?

Log in

No account? Create an account

arhyalon

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
12:03 pm: Wright's Writing Corner: Dicken's Trick

Next in our series of articles fleshing out the points on my Writing Tips.


Dicken’s Trick: Using action in description: “There is not just a kettle on the fire, it is boiling over.” "Horses at the cab stands are steaming in the cold and stamping. When people enter a room they are sneezing or hiding something in their pockets."

 

Hmm…this one is hard to write about because, while I love this idea, this tip is here to remind me to try it, not because I have mastered it.

 

So, this installment will be short.

 

The issue is that a scene is more interesting of something active is going on. The more active an action, the more dramatic and attention-drawing. A room with a kettle sitting on the counter is not as active as a room with a kettle on the fire. A room with a kettle on the fire is not as active as a room with a kettle boiling over.

 

 

I have not mastered this yet, but I have learned a related lesson. Scenes only come alive if there are two things going on at once. One trick for doing this in a scene that is mainly conversation is to have some kind of unrelated physical action going on at the same time—travel, a meal, cleaning, something. The dialogue can then be balanced by intriguing physical behaviors: walking too fast, stopping to tie a shoe, spreading arms to catch one’s balance on a rickety rock. The juxtaposition between the conversation and the effort to complete whatever the physical task is adds to the tension and drama of the scene.

 

I have another personal rule that is a bit like: “There is not just a kettle on the fire, it is boiling over.” But this would not apply to most books. I will share it with you, nonetheless:

 

If it can be done with magic, use magic.

 

When I was a kid, I always hated the fact that I would read fantasy books, and there would be almost no magic in them. Oh, they would talk about magic. They would hint at magic. One or two magical things might even happen. The rest, however, was just an ordinary story. Occasionally, there might be a fight scene with some magic flying, but that was about it.

 

For the Prospero books I established the rule that if I could think of a way the characters could accomplish a thing using magic, they would use magic. If there was a choice between walking to the corner store for milk or teleporting there…well, who would walk if they could teleport, I ask you?

 

After all, why do we read fantasies, if not to be dazzled by fantastic things?

 

So, to conclude, when a you write a scene where a character walks into a room, do not settle for something mundane, such as a kettle on the fire. Instead, make it a magic cauldrons that is boiling over so vigorously that the colored smoke pouring from its bubbling surface is changing the knickknacks on the mantelpiece into birds.


Comments

[User Picture]
From:saintjoi
Date:August 18th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I must say, it's wonderful to hear someone actually commending Dickens' style--he seems to be out of fashion these days! :) I actually love this aspect of Dickens, though sometimes he goes a bit overboard with it.

One of my favorite passages in literature is during Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the section that begins, "The grocer's, oh! The grocer's!" He animates every inanimate object in that scene, and it creates this sense of glorious bustle: the onions are fat friars, winking slyly at passing girls; the French plums blushing in "modest tartness;" "piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves." I LOVE that section--it always seems so full and rich!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I did not remember that passage, but I love the singing vegetables in the Muppet version...I wonder if they borrowed anything from Dicken's description. ;-)
[User Picture]
From:saintjoi
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:13 pm (UTC)
(Link)
My parents started a tradition in our family of beginning to read A Christmas Carol (out loud, as a family) starting on Thanksgiving night, and finishing up on Christmas Eve. We must have read through it together 14 or 15 times by the time I left for college (I distinctly remember when my dad bought me my own copy and I got to join in the reading). We've watched all the movies of it, and Muppet Christmas Carol is one of our favorites! It's actually one of the most accurate interpretations, just after the George C. Scott version (which is the best, but few people seem to know it).

Heh. "If he were a flavor you can bet he would be sour!" I love the Muppets!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:53 pm (UTC)
(Link)
John read it to the boys last year but didn't start early enough, I'll recommend the after Thanksgiving thing.

I love the Muppet version so much! John really recommends the George C. Scott version!
[User Picture]
From:saintjoi
Date:August 18th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)
(Link)
The George C. Scott version has a killer performance by GCS as Scrooge--he's the only one I've seen who really gets the character, and understands that love of money is not the key to Scrooge--it's the fact that he's uncaring. He doesn't even care enough to love money! The Ghosts are amazing in that version too, and I love the music. Sadly, the main song written for the movie is not available anywhere, though my sister and I finally managed to track down the lyrics on a defunct forum entry.

The Muppet version, however, keeps the wonderful narration of Dickens (and said by Gonzo, nonetheless!), and has the best Nephew Fred I've seen.

It's just not Christmas at my house till we've watched both! :)
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)

Drawing the Reader In

(Link)
It seems like this trick--or should we say method, or technique?--is designed to draw the reader deeper into the setting. Either by magic or meticulous detail or by some surprising feature, the reader suddenly focuses their attention on imagining the thing in question...bringing it into their mind in a more tangible way. It makes them, ideally, forget they are reading words on a page and puts them into the story. It makes the author fade back and the characters take center stage.

I definitely fall into the trap of seeing background setting as, well, "just" background: an obligatory description; a necessary item that doesn't get much attention. I'll have to try spicing up some scenes with a little razzle-dazzle!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Drawing the Reader In

(Link)
>with a little razzle-dazzle!
And a few splashes of sparkle! ;-)

More seriously, I do think motion in the scene does help a lot...it gives the reader the feeling of "oh, yes, that's what would really be happening in real life." Because, in real life, things are often in motion already when we enter them.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 18th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Drawing the Reader In

(Link)
Yes, motion, that's it! I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but you're right. The setting of a conversation, say a room or a courtyard or a park, is flat without motion. It becomes a stage prop, a painted background. But when something is happening--especially in more senses than just sight (I'm guilty there)--then the world-building is real enough to convince even the author that there is something actually there beyond the words.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 18th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Drawing the Reader In

(Link)
This is a good point. I've put down plenty books where there was so much dialog till I couldn't tell if they were inside or out. People just don't sit in a house and talk and nothing happens around them. The old clock from K-Mart seems to tick louder than normal. The soft scent of the glade plug-in you never thought you smelled. The furnace calls from the basement as it puts on it's hourly show of flooding the room with heat. Dust floats down the ray of sunshine that eased through the open blinds making you wonder how well your vacuum works. Considering the earth is constantly rotating, how could something not be moving all the time?

As always good article Jagi.

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)

Re: Drawing the Reader In

(Link)
Ooo. What beautiful examples!
[User Picture]
From:princejvstin
Date:August 18th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Have I mentioned that I am related to Charles Dickens through one of his sisters? :)

After all, why do we read fantasies, if not to be dazzled by fantastic things

Indeed!!
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)
(Link)
OH, that is sooo cool!
(the writers I'm indirectly related to are not nearly that exciting.)
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:August 18th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)

the problem with that much magic

(Link)
is that it becomes the routine backdrop and it's that much harder to build from it. Having knickknacks transform into birds can be nice local color, but it means that transforming an object to a bird can't exactly be the solution at the climax.

I've wrestled with high magic worlds. They do let you splice in the sense of wonder all over the place but they do have a problem with escalation.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
> but it means that transforming an object to a bird can't exactly be the solution at the climax.

Unless it's like a mystery, where you use the aspects you've used before and solve the problem with something simple...like the birds from chapter 1.

I guess it helps to have 24 years of John's roleplaying game to rely on. He worked out a system so that escalation is not an issue. People routinely do things as powerful as making entirel worlds (that's considered a minor power these days.) but the game continued to go on.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
Read Jack Vance.

He solved this problem decades ago. The Dying Earth trilogy showcases a world where magic is mundane, just as electronics and machinery are mundane today. He also has a good sense of humor, episodic chapters, and a vocabulary you can cut with a knife. Vance was the key inspiration for the Dungeons and Dragons magic system (look it up!) and the idea of using monsters as NPCs (like Smaug in the Hobbit) though D&D kind of ditched that idea of interacting with monsters as people over time.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 05:01 pm (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
We are big Vance fans, here. In fact, my husband has a story in Songs of the Dying Earth, a Vance-honoring anthology of short stories set in the Dying Earth. He's in there along with such authors as Neil Gaiman and Taneth Lee. It's edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. If you are a Vance fan, you might enjoy it. Here's a link:

http://www.amazon.com/Songs-Dying-Earth-George-Martin/dp/1596062134

Personally, I prefer the Demon Princes or the Tchai books to Dying Earth. The guys in Dying Earth are a bit too callous for my taste...but I have ready many, many Vance books and like nearly every one.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2010 08:36 pm (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
Thanks - I like George Martin from his work on Wildcards, so Songs of Dying Earth has 2 things going for it without even cracking the cover. The Demon Princes would make a good T.V. series with a little modernization.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:August 19th, 2010 07:05 pm (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
the birds would need a new and different way to solve the issue -- building on it that way. It doesn't have to be more magical, but it does have to be more something.

There is also the factor that in RPG, you have players' investment in their characters. It's somewhat harder, though not impossible, to pull off in fiction without anticlimax.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 08:28 pm (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

(Link)
Not new, just unexpected. The same as any mundain thing.

Whatever you use for your climax has to be something that has been set up. You wouldn't want to pull out a new spell the reader never heard of. It has to be magic that has been established being used cleverly.

On the other hand, climaxes often don't have much to do with magic...any more than they rely on swords and guns in non magical stories. They can come into play, but often it is the decisions of the characters rather than the tech/magic that calls the final shots.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 18th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)

Speaking of Prospero

(Link)
"Action in description" was another one of John Bellairs' gifts.
Anyone unfamiliar with him should pick up "The Face in the Frost" and settle back for some fun...
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)

Re: Speaking of Prospero

(Link)
I just pushed that book on a friend who had never read it.
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:August 19th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Speaking of Prospero

(Link)
I LOVED John Bellairs growing up. Just a couple of weeks ago I picked out a few of his books from my home library and am re-reading them. What fun! It makes me feel like a kid again.

I have never, though, read The Face in the Frost. I read Bellairs as a boy and stuck with the YA books. You say I'm in for the treat, then? Yippee!
[User Picture]
From:bojojoti
Date:August 18th, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
(Link)
Very interesting post. I love Dickens, and I hadn't noticed that about his writing.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
(Link)
I got that quote from somewhere...not my own observation. Still...it's neat.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
(Link)
One of my favorite fantasies is 'Spindle's End', an excellent retelling of 'Sleeping Beauty' by Robin McKinley. In her story the magic is so thick and tangible that it gets everywhere and settles like chalk-dust on furniture. 'Housekeepers earned unusually good wages in that country.' (Loose quote) While I chose to make the magical chaos in my worlds stem from mischievous beings, rather than raw magic, that story really inspired me as to what could happen in a magical land.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:49 am (UTC)
(Link)
Exactly the kind of thing I meant. I think Rowlings does a pretty good job of it, too. Her world is seeped in magic. She does not do all that great a job of remembering the ramifications of what she invented previously, but it's still great fun.

In the Prospero series, I had an easier time of it, because there were a limited number of staffs. So, I just had to think about what they might do with them. Occasionally, I missed a trick. Luckily, early readers thought of some things. I'm sure I missed others, too...but I did my best.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:August 19th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC)

linking verbs

(Link)
One trick I've learned to try to keep things in action is to hunt down linking verbs and see if they can be paraphrased out. A linking verb is warning that nothing is happening at that point.
[User Picture]
From:houseboatonstyx
Date:August 29th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)

Re: linking verbs

(Link)
Personally I like such variation in texture. If the character is having a peaceful time and suddenly a man with a gun bursts in.... Well, the breaking glass and the gunshot sort of get lost if the room is already bustling with flowers bursting with color, trees arching across the window, ice cubes jostling and sparkling, etc.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:August 29th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)

Re: linking verbs

(Link)
Still a contrast if the dust motes are drifting through the sunbeam, the flowers are sunning themselves, the cat is sleeping on the hearth. . . once you have your action verbs, you have to load them to get the desired effect.
[User Picture]
From:houseboatonstyx
Date:August 29th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)

Re: linking verbs

(Link)
Good point. Also there would be a contrast between the progressive -ing verbs and the simple past of 'burst in', 'shot exploded', 'glass shattered', etc.
[User Picture]
From:aegd
Date:August 19th, 2010 04:57 am (UTC)
(Link)
This seems to be a good example or close cousin of a rule in game-design, which is that there should always be motion in a scene... after all, real life is like that; it's very hard to see a scene without motion (unless you're staring at a wall). Sound is a part of this as well (sound being motion after all).
From:tjic
Date:August 19th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)

speaking of Dickens...

(Link)
Speaking of Dickens and fantasy, you might be interested by a post I made earlier this morning, comparing Dickens' "Great Expectations" to Michael Swanwick's excellent "The Iron Dragon's Daughter".

When you're going to steal, steal from the best!

http://tjic.com/?p=16130
Powered by LiveJournal.com