none of these details really require further exploration. We know from their "typical" details just what kind of girl each one is, and none of them really need anything else.

So, by adding in a few details with the dialog tags, you can create a unique minor character that gives a more real sense of the story without stopping the plot.


PJ Hoover said...

Nice examples! Reading posts like this (and Tabitha's) are so crucial. I can know the information, but I just need to hear it over and over to get it pounded in my head!

christine M said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing this. I know I fall into the 'talking head' trap - it's something I need to watch. It's amazing how a few crucial details set the scene. And you know more about Veronica - even if you don't know her hair color and eye color (which is how I always used to describe my characters when I was a teen)

Unknown said...

Thanks, PJ, and I'm the exact same way. I *knew* that I needed to throw in some sort of description, but I didn't think of it at all until reading Tabitha's post!

And Christine, I used to do the same thing! I still do, sometimes :)

Keri Mikulski said...

Very interesting, Beth. BTW - My fave is the first example. :)

Sometimes, I get so into my dialogue that I forget to do this. I just read HOW TO BE BAD and Lockhart, Mlynowski, and Myracle are masters at this.

Tabitha said...

Thanks for the plug! But mostly I'm glad it helped. :)

There are so many great things we can do with our characters. And it's the little things that really show us who they are. Love your different examples of Veronica. We really get a clear sense of each version. :)

Unknown said...

Keri--I'll have to check that book out!

Tabitha--Thank YOU for the original post :)

Carol Baldwin said...

This was a great post. I came on your blog to see if I could add anything about SCBWI but I see you have that covered. thanks for sharing the "what is your schedule?" snippet. With fear and trepidation I'm getting ready to write and posts like this are very helpful. Carol

PS WHich one did you pick?

Unknown said...

Welcome Carol! I'm glad my post was helpful :)

I've actually not picked one...I want one that shows that while the side characters are decent people, they're not fashionable or popular (as this is one of the things the main character longs for). I'm going to tweak it a bit more, but that'll be the angle I'm going for.