After the big push of NaNoWriMo in November, I’m doing a complete change of pace for December. I’m still doing my daily writing, but in a very different style. Instead of writing a story, I’m writing about writing stories by working on a new nonfiction project.
I’ve been attending my writing group for about seven years now, and I’ve noticed patterns emerging. We seem to give the same type of advice to different people again and again. Which is fine, and I don’t mind! But it did make me think it ought to be possible to pull some of this advice together into something standardized. So I’ve been working on a book of revision advice. There are a lot of books out there about writing, but I haven’t seen much focused specifically on revising.
So that’s my current project! It’s not nearly as long or involved as a novel, so I’m hoping to do the draft (or the bulk of it) this month, and publish some time next year. Although this is rather new and different for me, so we’ll see how that actually pans out!
Here’s an excerpt from one of my sections, with one of the most common advice given at my writing group. This is (currently) Section 10, Breaking Out of the Brain Jar: Talking Heads
There’s an old episode of Star Trek involving three brains in jars who, thanks to technology, can talk to each other and the rest of the characters. I bring this up because a lot of writers fall into the trap of writing their characters as though they are talking brains in jars. Not literally—that could involve some quite interesting details, in fact—but rather with the complete absence of any details suggesting these characters have bodies and are inhabiting the space they’re in.
This is mostly an issue in dialogue-heavy scenes, as though writers get focused on the conversation and forget everything else. You may want your conversation and sparkling repartee to be the star, but remembering the character’s physical existence can greatly enrich the conversation.
Let’s look at a talking heads conversation.
“You’re late again,” she told him.
“I got caught in traffic,” he said.
“I know that’s not true.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“I wish you’d just tell me the truth—what are you really doing when you come home late?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
Not only is this less engaging than it could be, there’s a lot of missed opportunity to show the characters and add depth to the dialogue. In fact, depending on how the characters are moving, I can completely change how this dialogue sounds. Here’s version #1:
“You’re late again,” she told him, looking down at her hands in her lap as she spoke.
“I got caught in traffic,” he said with a careless shrug.
Her fingers locked together. “I know that’s not true.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, gaze darting away from her.
She reached up to twist at the end of her long braid. “I wish you’d just tell me the truth—what are you really doing when you come home late?”
He grimaced, hands clenching at his sides. “You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
This is a little forced, with the action for every dialogue, but hopefully it gets the point across: she’s worried, he’s probably guilty of something. That may be how you read the first version anyway, but what if I change their actions in version #2?
“You’re late again,” she told him, glaring at him as he came in the door.
He ducked his head, trying to avoid her furious expression. “I got caught in traffic,” he said.
She put her hands on her hips, stepping to block his path through the room. “I know that’s not true.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, lifting his hands defensively, palms out.
She jabbed one forefinger towards his chest. “I wish you’d just tell me the truth—what are you really doing when you come home late?”
He backed away a pace and shook his head. “You won’t believe me if I tell you.”
I didn’t add anything describing how the characters are saying their dialogue, and I didn’t change any dialogue or speech tags. But I used the characters’ bodies to completely change the dynamic between them. Body language is powerful and pervasive in the real world; it shouldn’t be ignored in fictional conversations. It also makes the characters feel far more present and alive.