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Writing Excuses 8.31: Combining Dialogue, Blocking, and Description

Writing Excuses 8.31: Combining Dialogue, Blocking, and Description


Key Points: Dialogue, blocking, description, exposition -- all of that provides context for the reader to understand the story. Provide it in the order they ask the questions! Provide the blocking, the geography, before the action to avoid interruptions. Use description to establish the scene, and tell us something about the character. Use the pyramid of abstraction -- lay out concrete description, then pile abstract thoughts and dialogue on that base.  Set the scene concretely, then reduce the beats as you get into the dialogue. Use concrete images and multiple senses to set where we are, and the character's description and choices to hint at who the character is and what they feel. Give your reader the context they need to understand. Use what the character notices and how they describe it to reveal character. One tip -- when you're writing dialogue, instead of stopping to write beats, nonverbal communication, and description, just put a bracket note in and then fix it later. Also, reading your work out loud can help identify where beats need to go.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 31.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, combining dialogue, blocking, and description.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm...
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] [laughing]
[Dan] Wait, are you Mary or...
[Howard] I'm not stepping on anybody else's line.
[Mary] I just... We're trying to combine things, and I was just doing it sloppily.
[Howard] We are here at the Writing Excuses seminar and retreat in... Or the Out Of Excuses seminar and retreat in Chattanooga.
[Mary] That was poorly handled description.
[Brandon] Boy. Our dialogue and description are really bad.
[Howard] Yes. It was. What would be awesome is if there was something happening in the background to sell that...
[Howard] Thank you for that save.

[Brandon] You just want them to cover up our dialogue. This is another topic pitched by those who sent email to our website so thank you guys very much out there for sending in topics for us to talk about. Because we love to talk about things. So let's talk about this one. How to combine dialogue, blocking, description. How to get that balance right? Does anyone have any suggestions for our listeners on how to do this?
[Mary] Well, I think that one of the things we're really talking about here is basically how to handle exposition, in a lot of ways. Because the thing that you're doing with blocking is trying to figure out where the characters are and explaining to the reader where the characters are within the body of the description. All of this, the dialogue that you're doing and the description and the blocking, all of that is to provide context for the reader to understand the story going forward. So you have to provide it to them in the order in which they are asking questions, essentially. So... And with... As I was telling the class I was teaching earlier today, one of the things that you look at is where that question is going to pop up. If that question is going to pop up in the middle of action and you have to slow down to answer, that will break things, so you need to provide it before you get to the action. A good example of this, strangely, is from film. Jackie Chan films when he was doing them himself have fantastic blocking, because he establishes the geography, which is basically let me give you a little bit of description to show you where everybody is and then the fight happens and you can see it because you know the blocking, because you already have the context to understand. Jackie Chan in Hollywood, on the other hand, the camera moves around so frenetically and jumps from cut to cut so fast that you do not know where any character's standing at any point. It becomes much more difficult to follow what's happening with the fight. So when you're talking about that in writing, basically what you do is you use description to establish your scenic location and theoretically use your POV character to also... So that you're also masking the fact that you're doing description by having it do double duty, by having it tell us something about the character. Somebody else should talk.

[Brandon] Now, the way I approach this has to do with this idea of the pyramid of abstraction, which I believe I've talked about. Have I never talked about this?
[Mary] I've never heard this one.
[Brandon] Okay. Wow. Pyramid of abstraction is something I was taught in college, not by one of my professors but by a fellow student, which is where I learned most of the useful stuff I've learned, writing wise, in writing programs. The student who talked about this thing, it was this awesome idea, that to keep someone in a story what you do is you lay concrete description as the bottom of your pyramid to be this sort of basis upon which you are going to pile lots of abstract thoughts and things like this. So if you set the scene concretely, then you can talk about abstraction things. Your definition of what is abstract depends on what you are trying to do. But dialogue gets pretty abstract. You can just have these voices coming at you. But when dialogue is broken up by a lot of beats, it can actually kind of slow the dialogue down. So I look at this as a... I set the scene in a very concrete way and I'm looking to be concrete. We've talked about this before. Dan's advice on this is make the small detail something big, but ignore some of the big details. So the water that is dripping into a puddle of oil, so you can see the shimmering. That's a concrete image. You set a few of these concrete images using multiple senses to set where we are and also using the character's description of them to tell us what the character is, how they feel. The fact that the character noticed that because they are a plumber, and they're like, "Wow, that leak needs to be fixed." It also tells us something about character. Then I will transition into the dialogue, and I will use beats which will move people through this room, but I will start using fewer and fewer beats as the description gets more and more frantic... Or not description, dialogue gets more and more frantic. It's the back and forth, and they're arguing, and something passionate is happening, and I want to use as little as possible in there. Then bring it back out by having something in the environment bring us out and re-cement us in this scene with something concrete. A noise, a honk, a flash of light, the light bulb breaks when he flips on the light switch, something that pops us back out in here and doesn't let us drift off into a white room of voices talking. I love how a scene can do that and keep us there. The concrete language keeps us there. But you don't want a lot of that concrete language in the middle of your dialogue, always.

[Mary] I want to point out part of what is happening there is that... One of the reasons... You'll hear the advice, don't start with dialogue. The reason people offer that advice is that it is very rare in real life that you would hear someone's voice and be able to tell nothing about them. You can usually tell something about age, you have some... You will assign gender to the voice. So when you start with a line of dialogue, you've basically started without any context at all, and your reader then has to reset. So what Brandon is talking about with his pyramid of abstraction is that he's talking about providing the context that the reader needs to understand. When they get farther into that dialogue, the reason that he can drop all of this concrete description is because he's already provided the context so the audience, the reader, is then filling in the blanks. They already know, okay, when this person is irritated, they... She tugs her braids. So you don't have to say anything about tugging the braids multiple times. I probably shouldn't have used that example.
[Brandon] No, that's okay. We're all in Wheel of Time fandom very fond of the braids, in this sort of annoyed at the braids fondness sort of way. So it is actually a perfect example. In new writers, something I see a lot. This happened in my class this last year, like every other person that was turning something in was adding a beat... And if you don't know, if you're not listening, if you don't understand beat, beat is where you say, "He moved to the other side of the room," and then he talks. Like it's when you add an action to a dialogue. They were having a beat every line of dialogue, and they were adding a little bit of description to everything, because they'd heard from writing advice that you want to interweave these things, you don't want to [lay the?] mess with a whole bunch of description, you want to have dialogue in between, which is the right advice, but they took it too far. So they modified everything and it was so annoying to read.

[Mary] The other thing that happens, and I will say this as an audiobook narrator, is that each of those lines of dialogue functions as a pause in the conversation, and that happens whether you are reading it to yourself or hearing someone narrate it. So if I said, "Will you pass me the water?" She put her pen down on the page. "Thank you for the water." Basically what that reads for the listener is "Would you pass me the water? Thank you for the water."
[Brandon] Right. You can't have my water, Mary.
[Mary] Oh, fine.
[Brandon] Howard, do you do any of this...
[Mary] [choking]
[Brandon] In your...
[Mary] [choking]
[Brandon] In the... What was that?
[Dan] I'm pretty sure that was a kitten that snuck in here.
[Howard] That was Mary withering, crying.
[Brandon] Oh, right. I see.
[whistling sound]
[Brandon] How did I lose control of this so quickly?
[Dan] You asked Howard to talk.

[Brandon] Yes. Back on task. Howard? How do you mix your action in with your narrative with your dialogue? How do you decide?
[Howard] First of all, the project that I'm struggling with right now, which is a horror story for Space Eldritch II. I'm realizing that I want to be... Because it's short and because there are a lot of things I want to accomplish with it, I'm coming in late, and I'm making a list of the things that I feel the reader needs to know soon, needs to know early. I'm trying to lay this layer of concrete as quickly as I can in the opening scene while... In the current incarnation of the opening scene, our point of view character and the other characters are examining dead bodies. It's really difficult. But what I've found that sort of naturally happened is that once I started giving the characters dialogue, it didn't feel right to keep throwing description in there. They needed to be talking, even though they're pulling out instruments and doing things. I need to have them talking about what they're reading on the instruments rather than I am pulling out an instrument and doing a thing. So essentially what I'm saying is thank you for the pyramid, you may have just saved my story.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] Within the comic, the pacing of these sorts... I get these pictures. There are a lot of things that I do to save time, but one of the things that you'll find any time you're reading comics is that there are a lot of close shots of character faces. When characters are talking and I don't want to draw backgrounds... I mean, when characters are talking and I don't want to...
[Brandon] You don't want to distract...
[Howard] To distract from the dialogue. I will pull in tight on the faces and I will run inset panels with just dialogue in them. Sometimes, this is the equivalent of the said-bookism of the blocking, of the "he said angrily" and then "he scowled." Well, I don't have to say, "He said angrily." I can draw his face angry, which is a huge boon. Then I can draw another panel of his facial expression changing. I have added a beat to the scene, I have added a pause, and because of what I'm doing, it's a pause that is, I think, more difficult to pull off in prose. You look at that facial expression change and you ask yourself, "What's going on in his head?" Anyway, so that's one way in which I do this.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's stop for our book of the week. Mary, you had the book of the week. It was Bloody Jack.
[Mary] Yes. This is Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer. This is wonderful, wonderfully narrated. It's in first person, and the narrator is Katherine Kellgren who knocks it out of the park. This is basically... It is not fantasy or science fiction, but it's set in the Napoleonic wars, about a London street urchin, a young girl, who runs away to sea and disguises herself as a boy, and about the adventures that she has as a... Basically a cabin boy in His Majesty's Navy for two years. One of the things that is interesting in the context that we are talking about right here is that at the beginning of the book, there is a lot of narration and a lot of the character talking about this is what is going to happen. When we get into the ship, there are big sections where it feels like it is just dialogue and almost nothing else. There's almost no description. But it's wonderfully narrated. I highly recommend it. Don't read it while you are driving, because the... You will cry a little and that's dangerous.
[Brandon] Okay. Howard, how can they get it?
[Howard] Start yourself a 30 day free trial membership, download a copy of...
[Brandon] Bloody Jack.
[Howard] Bloody Jack as narrated by Katherine Kellgren... I forgot the author's name. I'm horrible at this.
[Mary] L. A. Meyer.
[Howard] L. A. Meyer. I'm so sorry.
[Brandon] That's all right. You're just still parched from the water that you didn't get to drink. Dan!
[Howard] Go.

[Dan] Brandon, you hit on something earlier that I want to emphasize a little more, when you were talking about the pyramid, which is that the description that you give while in a character's head can reveal a lot about that character.
[Howard] Absolutely.
[Dan] I want to emphasize that a little bit more, that you can use that to demonstrate so much about who a character is based on what they notice and how they notice it.
[Brandon] Right. This is how you really should be, as writers, in most cases giving us character moments as how they see the world. You should be... Should be. We use that term a lot. This is a tool in your chest... Toolbox that you can use. It's a very good one. It's one that I highly recommend. In doing so, you give us a lot about the character while you mix in the description.
[Mary] The way I describe it is when two people walk into the room at the same time, if they're both going into the kitchen, the baker will notice the butter on the counter, the painter will notice the crooked painting. By what they notice, you can slip in some of this description and have it do double duty. That's a lot of what we're talking about, is making sure that you are doing things that serve two functions.
[Brandon] Right. Now the actual question to us was about combining the dialogue, blocking, and description. I do want to say, I've talked about this pyramid of abstraction. I still put beats in. Don't get me wrong. It's not... But in the middle of a dialogue, I'll be looking to put a beat every four or five lines, instead of at the beginning, when I'll do a beat... For the first two lines, there might be a beat in each one of those. Then I'll transition out of that. Or I might start with one line, someone says something, then we get a paragraph of description. Then someone else says something, we get a new beat. Then we move into the discussion. Then we... I still will do these beats. I still will be moving people around, so that we don't lose all of this. But I still want those descriptions to be concrete. I don't always want them to be a ton about the character, though. I don't want to stop for a paragraph in the middle of a dialogue if I can avoid it.

[Mary] Sometimes I will cheat. When I have... When I'm writing and I have... Well, this isn't actually cheating, but what I'll do is I'm writing and I hit the dialogue and I totally know how that conversation is going to flow. So when I'm writing it, rather than stopping and doing descriptions, I will mark pauses. So I'll say... I'll do whatever the line is, and then I'll just do bracket pause, whatever the next... Rest of the line is. And sometimes body language. To indicate the nonverbal portion of the conversation. A lot of the beats that we're talking about are the ones that indicate pauses in the conversation and the nonverbal communication that's going on.
[Brandon] Right. The beat does replace a he said or she said. You can just say he scowled. That is he said.
[Howard] That is so much better than he said angrily.
[Dan] This is a case where reading your work out loud can help you identify where some of these beats need to go. I'll actually find as I go back and do readings of the earlier Serial Killer books, that I did not read out loud to myself because I didn't know that technique yet, I'll find dumb stuff where I'm like, "Oh, I totally needed to put a beat in there." So I'll do it in. I'll add it into my reading, because I know now that it needs to be there.

[Brandon] Okay. Our writing prompt is actually again going to be Mary, because she has a writing exercise for this on her website.
[Mary] So basically I'll give you the short form of this, and then we've got the actual link in the liner notes. Basically, what I want you to do is sit down and just write description, not worrying about anything else. Just write description for half an hour. Yeah, I really mean half an hour, because that's going to force you to dig deep into what you can describe in a room.
[Howard] Set a timer.
[Mary] Set a timer and don't let your fingers stop. Believe me, you'll hate me for a little bit, and then you'll be like, "Oh..." Try to use all five senses. Then what I want you to do is go back and rewrite. Just a paragraph, one paragraph, so that we know that the person who is in that room is a specific person. So it's a ballerina, it's a schoolteacher, it's a fireman, whatever it is. But you cannot say the word ballerina, schoolteacher, fireman. So that just by POV, you let us know what they are. Then, I want you to go back and do one more pass in which you let us know their emotional state. This time, you're only allowed three sentences. You should be able to let us know their emotional state and their occupation and what the room looks like in three sentences. That is one way that you can handle blocking and that. The other exercise that I have on the website is narration and context. There you're going to find a transcript, so you don't have to write the dialogue yourself, but you're just going to provide the context to go with the dialogue. There are long instructions on how to do this on my website.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] That's less writing prompt and more homework.
[Mary] Yes. That's right. I've given you homework.
[Brandon] Well. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go do your homework.

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