Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Writer as Architect

I love movies and see dozens of them a year, lots of them in an actual theatre vs. DVD. But I was watching "Walking and Talking" the other day on IFC (I'd seen it before and admired it then) and started to ask myself how it worked. Why did this scene fit here? Why is this shot outdoors? With dialogue this spare, how does the writer wring so much out of it?

Movies are good things to practice on. They are very pared down compared to a novel with its scene setting and descriptions. I've had more than one student write only the dialogue of a story until it sang. At that point the rest of the prose pretty much took care of itself.

Indies are more fun to work with than big budget pictures. They're often lean by nature. Something like the new "Robin Hood" is watchable but it's also a mess with so many sub-plots, not to mention the phlegmatic Russell Crowe.

For people who don't need the practice and want to go right to fiction, here are some basic questions: Why is this scene where it is? Why is it as long as it is? What's new? How does it move the plot along? How does it add a facet to a familiar character? Is the dialogue more than utilitarian?

Like houses, novels are constructed. Make sure yours doesn't collapse in the first critical tornado.


  1. "I've had more than one student write only the dialogue of a story until it sang."

    Now that is a hell of an idea. I'll try that on a short story tonight.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ron.
    Structure, spine, plot line, emotional arcs, chapters--these larger building blocks of the novel have been my focus this semester. Philip Gerard's chapter, "An Architecture of Light: Structuring the Novel and Story Collection" (Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway), provides some solid metaphors for how the novelist should proceed. Build a cathedral, create an architecture of light, Gerard says: "You've got to stop being a romantic and think hard about structure. Just piling on more of everything--building thicker and thicker walls--won't do. You've go to do some careful calculations to arrive at a blueprint that makes possible mystery and beauty."
    Stripping the story down to the frame (and whittling it down just to dialog seems a great way to do that) allows the light to come in. Making things as spare as possible illuminates what must stand, what foundational elements cannot be taken out without causing the whole structure to collapse.
    Ron, I bet you are a Jenga master.

  3. Thanks for the book title, Elizabeth. I love structure. Paying attention to form is a welcome challenge. It's also an easy way to come up with an answer to the question that I find myself asking a lot lately: What can I try that I've not tried before?

    Lately my books have been so dialogue-heavy that I've been playing around in the opposite direction that Ron suggested and challenging myself to see how far I can go with no dialogue. The result has been really rough draft stuff,certainly not salable as YA, but that's not the point of trying something new.

  4. The idea of challenging my writing has become more appealing to me as well, Marsha. Lately I've been trying my new novel with minimal descriptions. Not a mention of the protagonist's hair or body shape. Who cares what she looks like--the reader only needs enough clues to be able to use their imagination. In fact I am thinking of not even revealing her real name.

    Any kind of challenge can make things much more fun and interesting for the writer.

    Picture books are one of the best ways I know to challenge, to play around with structure, and to practice stripping the story down to its bare minimum.