A writing craft technique has appeared on my radar.
When building a scene you need characters and a setting. Plot is nice too. But often in a scene, especially one with heavy or important dialogue, the characters and dialogue will take over. As a writer you get into the scene, feeling the emotions, focusing on the back and forth, pulling the characters’ backstories and agendas over your own head like a bank robber with his nylon stocking, living the role.
In the process of living your characters’ life, feeling their emotions, putting yourself really there, the writer can lose track of the where. Sure, maybe you set the situation and environment clearly at the opening, but in the process of writing you’ve focused on the interaction and the setting has slipped off your radar. Now if the scene is extremely intense then maybe that’s fine because that’s all that your characters are going to be aware of; anything else might be a distraction, but anything less than a climax scene can often be helped with a little reminder of where the characters are just to keep the reader firmly in the situation.
I was reading “Waiting” by Ha Jin when this technique was pointed out to me, so as I read I made myself be more aware of its use. Ha Jin does this often, breaking into dialogue-heavy scenes with descriptions of passers by or scenery, simply reminding the reader of where, what’s going on around, placing the reader more firmly in the now of the moment. Taken alone, a little redirection of focus can seem distracting and a waste of words but it can make a big difference in how balanced and realistic a scene reads. It can be as simple as having a background character who hasn’t spoken up piping up with a single comment when the dialogue is summary rather than comprehensive (where not every word is reported), or the recognition of a landmark from the train, or spotting one’s spouse across the room while in a conversation at a party, or the waiter asking if you need a refill.
This little redirection needn’t be superfluous, in fact it shouldn’t be or it may indeed be a waste of words. The particulars of the interruption could have meaning for one of the characters or could symbolize an underlying theme or reinforce the overall mood of the story. Or it could be a reminder of where your characters are, coffeeshop, party, train, to make the reader feel more physically in the scene.
It needn’t be used only in conversation scenes either. A single character may be deep in thought walking along a seawall or while being escorted to the death chamber. The technique is not necessary where a single character is thinking or reporting out of time since they are not physically anywhere, but then too much of this type of scene can leave the reader disconnected from the story anyway.
A similar technique is to have a character move physically; to stretch, or twist a toe in the dirt. This will serve to break up streams of dialogue and to give hints of unvoiced thoughts or to support the spoken words, but with this technique the reader’s focus is not redirected or widened nearly as much. The reader is still trapped within the world of the conversation and isn’t being placed/reminded/situated within the physicality of the environment that the characters are in. If I’m aware of you and I in a discussion that’s different than being aware of you and I, sitting in a crowded bus, in a discussion. The awareness of the bus makes the situation wider, more physical, more real, more immediate, and keeps the reader connected.
* Edit – apparently these short ones have a name; they’re called “beats” *