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DESCRIPTION BY OMISSION

Remember the 1988 Vice-Presidential debate in which Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy"? Everybody watching understood that Bentsen had deeply insulted Quayle, and yet he had not maligned his character or accused Quayle of anything untoward. What he did was describe a man in terms of what he wasn't. This verbal skulduggery works as well in fictional dialogue as in the real thing.

Let's say you want a character to describe his hotel room:
"Where did you stay?" Bernice asked.

Izzy closed his eyes and shuddered. "You wouldn't believe it. The sheets were gray, the windows were gray. Even the water was gray. The TV didn't work and the blinds wouldn't stay down. I stayed awake all night squashing cockroaches."


In this description, you give your readers a vivid picture of the hotel poor Izzy stayed in. You can conjure an equally memorable picture by describing the place in terms of what it wasn't:
"Where did you stay?" Bernice asked.

Izzy closed his eyes and shuddered. "Let's just say it wasn't the Hilton."

Bernice waved him away. "The Hilton's overrated, in my opinion."

"At least they fumigate once in a while," Izzy said. "And you don't get rashes from the shower, last time I checked."


In the revision, you invite your readers to imagine much more than the specific details of the first version. The fact that Izzy's hotel "isn't the Hilton" evokes opposite images: rude personnel instead of polite, wrinkled sheets instead of ironed, and so on. Also, Izzy's contention that at the Hilton "they fumigate once in a while" and "you don't get rashes from the shower" creates images at least as horrible as the ones in the first version. We can picture armies of bugs marching over a soggy, balding carpet, and a shower with inches of mildew and who-knows-what-else clinging to the walls. All this, and Izzy hasn't actually said one word about the place; he's talking about the Hilton.

This technique works well when a character is describing peo­ple, too:


Mac watched my daughter make her way from one end of the pool to the other. "Not exactly Esther Williams," he said, "but then again she's only nine."
Or:
"Who's our new boss?" I asked.

"Remember Arthur?"

"Yeah," I said. "The man was an angel."

"Let me make this clear," Alice said, leaning close to my face. "Our new boss is not Arthur. Not even close."


The unsaid is a powerful tool. It can be used in narrative description as well ("Linden Island was not the tropical paradise the group had been led to expect from the travel guide . . ."), but direct dialogue is its most natural venue. After all, people are prone to use description by omission, whether they are sipping tea in a restaurant or participat­ing in a nationally televised debate.

WRAP-UP

Description and dialogue often overlap. Your characters can describe in four lines of dialogue something that might take you two para­graphs of narrative to convey. Neither dialogue nor narrative descrip­tion is an inherently better technique; which choice you make de­pends on the individual scene. If you want a breezy, fast-paced scene, then use a lot of dialogue and a little description. If you want to slow the pace of a scene, then add descriptive interruptions to your dialogue. Descriptive interruptions can add comedy or suspense or poignancy to a scene, because they guide the readers' perceptions in a way straight dialogue—which can be interpreted in many ways—cannot.

Dialogue can be direct—
"I'm pregnant, everybody!" Kristen announced
—or indirect:
Kristen announced that she was pregnant.
Direct dialogue generally delivers a better sense of a character's per­sonality, but indirect dialogue can give you more room to use your own language for description:
Holding on to her blossoming belly, Kristen announced her pregnancy in a voice loud enough to fell a moose.
A combination of direct and indirect dialogue usually makes for a natural-sounding exchange between two characters, especially if the scene is long and filled with details that don't warrant their own lines of dialogue:
"I hate your mother," he said, "because she's Polish." Then he went on to malign my Italian grandfather, my Jewish brother-in-law, and my English aunts.
Descriptive interruptions almost always enhance a dialogue se­quence, because conversations do not take place in a vacuum. People talk while shaving, moving furniture, scaling mountains, and mailing letters. These descriptive interruptions sometimes come as full narrative breaks, but more often take the briefer form of dialogue tags and gestural pauses.

Simple dialogue tags ("he said/she said") identify speakers and imply pauses. Descriptive dialogue tags describe a character's actions and/or state of mind:
"Not in this lifetime," he said, heaving the body overboard.
Descriptive tags like this keep the action going while the characters are conversing. Avoid adding single adverbs to dialogue tags ("he said, angrily"; "she said, sadly"); the state of mind should be implied in the dialogue itself or in the ensuing action. You shouldn't have to explain the meaning of a line by adding crossly/avidly/sadly/happily.

Gestural pauses are full-sentence interruptions in dialogue that enhance or replace dialogue tags:
"I heard you, Ivan," Millicent said. She waved him away. "But you'll have to wait."
These pauses usually describe a gesture that delivers information about a character's mood or motives.

Dialogue tags and gestural pauses can control the pace and even the meaning of a dialogue sequence, but they can also smother the dialogue if used too frequently. Also, be sure not to use the same kind of tag or pause with each line of dialogue—the conversation will appear wooden. Look up an author whose use of dialogue you admire. Chances are you'll find some lines tagged, some modified with a phrase or full-sentence pause, and many others left to stand alone.

You can use dialogue to imply setting without having to make a full-scale description of a place or event. A line like
"My God, this place looks like the dark side of the moon," Henrietta said,
can replace a whole paragraph of narrative description. You can also imply setting by what a character doesn't say about it. A line like
"It's not exactly Sesame Street," Brenda murmured,
can describe the mean streets of a large city without mention of bro­ken windows and bloodstained concrete. Be careful not to "stage" dialogue only for the readers' benefit, though. "Let's climb the glass-strewn stairs of my three-story apartment building" sounds more like an announcement to the readers than part of a conversation. People never make mention of what they already know; if the broken glass and three stories are important, you'll have to find another way to reveal them.

Think of dialogue as a description technique. Good dialogue, like all good description, should help you move your story forward, illuminate your characters, and enrich your readers' perceptions of the story.




CHAPTER 5

DESCRIPTION AND POINT OF VIEW


Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. It is the single most important choice you make for your story. More than any other technique, point of view influences how readers perceive the story you are trying to tell.

Which character is my main character? Which character do I want readers to empathize with and understand? How do I want read­ers to view the setting? All these questions can be answered by your choice of point of view.

When point of view is well chosen and firmly in place, the story hums along, seemingly all by itself. When point of view falters, the story loses its focus, its momentum, its reason for being. Point of view is the glue that holds a story together; it also dictates what kind of description you may use and which characters get to do the describ­ing.

Imagine the story of Cinderella in the wicked stepmother's point of view, or Dickens's A Christmas Carol narrated by one of the ghosts. The wicked stepmother wouldn't be able to see her own wickedness or Cinderella's smudged beauty, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come wouldn't give a hoot about the parlor games in the home of Scrooge's nephew. Point of view heavily influences description; different perspectives bring out vastly different aspects of a story.

For beginning writers especially, point of view can be difficult to grasp; it requires constant attention. Point of view becomes less intimidating with experience, but its problems haunt every writer at one time or another, no matter how accomplished or experienced he or she may be.

Point of view comes in three forms: first person, second person, and third person. You have a few other choices within these three categories.





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