Wednesday, April 7, 2010

QUESTION FOR THE READER: What Do You Need for Description, Dialogue?

[h/t to John R. for these questions.]

Question 1: Everyone talks about "white space." Should scenes just then mostly describe the character?

Here are my rules:

1) Read my previous post on vertical reading:

2) ANYTHING that stops my eye from moving down the page makes me cranky.  This includes big blocks of print, really long dialogue, typos, etc.

3) I HATE it when the writer just describes a character page after page (technical only). 

Technical alone is so flat. 

Pffft pwfft phfft. I spit three times on flat.

The narrative has to do multiple things that are both TECHNICAL AND CREATIVE, including:
- direct my eye to what she's doing
- direct me where she's going
- give me a feel for the mood in the room
- hint what's coming
- set me up for a reveal
- dash my hopes
- persuade me not to give up just yet

4) The narrative has to have energy & momentum.  THUS THE USE OF SHORTER SENTENCES & MORE WHITE SPACE.

So the short answer is this: You should use narrative as a tool of anticipation, not just description.

Question 2: Doesn't the dialogue make the character?

Dialogue is frosting & is the easiest thing to fix.  Thus I consider it the least important part of building character.

Why?  Because there's no frosting in the world that can mask a rotten cake (structure & conflict). 

When I started out, I made dialogue carry the structure & conflict.   This is known as on-the-nose dialogue.


(But don't go all the way to the other extreme either.  Sometimes I see scripts where the writer was so scared of being on-the-nose that he/she made the characters speak in tongues or in code that only he/she knew.  This is also VERY VERY BAD.)

Two dialogue hints:

- Your dialogue should drive a point home that you've already set up and made visually.

ex. Your lead sees his father kill his mother. Under great strain, the son testifies in court, which results in the father getting the electric chair. The father escapes and the son helps police track him down.  As the father is handcuffed, their eyes meet.  The father says: "How could you?"

On the nose: "I had to do what was right."
Better dialogue: "How could YOU?" 

The better dialogue is more effective because we have seen the son go through hell. His dialogue implies subtextual levels of betrayal - to him, to his mother, his honor.  

However, the dialogue would not be as effective if we had not SEEN the son's trials.

- Your dialogue should drive the scene forward to the next scene.  Nothing makes me throw my computer at the wall than dialogue that jogs in place.

Ex. of dialogue that runs/sprints/moves forward:
- It hints at a secret about to be revealed
- It explodes at the wrong time and we wonder how in the hell we're going to get out of this
- It is opposite of everything the character is doing
- It reveals the character is lying

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