Friday, December 28, 2007

More Responses to Comments

About Those Pesky Ellipses

Let’s continue responding to some comments and questions. JanW asks,

Theresa, I've used the three dots in a dream sequence to indicate the scattered nature of the experience from the POV of the character. Would that bother you? I've been consistent and used in all the dream sequences in the book.

Well, this is sort of hard to answer, because the real answer is that it depends on the rest of the writing. A skilled writer of tightly controlled prose can get away with almost anything.

There are times, though, when highly stylized prose is going to be a little easier to accept. When the point-of-view character is in an altered state -- dreaming, drugged, in a trance, whatever -- ellipses and italics and even purple raccoons wearing roller skates will be a bit easier for the reader to process. Ditto for sex scenes in romance fiction, though in that case, maybe someone else should wear the roller skates.


More on Paragraphing Dialogue

When we were talking about dialogue paragraphing, nature nut/jj loch said,

I find it awkward to add dialogue of the same speaker later on in the paragraph.

This is probably because you’ve got some heightened sensitivity to action/reaction dynamics in prose. This is a good thing. Your writing will be better for it.

Storytelling is really just a gussied-up chain of causation. A happened, which caused B reaction, which led to C decision and D event, and so on until you reach the end. In this causal chain, dialogue between characters is generally (but not always) an action requiring a reaction. Jane asks a question, and Joe is standing right there. What will happen if Jane doesn’t let Joe answer but keeps talking herself? Maybe Joe will get mad. Maybe Joe will cut her off and talk over her. Maybe Joe will stop listening to her altogether.

In other words, the fact that she talks *and keeps talking without allowing Joe’s reaction* will itself require some reaction.

Every so often we come across a paragraph which is a whole bunch of dialogue and a whole bunch of action braided together in small bits.

Mary forced herself not to grind her teeth. “I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that.” She crossed the carpet and stabbed the air between them with her finger. “You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” She dropped her hand, but clenched her fingers into a fist. “And you certainly don’t know me,” she said, her voice humming with resentment.

(My example, of course.) There are times you can get away with something like that. Maybe you’ve already established that Mary’s target is the laconic type. Or maybe the reader knows he’s voluntarily holding back for some reason or other, or that he’s feeling guilty and consequently is willing to let Mary rant a little bit.

In that case, stretching out the dialogue with a load of stage directions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives the dialogue more heft and gives the writer more opportunity to hammer home Mary’s emotional state.

But if this moment hasn’t been properly set up or if it’s not the kind of moment worthy of this much text, it might read like a bad soliloquy. Mary is clenching and stabbing and grinding and humming. Mary is talking and talking, and her target is just standing there. Doing nothing. Responding? No. He might as well step to the side of the stage while the spotlight shines on her for a moment.

If any of these bits of dialogue or action warrant an immediate response from him, then the passage should be broken up.

Mary forced herself not to grind her teeth. “I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that.”

Will’s eyes narrowed over a feral grin. “Because I’m getting what I need even without you. I don’t need you. I know people.”

She crossed the carpet and stabbed the air between them with her finger. “You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” She dropped her hand, but clenched her fingers into a fist. “And you certainly don’t know me,” she said, her voice humming with resentment.


Now the give-and-take highlights the conflict between Will and Mary rather than Mary’s emotional state.

If you want to downplay the moment instead of highlighting it, take out most of the stage direction. Most of it echoes the same emotions -- anger, resentment -- so you can cut it without changing the mood.

“I don’t know why you would think you can talk to me like that. You don’t know my family. You don’t know my friends.” Her voice humming with resentment, Mary stabbed the air between them with her finger. “And you certainly don’t know me.”

Can you see how these little changes shift the focus of the prose?

Theresa

1 comment:

JanW said...

Thanks, Theresa. I feel a bit more confident in how I've approached the dream sequences now.

Happy 2008!

Jan