Scene-Setting

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Scene-Setting: The often overlooked
powerhouse in every writer’s arsenal.

You’ve heard this before from me, and now you shall hear it again: Rule #5: Continually scene-set, character-build or move the plot forward. In novel writing, nothing else matters.

Need a refresher? Look Here.

For fledgling and action-oriented novelists, scene-setting is often the most overlooked of these three essential fictive components. Yet proper scene-setting is imperative. One cannot simply rely on plot momentum and character development alone. (At least, not when writing a novel.*) But many novelists have trouble adequately grounding readers, largely because scene-setting can be radically misunderstood. Do realize that proper scene-setting is a far more complex concept than simply pointing out a big red barn or a hazy afternoon.

Since ‘scene-setting’ is typically considered an all-inclusive term incorporating all five senses, and optionally including how and when, grounding a reader can refer to a multitude of possible sensory enhancements necessary to fully develop a scene. Scene-setting can (and should) provide powerful imagery—colors, motions, sounds, feelings, fragrances—that add more than a vague or occasional embellishment to your plot and characters, or to their environs.

For instance:

Johnny Rocco was led through the prison yard by his guards toward freedom.

VS.

Johnny Rocco lumbered through the prison yard, his wrists and ankles shackled, with twenty pounds of tempered steel chain wrapped around his waist for good measure. The six guards surrounding Rocco had been hand-picked by the warden, each man heavily armed, and each secretly hoping that Rocco might make some stupid move, a twitch or a smirk, resulting in a particularly bloody demise before the man made it past the yawning front gates to freedom.

I have absolutely no problem with minimalism, and yet if Johnny Rocco’s walk toward freedom is the first line of a new scene or chapter, I do have issues with the opening’s lack of emotional depth and visual stimulation. The latter of these two examples feels far more expressive, and better grounds the reader immediately in this new scene.

Very often when we sit down to begin a new scene or chapter, our brains are already overflowing with stimulating visual momentum; our thoughts crowded with profound, dramatic intent. Just remember that readers cannot see into our mind’s eye! We may visualize quick, fragmented glimpses of a basic setting as we write, but we’re here to tell a story, damn it, and tell our story we will! So we hustle off…

But wait a sec. Exactly where are we again? We may intuit every step that our characters take, but realize that readers need sufficient sensory information (note I didn’t simply say visual information) to accompany our journey.

So how important is scene-setting? It’s crucial enough to be considered a new rule. Rule#17: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers.

Another example:

Jane awoke in a haze, lying on a bare cot in a small, unfamiliar gray room. She found herself unable to remember how she’d gotten here—nor much of anything of the last 48 hours, her recent memories vague, her thoughts fragmented. Attempting to move her arms, Jane discovered that her wrists were bound to the cot with thick leather ties.

Shaking her head, she felt a sharp stab of pain. A concussion, perhaps. Had she been knocked unconscious? Jane couldn’t remember. For a long moment she remained still, quiet, warily inspecting her surroundings. A single, wooden door stood across the room. Closed and presumably locked. To her left, Jane observed a solitary window. Worn, muslin curtains swayed in a light breeze, the widow open, revealing a faint hint of rosemary and sage. Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.

A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention… (and here comes the plot.)

But before any action begins in earnest, our stage is now set. Perhaps not fully set—but sufficient information has been given readers to ground them in the moment. We can further fill in blanks or add nuance in later scenes or a subsequent chapter. Yet because we mention a door, a window, a distant mountain; most readers will intuit that these items are (or will likely become) necessary elements in our story in some significant—or perhaps insignificant but insightful—way.

So, in our haste, if we write:

Jane awoke in a small room, tied to a cot. She couldn’t remember her name. Suddenly a noise outside the door startled her….

…we’re cheating our readers with by withholding ambiance that can greatly enhance the experience that we’re providing. It’s like serving dinner guests bread and butter on paper plates when we’ve promised them Filet Mignon on fine china. Maybe they won’t go away hungry, but they certainly won’t go away happy. Without sufficient scene-setting techniques, our writing can feel dry and emotionally vacant, lacking any sense of style and color and flavor. Realize that all sense of dramatic nuance, of stylistic intent, is easily lost behind a too swiftly moving plot.

Here’s a suggestion: Each time you begin a new scene or chapter, think of yourself as a Broadway set director (a.k.a.; set designer), confronting a bare and empty stage. Your first step? Visualize what’s necessary for the performers. What physical elements will the actors need to fully tell their story, both in terms of location and stage props? The next step? Ask yourself what conditions have changed since the last act? A new local? A new time? New characters? Mood swings? Because all these changes should be sufficiently revealed before (or very soon after) any forward plot momentum continues. What elements do readers require to believe the reality you’re presenting?

For instance, if this particular act in your stage play takes place in a large living room, the director (also you, BTW, but wearing a different hat) may have characters entering from stage left and stage right simultaneously. Meaning that you, wearing your set designer’s hat, will need to implement two doorways in the set. If you—writing the scene on a page—reveal only to readers one doorway when first describing the room, you’ll confuse readers. Your later self may balk—and you’ll find yourself begrudgingly adding or deleting numerous pages to make the scene work properly.

Understand, that many of us (me, included) often skip a great deal of scene-setting (and character development as well) until a second or third draft. So when working on a first draft—then, yes!—by all means focus solely on the plot. For the moment, the color commentary can wait.

Meaning it’s okay for our story to remain temporarily incomplete, because the process of writing is fluid, and still very much in motion. At this stage, the writer has room to maneuver. My own first drafts are filled with gaping holes and unfinished thoughts, even random notes to myself—and God help anyone who tries to decipher my intent if they come upon the incomplete manuscript. I make notations in red (I draft everything on-screen, not paper) and rely on red ink to mark my unfinished thoughts. Thus, my first drafts commonly look something like:

Jane awoke [in a fog? Or is she coherent? Naked? If so, why?], lying on a in a small [describe] room. She found himself unable to remember how she’d gotten here [why? Concussion? Amnesia? Drugs?] She observes her surroundings and… yadda, yadda.

Because sometimes it’s far easier to return and fully embellish a scene once the skeletal frame of the story is already in place.

Okay, so how much detail is too much? Scene-setting is, of course, a matter of personal preference—but also a question of our ability in gauging how much or how little grounding is necessary to properly immerse a reader in any given scene. As novelists, we can spend paragraphs or even pages attempting to properly scene-set in great detail—although I advise writers not filling pages to such an extent that one loses sight of maintaining plot momentum. In the above example, Jane’s waking confusion—plot momentum—is still our primary focus. So a writer must constantly compromise, juggling plot momentum, character development and sufficient (if temporarily incomplete) scene-setting.

One noteworthy caution: When scene-setting, beware of the dreaded red herring. Jane may notice, for instance, a set of sterling salt and pepper shakers on a table beneath the window. If such items are glimpsed in passing, fine. But if Jane dwells for any reason or spends any perceptible time noting their presence—take heed. Because unless that table and those shakers are somehow necessary to the story, I’d suggest brevity. Take too long to establish a minor character, a clue or a prop that will have no relevant bearing later in your story, (such unintended misdirection being the aforementioned red herring) and some readers may be miffed. Sure, it’s okay to tease readers with deliberately misleading clues—Detective Plum believes Mrs. Peacock to be the killer, for instance, only to have Mrs. Peacock die in the next scene—is perfectly okay in a murder mystery. Such intended misdirection is simply a dramatic invention that furthers the plot. But don’t dwell on the unnecessary.

Sense Descriptors

Let’s look at those variables available to create a fully developed scene or chapter. Your options include one or more of the numerous sense descriptors available to more fully inform readers:

• Sight (Visual cues)
This one’s a gimme. A slam-dunk. Either the writer observes (omniscient narration) or a character observes (POV) the various, necessary visuals that ground the reader in a particular reality. The vast majority of novels are primarily visual descriptions. For instance: A castle on the hillside. Belinda’s skin glistening in the moonlight. The zombie’s fiery red eyes. A flock of geese heading south overhead. John arguing with Mary.

Even dialogue, while not directly a visual cue, is typically written as an observable exchange, as experienced between two or more people. So even though we may hear John arguing with Mary, we also see them arguing. The exasperated expressions, the flowing tears, the pouty lips, all combine for a definitive visualization. An adept writer will weave together both visual and auditory cues for the reader to best grasp the situation.

Most adept writers will find ways to weave snippets of scene-setting with  character development and/or plot momentum. For instance:

Riding behind Sir Reginald’s ambling horse, Lady Rockbottom noticed the distant ruins of a castle high atop a granite cliff, towering above the chilly evening’s encroaching fog. Exactly the type of place where the dastardly Sir Evilson would lay in wait for them. The castle, its old walls glowing a ghastly reddish orange beneath the setting sun, appeared little more than a devilish apparition. She feared the elderly Reginald would not stand a chance of defeating the younger, more powerful knight.

• Sound
As a species, we’re inherently drawn to ambient sounds—whether the strains of a finely-played violin or the gentle, distant crash of an ocean surf. We’re also instantly wary of the sound of thunder, of an explosion, or some hapless animal howling in the dead of night. Of two men cursing and arguing loudly in a shadowed alley. Even background chatter—people mumbling, an occasional burst of laughter, glasses clinking—can signify a cocktail party, a single sentence that offers readers a clear perception of location, without having to intricately describe a room filled with inconsequential characters.

Or perhaps little Wanda June is lost in the woods as as soft rain falls. But how the scene might change if she hears a crash of approaching thunder? Or Maurice awakens to the creak of a floorboard long after midnight. Even more subtle ambient sounds—crickets chirping at sunset, the wind rustling autumn leaves—can provide subtle emotional cues to your readers. So don’t lose the occasional opportunity to use sound as a viable grounding tool.

• Touch.
Have you ever written a scene where a character wakes suddenly in the night—the surrounding darkness pitch black and foreboding? So, yes, touch matters. However, for the most part, touch relates to important sensual clues that can better define a condition or observation. For instance; the metal floor felt ice cold beneath James’ bare feet, or Mary awoke to the prickle of countless fat, hairy spiders scrambling over her bare flesh. Sure, Mary can simply observe the spiders—but how much more dramatic if you allow readers to feel the tickle of their hairy little paws as well.

And yes, spiders have paws.

• Smell.
While not as common as the above descriptors, the ability to reveal scents and fragrances (both exquisite and putrefying) can leave an indelible impact to readers as well. So the next time you’re confronted with a plucky resistance leader chased into the underground sewer system by the evil prince’s guards—take a chance to share the full experience with your readers. Or as my old granny used to say, “When you’re covered in shit, you can’t smell the wine.” I suppose the more common, less offensive adage (as taught in Advertising 101) would be: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. In fiction, the same rules apply.

• Taste.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. So are these ‘lesser’ sense descriptors. Again, Taste—like Smell and Touch—can cut through 1000 words of carefully worded narration in a single sentence. To famished little Wanda June, the sliver of chocolate cake tasted like heaven. Simple enough. Profound enough. There’s not a reader in the world who won’t feel the girl’s joy.

• How and Why.
Occasionally there may come a time when specific mechanics of a story scene must be revealed to readers, for clarity’s sake. In Stephen King’s novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, prisoner Andy Dufresne escapes by crawling through Shawshank’s lengthy sewer system to freedom. A long and particularly gross escape (in both book and film), his friend Red narrates Andy’s escape for the reader. Rather than simply stating that Andy escaped through the sewer, Red’s colorfully grotesque commentary gives readers a delightfully gruesome moment to consider Andy’s trek through a hundred yards of putrid prison poop. Readers get a little sensual ride (visual and olfactory) along with the How of Andy’s getaway. And that’s how it’s done!

Here’s another example. Let’s return to Jane for a moment, from where we left off.

Lifting her head, she glimpsed little more than a cloudless blue sky outside, and the hazy peak of a single, treeless mountain far in the distance.
. . . . A sudden noise behind the door snagged her attention. A moment later the door swung open and a man appeared, small and haggard, his head shaven. The man wore a black cloak and smelled faintly of formaldehyde.
…..“Ah, Miss Cooper, I see that you are finally awake.” The bald man offered Jane a shriveled little smile. “I have an important question, my dear. Are you listening closely? How did you learn of Dr. Desparado’s whereabouts? Answer that single question and you will be free to leave. However, if you choose to remain silent—ahh, but I can only assure you that you’ll live long enough to regret your decision.”

The bald man’s entrance—even if his character appears in this one and only scene—is to provide the Why of Jane’s presence in this room, in this scene. Reading on, readers will likely discover the How in a page or two. (A little Rohypnol spritzed in her morning coffee, perhaps?) At the moment, the bald man’s question is sufficient for the scene (and plot) to move forward. Thus, via dialogue, you’re revealing a snippet of information that readers should find grounding enough to infer Jane’s troubles. She stumbled, intentionally or not, upon a snippet of information that was, for whatever reason, private.

Fail to reveal this information to readers—Jane’s presence here and the reason behind it—and you’ll find yourself with what we editors refer to, in hushed, shaky whispers, as: a big fat plothole.

• Time (and time’s passing).
When we write, we write in a strictly linear fashion. That happened then. This is happening now. What’s gonna happen in the future? (It’s that pesky time/space continuum thing.) One doesn’t usually pause to contemplate the profundity of such potential directional challenges (unless, of course, one’s writing in the Time Traveling arena). Flashbacks and flash-forwards are linear extracts—that is, scenes or chapters pulled out of an orderly timeline, and yet then told in a similar, precise order. Then, now, later. If a writer gets it wrong—for instance, doesn’t fully reveal to readers that a character’s ‘back in the then’ or ‘gone to the later’, those readers may become hopelessly lost. And, no, many won’t forgive you. So allow for the proper segue, which can be as simple as a few establishing words:

Several years ago, as I recall, when your Uncle Teddy was in the army…

Or,

Two minutes later, when Stephani warily opened the golden orb’s glowing hatch, nothing of her world appeared remotely the same. The old, asphalt road had been transformed into a carpet of tall grass. The little sapling that she had planted in the yard last month had morphed into an enormous, gnarled Oak. Her mother’s house, the tidy home she’d known all her life, had disappeared, replaced by a tall, spindly structure that glistening of polished metals and hummed gently under a blazing ocher sun…

Keeping readers aware of time’s passing—whether a few moments, a few hours or even a few centuries—can be instrumental in properly grounding readers in a story. And time changes can be tricky. For instance, if your last scene or chapter ended at high noon and this scene/chapter begins after sundown—and all other variables being identical—be sure to inform readers of the shift ASAP. If I’ve left the previous scene under the midday sun and suddenly I’m reading about the twinkling stars or glowing streetlights 3 or 4 pages into a new scene, and without any previous indication of the time change…well, consider that taboo. The solution is to simply keep the reader advised, as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Jane awoke from a deep sleep with a start. Her wrists remained tightly bound. She stared at the ceiling for a long moment, trying to recall the bald man’s words. Had he been an apparition? His appearance merely a dream? For the hundredth time she tried furtively to remember her name. Beyond the room’s little window, she could see the horizon beginning to darken. Night would be upon her soon, meaning she’d spent an entire day locked in this miserable little place...

• Moods/feelings/emotions.
Can moods and emotions help set a scene? Absolutely. Typically, we need not make any special effort to establish a character’s mood. (“Hello, I’m John, your new neighbor! I’m usually a cranky, cantankerous sort!”) Astute writing will usually reveal your character’s mood. But a terse gaze, a taut smile, a little hand-wringing or the drop of a tear can reveal much about the tenor of the scene. Thus, if a character is secretly angry or relieved or nervous—those snippets of info can help readers understand the scene’s ultimate intention.

Without properly establishing mood settings for your characters (when and if appropriate), you may as well be writing a telephone directory. The three examples below should aptly illustrate the simplicity (and necessity) of this rationale:

“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene said, laughing hysterically.
“Don’t do it, Madeline!” Rene cried out in alarm.
Don’t do it, Madeline,” Rene whispered, a furious whisper in the dead of night.

Important information. Revealed discreetly.
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In a nutshell: When beginning to write or plot a new scene or chapter, stop to evaluate what’s different. What’s changed? How does this scene vary from the last scene? If three days have passed between the last scene and this one, and you don’t tell readers—that’s a blunder. If a new character has entered the room, and the writer fails to reveal his presence, and your character beings conversing with this unseen dude three pages in—that’s a blunder. If your evil faerie godmother’s been dressed in black robes for several chapters—and in this scene you’ve draped her in red velvet, but forget to tell us for several pages—that’s a blunder. Why? Because you’ve cheated readers into believing in various specifics (the time of day, who’s in the scene, even a wardrobe change) that are presently untrue. For readers, those omissions can be quite off-putting. Or outright confusing. So, when confronting a new scene, make a checklist, mental or otherwise, of what might be new, different or worth mentioning. And then mention it.
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*Can’t seem to get the hang of scene-setting after many attempts at failures at writing a novel? Is detailed world-building not your forte? Perhaps consider writing a screenplay. Seriously. Script writing is basically dialogue (really great dialogue, mind you) accompanied by the barest bones—a suggestion, really—of visual composition. Even plotting is written with a bare-bones simplicity. The trick is, of course, that a screenwriter must accurately describe the necessary components as quickly, and bluntly, as possible.

However, unlike a completed novel, a screenplay is merely the first step in a multi-leveled project where you (the screenwriter) have little-to-no say in the project once the script is complete. Subsequent writers, script doctors, producers and the director may tear your original script to shreds before the camera’s begin to roll. The finished product (a.k.a. a major motion picture) may look little or nothing like your original idea. On the other hand, successful screenwriters are paid increasingly and delightfully robust fees for their efforts and can afford to grin and bear it, whilst driving their Bentley’s to Beverly Hills Savings & Loan, their pockets laden with golden faerie dust. But I digress. Suffice it to say, screenwriting can be a viable option.

For instance:

EXT. (exterior) . . . FARMHOUSE — DAY
Old ANGIE (68) is sitting on a rocking chair on the front porch. Young farmhand HANK is standing in the dirt driveway. Overhead, storm clouds are threatening.

ANGIE.
You get that back field plowed yet, boy?

HANK
No, ma’am. Water pump gave out again. I gotta run into town,
get some new parts.

ANGIE
Storm’s comin’. That ol’ tractor’s gonna rust, if’n a downpour comes.

HANK
(Frustrated)
Not a dang thing in the world I can do about the rain, Miss Angie.

ANGIE
Well, for one, y’all can stop wastin’ time by jawin’ with me an’ git a move on.

Basically, your scene-setting needs are as simple as expressing: A farmhouse. A brewing storm. A bit of anger. It’s up to the director or set director to work out the minutia. As a script writer, you’re working on dialogue and character development, with the merest hint of location setting.
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If I can suggest only one book to curious, wannabe script writers, it’s William Goldman’s (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride) Adventures in the Screen Trade. The book is as much a homage to Hollywood as it is a glimpse into what it might take to write a successful script. It’s a light, breezy and fun read…and yet contains a great deal of valuable info and advice.
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Balancing Humanity

FINDING BALANCE

Excerpted from Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
by Eileen Workman

BELOVED, I invite you to notice the large number of men who are embracing their feminine qualities at this time. Notice too, how many women are embracing their masculine qualities. What good news this is! Know that this internal re-balancing of human energy will enable you to trust and work more intimately and cooperatively with all others, even as your species draws upon the vast and potent powers of creation. The divine masculine power of creation, when channeled through the divine feminine energy of love, produces a strong enough foundation to support, affirm, and perpetually advance the whole of the living reality.

Know that everything you have experienced prior to this moment, including any feelings of division or mistrust that arose between your masculine and feminine aspects, has unfolded perfectly and was necessary for your own inner growth. However, the time has arrived for you to focus on calling forth much more of the loving power of the divine feminine, so that your divine masculine powers of creation can finally mature. In this way you will become fully integrated, self-actualized, and free to create—from a stance of love—all that your passions, skills, and capacities are inspiring you to deliver into the world.

— Eileen Workman
Author of Raindrops of Love For a Thirsty World
and Sacred Economics (The Currency of Life)

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Loving Anna

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SHORT FICTION
by Eileen Workman

• • •

Author’s bio follows the story

• • •

SCHOOL MUST BE OVER. I hear the front door slam mid-afternoon, followed by the stomp of footsteps as Anna seeks me out. Unfortunately, the odor of melting spray starch leaves me all too easy to find.
. . . . .”I hate my nose,” Anna declares, having followed it straight to my ironing board in the den. Sullen, silent, she waits.
. . . . .My hand pauses high in the air and my lungs grow tight. How like my daughter to opt for war before homework. The silence between us lengthens while I hang up a shirt to postpone the inevitable. Stiff fingers struggle to fasten the collar button. Meanwhile, Anna hovers at the edge of my personal space, a tempest in jeans and a faded Billabong T-shirt. I hear the muffled tapping of her toes on the carpet, sense her folded arms, and feel the heat from her gaze scorching my shoulders. All five feet seven inches of this Amazon girl-child are now daring me to respond. Thin and fierce, Anna is primed for combat.
. . . . . I’m not yet ready to engage her.
. . . . . My Anna has only begun to bud. As yet, her gawkiness hides her classic beauty. Gumby limbs divert the attention of the less experienced boys, but grown men see Anna more clearly. I watch them watch her walk at times, feeling proud, amazed, and more than a little afraid for this child who will soon be a woman. Anna has my eyes, except hers blaze with an intensity mine long ago learned to hide from the outer world. Her hair—another genetic donation from me—spills across her shoulders; soft and thick, it gleams like polished wood. Last week she hated her hair as much as she hates her nose today. She begged me to allow her to dye it purple and shave it above her ears. I am still learning to ride out these sudden shifts in Anna’s emotions; to sidestep the whirlpools she constantly swirls in my path.
. . . . .Today it seems clear that Anna feels a need to unload some emotional energy onto someone—anyone, most likely. I just happen to be her favored, and handiest, target whenever this impulse begins to arise. I know this logically; sense I ‘should’ be able to ride out her moods with internal equanimity. Yet knowing and feeling are very different things.
. . . . .”I want a nose job,” she announces, voice tight and hammer hard.
. . . . .I manage to fasten the button at last. A smile tugs at the corners of my lips. Life with Anna has taught me to savor successes, no matter how small. I set aside the neatly hung shirt and consider this fresh Anna problem, silently examining and discarding my various options. Finally, I settle on what I believe is the safest ground upon which to rest.
. . . . .”What matters isn’t your nose,” I offer, “it’s how you feel about yourself on the inside.” Not condescending, but not committing to rhinoplasty either. Let her mull that a bit. With luck I’ve offered her nothing firm to attack.
. . . . .I wait, watching closely as she absorbs my words, then the skin on her forehead starts twitching. My heart sinks. Her expression tells me that—somewhere inside my vague non-answer—Anna has spotted a weakness.
. . . . .”That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. Here Mom…just look at it.” She scrunches her face and thrusts it aggressively into my own, as if to blind me with the proximity of the all-offending organ. I struggle to uncross my eyes and stare at the straight fine lines of her nose—which looks perfect to me, except for the criss-cross of wrinkles now etched in its Romanesque bridge. It’s the type of nose no respectable surgeon would touch.
. . . . .In truth, Anna’s is the nose I tried to purchase for myself a few years earlier, but after three thousand dollars and two weeks of pain, success eludes me still. Internal scar tissue pulls my nose rather far to the right of center, but I’ve chosen not to endure more pain to correct this brand-new problem. Anna knows this; I made the mistake of confessing my envy last year, in those more peaceful days before she learned to turn my words into weapons against me. The mere memory of those days brings grief, and I feel my back become stiff with reactive anger. So then; let the battle begin.
. . . . .”Fine,” I say, sounding sharper than I had intended. “You can save your money and get it fixed once you can afford to pay for it. It’s your face, after all.” I realize I’ve tossed her a clip of fresh ammunition, but it’s too late now to withdraw. I close my eyes and steady myself for the fury I know she’ll unleash.
. . . . .”You’re so unfair,” she hollers back at me, manufacturing wounded tears. “When Jason asked for a car last year, you bought him a brand-new Mustang. A nose job’s less than half the price of a car, but you don’t care if I’m happy.”
. . . . .I step back warily, letting Anna occupy the high ground she’s claimed for her own. No point in reminding her that Jason needed a car to commute to college, or that the Mustang was our high school graduation gift to our eldest son. Anna doesn’t see shades of gray these days. Only black, and white—and apparently, Mustang red.
. . . . .The tears come so easily to her. I, who seem to have lost my power to weep, marvel at the way she holds them, just so, inside her lids, not allowing them to spill. Their falling would break the spell of rage, and Anna is nowhere near ready to release me. I can feel her creeping toward me, ever so intently, along a murderous tightrope that spans my internal chasms of guilt and pity, yet she doesn’t stumble. Her sense of balance leaves me breathless, makes me ache for her in some deep and primal place.
. . . . .”That’s not true,” I say, still fighting to recover my calm. I am, after all, the adult in this new passion play. I should be able to maintain some self-control. “I care about your happiness a great deal.” Hesitation; then I hear myself add…”Although sometimes I don’t know why I bother.”
. . . . .Damn. I’ve done it now. Pushed her even closer to her own internal abyss.
. . . . .Tears spill then, as fury breaks loose like a fire in Anna’s eyes. “I hate you!” she screams at me, stabbing my heart with her words. “You’ll never understand me at all.”
. . . . .She speaks the truth, I realize, but there’s a limit to what a mother should have to endure. I’m sliding past mine very swiftly.
. . . . .”Go to your room!” I order, feeling myself becoming, in that moment, the sternly unyielding woman she loves to detest. “And don’t come out until you’ve figured out how to be civil.” That last part gets wasted. Anna’s door clips the end of my sentence like a gunshot.
. . . . .I finish my ironing, but my movements are mechanical and my thoughts flit to other things. How, I wonder, did my daughter and I reach this point? I recall fondly her chubby infant fingers pulling hungrily at my breasts. I see the squealing toddler who ran to me in urgent need of a hug after every tumble. I can still remember the pinafore-dressed, plucky first grader who hesitated in the doorway of room seven and gave me a shaky thumbs-up before heading inside. When had all those sundresses and sandals given way to ripped jeans and Doc Martins? When did her hands—the very ones that used to cling to me with such neediness and trust—start choosing her own hips instead? It occurs to me then that it must have been about the same time that my hands began balling in fury instead of reaching out to soothe and summon.
. . . . .I feel trapped inside my own painful thoughts as I unplug the iron. I fold up my board and re-cap the spray starch can. The cupboard where these things belong stands invitingly near Anna’s bedroom; after stowing them, I can’t resist the urge to knock on her door. Though she barges into my private space at the most inopportune times (seeking razors, shampoo, and lately even a tampon) I don’t dare invade her space in that same way. Anna demands her privacy, considers it a badge of adulthood; to grant her the illusion costs me nothing.
. . . . .”What do you want?” The quiver in her voice informs me that her tides have already shifted. I do know my daughter well enough to realize that her highly compressed, adolescent world has been shaken in some profound way—by something that likely has nothing to do with me. Her anger with me she will hold for hours, perhaps even days or weeks. It is only with great reluctance that she lets it go. This current, bleak mood is therefore not of my doing.
. . . . .”May I come in?” I ask.
. . . . .She meets me with lengthy silence. Then I hear a terse, “I guess so.”
. . . . .I enter to see her crying again, only this time the tears look real. They gloss her cheeks and paint dark, wet stripes down her tee shirt. Liquid anguish. I stand there in stillness and watch her weep, feeling powerless in the face of so much emotion.
. . . . .”What is it?” I ask her gently. I fear she’ll tell me; yet feel strangely panicked she won’t. “What’s really going on here, sweetheart?”
. . . . .Anna flings her slender body, face-down, across the full length her bed. Through uncontrolled sobs, she eventually whimpers, “Heather told all of our friends that they shouldn’t like me anymore.”
. . . . .I stare at her, not comprehending this as a crisis. “And…?”
. . . . .”And since everyone likes Heather the best, they just do whatever she says. She’s the most popular girl in our class, mom.”
. . . . .Anna shares this fact as if she’s been given a death sentence. And I realize that, yes—to her—perhaps that feels so.
. . . . .The dark ravine carved out by our twenty-three years of distance yaws wider between us. Did I ever feel such utter desolation? Ancient memories dart like bats through the hidden rooms of my thoughts. I remember the terrible trauma of two-faced friends; the inconstancy of groping boys; the endless insecurities triggered by body, and feelings, and acne, and life in general…
. . . . .In that instant, I want—I actually ache—to reach for Anna. But it is a risk that carries a price tag. Fear of yet another rejection weights my limbs like winter ice. It holds me back from melting into my daughter. Yet her pain feels so real, it’s as if another person has usurped the space between us her room. I take a deep, deciding breath and push beyond it to sit down beside her on her bed. Then I stretch out my arms.
. . . . .”Come here,” I say gently, not believing for an instant she will. “Let me hold you, my love. I’m right here.”
. . . . .With a tiny cry, she dives for my arms and then folds herself, pelican-like, until she nestles against me. I pull her face to my chest with tenderness and slowly stroke her hair, planting gentle, butterfly kisses along the entire crest of her scalp. Strange to realize she no longer fits me as snugly as she once did, but her scent remains the same. I would know my own daughter anywhere just by that scent.
. . . . .Time unravels. The chasm between us dissolves of its own accord. With sudden insight, I realize in that moment my that daughter isn’t ready to become a woman quite just yet. She needs me still, if only for these small moments. A wavering smile tilts the corners of my mouth once again as I relax and allow myself this victory.
. . . . .In this moment, at least, I succeeded in loving Anna.
. . . . .


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Eileen Workman spent sixteen years working in the financial service industry, as Vice President of Investments with Smith Barney. The author of Sacred Economics: The Currency of Life (2011) and Raindrops of Love For A Thirsty World (2017) she is currently working on Cultivating Grace, a book about using love to guide one’s actions through the world. She lives in N. California with her husband, novelist Dave Workman.

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A Test Post

Testing out this new section, here. So far it looks like it’s working. I mean, if you’re seeing it, it must be working, right? Or maybe I’m the only one seeing it. But there’s no one here to ask…I’m so lonely.

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Dialogue (Part 7): Attribution

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing Great Dialogue:
Attribution

Dialogue is perhaps the most essential, the most versatile, of any writer’s tools. One could conceivably write a novel without dialogue (or monologue)—although I wouldn’t recommend it—because dialogue is the humanity that brings a novel to life. Plotting may be its backbone, but dialogue is a book’s heart and soul. However, clarity is paramount, especially in crowded scenes when multiple characters speak. So be certain that you properly identify those characters to the reader.

…..“I love you, Bruce,” Tanya said.

Attribution—that is, to attribute (or ‘tag’) speech to a specific character, e.g.; he said, she said—is a placeholder of sorts, a metaphorical blinking arrow indicating the speaking party. One can also use an attribution modifier (AKA, a beat) to depict either the speaker or the listener’s visual prompts during a conversation: A nod, a shrug, a thoughtful pause, for instance.* About the only advice I can suggest is to integrate these markers as clearly and as discreetly as you’re able. When attribution (and/or any attached descriptive modifiers) become obvious on the page: “I hate every bone in your body,” Jeanette screeched in that loud, obnoxious, maniacal way she usually did when she drank too many Lambrusco wine coolers. …you’ve perhaps tried too hard.** However, as a rule of thumb, allow your characters’ personalities to define each character, and not an overabundance of attribution. When in doubt, err on the side of simplicity. 

If your scene depicts only two characters chatting, you can tag a character sparingly. Readers will understand that two people are taking turns speaking, and that’s usually pretty easy to determine. Something like:

.….“Where’s the vodka?” Steve said.
…..“Over there on the bar,” Linda told him.
…..“No, the bottle’s empty.”
…..She pointed. “There’s another bottle in the kitchen.”
…..“Okay, thanks.”
…..“No problem.”
…..“Hey, would you like another drink?””
…..“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks. A vodka tonic.”

Yes, a new paragraph must separate each character’s spoken words. It’s an important visual indication to the reader.

This is incorrect:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked. “Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

This is correct:
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice replied.

If only two people appear in the scene, this is also correct:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Okay, I guess.”
or
…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Okay, I guess,” Alice replied.

Because once tagged, Ted’s question or Alice’s reply will be intuitively understood.

And, if you wish too embellish further, by using descriptive modifiers, these visual beats should remain relevant to the moment by adding visual cues to the reader:

…..“How are you feeling?”
…..Alice frowned, absently touching the bruise on her shoulder. “Okay, I guess.”

Alice’s visual depiction is sufficient for the reader to decipher who’s speaking, and also feeds readers subtle clues about a character or plot. Typically, keep the beat and the speaker’s dialogue in the same paragraph, to avoid confusion. You can tag both characters in a snippet conversation, and provide both a modifier and attribution, although it’s not necessary, and may actually feel repetitive:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Alice shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “Okay, I guess,” she said.

Too much? (S’up to you!)

Attribution becomes a bit more complicated with three or more characters depicted in a conversation. But the same rules (usually) apply. Use only sufficient attribution necessary to avoid confusion, or to give slight visual cues that can add clarity to the scene that would otherwise look like:

…..“How are you feeling?”
…..“Pretty well, thanks.”
…..“Not me. I bruised my shoulder.”

Okay, so who’s saying what? The simple fix is:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Okay, I guess,” Alice replied.
…..Richard shrugged, absently touching the bruise on his shoulder. “Yeah, I’ve been better.”

Numerous variables apply when considering attributes, and you’ll quickly realize what sort of stylistic cadence best suits your needs:

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..Richard stared forlornly at the overturned bus and said nothing.
…..Alice touched the bruise on her shoulder. “I’ve been better.” She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident even happened.

Another concern is avoiding repetition that might quickly lead to reader fatigue, such as when resorting to this sort of mindless overload:

……“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
……“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said.
……“I think I bruised my shoulder,” Richard said.
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…..“I should take a look,” Ted said.
……“I bandaged him up last night,” Alice said.
……“I think I’ll be okay,” Richard said.
……“Let’s see if we can fix this thing,” Ted said.

.It’s perfectly acceptable to add longer snippets of visual clarity during a conversation as well. Typically during conversations—especially longer conversations—one’s characters can subtly continue to move the plot forward.

…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“Pretty well, thanks,” Alice said. She shook her head, wondering how the hell the accident had happened. The last thing she remembered was Richard’s cry of alarm as the bus suddenly swerved off the road and began to tumble down the embankment. “I don’t even know what happened.”
…..“A deer ran out in front of us,” Richard said, remembering the moment. “I’m sorry. I guess I overreacted a bit. Is the bus totaled?
…..Alice nodded. “Yeah, we’re not going anyway soon.”

Even during conversations, your characters should be physically or mentally active. (I mean, how many motionless conversations have you had?) If your characters are little more than limp stick figures throughout the conversation, with little or no visual stimulation or forward momentum, that scene may very quickly become a talking heads scene—and even if the information imparted is important, you may lose a reader’s interest. So, yes, while dialogue is important, active dialogue is crucial. In fact, it’s now a rule:

Rule #55: Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during intense scenes of dialogue. In other words, if you depict two characters attempting to diffuse a ticking time bomb with thirty-seconds remaining on the timer, they don’t stop diffusing the bomb to carry on a conversation. Keep the plot moving.

A few notes about structure.

Keep all punctuation elements (commas, periods, etc.) inside of quotation marks. 

This is incorrect.
…..“How are you feeling”? Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay”, Alice said.
…..“So am I” somebody else said. (lacking punctuation)

This is correct.
…..“How are you feeling?” Ted asked.
…..“I’m feeling okay,” Alice said.
…..“So am I.” Richard slowly nodded. “I think I’ll be okay.”

This (front loading an attribution) is also correct.
.….“How are you feeling?”
…..Alice said, “I’m okay.”

Also, only use periods as final punctuation of attribution itself. Never: “How are you feeling?” Ted asked?

You can insert attribution (and/or descriptive modifiers) in mid-sentence if spontaneity or heightened drama is necessary.

…..“I don’t think it’s wise—” Paul jerked Andrea’s hand back from the ticking package. “—to touch that thing.”

In longer soliloquies (a soliloquy being a dense solo monologue) it’s okay to provide paragraph breaks in the same manner you’d format any sort of lengthy narrative structure. However, do not provide a closing quote mark between paragraphs. By omitting the interim closing quote, you’re visually alerting the reader that the new paragraph is a continuation paragraph; words spoken by the same person. Thus:

…..Paul said, “I haven’t seen Josh in nearly ten years. I’m not sure I’d even recognize him these days. Not since the accident. I heard the collision messed up his brain. His mother told me he would sometimes wake up at night and swear he could see ghost-like apparitions standing at the foot of his bed.
…..The strange thing is,” Paul continued, “Josh told me once that he used to see ghosts even before the accident. I didn’t tell his mom, of course. I think she’d rather blame his personality disorder on the crash.”
…..“I never knew that,” Andrea said.

Also take note of the two distinct schools of thought concerning attribution. Some writers believe that attribution should only consist of: he said or she said—lacking any other sort of descriptive modifier. True fundamentalists won’t even switch between said or asked, should a question be posed. Thus, one would write: “Is that gun loaded?” Mary said. Another option? Mary stared curiously at the gun and frowned. “Is that thing loaded?”

Such fundamentalists also loath assisted attribution, such as: “Don’t point that thing at me,” Paul said angrily. They insist (and perhaps with some validity) that the dialogue itself should define a moment’s potency, whether fear, cheer or excitement.

The more liberal group of attributionists (of which I’m a cautious advocate) feel that attribution can provide numerous modifiers to enhance a reader’s perception. “I didn’t think to check,” Gary admitted.

Thus, one can say, one can ask, one can query, one can admit, one can call, one can whisper, one can cajole, one can blubber, one can bark, one can wonder, one can insist

By providing additional descriptive modifiers, one can also ask quietly, one can admit freely, one can call loudly, one can whisper suspiciously, one can blubber uncontrollably, one can vehemently insist…as well.

For instance, consider the sentence: “Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said. With minimal effort, a writer can fine tune a specific emotion or mood. For example, a single modifier can drastically change the nuance of the character speaking:

“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said excitedly.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said with a laugh.
“Don’t do it, JoAnne,” Maria said, horrified.

However, I do believe a writer should use these more effusive attributions sparingly, and I agree that simple ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ usage should be considered standard fare. Every once in awhile, however, I find it more aesthetically pleasing or dramatically astute for a character to admit or whisper or adamantly insist.

But, again, simplicity and discretion is the key.

“One last note about punctuation!” I belatedly screamed. While this point is somewhat off-topic, it bears repeating: Exclamation points. Don’t use them. If you must, use them sparingly. Rarely. Seldomly. Unless you’re writing YA (because  you have more wiggle room when applying emphasis) I suggest using as few as one or two a chapter. Certainly no more than one every few pages. Just be aware an editor or publisher will remove 95% of these literary cockroaches. Why? Because readers expect you to use your writing skills to infer excitement. Repeated use of ! is the mark of an inexperienced writer, and almost as horrific as using emojis in a manuscript.

BTW: Rarely,  if ever, has a character of mine hissed. However, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a fantasy novel where at least one evil wizard doesn’t let fly an angry hiss or two. My only suggestion is that one shouldn’t attempt to hiss if there are no inherent essss sounds in a sentence.

For instance: “Seldom have I seen such sniveling incompetence,” the evil wizard hissed.

But one cannot hiss out a sentence such as: “Where did you find that golden goblet, Conan?

“Make sense?” I ask.


* Be careful to avoid repetitive attribution. A page filled with people smiling or pausing or shrugging gets old quickly. If Mary Ellen pauses thoughtfully on page 12, I really don’t want to see her pause again for another 10-20 pages. She can regard Henry cautiously, or stop to ponder the hole in the floor, but frequent shrugging, smiling and pausing becomes quickly annoying to readers. (This is also a valid reason to give characters various traits or tics. For instance, if Mary Ellen wears glasses, she can occasionally nudge. If she’s allergic to spring, she can sometimes sneeze…so these sorts of attributes during a conversation can include completely independent gestures, expressions or movements.)

** Although occasionally, the situation and/or style permitting, I can’t deny that the above sentence could possibly work! Although many of us would probably consider the paragraph somewhat reader-feederish. (Too much info, too compressed.) But never say never.
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