Talking Heads

by Intermittent Rain ~ September 4th, 2016

hanging heads

I just critiqued a short piece where some friends are driving home from a party, gossiping about others they just left. There is some description of the drive, but the piece was almost entirely talking heads. Worse than that, since we get no description of the speakers, they’re disembodied talking heads, without the fake smile and coifs of a newscaster to look at.

Granted, the dialogue is what this story is about; showing how these friends cut others down. The problem for the reader is that we’re not there (or even watching the scene on television) and if the writer doesn’t give descriptions of setting, expressions, and vocal inflections, we have no means of getting there.

Talking heads are great for an intense discussion in a novel. The reader’s focus is driven exclusively toward the words exchanged, heightening their importance, but that’s in the context of a longer story where the personalities, relationships, physical descriptions and objectives are already set. Even then any emotions arising from the words exchanged should be supported with actions, expressions, and vocal inflections.

“Give the character’s some business” is one oft repeated piece of advice, and in the story I just read that’s what the writer’s interjections of traffic does. But traffic is what the characters might notice, not what the unfamiliar reader needs to see.

“Put yourself in the character’s situation and describe what you see” is another aphorism that might have been applied, but what the character sees and what the reader needs (wants) to see are different things here. The reader is there in the car, but is not familiar with the characters the way the characters are with each other. What would a new kid in town notice or an invisible passenger wonder, or what is a movie camera going to capture?

More importantly, if we were directing this scene, what have we told the cameraman to focus on? What expressions, what camera angles, what shots of passing scenery or around the inside of the car are important to getting this scene across? We (the writer/director) already know what’s going on and we need to select visuals (and for the writer, other senses as well) to communicate the point of the scene.

Again, traffic might be what you, travelling with old friends through familiar territory, are most aware of, but there are backstories and unspoken agreements and known shared and conflicting perspectives and familiar tones of voice and expressions that an outsider isn’t privy to, that reassure and explain more fully the meaning of the words. Giving the reader only dialogue and traffic descriptions limits the reader to poor vision, as if we are very nearsighted and can only make out shapes and gross movements. It also keeps us far in the distance and makes it difficult to believe or to connect to the characters and the story.

If you give the characters some business, don’t just stop at relevant. Don’t pass up on the opportunity to chose business that helps to define the personalities or the characters’ relationship to each other or to the friend left behind, or to provide a metaphor for the point of the scene or of the story overall.

Don’t throw in the first thing that comes to mind just because it fits .



Double Duty

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 9th, 2016

I’ve been working and thinking a lot about various things related to writing.

One is layering.

long exposure 38s f/11 - Bulb Mode

By layering I mean multiple levels of meaning or connection so that there is more than one thread connecting every phrase to the plot, the setting, the personalities, or the themes. In other words, why describe the light as “clear and bright” when you can say “cutting through the darkness like a knife” if the threat of a knife and cutting adds to the mood or the tension (and the cliche isn’t too painful), or “illuminated the dust hanging from long forgotten spider webs” if one of your themes is memory or time.

Or, as a writer you know you need to mix bits of setting or description of actions with your dialog, so rather than have the waiter ask about refills, have a baby in the next booth start to cry because one of your characters has a problem with her repressed childhood memories.

This is what I mean by double duty. It could be even triple duty; a beat to let the dialog settle in the reader’s mind, a description to add strength to the setting, while also a metaphor for one of the themes of your story. Or any other sort of multiple purpose use.

What these multiple layers do is weave a denser tapestry so the fabric of your story is supported in numerous ways. Not all of this hard work will be obvious to the reader but subconsciously they will get the feeling that yes, this characteristic of this person is clear to me because of this, this and this, but there will be these other subtle supporting connections that they cannot list unless they spend the time with your story like you did writing it.


Word frequency counter; an add-in for Word

by Intermittent Rain ~ April 24th, 2016

I have to give a shout-out to this word frequency counter add-in for Word:

Word frequency is something I review when self-editing. Get a count of each word, decide which ones I’m overusing, do a search-and-replace-with-highlight in Word and it’s easy to read and consider options.

Word will count words, but not give you a frequency. There are web sites that will do this, but you have to upload your file to their site and some restrict the size of the document (though, as a trade-off, they often do other analysis as well). The add-in doesn’t require Internet access, runs within Word, and can export to a separate file which I copy to Excel and massage further.

Now, if it would only measure proximity of words as well so I can see that I’ve used ‘word’ three times in the first paragraph and three more in the second and twice in the third ..