Plot, Dialogue, and Description – Oh My!
I said I had another post on writing coming up, and here it is!
So, last time, Julia asked:
Do you think you could do a post on sentence-by-sentence spice-adding, in terms of dialogue and such? The problem I often have with writing is that my plot either moves too quickly and I can’t think of what to put for actual descriptive meat, or I get bogged down in descriptions and dialogue and lose the plot there. Any tips?
I think the answer to both not having enough dialogue and description and of getting bogged down in it is remembering that every line of your story is an opportunity to strengthen characterization. Plot itself can be extremely short and simple. ”A stranger comes to town” is an easy example. This sentence implies potential conflict–who knows what kind of trouble a stranger coming to town might mean. Depends on the town and the stranger. You’re probably already picturing some kind of conflict, though, like a retired sheriff riding into a lawless Old West town in desperate need of someone to stand up against the bad guys.
I picked a sentence-long plot to show that a plot can be told in one sentence. (All plots can be.) Obviously when you’re working on your book, you’ll expand that plot and branch it out in more detail. But the point here is that “plot” can be used up really fast, and if you’re relying on plot to make up the meat of your story, you might not get very far. One way to think of it instead is to build the meat of your story on conflicts.
Let’s take our Old West sheriff for example. What if the woman running the saloon is his childhood sweetheart, but they never got married and life took them in different directions, and now he’s a man of the law (or was, since he’s retired), and some of the goings-on in her saloon aren’t exactly on the right side of the law, but she’s happy to look the other way because she makes a good living off her less-than-savory customers. She and the sheriff are still attracted to each other and longing for the past, but their current beliefs and situations are going to put a rift between them. This is going to have an affect on every conversation and every description of the two of them. A plot point could be that the retired sheriff witnesses a crime while in the saloon. He could walk in, see the crime, and walk out, just like that. But there’s a difference between describing an event and exploring conflict and characterization. The ex-sheriff and the woman who owns the saloon are probably going to have some pretty interesting conversations, especially if they haven’t seen each other in years. It might get even more interesting when he witnesses a crime take place, and he knows she knows about it, but that she also doesn’t care. But he cares, even though he’s retired and has decided to stay that way and not get involved in keeping the peace here, even if it goes against his better nature. So he’s not only struggling with the decisions she’s making, but with his own inner conflicts. He can’t be with her and uphold the law. And he can either be retired, which means letting things go, or he can step up and become the sheriff of this town, but he can’t have both.
That’s where your meat comes from. Not from the event itself, but from the characters’ conflicting wants and their goals they can’t quite reach. I think this approach would help with getting bogged down, too, because each line of dialogue and description are opportunities to add to our understanding of this situation. It’s a chance to show us the characters’ opinions about each other and the world around them. So every line that goes in will have a purpose, and that purpose is more than the sum of its parts. A sentence describing the counter at the saloon needs to do more than just tell us what it looks like. What it looks like needs to tie in to the characters, either by showing us their opinions of it, or showing how it fits into their lives.
The saloon was dark and dimly lit, a sharp contrast to the blazing sun outside. He’d seen these types of places before, and this one was no different–shady and rotten to the core. He’d heard it was hers, that this was the kind of life she’d set up for herself after all this time. Knowing she’d get involved with a no-good place like this, with gamblers and outlaws at every table, giving him hard looks, came as a shock. She’d changed. The girl he’d known wouldn’t have put up with these types, and not with the mud on the floor and the smoke clogging up the air either. But as he sidled up to the bar, he noticed the counter. Unlike everything else in this place, it was clean. Spotless. He smiled to himself, thinking maybe she hadn’t changed so much after all.
I could have just said he walked in and sat at the bar and noticed it was clean. Or I could have gone on describing how everything looked until I lost track of why he’d come into the bar in the first place. But what I wrote here tethers all the description to the characterization, whether it’s giving us a glimpse into the characters’ personalities, the conflicts between them, or both.