Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tipping point

I’ve always been fascinated by how people write. Whether they consider character or plot first, whether they see or hear a scene before they can write it.

I’ve always ‘heard’ a scene first. I need to hear the dialogue, hear it clearly before I can begin to visualize the rest of it. So I always start with dialogue. And write the scene using that only.

Sometimes pages and pages of just dialogue without tags or descriptors of any kind.

Starting a piece, I need to get that nailed down before I can ignore my inner editor and move on.

Then I go back and choreograph the scene. That’s my tipping point. It sets the tone of the piece. After that, I can even write scenes out of sequence. No problem.

Unless there is no dialogue anywhere in what I’m writing. Which is why this piece, and others like it that I’ve written, give me such trouble. It’s contrary to my nature as a writer.

What’s your writerly nature? Do you have a tipping point?

Anyway here it is; the next couple of hundred word snippet.
He staggers out of the barracks into the first cold, grey light of dawn, bumping off bodies skeletal and empty-eyed stumbling into strained lines in the center of the yard.

Eyes tearing with cold lock forward. Face still, he stands and stares, watches a dull sun arc along a thin, tight horizon.

Nothing moves across the raw, barren, black terrain beyond the watchtowers; scorched earth, all that’s left of a long ago burn.

Down the line, somewhere to his right, someone’s hacking up the latest plague. Spine straight, head unbowed, his fingers curl into white-knuckled fists at his sides.

The wind shifts; carries the smell of burning from the remains of a wild fire dancing along the serrated slopes just past the dead fields.

The sound of the shot explodes in his head. All-too-familiar rage and fear and shame churn in his gut; tighten his chest.

Wet, grey flakes of snow and ash fall through the raw, cold daylight; filter through the dead trees, the charred, lifeless trunks still standing sightless watch on the other side of the fence line.

Ash and ice, cold and wind stretch and move across the waste like a living thing, breathe harsh and jagged along the grey, serpentine river that snakes past the camp, cleaving the cauterized landscape.

He doesn’t think he’ll survive another winter.

The jolt from his collar slides down his spine; buckles his knees. Hard hands shove; send him staggering across the yard.

He doesn’t look at the body on his way to the pit.


  1. It's funny (funny? ironic? interesting?) that your tipping point is dialog because you seem to set a scene so vividly.

    My tipping point/starting point is usually two people having a conversation. I've been told dialog is my strong suit. Once I get the voices going, they often have something to say and do.

    If I look back at my earlier stuff especially, going back to high school and college, for example, most of what I've written are scenes, people hashing it out, even inner dialog. I've improved on description but I used to be terrible at it.

  2. I think we've both been told that dialogue is our strong suit. We've even told each other. :)

    And I think that's true. I also think we have similar styles and triggers and sensibilities in our writing.

    Like you, description is something I have worked at.

  3. This was a thought-provoking comment indeed, particularly considering my long-time love with Professor Tolkien's works: he insisted that words are the foundations of everything – hardly surprising since he was first and foremost a philologist. He maintained that the word – and therefore language – is the starting point of creation: his concept for Middle Earth sprang from the languages he invented – they came first, and gave life to the rest.

    So I was intrigued by your comment about dialogue (again, words and language) being the originating point of your narrative, and how much those considerations…well, dovetail with what I've learned about JRRT.

    Understanding this side of your creativity, I can understand why this story is "giving you trouble", as you put it. And yet it feels as if the extra effort, the labor pains you're undergoing because of the "dry delivery" (Words like waters? An interesting thought…) are well worth it, because of the stark, cinematic quality of the landscape you paint. It even goes beyond that, since as a reader I get some empathic tie with the character's sensations – the cold, the emptiness, the need to shut off mind and soul as a form of protection. And I'm feeling privileged by seeing this develop before my very eyes.

    My "tipping point"? I guess it's more geared toward emotions: everything I've written always started with some sort of emotional connection with a character, a flash of shared consciousness so to speak, that put me in the character's head, seeing and feeling things from his/her perspective. So I guess I can say I *feel* a scene before seeing or hearing it.
    Or at least this is as close as I can get to describing the process…

  4. I knew that about Tolkien; that he had created the languages, but I wasn’t aware that he did it first and only then was able to breathe life into the rest of his world building.

    I’m glad you found this something to consider; I’m thrilled beyond words that you even remotely see anything of JRRT in my creative process.

    We’ve had the conversation before about words, how they need to be pared down to essence and work and justify their place in the narrative. And I know I’ve told you about my own personal journey as a writer to get to that place, strike that balance with word choice and verbiage, where every word is necessary but not one is redundant.

    I still like the imagery of a garden for this; lush vs. spare. And I think part of my problem is that line here. It’s almost as if my problem here isn’t too many words, but too few. It feels like there’s something important missing, something I should see but don’t.

    It might show up later.

    I find it fascinating that it’s emotion and that connection to a character that’s your tipping point. It sounds like you feel a scene the way I hear one. And I’m the one that feels privileged as I’ve watched your writing just bloom before my eyes.

  5. I don't think that your choice of paring down words subtracts from the work, on the contrary I am certain it adds to it.

    Personally I find it fascinating when I catch only glimpses of the "bigger picture" behind what you choose to tell us, because it stretches the imagination, and lets it roam free. It's also a statement, on your part, about your faith in your readers' powers of understanding - and speculation.

    Back to the garden metaphor: too much plant life might ultimately be distracting, so one keeps moving his/her eyes here and there, looking at many things but *seeing* nothing. While a single, perfect rose will attract his/her attention and allow for observation, and even wonder.

    You know, these chats are getting more and more engrossing! :)
    (and thanks for the blush-making comments...)

  6. Yes, they are. :)

    The garden works for me on a number of levels. For me it’s about weeding and pruning and trying to find the perfect place and balance. It’s a fine line between too much and not enough.

    And I love being able to lose myself in the words and ‘see’ the picture a writer is painting, because it really is also about what the reader brings to the story they’re reading. As a reader, I’d prefer to work and do some of the heavy lifting when I read than to have every iota of imagination sucked out of a piece that is spoon-fed to me.

    And as a writer I realize how important it is to respect your readers as much as your respect your characters and your craft.

  7. Hi Sarah,
    I want you to know that I've been reading your posts for the last few days but haven't commented because I can't. What you have written is so absolutely mind-numbing it makes me want to cry. In a good way. Your words...
    my God, they just catch at my throat, in my heart, don't leave my mind. The visual is so powerful it scares me.

    I don't know who this man but if he's the man from the other day with the dead body, oh my God, I feel so bad, so sad, so intrigued with what's going to happen to him next.

    If you say your strong suit is dialogue, then what is this? You make me ashamed of what I write, it's so trite, so commonplace, I hate it. I know we write in two completely different genre's but holy cow! What you write is so BEAUTIFUL. I am in AWE!

  8. Oh, please, please do not ever feel ashamed of what you’ve written. And please don’t let anything I’ve put up ever make you feel that way. You write from the heart and are honest and respectful of your characters and craft. There is no reason to feel badly about that or to hate it.

    I’m thrilled you’ve been reading my offerings. And thank you for letting me know they moved you. That’s one of the nicest things you can say to any writer. So thank you for giving me that.