Catching up

It's taken me a while to get through the exercises in Chapter 9 of Steering the Craft, which all have to do with the different ways dialogue and narration reveal information in a story-- about a character, about something that happened in the past, about something that's to come-- anything the reader needs to know or which the story itself needs in order to be lively, and rich. The trick isn't so much in describing or telling as much as you can as it is to figure out which details are the right ones-- the ones which carry the most weight, which matter.

I think my favorite of the four exercises which follow is the first (though the others are enlightening in their own way), mainly because I found it the easiest thus far. I like it when writing's easy, and to me writing dialogue seems easier than writing anything else. I like imagining snappy banter, putting words in people's mouths-- especially when they're pretend people. Then they can't complain.

That's the danger with an easy exercise, especially a dialogue exercise: a writer might not feel inclined to really think about what the dialogue does, i.e., whether it furthers the story, or reveals anything about the characters. It can tempt a writer to show off. It's a very simple matter to put words into characters' mouths, to make them sound witty or clever or erudite. Treating dialogue that way, though, merely turns characters into mouthpieces by which an author can exhibit his or her own wit, cleverness, or erudition. Characters need to exist, and converse, separately from the author; their dialogue is never just prattle or jokes.

It's important to note, therefore (as Le Guin does) that this exercise isn't really a good way to try to write a story. Dialogue on its own only makes up part of a story, never the whole; while an imaginary conversation can certainly open up narrative possibilities, the results this activity, taken on their own, will be unlikely to sustain themselves in a satisfying way. So the task here is not simply to write a clever exchange. Rather, it's to see how much you can reveal about the characters and the situation through what they say to each other.

Part One: A&B

The goal of this exercise is to tell a story and present two characters through dialogue alone.

Write a page or two-- word count would be misleading, as dialogue leaves a lot of unfilled lines-- a page or two of pure dialogue.

Write it like a play, with A and B as the characters' names. No stage directions. No description of the characters. Nothing but what A says and what B says. Everything the reader knows about who they are, where they are, and what's going on, comes through what they say.

If you want a suggestion for this topic, put two people into some kind of crisis situation: the car just ran out of gas; the space ship is about to crash; the doctor has just realized that the old man she's treating for a heart attack is her father.... (Le Guin, 119-20)*

Part One

"But haven't you got a screwdriver?"

"I said don't have a screwdriver."

"How can you not have a screwdriver?"

"I don't have lots of things. I don't have a bread maker. I don't have a 401K. I don't have a girlfriend. Or a screwdriver."

"But you need those things. Well, maybe not the bread maker. Or, in your case, the girlfriend I suppose."

"Thank you, Mother."

"All I'm saying is, I don't see how you can get along without something like a screwdriver. It's one of the most basic, obvious-- I mean, I don't know, what if you needed to tighten something? Put up shelves?"

"What on earth are you talking about? I don't know how to put up a shelf. Why would I put up a shelf?"

"Everyone needs shelves!"

"I've already got shelves. Look, all over the house: shelves. Why do I need more shelves?"

"You're not listening."

"I'm listening, Ma. I'm listening."

"You should have a toolkit. All men need tool kits. For-- fixing things."

"I've got this butter knife. Can you make do with a butter knife?"

"Yes, fine, I'll use the butter knife. Give it here."

I did the next part twice; what follows is the less interesting of the two. The first one turned out to be a bit unsafe for the workplace. I'm too embarrassed to post it.

Part Two: Being the Stranger

Write a narrative of 200-600 words, a scene involving at least two people and some kind of action or event.

Use a single viewpoint character, either in first person or limited third person, who is involved in the event. Give us the character's thoughts and feelings in their own words.

The viewpoint character (real or invented) is to be somebody you dislike, or disapprove of, or hate, or feel to be extremely different from yourself.

The situation might be a quarrel between neighbors, or a relative's visit, or somebody acting weird at the checkout counter-- whatever will show the viewpoint character being who they are, doing what they do. (Le Guin 122-23)*

Part Two

It wasn't hard to talk to girls, once you got them going. Ron was amazed at the things they'd spill voluntarily, before he'd even asked for an address confirmation. It was like they sat around all day just waiting for the phone to ring. It didn't matter who was on the other end.

Ron liked to tell them he was a state trooper. He'd pretend to be collecting for charity. If he knew them a little better-- if he'd seen them in the bar, and watched them get into their cars after closing time-- he'd jot down their plate numbers and tell them that they'd been caught exceeding the posted limit by one of the new highway speed cameras. Sometimes, just sometimes, when a girl seemed dumb enough to fall for it, he'd say he was investigating a murder. An abandoned car had turned up with a body in the trunk, and her wallet had been found under the passenger seat. Something like that.

He hadn't been able to figure how you get a girl to tell you her bust size. Not yet. Best he'd managed to get out of one woman, before she got suspicious, was size ten; but that had been his fault, for breathing a little too quick. His voice lost that cop's edge, and she'd known. She was blonde, she said-- a platinum blonde. He liked blondes. The model in the poster on his living room wall was a blonde, and tall; she was probably-- he surmised-- a size ten. It hadn't been as difficult to picture the girl on the phone as some of the others.

He tried to ignore the poster. He concentrated on the ringing at the other end of the line. A woman with a soft, low voice picked it up on the third ring.

"Yes, ma'am, this is Officer Sheehan, State Patrol. I'm trying to reach a Ms. L. Carmine," he said.

"Mrs. Mrs. Carmine. Yes?"

"Ma'am, I'm currently running a credit scam investigation; we've got you on a list of people who may have been victims of credit fraud. I'd just like to ask you a few questions."

"Credit fraud? Oh, my God," Mrs. Carmine said. She sounded like an older woman. He'd never had an older woman-- and already they'd got to Oh my God? He couldn't help the little rushing feeling in his chest as he listened to her breath catch, and quiver, down the line.

These last two exercises got me playing a bit with omniscient or involved narration, which felt a bit strange. Le Guin stresses that, for the last two parts in particular, the writer isn't to refer to characters at all, or narrate from their perspective; I found it very difficult not to cheat, or to avoid sounding a bit (maybe) like Thomas Hardy.

Part Three: Implication

Each part of this should involve 200-600 words of descriptive prose. In both, the voice is either involved author or detached author. No viewpoint character.

Character by indirection: Describe a character by describing any place inhabited or frequented by that character-- a room, house, garden, office, studio, bed, whatever. (The character isn't present at the time.)

The untold event: Give us a glimpse of the mood and nature of some event or deed by describing the place -- room, rooftop, street, park, landscape, whatever-- where it happened or is about to happen. (The event or deed doesn't happen in your piece.) (Le Guin 132)*

Character by Indirection

There wasn't a single object in the room which wasn't curved in some way: the bookshelves, the the coffee table top, the rug. All the corners were rounded smooth, turning in on themselves; even the north wall had a curve in it (likely a problem with the foundation), and a slightly convex window set into a reading nook overlooking the street. Outside, cars rumbled ceaselessly up and down the brick cobbles, stirring the air so that the geraniums in the the window box seemed constantly to move, shuddering atop their stems. The flowers clearly had not been watered in some time, but the leaves hung limp and yellow from their stalks as though they'd had too much rain; perhaps there was a channel, or a dish, beneath the planter which had become blocked, and prevented the soil from draining properly, so that even as the last whiff of moisture vanished into the warm July breeze, the flowers continued to drown.

Sunlight spread gradually over the room till it filled the whole of it, spreading over the books and used coffee mugs-- some still half-filled with cold, murky liquid-- that lay abandoned as though the professor had just been called from the room by a visitor, or hurried away on some errand he'd forgotten he needed to do. A clock ticked at odd intervals on the mantelpiece, an antique clock with horses rearing on either side of an oddly squareish face. The thing didn't look like it belonged in the room; it might have belonged to some other house. Dust motes filtered slowly along a beam of sunlight to settle briefly upon the clock, then spin away again as Hetty breathed upon it; it was not yet noon. She moved a stack of papers from a chair and settled down to wait.

The Untold Event

A low brick wall bounded the roof on three sides, and coarse gravel blanketed the whole expanse in a single layer, as yet undisturbed but for one shallow mound of pebbles at the base of a rusting vent stack, into which a nighthawk-- nearly invisible against the grey flints of the roof-- snuggled itself, dozing in the hazy sunshine. By mid-afternoon the roof surface would scald at a touch; already heat shimmered off the stones, and they glowed white in the sun. Toward the rear of the building the flat roof pitched suddenly, giving onto a narrow alley twelve stories below. Nothing moved there, but a faint smell of grime and rot from the dumpsters wafted upward on a current to the level of the roof; the smell hung in the air. Far across the city, beyond the flat rooftops spreading in all directions, block after tidy block, the muddy river crawled, and toy barges piled high with garbage worked their way up and down its murky length. The roof of building directly across the alley ended at a similar pitch; a sturdy gutter pipe hung below its edge. The gap itself was far too wide to jump, even at a run. It would be a long drop in the dark.

I'd like to write a poem today. This week's prompt over at One Single Impression is "homecoming"; I'm not sure what to make of that. I find one-word prompts awfully difficult to work from. I'm always stunned at the variety and richness of subject matter that other people always seem to come up with.

Still coming: Fairy Land is nearly finished!


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 119-20, 122-23, 132.


spacedlaw said...

Long post indeed.
I think I shall have to buy that book in the end.
I like the bastard's tale (would love to see the unsafe version of that too, if you could email it...)

I spotted a few "the the" in the text by the way...

Jess said...

Hi! It's lovely to have you back. How are the fishes?

The book is fabulous-- I was surprised by how much doing the exercises has freed me up. Just goes to show that you're never too old or experienced to go back to basics. :)

Argh! I'm glad you caught those-- never saw 'em. The typos always slip through, don't they? Every time I post a post I end up correcting seventeen bazillion different things, no matter how many times I've been over it.