One element of storytelling that really makes a difference when writing is the ability to immerse your readers into the world that you are trying to create. Now, that pretty much goes without saying, of course…but one thing that I’ve learned over time is that this immersion works better when there’s a balance between ‘imagination’ and ‘information’. (I hope I’m saying that right. Let me explain…)
As I’ve stated in previous articles on my writing process, I always think of storytelling as a symbiotic relationship between the writer and the reader. We are both creating this story together, just in different ways. One way is in my head, and one way is in yours. It’s sort of like having a dancing partner, where I may be leading, but we both need to participate to make it the graceful expression it was meant to be. So, with my stories, I’m always trying to involve the reader’s imagination in what is going on. Visual cues and actions that allow them to build a mini movie in their heads as they read along. Meanwhile, I’m also attempting to tell the story that I want to tell. I have to deliver a certain amount of information so that everybody is on the same wavelength in terms of what’s going on. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is through dialogue. Narration and prose from a writer gets to be an old trick after a while, and I find dialogue to be a much more interesting way to get certain plot points across to your audience instead of just long explanations from the writer that doesn’t involve and active participation from the story’s main characters. However…sometimes that can create a slight problem.
If anyone thinks that an extremely long monologue from one main character to another main character is going to be seen as anything different from author narration…you would be mistaken. Hehehe! You’ve got to remember…readers are savvy to those tricks in this day and age. They are devouring hundreds of hours of media every single day. They know exposition when they hear it. And while you may just have to say, “Screw it! it’ll just have to be exposition, then!” every now and again…there are still a few magic tricks up the authors’ sleeve that can help with this.
First things first…try to break the ‘monologue’ temptation if you can. This is when you want to explain a character’s motivations or big plot points of the story, and the other characters is basically like, “Well, sure…let me tell you all about it.” And then he or she ends up talking for 75 paragraphs in a row to break down the entire story in one sitting without ever taking a breath. Hehehe, yeah, that’s not a good idea. What is the other character doing while all of this is going on? Does he just sit down on a carpet with his legs crossed like a kindergartner getting a bedtime story? What’s happening here?
Think about it. What would you do if you casually asked somebody how their day was going, and that led to a 45 minute explanation? Would your mind wander? Would you find that strange? Would you get frustrated after a while? Well…you readers would too. When it comes to exposition dialogue and drawn out explanations that you feel need to be included in your story, always keep in mind that your audience’s attention span can be easily broken if you don’t throw in an occasional change up every now and then. It doesn’t mean that the information is boring or that anything is wrong with your story…it just means that you would do better to cut it up into bite size pieces first. That’s all.
As with most of these little writing tips, this isn’t hard to accomplish. It’s just hard to notice if you’re not looking for it.
The easiest way to do this in a dialogue is to simply keep in mind that two people are having this conversation. Involving the secondary character in the discussion can be much more involving. Say…you have an astronaut landing on Mars for the first time…and he runs into an alien being. Well, what the…??? How is this possible? How did we not know you aliens existed? How did you hide yourselves from us all this time…and why? The alien may say (In perfect English…which is a whole other explanation in itself!), “My Earthling friend…let me tell you all about it.” And that can end up being a monologue that goes on for pages and pages without end. Word to the wise…readers will mentally and emotionally check out if you hit them with an unbroken wall of text telling that whole story in one go. I’m assuming you guys don’t want that.
Get your astronaut involved! He’s completely oblivious as to what is going on here. Have him ask questions. Have him be shocked or maybe even negatively react to what he’s being told. Have him make comments of his own. Play both sides of the conversation in a way that will keep a momentum going in your story. Have them both learn something along with your readers. A simple ‘back and forth’ can save you from the infamous ‘ton of bricks’ wall of text that a percentage of your readers might get bored with or just skip altogether to get back to the meat of the story.
It sucks to have to think about these things sometimes, but I’ve found that it helps to keep this as a rule in the back of your mind.
That’s the ‘information’ part of the equation, and that’s in the hands of the writer. Here’s where we can use the ‘imagination’ part of this to keep readers interested as they visually picture the scene unfolding in front of them.
This part doesn’t take any dialogue at all, or even a back and forth with another character if that isn’t an option for that particular scene. It’s just a matter of using your talents as an author to paint a picture and put it into motion. You’ve spent all of this time thinking about the information that you want to deliver to the people reading your story, and you’ve got someone talking about it, acting as a vessel for the big message you’re trying to push out there, right? Well, what’s happening while that character is doing that? Think about it…when you talk to anyone at length in real life (AFK)…what else is going on during that time. Take a moment and think about it.
What are you looking at? What are your hands doing? Are you standing up? Are you sitting down? Do you look around the room? Do you speak up, or do you lower your voice, depending on whatever it is being discussed? Are you guzzling a soda, sucking on a cough drop, staring at your cell phone? What’s going on? Use those details in your story. Break up that dialogue with visual actions that your readers can see, hear, feel, and relate to. Make a virtual movie out of it.
I want you guys take a look at this opening scene from the movie “Pulp Fiction”. I truly believe that one of Quentin Tarantino’s most amazing signature talents is his flair for dialogue. There are times when he can turn the most random, off topic, conversations into a work of art. But, beyond that…I want you to take notice of what the actors are doing with this scene, and think about how you would write it into a story if you had to.
Here it is…
Now, if you guys were to close your eyes and just listen to this…the whole scene is just dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s two people sitting in a restaurant booth, discussing a robbery scheme. However, look at everything else that’s going on in this scene. Pay attention to what the actors are doing here during the conversation. The visuals. They are not just sitting there at a table discussing a robbery. They are in motion. They are displaying emotions. They are giving each other clues. They’re…in a word…’alive’ in this scene. When you’re writing, I’ve always found it important to bring a certain life to the conversations as they’re happening.
These two people are doing things that can be described in your writing. They lean in to look each other in the eye. One might take a drag off of his cigarette, or clip the ashes off into the ashtray. Take a sip of coffee, smile at the waitress, lay their head on the table, put his foot up on the seat, speak in a hushed tone…these are all things that you can use to break up the monotony of an extended scene of dialogue when writing your story. Even if you have a ton of information to deliver in that once scene…you can ‘jazz it up’ a little bit by adding a sense of motion to what’s being said. Maybe you write a few sentences of dialogue…and then the speaking character walks over to take a look out of the window. Write a few more sentences, then he looks back over his shoulder and, with a wave of his hand, silently offers the other character a seat. Maybe they’re sharing a drink, or eating a snack. Maybe one of them has a nervous twitch or a habit of tapping his foot under the table. Flesh out the rest of the scene around the dialogue and try to create a mental picture of what’s going on around your characters…all while distracting your readers from the fact that, “Geez, they sure are talking a lot!” Hehehe!
Long blocks of one character shoving an entire history lesson down the throats of your readers can be exhausting. Visuals, I feel, help to change things up a little bit. Not only to break up the dialogue blocks, but to add little quirks and nuances to your characters. Allow their natural personalities to shine through in their actions. Someone who’s full of anger may pace back and forth, make threatening gestures, or might invade another character’s personal space in a challenging manner. Someone who’s timid or shy may have trouble looking another character in the eye, and may direct his gaze down at his shoes instead. He may mumble his words under his breath. He may twiddle his fingers nervously while searching for the right words. These are all tiny little activities, sure…but sprinkling these seemingly insignificant actions throughout a meaty conversation can bring a whole new feel to that particular scene, and it will keep your readers engaged and searching for more hints and clues to pick up on with your characters, while still absorbing all of the information that you have to deliver to them. Trust me, it works. 🙂
So, to wrap this up…
Information – Try to avoid heavy narration or a dialogue that no character in real life would ever bother to sit through after a few minutes or so. Break it up by involving both parties and try to swing back and forth between characters…with one asking pertinent questions, and the other character answering them. It’s just enough of a change up to keep people from getting bored.
Imagination – Add visual and ‘action’ to what your characters are doing in any given scene where their personalities are being developed, or where a heavy dose of information has to be given all in one go. Have them bashfully brush their long hair out of their eyes, have them bite their fingernails, or constantly look up at the clock to see what time it is. These micro-actions can say a lot about your character, and it can keep things active while giving your readers the amount of information that they need to move on to the next part of your story.
Watch the “Pulp Fiction” Opening again. It’s the perfect blend of both sides. Put THAT in your writing, and you can’t go wrong!
Alright, that’s all I’ve got for you this time! And as always, I hope this helps you guys to be the best writers as you can!
Take care! And I’ll seezya soon with more in the next issue of Imagine!