May 31, 2008

Black Box Scenes - On Being a Professional Amateur

Balance. Under explanation. Over explanation. Somewhere in the middle the perfect set of words exists. That rule holds true for dialogue, description, history…and scene settings. This week, Maya discusses ways of ensuring our writing doesn’t tip the scales.

Black Box Scenes
By Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

I recently edited a manuscript in which two characters were described as being in a theater. A dialogue ensued and I visualized the duo sitting in the empty hall chatting. I was surprised when the writer mentioned someone nearby coughing. Suddenly, the hall was populated and I had to revise the picture in my head. A page later, I was informed that this pair was waiting in the wings to go onstage, that the cough had come from their stage manager who had the flu and that there were a lot of other folks coming and going backstage.

Every piece of new information was like a tiny electrical shock that forced me to reorient myself. As a result I lost the sense of where I was, both in the characters' world and in their conversation.

But aren't we supposed to avoid lumps of exposition aimed at setting scenery? Generally speaking, yes, and there is a delicate balance between giving the reader enough information and giving her too much. The key is in carefully choosing what information you give. Ask yourself: what cues will set this scene most effectively?

For example:

"Did you see Susan today?"

"Today? No, why?" Tony peered across the stage to where a knot of actors assembled in the stage-left wings. He checked, again, to make sure the stunt pistol he needed for the upcoming scene was in his suit pocket.

"She's dyed her hair pink," Eric said. "She says because it's your least favorite color."

The reader knows immediately that the characters he's eavesdropping on are actors waiting to go onstage in a play. Just the glance across the stage may be enough to allow the reader to visualize the place, and a quick mention of the other actors populates the scene. The reader may also suspect, based on the dialogue, that Susan and Tony were a couple who split acrimoniously.

Yes, you could also just front the dialogue with a lump of exposition, but what would be the challenge in that?

If you’re new to Constructing Stories or you just missed the last few posts in Maya’s series, you can see all her other posts here. Thanks for stopping by!


Sherer said...

Great post. Thanks for the info- I feel I become a better writer (altough I am not much of a fiction guy) each time I come.

Anonymous said...

I do a lot of non-fiction, too. Mostly memoirs, trade books, etc. All of them have a storytelling component. I used to do a lot of tech writing, business writing, occupational safety writing and high tech instructional writing. Believe it or not, the storytelling component is important in that realm too.

In fact, storytelling is a method we used extensively in all of my nonfic writing because stories keep the student, user, or employee engaged with the text.

It was a hard sell with our corporate nabobs, but there are actually studies that show that anecdotes or a narrative line of some sort (especially if carried off humorously) will increase retention.