Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fluff and Feathers

Fluff and Feathers, What NOT To Put In Your Book or Screenplay

Have you ever watched a movie and been in awe of the pace, the witty dialogue? Or read a book that grabs you and doesn’t let you go for the same reason? Don’t you wish you’d written it?

I have and when it happens, I’m jealous, envious, and even pouty as all get out. I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THAT.

In my opinion we all can, but we have to identify the fluff and feathers in our writing that the reader usually skims.

I didn’t always skim and I bet you didn’t either. I used to devour all those yummy settings and the witty inconsequential dialogue. But as my reading time grew shorter and my tastes changed, I realized I wanted the grit of the story; the character’s issues. And I wanted it to come out in interesting action and vital dialogue that moves the story forward and allows me to mentally "see" the story as I read.

J.D. Robb writes pretty much all action and dialogue with carefully chosen images that let us know immediately we’re in the future. I can easily imagine what an "autochef" looks like and its use when I read that a character gets a steaming plate of chicken out of it. I don’t need a long winded description. And when Eve Dallas shimmies out of a fancy dress and puts on her jeans, her behavior change shows me she’s more in control. I’ve got an immediate mental image I can latch onto and I understand her character without internal narrative.

Nor do I have any trouble visualizing anger when a character utters a masterfully crafted slight, and I can easily feel love with a carefully chosen endearment that wouldn’t ordinarily cross a character’s lips. Tags become redundant and boring.

As a screenwriter, dialogue tags aren’t available to me--there’s no place for them--and I certainly don’t have room to explain anything, so I’ve become a much stronger writer because I must. And I’m certain you’ll write more powerfully if you don’t allow yourself to rely on tags or explanations to make sure the emotion or action is understood.

So be ruthless with your editing. You’ll see if your story is all about your character’s struggles and triumphs, or if you’ve hidden them beneath all the fluff and feathers. I promise you’ll become a stronger writer and your readers will reward you.
Write On,


jdove said...

Have you ever seen Dogma? I really love that movie, but only when I can ignore the constant, painful, exhaustive explanation! The dialog is almost completely one character explaining The Way Things Are to another. It's a real turn-off.

I appreciate your suggestion here. It's something I sort of intuited and tried to avoid myself, but you've put it very clearly.

One of the things that gets me the most in a piece of fiction, whether written or video, is when an aspect of the world is explained through dialog between to characters to whom it should be obvious (for the "benefit" of the reader). My suspension of disbelief is shot to hell in that moment as I think "And why would these two people need to talk about something so obvious to both of them??"

So, yeah, I don't write much (mostly around November, hehe), but when I do I will definitely keep your advice in mind!

Donnell said...

Mornin' LA, great post and great reminder. I think JDove had another great reminder. I often judge contests or critique in which what I read sounds like the characters are explaining to the reader. You're right. It yanks me out immediately. Thanks to myriad mediums out there, lengthy descriptions are no longer needed. Unless of course it's something we've never been exposed to. I've only read J.D. Robb's later work. Do you think she explained it more in her early work and with each story, as more and more readers came to accept Eve's world shortened her description, or was it always the case. That example made me curious. Thanks!

Delta Dupree said...

Great advice, LA. Typically, the my first drafts are loaded with tags and BS, mainly to remind me of the character's mindset, what they're focused on, yada-nada. The second pass is when I clean up or, as they say, "show not tell." Third, fourth, fifth... I'm always looking for ways to improve passages while eliminating fluff and stuff.

Pantsters rarely keep notes and hardly ever outline.


Misty Evans said...

Nice essay, Leslie Ann. I agree that powerful writing does not rely on explanation to convey emotions.

One of my favorite authors is Robert B. Parker. He's definitely a minimalist when it comes to description and dialogue tags. While I don't want a constant diet of bare bones storytelling, I do pick up his books when I want a quick, satisfying read.


Leslie Ann said...

Thanks for your comment! YES, YES AND YES, when characters are stating the obvious, it's so annoying. Like police procedure, hello, they would know it and not explain it to each other, unless one was a rookie. I hate that and it totally takes me out of a story or a movie. Since it's a pet peeve I tend to notice it more than I should.
Thanks again for visiting Five Scribes.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi D,
I started reading Nora (JD Robb) at book #1. I wanted to get right into her world and man she took me right there. So, no I don't think she explained more in the beginning. And hopefully she continues to bring new readers in, thus if she chose to explain, she'd have to do it again and again.

The reason I picked her as my example is that she is the perfect example of NOT having to explain. Eve lives in our future, so you'd think the opposite would be true. But no. Nora is master of that.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Delta,
Yeah, my first draft is usually loaded with stuff, too, though in screenwriting it tends to be over writing action. The biggest challenge is to make all the levels of dialogue work, the text, the subtext and how it plays again or with the mood of the scene. That isn't easy for me and sometimes I'll spend hours just figuring out what the reaction should be both in dialogue and action. Especially if it's a scene or emotion change.

I don't get a lot of space so it has to be right on, or it's muddy to the actor, the director, producer and ultimately the audience. And of course the first 3 ususally have a say in how rewrites etc are going to be done...sigh, a very collaborative industry I've chosen...and fodder for another blog...
Thanks for visiting!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Misty,
Great to see you again. I like Parker as well. And yes I don't always like a diet of bare bones, but I'm finding that I gravitate toward books that move faster.

I used to love using all the words to create setting and fill the senses. Now that I'm mostly screenwriting, I don't get the opportunity to use them, which may be why I don't enjoy reading them as much. The Set Designer gets to dream up all that from my minimalist scene setting.

Audra Harders said...

Leslie, great thoughts. I think you hit it on the head when you talk about time crunches. I used to sit with a Kathleen Woodiwiss novel for hours at a time just drooling over her setting and mood. Would I do it now? Probably not -- or if I did, it would take me a year the read the one book.

I think that's why the writing market has become much more difficult to break into. So many writers try to write the way their *all-time favorite* authors do, not realizing those authors wrote for a different audience, even if the book is only 3-4 years old.

We have no room for slop anymore. Heaven help the aspiring writing who continues to sit back and pout *but I like those words, I can't cut them.*

Great topic, Leslie. Thanks!!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Chica, I've missed you. You're right, we have to understand as writers that styles change quickly, even in screenwriting, where time moves a bit more slowly, (unless you have a deal, then things can move at warp speed, 'tho I have yet to experience that :))

Life in general moves fast and we must stay in tune with that if we want to stay in the game. And that's okay, it takes effort, but nobody ever said this was going to easy, darn it.