Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Defense: Characterization Through Dialogue Tags

A friend of mine critiqued the first two chapters of The Eye of Cruax, which is one of my many, many partially-abandoned works in progress. I'll finish it one of these days, I swear.

The work is (one of my) homages to Terry Pratchett, so it is a (mostly) lighthearted fantasy story that plays with the tropes of the fantasy genre. 

In the second chapter, the reader meets Ganthis, a lieutenant in one of the city's two major criminal syndicates. He is meeting with several of his associates in ye local pub.  One of the associates tells Ganthis about a job that she's just completed and, in response, Ganthis does this:

Ganthis gave one sharp bob of his head. “Good work.”

My friend informed me that the sentence was excessively wordy. He suggested that I replace it with the shorter and cleaner phrase, "Ganthis nodded."

It's possible that he's right about this, and it's possible that some Future Geoff--who will likely be wearing a silver jumpsuit while he's revising this story--will ultimately agree with him and make the suggested change. However, Present Geoff would like to take this opportunity to leap to his own defense and explain why he chose the words that he chose.


"Ganthis nodded" is a perfectly cromulent sentence. It works just fine. A reader will see, as if in their mind's eye, Ganthis nodding along with the conversation. The only problem is that "Ganthis nodded" is a completely neutral sentence.  From it, we know that there is a person named Ganthis who, at some point during the conversation, moves his head up and down.  The statement, while describing an action, doesn't tell us anything about Ganthis as a character.

The original statement "Ganthis gave one sharp bob of his head" is quite a bit wordier. It conveys the core conceit of "Ganthis nodded" in a much less efficient way (it's eight words to two, so it's four times less efficient), but it also, hopefully, tells the reader a little something about Ganthis.

This is not a man who is merrily nodding along with the story.  This is a man who is listening intently and who acknowledges his associate with a single, very precise, downward and upward motion of his head.  This is a man who does not talk very much (note now many more words are taken up by his action than by his dialogue). The reader may get the feeling, from these two sentences, that Ganthis is a careful, taciturn man who does not mess around.  They would, of course, be right.

At least, that's the idea.  I want to stress that, while this was my intent to convey more about the character through a slightly wordier digression than was strictly necessary, it may not have actually worked.

Time, and future revisions, will tell.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

You Must Fail Three Times

While at a convention some years ago, I happened to sit in on a panel hosted by Algis Budrys.  The name of that panel is, alas, lost to time, but its purpose was for him to relate some tricks of the trade.

He explained that he wanted to tell us a story. By his own admission, it wasn't a very good story, but he hoped that it would get across the point that he was trying to make.  It was a story about a girl whose name I cannot remember, so I'm going to call her Hannah.  The story went a little like this:

Hannah is a teenaged girl who has been playing the violin since she was five years old.  Her dream is to get into Julliard.  After a great deal of practice, perseverance, and patience, she has managed to arrange an audition in New York City.  She travels into the city by train on the day of her interview, ready to wow the admissions staff with her skills.  When she arrives, it is raining heavily.

Upon her arrival in the city, things start to go wrong. 

Confusion at the taxi stand outside the train station results in a situation in which a busy New York City business person winds up driving off in Hannah's taxi with Hannah's violin.  In a panic, Hannah runs off after the taxi, only to get badly splashed by another car.

She is soaking wet and has lost the cab, but Hannah is a pretty smart kid.  She goes back to the taxi stand and gets the contact information for the company that owns the departed cab.  Calling them, she manages to get a message to the driver to wait for her at the station.  Hannah takes a second cab over there.

Hannah recovers her violin, but now doesn't have enough money to take a taxi down to her interview.  She gets directions and hoofs it down there.  She's wet, tired, and hungry, but she keeps right on trucking like a champ.  At last, she arrives at the interview site.

Forty-five minutes late.

The people on the admissions committee are not pleased and they don't seem to be particularly moved by Hannah's excuses.  Hannah pleads with them, telling them that she will do anything to play for them.  Life has conspired against her, but she is here and she is desperate to showcase her skills.  At last, the committee relents a little, but Hannah's total play time is drastically reduced.

Hannah is relieved and more than a little nervous.  She takes out her violin and, while preparing to play, thinks of all of the hardships she has endured in getting here.  She realizes, for the first time, how badly she wants this and somehow, someway, that unlocks something deep inside of her.  Hannah plays for the admissions committee and they, enraptured, allow her to go well over her time limit.

At the end of the piece, the head of the committee says to her (and this is pretty much a direct quote from Budrys):  "My dear, before today, you were a musician.  Now you are an artist."

Budrys went on to explain that the story, while somewhat contrived, works for this reason:  Hannah fails three times.

  1. She loses her things in the taxi (getting splashed is the frosting on this awful cake)
  2. She gets her things back, but in doing so, she can no longer take the "easy way" to get to her interview.
  3. She travels to the interview on foot and arrives late, eliciting disdain from the committee.

Why does this work?  A few reasons:

  1. It generates empathy for the character:  We have suffered setbacks and defeats in our own life, so we feel badly for Hannah when it happens to her.  She seems like a nice kid, and the things that are going wrong aren't really her fault.
  2. It makes the story interesting:  If the story didn't have failure, it would be completely flat.  Hannah getting to her audition without issue and then getting into Julliard is not very exciting and not at all memorable.  As readers, we would read that and think, "that's it?  Bleah."  The fact that I remember this story so many years after hearing it one time is a testament to how well failure works.
  3. It makes us happy when Hannah succeeds:  The end of the story (getting into Julliard) is the obvious payoff, but there are plenty of lesser payoffs throughout as Hannah defeats each challenge.  We can root for her as Hannah gets her violin back, or cheer for her as she trudges through an unfamiliar city.  It builds up her likeability as a character and makes her memorable to the reader.
  4. It strengthens Hannah's character: When we see her rise to and pass each challenge, she grows, becoming more capable and more interesting.  This develops her narrative arc.

So why three times?  According to Budrys, it's the sweet spot in the formula.  Less than three failures makes it seem like the hero gets off easy.  More than three pushes the story over the edge into melodrama.  If Hannah keeps hitting failure after failure, the tragedy of the story stops having an impact and may, eventually, transform into comic farce.

"Oh man," says the imaginary reader, "I wonder what terrible thing is going to happen to her now.  Will she be struck by lightning, perchance?  Pass the popcorn!"

This panel of Budrys' was a transformative moment for me.  It was one of the first times that I really internalized that there was a formula to writing; that stories had an underlying structure that needed to be followed in order to make them work.  I could have all of the characters and events that I wanted, but it was just stuff happening without failure.  A story happens when you allow your characters to fail, in big ways and in small, and then overcome those failures.  That's when the magic happens.

To close out this piece, I would like to make mention of a final memory from that long-ago panel.  Budrys' wife sat in the row across from me during his talk, staring indulgently at him the entire time.  Afterward, I heard her tell someone that he had told that story many, many times, and that she always liked hearing it.  It was kind of beautiful.

I'm Doing a Thing!

Hi there.

My name is Geoff.  I'm a writer, a LARPer, and a game designer.  My writing focus tends to be on fantasy and science fiction, but I've done some other stuff as well.  At the time of this writing, I'm working on revisions to a dystopian novel.  I hear they're all the rage right now.

This is my blog.

I'm not entirely sure how much I'm going to be writing here.  It is possible, like many projects of mine, that this one will be abandoned shortly after it begins.  My brain, you may come to learn, is a fickle and ridiculous thing.

The reason why I'm staring this up is because I've learned quite a bit about writing and game design in my time here on Earth.  Maybe what I talk about here will help you with your own writing and games?  Maybe you will find what I have to say interesting?  I don't know.  Time will tell, I suppose.

Since this is my very first post on this blog, I thought I might talk about what sorts of things you're (probably) going to find here.  They include:

  • Wisdom I've gotten from older, more experienced, and better writers. Hopefully not too name-drop-y.
  • Tips and tricks I've picked up over the years.
  • Interesting writing problems and observations that have come up in my writing group.
  • Maybe some reviews.
  • Random intrusions from Forebrain, Hindbrain, and the other voices in my head.
  • Maybe examples of my own writing to better illustrate my points.
  • Some random LARP memories from games I have run and played.
  • Shameless shilling of my own games and stories.

Now, with all that being said, let me see if I can cobble something together and make an intelligent and engaging second post...