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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Guest Blogger Jenn Brisendine on Directing Scenes of Dialogue


A perk of contributing to a collected work is making contact with the other contributing writers. One way I like to explore those new connections is to invite fellow contributors to write a guest post here, and at the same time (let's face it, for every perk, there's a payout) bring attention to the book to which we've contributed. So for the next couple of weeks, I'll periodically feature a post from another writer whose work also appears in Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, edited by Carole Smallwood (The Key Publishing House/Canada).

 Please welcome Jenn Brisendine
I love the theatre. I spent more on hours onstage and backstage in college than reading all the works assigned in my English major. When I taught high school literature and writing, I also directed school plays. One semester I designed and taught a fiction writing elective, and many student actors signed up. Teaching them how to craft natural, dramatic dialogue was exciting—we likened their story characters to actors in a play, and I encouraged them to first “direct” the sound and appearance of the scene on an imaginary stage, complete with props, actions, and cues.
When I write dialogue now—fiction or creative nonfiction—I don’t just compose the conversation; I "direct" the dialogue as a theatre director coaches a scene for emotion and meaning. The director listens for emphasis of certain words, but also suggests pauses, inflections, vocalizations, movement, and nonverbal action. Similarly, a writer can control a scene of dialogue in ways that enhance its significance and mood.

We writers have great devices at our disposal, including punctuation, pauses, and action tags. Punctuation is a tiny tool that wields great impact on dialogue:

“I’m leaving, and you are too.”  (With a comma, there’s barely a pause.)
“I’m leaving. And you are too.” (Now it’s a period, and a much stronger break.)
“I’m leaving? And you are too?”  (The meaning has changed.)
“I’m leaving! And you are too!”  (Wow! Use exclamation marks sparingly!)
“I’m leaving. And you…”  (Trailing off indicates uncertainty or distractedness.)
“I’m leaving. And you–-”     (The speaker is interrupted.)

Pacing the scene with pauses adjusts the sound of the dialogue to your reader’s ear:
“Would you sit down?” He hesitated. “I have something to tell you.”
 
With action tags, you can pace the scene, adjust the mental sound of it, and let slip a tidbit of characterization:
“Would you sit down?” He sipped the bourbon and waited for the burn to fade. “I have something to tell you.”

I often write important scenes in play format first, to focus on the characters’ words:
Barney: If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.
Alicia: Why should I believe a word out of you?
Barney: Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?
Alicia: That’s not fair.
Barney: No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time. This time, you stay here. I’m going.

Then I add stage directions to pace the beats of the scene, so the “actors” can emphasize or punctuate the spoken words:

Barney: (watching Alicia for several seconds from his place by the bedroom door) If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.
Alicia: (folds two shirts and places them in the suitcase before speaking) Why should I believe a word out of you?
Barney: Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?
Alicia: (stops moving, stares straight ahead) That’s not fair.
Barney: No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time. (opens door, stops) This time, you stay here. I’m going.

This helps me frame a mental stage performance of the scene. Finally, I can rewrite the scene in fiction format:

Barney watched Alicia yank clothes off hangers. “If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.”
She folded two shirts and placed them in the suitcase before speaking. “Why should I believe a word out of you?”
“Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?”
Alicia didn’t move. “That’s not fair.”
“No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time.” He yanked the door open. “This time, you stay here. I’m going.”

In my mind’s theatre, not only can I see and hear the beats of the scene, I can feel the tension between characters that is generated by the pacing. Ultimately, what we crave in dialogue is that tension; mentally directing the scene before composing it allows the writer to heighten emotion, emphasize conflict, and deepen characterization all at once.

Jenn Brisendine’s essays have appeared in many print and online venues, including Rosebud, The Pedestrian, LiteraryMama, and the anthology The Maternal Is Political (Seal Press); she is also a contributor to Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction. A former high school English teacher, she currently works as a freelance editor and writer. Jenn lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two sons, and a petite 100-pound Great Dane. At her blog, she reviews great writing guides and discusses the quest for balance in the writing life.

2 comments:

Deb Shucka said...

What an interesting way to approach the writing of a scene/dialogue. I really enjoyed reading this. Will be thinking about it for a bit. I'm also happy to know a new writer, whose blog I'm heading for now. Thanks, Lisa and Jenn.

Nidz said...

Very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing this.