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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

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From:saintjoi
Date:August 18th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC)
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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!
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
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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. ;-)
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From:cdenmier
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)

Drawing the Reader In

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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!
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Drawing the Reader In

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>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.
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From:princejvstin
Date:August 18th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
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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!!
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 18th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)
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OH, that is sooo cool!
(the writers I'm indirectly related to are not nearly that exciting.)
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From:marycatelli
Date:August 18th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)

the problem with that much magic

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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.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)

Re: the problem with that much magic

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> 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 18th, 2010 11:21 pm (UTC)

Speaking of Prospero

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"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...
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)

Re: Speaking of Prospero

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I just pushed that book on a friend who had never read it.
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From:bojojoti
Date:August 18th, 2010 11:41 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting post. I love Dickens, and I hadn't noticed that about his writing.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:45 am (UTC)
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I got that quote from somewhere...not my own observation. Still...it's neat.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:August 19th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
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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.
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From:arhyalon
Date:August 19th, 2010 02:49 am (UTC)
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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.
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From:marycatelli
Date:August 19th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC)

linking verbs

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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.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:August 29th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)

Re: linking verbs

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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.
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From:aegd
Date:August 19th, 2010 04:57 am (UTC)
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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...

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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
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