Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Make meaningful conversation

I was just working on a scene where the two main characters are stuck in an inn and share dinner. Now this is always a danger spot for me, because I want the conversation to be authentic, and so of course I start with the "how are you," "how are the kids," "did you see 24 last night..."-- you know, the sort of authentically mundane things we talk about between ordering and the food arriving.

However, it was just too boring to write. And that's sort of a sign that it would be too boring to read. :) So I thought maybe I'd just start in on the meaningful part of the conversation (they're both widowed, and are going to discuss grief), and I had the heroine says something sharp and important to get him responding back in kind, and they got right to the point, and ... and I never got back to writing the boring part.

So anyway, why bother to write the boring part? If in fact this scene is important enough to include in the story, why not have it be important all the way through?
What was really radical for me, the "seamless" (I like to think) writer, was I didn't even do a narrative bridge like, "By the time they'd started in on the appetizers, they'd exhausted all the small talk." I didn't even have them do small talk at all.

Why? Because I have to make the time together important to them as well as to the reader. This is the only man who knows what she's feeling-- why would she waste time making small talk when she has him there to discuss something that matters?

The special thing about this dinner is that these two are united in grief, and so they-- and I-- shouldn't waste the opportunity. She suddenly brings up the subject, and they never get diverted into lesser matters.

That's something I have to keep reminding myself. Make it urgent, make it special. Pacing is not just about speed of events, but about the essentiality of events. I used to think, "If it's not meaningful, don't include it," but now I think, "If it's not meaningful, they wouldn't waste their time doing it, so don't even allude to it in summary. Boring stuff can't happen to them because they're too occupied with changing their lives."

So all those places where he's bored and staring out the window, and she's combing her hair and thinking about all she has to get done, well, I don't need that. They're too busy to be bored right now. (They are welcome to be bored when I'm done with them. :) That doesn't mean they won't have moments of contemplation... but not moments of boredom.

Just a thought, and now, back to setting up the murder. That's hard when all I know is: There will be a murder. Not who or why or whodunnit. But when, yes (tonight), and where (in the next room).

Who says I don't plot? "There will be a murder!" Isn't that a plot? Oh, how about, "And eventually they solve it." Enough to start with, right?
Alicia

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Murder. Sigh.

Who would have ever thought we'd get to the point where it seems to me to be the most overworked plot mechanism in fiction, movies and TV.

You write wonderfully, so yours probably won't be boring. But wouldn't it be wonderful if some big time agent said, "We're really tired of non-detective stories that use murder as a plot element?"

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, but you know what the replacement trend (at least on TV) has become-- women in various prostitution substitutions-- courtesans, call girls, strippers. It really is hard to believe that this is what the suffragettes chained themselves to the White House fence for.
Alicia

CoreyBlake said...

Finally someone who understands that we don't read to repeat the boringness of real life. We read to squeeze the meatiest morsels and suckle them dry! Bravo!

As an editor I am constantly removing the mundane and there is nothing worse than fighting with a writer who wants it to feel "real". Blow my head off!
: - )

CoreyBlake said...

And...I liked your comment so much, I just bought your book on Amazon. I'm looking forward to it!
Best,
Corey

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Corey! What did Elmore Leonard say? "I leave out the things the reader skips?"

So what do we skip? I tend to skip description, especially of rooms.

Anon, yes, about murder as a plot device-- overdone. I would sort of like to do a mystery without a murder. But I'm one of those mystery readers who gets impatient if a body doesn't show up. I was reading PDJames's latest, and got annoyed because no one got killed for the first third of the book. I am a really annoying reader. :)

Alicia

JewelTones said...

I usually skip over description of clothing. LOL. Maybe we tend to skip what isn't that important to use personally? Clothes is clothes. Jeans and a blue shirt. Done! *G* I wouldn't know an empire waist from a puffy shirt. ;) Plus I figure the reader cares more about what the characters are doing than who they're wearing.

As for murder mysteries... you know what I miss in a mystery? A killer with motive. It's why I've drifted away from the genre I used to love so much (and pretty much read 80% of the time). Serial killers, psychos and madmen (or women) who killed because they could, because the victim just happened to be wearing yellow, or the voice in their head told them to.

What I wouldn't give for a killing with teeth behind the motive. *sigh*

JT

Edittorrent said...

JT, I'm sort of bored with crazy serial killers. Oh, yeah, they kill blonde women because their first grade teacher was blonde, and they loved her, and she got married. That doesn't much intrigue me!
Alicia

garridon said...

When I do crits, I often find places where the characters have what amounts to meaningless chit-chat. I usually try to look beyond the actual dialogue and see if there's a reason for it. Often, the writer doesn't actually have anything to say, which reflects in the writing.

And, I think, a lot of cases, it isn't just a dialogue issue--there might be another underlying problem. For example, if the writer jumped into writing a book without developing the idea into a story where there's a problem for the character to solve, it's going to be very hard to write progressive dialogue for the characters when there isn't any framework to put it on.

By the way, one of the reasons we see the same thing over and over again on TV is because TV relies heavily on cliches. There is a set time limit that that must be adhered to. The stories absolutely cannot run over. So a shortcut is to use cliches. It's a quick and easy way to get into the story without having to stop and use precious minutes to show something that needs a lot of time. Murder is easy to show. Body on the ground. It's a crime. No explanations. Something like a character doing a pyramid scheme would take quite a bit of time just to explain.

Lisette Kristensen said...

Interesting problem. To include mundane conversation to get to the meat of the issue? If we try to be realistic, it is rare one just sits down and blurts it out, so we use small talk as a way of relaxing and segueing to the topic at hand. It might work, if the POV was the person controlling the small talk. The inner conflict can show through the mundane dialogue and would keep it short anyway. Make sense?

Sighing at the mention of TV. We all know how contrived it is, that is why shows like Dexter is so unique and different, but you have to have Showtime or Netflix.

Edittorrent said...

Garridon, I see meaningless scenes or passages when the author hasn't really figured out the character yet. So the solution is probably to stop writing and start thinking-- closing their eyes and imagining that they are THIS PERSON at this moment-- what would be paramount?
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Lisette, yes, there has to be some indication that the small talk is a distraction from something-- and I'd still say, cut it short. It's kind of like that old actor dilemma-- to portray a drunk, should I go on stage drunk? To show boredom, should I write boring? To show that the character is trying to distract, how distracted should I be?
Good thought!
Alicia

JewelTones said...

Seriously, Alicia. That's exactly how the whole serial killer thing feels to me now. They're not interesting. I find them kind of cliche now, to be honest.

As for mundane conversation in stories, I've used it (in very short doses) to show strain between characters, to show when one is trying to avoid talking about the real issue hanging between them, and to tip off the other character that something isn't right between them, that the other is upset, been hurt, etc. It never lasts long, maybe only a line or two of exchange, before one calls the other on it or the other bursts out with something and we get into the REAL conversation.

As a reader I don't want to read 2 characters having that "nice weather we're having, how are the kids, how's work, what are you having for dinner?" conversation, so as a writer I try to avoid them too.

JT

c.e.lawson said...

I think small talk can be portrayed in a non-boring manner as a segue into the 'meat' of the conversation, if the writer has a purpose for the small talk that advances characterization in addition to simply the segue, and if that small talk is able to contain some tension.

For example, if I wanted to show the nervousness/reticence/emotional turmoil in one of the characters who is struggling to act 'normal', or who is using the small talk as a defense mechanism, and the other character is perceptive and recognizing this and trying to get the first character to open up (this can be done in a lot of ways which further show that character's approach to people/life/etc.), then I think a nice tension and illustration of character can be achieved that segues nicely into the heart of the conversation.

But yes, if it's small talk simply because that's what people do, without another more interesting purpose, then I'd skip it as well.

Murphy said...

Finally got the chance to read this one. Great post! Good luck with your plotting.